Writing about World Music

Davidson College, Fall 2015

Author: jojohnson

How Much Does My Opinion Matter?

This idea of weighing the value of my opinion on certain matters has become something that is incredibly important and difficult to comprehend concerning my ethnographic research. In my ethnographic research, I am studying the chorale, of which I am also a member. Having the insider knowledge of being a member of the chorale, gives me tremendous insight into being able to detail certain things. However, since I want to reflect the views of the chorale as a whole, and not just my own, it becomes very difficult to find the line where I should stop riding my own analysis that is a result of insider interpretation, and instead switch to focusing on the ideas of others. This is one of those areas, where although I desperately would want a clear-cut answer, I do not believe there actually is one. It’s interesting to think about the conflict feel regarding the issue, for I sometimes find myself thinking that since I’m an insider I should be able to tell my own opinions on things and not need to worry about asking others, but then I also simultaneously think that I need to ask others for their own interpretation on things that to me seem plainly obvious.

A perfect example of this is simple warm-up routines. If I were to briefly write about some of the warm-up routines we do as part of the chorale, I wouldn’t feel the need to ask others for their interpretation of the warm-up, for I feel that being part of the chorale, I already have a solid understanding of its meaning. This seems logical, but I still do not feel certain that it’s the right move, and thus why I am posting in the blog about this issue. If anyone has any insight for me that they think could help, please let me know, as I would be glad to hear somebody else’s thoughts on this dilemma.

Christmas Music

It’s getting to be about that time of year when all year almost everywhere is Christmas Music. I personally sometimes have mixed feelings about it. On one hand, I love the cheer and joy that stems from hearing classic songs about love, friendship, family, and general merriment, but on the other hand, they do often get very repetitive. I understand that the classics are well… classic… but the next time I hear Jingle Bells will probably be about 5,000th time I’ve heard the song throughout my lifetime, and after hearing it another several hundred times throughout the Holiday season (often the same version), it gets a tad annoying. I’m not trying to be the Grinch or anything like that. I rather enjoy the Holiday spirit, but sometimes I wish more people would try to increase the range of Christmas Music that they listen to.

That being said, this year I’m on a quest to find “the other” Christmas Music. I want to find the music that yo won’t every hear on the radio, but still carries every little bit of the Holiday Spirit and sounds refreshingly new. Also as a Christian, I find myself often looking for songs that have deep meaning to the roots of what Christmas is all about to me. After already having done some searching this Holiday season, I have been pleasantly surprised with some of the results I’ve had. I’ve found many songs through YouTube that I’ve never heard before, but sound wonderful and powerful nonetheless. It has helped bring new meaning to the Christmas season for me, as well as personalized the joy and spirit that this season brings. Feel free to post in the comments any Christmas songs that you know that don’t necessarily see endless play on the radio that you feel still deserves attention. I would love to listen. Here’s one of the songs that I’ve found in my search.

Two Steps from Hell

Two Steps from Hell is an American Production Music Company that is responsible for the composition of a large quantity of music that is used today in trailers, television series, and even video games. Although often unnoticed, the group led by Thomas Bergersen and Nick Phoenix have been a part of some of the most iconic franchises in movie history to date. I recently took notice of them as I was watching a movie trailer and my friend pointed out the music that was used to make the trailer so powerful was by them. Immediately, I started looking up more of their work and was amazed to see just how much of their work I already knew but just didn’t notice. If you have never heard of the group, I highly recommend that you look up some of their stuff, for I am almost certain that most people have heard a part of their work in some capacity, and it is nearly always some of the most powerful music one could ever listen to. My fascination with the group has grown, as I have come to appreciate the modern usage of classical music which I often thought to be dying. For I was dead wrong in my analysis that classical music was dying. In fact, classical music is actually growing, just not in the places we originally expected. The specialty of classical music today is to make something else seem more powerful as opposed to mainstream music that often stands on its own. Nevertheless, Two Steps from Hell has provided music that in my opinion is so tremendous that it should be able to stand on its own and get the credit and respect that it deserves. Below I’ve included some videos of their music. One features a compilation of movies where their music was present, and the other features one of their most powerful compositions. I hope you all enjoy.

Choral Music & Acapella

The following are just some of my thoughts about choral music and acapella. Over the past several years I have developed a strong taste for choral music as a result of my time in choir through both high school and now college. Prior to that I found most choral music to be rather boring.  However, now that I have experience being in choir I have come to appreciate much more of what goes on in choral ensembles, and I even have developed a taste for it. I find it rather fascinating now how multiple voices can combine to form a beautiful musical harmonies, and I have learned to appreciate the rather high level of difficulty and practice needed to attain the level of skill needed to perform many choral works.

Beyond just a growing appreciation for choral music, I have also developed a knack for acapella in general, for it is very intriguing for me to see how the human voice can mimic the sounds of instruments and then create a finished work that sounds just as good if not better than the original. However, unlike choral music specifically, a taste for acapella music has been growing in the eyes of the general public. With the fame of groups like Pentatonix, and the production of movies like Pitch Perfect, acapella has become much more popular to the general public, as technology has now become available to people to synthesize and splice their own voices to create harmony by themselves. Below I have included the links to two of some of my favorite acapella songs, one being based as a chorale, and the other as a YouTuber utilizing new technology to turn his own voice into a magnificent arsenal of voices.  I hope you all enjoy them.

(This one in particular I hope to be able to form in our own college’s chorale someday.)

Does this Count as Music?

One of the things that I’ve been thinking about over the course of this semester because of this class is the idea of what counts as “music”. To clarify, I mean what qualities are present even within our own cultural ontologies to help us clearly see and understand what makes something music.

For example take Eminem’s hit rap song Lose Yourself. The song, released in 2002 is by far the most famous song composed for the movie 8 Mile, and is considered to be one of Eminem’s best songs to date. However years later, someone on YouTube thought it would be funny to try and present the music video and rapping without the accompanying instrumental track. He entitled the video “Eminem-Lose Yourself (Vocals Only) [explicit content] MORE intense without the music?! CHECK IT!”

To this YouTuber, it seemed to be that Eminem’s rap without any accompanying instrumental track no longer qualified as music. It’s as if the song was demoted from being music to simply nothing more than really intense spoken word. That being said, is rap simply spoken word with either instrumental or vocal accompaniment in the background, in which, the removal of the accompaniment would change the status of the piece from music to spoken word? Or should spoken word count as a musical genre too? This is an issue in our culture that specifically affects the genre of rap. For example, if one were to remove the instrumental or vocal accompaniment from a song where singing were the key component, that person is not left with a non-musical entity, rather that person is left with an acappella version of the song which is still defined as music.

Inversely, can the addition of instrumental or vocal accompaniment to something that is spoken word, or rather someone just talking really fast turn that non-music into music? For example, watch how this YouTuber places an instrumental accompanying track to the recording of a cattle auctioneer:


. This auctioneer was clearly not trying to make music, but with the addition of the accompanying instrumental track it sounds eerily close to rap (Thus the reason for the title “Cattle Auctioneer, The New Rap God”). This brings into light a plethora of questions regarding music in our culture. For example, Is music defined by its sound or by the intentional creation of the piece to become music? Or what are the qualities of rap that make it musical, and what aspects of rap need to be removed in order to change it into a non-musical form? And many more!” As can be seen here, asking the question “Does this count as music?” is a very interesting question to pursue within our culture, for even though we think that we many know what is music and what is not in our minds at first, even within our own culture there are a plethora of gray areas that exist on this subject.

The Art of Rhetoric

In Hirschkind’s “Hearing Modernity”, Hirschkind utilizes the theme of “rhetoric” to support his claim that: “notions of the public sphere presuppose not only particular perceptual habits, but also a particular conceptual articulation of the act of listening in relation to individual agency and authority”, as in relation to Islamic communities in Egypt. He most effectively supports his claim by elaborating on the rhetorical nature of the readings of the Koran.
The first level of rhetoric being used to support Hirschkind’s claim is in his elaboration on the use of sermons in the reading of the Koran. In his article, he shows how readings of the Koran are presupposed to be the most perfect, beautiful, and powerful oration that could ever be made. He speaks of how the listeners and speakers both believe the Koran to be not only the most aesthetically beautiful oration of all time, but also how there is not a more powerful rhetoric device in existence. The combination of these two factors in the mind of the listener makes a reading of the Koran the most influential and desirable thing they could ever listen to; therefore, public readings of the Koran have become widespread throughout Egypt.
Since the Koran is presupposed to be the most powerful rhetorical device in existence, and since reading the Koran is supposed to be the most compelling way for the information within it to be presented, if the listener fails to be moved or influenced by the words of the Koran, then it is assumed that the listener failed to listen to it properly. Here Hirschkind shows a kind of flip flop in the assumptions of how rhetoric works, for instead of placing the burden upon the speaker to use rhetoric to convince a listener of his position, the listener has the burden to have a strong enough grasp of rhetoric to grasp the “perfect” rhetoric used in the Koran. These presuppositions show how the Egyptians presuppose certain perceptual habits, and a particular conceptual articulation of the act of listening in relation to individual agency and authority. Thus the use of rhetoric strongly supports his claim.
Even though Muslims may not view the reading of the Koran as music, the powerful rhetorical presence in those readings are similar to how music uses rhetoric to sway audiences today. In Christianity, music is often used to win over the listener by speaking to not only their mind, but also their emotions as well. Music has been used many times in Christianity to help convey a message of God’s love for us, so that we may not only understand it in our mind, but also feel it in our emotions. A Christian worship experience then can become incredibly powerful for the listener because of this rhetorical device, much like how the Egyptians utilize the sermon tracks from the Koran. Ultimately, rhetoric is an incredibly powerful tool in religion, and music is a key way in which it is expressed.

What Makes Music Popular in Western Culture?

The question of what makes some music more popular than other music in Western Culture is a question that has puzzled me for a very long time. Here I will be presenting some of my observations on the issue, for the purpose of generating discussion on the issue…

Growing up I always believed that skill and talent were the reasons for the individual popularity of a musician in Western culture. In other words, I would go see a musician or a singer perform and/or buy their album because they were providing music that was very difficult or impossible to replicate while still being enjoyable to listen to. The difficulty to replicate I always thought was a key here because if it were easy to replicate or were not enjoyable to listen to, why would anyone waste time listening to that person when they could just do it themselves? This is what I believed made music popular; however, in recent years I’ve come to see that my way of looking at it had some serious flaws.

My first flaw had less to do with the core reasoning I had, and much more to do with my own biases. Growing up I assumed that everyone had similar definitions of what skill and talent looked like, and I did not adequately take into account the specific tastes of individuals. For example, I personally have never found rap to be enjoyable, and was always somewhat cynical as to why it had achieved such grandiose popularity in Western culture. Over time, I’ve come to see that this view was naive, and I needed to broaden my conception of what others consider to be “good music” in order to be able to better incorporate the tastes of others into the equation.

My second flaw was more extensive and had to do with the core message of why I believed people chose to listen to music in Western culture in the first place. Previously I had believed that music became popular because of its inability to be replicated and because it was enjoyable to listen to for a very broad audience. In other words, it had to be considered “good music” by a very large amount of people. “Good music” is hard to define due to a wide variety of tastes that people have. However, in terms of popularity I believed, and to an extent still do, that it would be much easier to deduce in this context since the music would have to cater to the masses rather than a small niche group of people who could have very different musical tastes. Having studied this issue of “what makes music popular” further, I now see that this issue is much simpler than I previously believed, for “popular music” in this culture is defined by entertainment value rather than the other reasons I had previously listed. Entertainment value is very broad, for it does not mean that the musician has to be skilled, talented, or even produce music that is pleasing to the listener, rather it simply has to be entertaining, funny, amusing, shocking, or interesting. A perfect example of this can be found in the music of Ice JJ Fish who’s single “On the Floor” now has 44 million views on Youtube. Additionally in 2014, he signed a three million dollar record deal to Young Money which is the record label for famous artists such as Lil Wayne, Nicki Minaj, and Drake: [youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iq_d8VSM0nw?rel=0&w=560&h=315] http://huzlers.com/ice-jj-fish-signed-young-money-300000-cash/ . Yes it is conceivable that there are those who have a strong taste for Ice JJ fish’s music, but I do not find it reasonable to assume that in a western culture there are enough people who consider his music to be “good music” in order to substantiate the claim that “Ice JJ fish’s popularity is accredited to his musical skill/talent, and his ability to produce pleasing music to the listener”.

Ultimately, this is a very broad and sometimes difficult topic to discuss given how everyone’s musical tastes can be so radically different. However, in today’s culture, a musicians skill, talent, or ability to produce enjoyable music is less of a factor in that musician’s ability to become popular than is the musician’s ability to be entertaining to a broad audience.