music is life, music is breath, music is us

Archive for October, 2012

Is Music Literally a Universal Language?

It has often been said of music that it is a universal language, i.e. that it can be understood by cultures around the world no matter what the society may be. When we say “universal language,” do we actually understand what we are inferring? As an ethnomusicologist I notice the functions of music in various regions around the world, and from this research I am able to see how different cultures utilize music to their benefit. In many senses, relative thought may be the only way to truly approach the study of music, as what may seem inappropriate or out of place melodically for us may be entirely normal in a specific culture. The fact that continuously presents itself is that, in the simplest terms, music is viewed differently from culture to culture.  This is why I caution people about how far they take the label of a universal language. When we say music is a universal language, I really think we must make the distinction that we infer this in a poetic sense. In a literal sense music is not a universal language as there are various factors such as dialect, philosophy, and need for music (i.e. in some cultures music is an occasional occurrence reserved for special occasions), that may in fact confuse the outsider.

As I mentioned before, I am not against classifying music as a universal language in a poetic sense, I merely caution how far we ought to take that classification. The early years of music scholarship were wrought with bad research on other cultures due to a highly Euro-centric perspective. What resulted were poor representations of the cultures’ beliefs about music, and inevitable stereotypes running rampant throughout the academic community. With the advancements in ethnomusicology, such incorrect classification has been significantly reduced, and now cultures are viewed more and more as they ought to be.

Do I believe in light of what I’ve written, however, that music is a connecting line for humanity?  The answer is unequivocally yes. Every culture on this earth possesses some form of music, and in seeking to understand said music we can draw our boundaries closer together. As long as we seek to comprehend the music in its proper context within a respective society, music can often be the most powerful tool of intercultural relations. Even nations at war with each other possess music that can collectively benefit both sides, a strong testament to the potential of music.

This is the ultimate point I wished to make with this post.  Music can connect all of humanity, labeled in a poetic sense as a universal language, as long as we make sure that no prior assumptions are made about other culture’s music. The benefit of seeing music of other cultures in their proper context is complex, but in the most simplified terms it will constantly open up your worldview. You may see things about your life or others lives that you never would have experienced without deep understanding of another’s music. This may sound crazy to some of you, so all I ask is that you try it for yourself. You don’t have to write research papers like I do, but simply pick a culture you know nothing about and research their music. Really pour your heart and soul into understanding as much as possible about the music’s function and melodic structure. You never know what may happen next.



Album Review: “Uno” by Metalachi

Album Review: “Uno” by Metalachi

Recently I received a CD in the mail from a friend for my birthday by a group called Metalachi. I was initially very perplexed regarding the concept of the group, as it is metal songs done in a strict Mariachi arrangement. As a metal fan, I wondered how the group would interpret such classics as Ozzy Osbourne’s “Crazy Train” and Ronnie James Dio’s “Rainbow in the Dark.” The ethnomusicologist in me also wondered how the spirit of mariachi, of which I have studied extensively, could remain intact using songs that are entirely in English and have non-Mexican cultural origins. I remained intrigued though as a blogger, for I have advocated for musical fusion in numerous posts here at MixolydianBlog.

The band has been featured in American media outlets such as NPR, so they aren’t an unknown group by any means. Just looking at the album Uno’s photography one can tell that the guys in this band are serious about portraying a specific persona that blends the theatrical aspects of metal with the time-honored traditions of mariachi. Uno is an 8-track journey through some of the greatest metal anthems ever written (with the exception of a song by grunge band Alice in Chains), from Iron Maiden’s “Run to the Hills (in which the vocalist of Metalachi, Vega De La Rockha impressively handles Bruce Dickinson’s high notes), to Guns N’ Roses “Sweet Child O’ Mine (which Metalachi gives a far better treatment than Sheryl Crow ever did…don’t get me started on her version).  Each song retains the melodic structure and attitude of the original, while simultaneously infusing an entirely different musical perspective. The songs bleed the cultural identity of the band while still maintaining the biting aggression of the songs metal fans have come to adore.

The band has mastered their instruments, whether they are string, brass, or voice, and it shows. By the time the album has finished, you really grasp that Metalachi has poured their heart and soul into crafting their unique sound. They claim to be the only metal/mariachi fusion band, and I believe it. It is a very bold thing to take two styles that are beloved by millions and attempt to blend them. Music history has produced countless examples of such attempts failing commercially and critically. The band Metalachi and their body of work could draw battle lines among both metal and mariachi fans, but I say to both to give them a chance.

I grew up my entire life listening to metal, loving every guitar solo and lyric with my heart and soul, so I ask for you the reader to give Metalachi a chance. I recommend it, if nothing else, to challenge your perception of what music is and how it can function in society. Rock on.

(Metalachi can be found at )

The Importance of Musical Life in the Study of Music in Society

The study of the sociology of music is complex, as it must consider numerous areas of society to complete its research. Through this post I will attempt to show, through in-depth examples and analysis, how the subject of musical life is an integral component to the study of the sociology of music. My hope is to shed more light on the idea that studying music as it functions in society is a multifaceted concept that requires many angles of analysis.

Musical life, in its core essence, is the various existing entities that lead to music’s creation in a society, as well as the circulation of said music to the public. This is a broad reaching category that has many examples. One such example could be record labels like Atlantic Records or Nonesuch Records. In both of the instances of these record companies, they are responsible for signing artists that they feel will reach the most people (i.e. make the most profit). They then attempt to mold the artist (or artists) in their raw form to become as successful as possible when presented to the general public. They will give a list of goals to the producer of the artist(s) in an attempt to produce a record that they feel will be most financially advantageous to the company (especially important for both parties as the record company will spend a great deal of money producing the record, and the artist(s) must also make music that sells if they do not wish to be dropped by the label). Eventually the music is made and committed to CD form as well as mp3 format to be sold on entities such as ITunes, and also marketed on free services (with advertisements) such as Spotify and Pandora. It is then up to the record label to market the finished product through radio, television, billboards, bus stops, internet banners on websites such as Youtube, and any other viable method of advertisement in today’s modern society. If the advertisements are effective, the general public will generate revenue for the record company through album sales (or at the very least individual purchasing of the songs in mp3 format). The public will continue to consume the music through concerts of the particular artist in question, and pending if they like that artist, will share the musical experience with others. This, in turn, will bring the musical life full circle as the general public is now the one responsible for circulating the music.

The question remains, however, why this is important to the study of music in society. The answer is quite complex, but ultimately it boils down to the fact that the study of musical life gives the most layered answers as to the manner with which music functions in society. The study of musical life assumes that music and society interact in a multifaceted manner, making sociology of music a multidimensional field of study. It requires the researcher to look at both the macro and micro level of musical interaction and production in society. Every group of people must be considered, whether it is age group, gender, ethnic background, or even political affiliation as numerous artists (such as Green Day or U2) hold to a specific set of ideals that are likely to be expressed by the listener.  It must consider the state of the music industry which is constantly shifting due to both advances in technology as well as the various trends among the public. What is meant by this is that both musical styles favored by the public must be considered (such as the popularity of disco in 1970’s America and new wave in 1980’s America), as well as technological trends (such as the gradual decline of CD sales in favor of mp3 format via the Apple Corporation’s ITunes).

The final result of the inclusion of musical life in the sociological study of music is a more well-rounded body of research. It allows to the sociologist to see music as it functions in society on numerous levels, as well as present work that allows music researchers of all disciplines to see various trends and draw their own conclusions based on the research. For music historians, it will allow them to compare current trends in a respective society to those in the past, and present their own conjecture to the academic community as to the specific correlation between the findings. In the case of ethnomusicologists, the findings of the musical life integrated research will allow them to see how various cultures throughout the world are reacting to various trends, and perhaps present findings on how they feel such cultures will progress. No matter what the discipline, every type of academic studying music’s function in their respective fields will benefit from the sociological study of musical life.

The sociology of music is a complex field of study that requires the researcher to consider multiple factors to create cogent findings. Without the inclusion of musical life in the aforementioned research, it would be impossible to produce such thorough findings. Each component of musical life, from the factors that create the music to the factors that allow for the consumption of said music, is essential to sociological research for music. As the field of the sociology of music progresses, it is essential to continue to include musical life in the research of the future. Only if this occurs will the academic world of music see a deeper understanding of how music functions in a respective society.

Improvisation: An Expression Beyond Boundaries

Improvisation in many senses is like a composition in itself. It is a musical creation that seeks to deepen the bond between musician and audience, between performers and their instruments, and overall, the nature of the song itself. Numerous musical traditions in the world consider improvisation to be the true test in the technical ability of the musician, and in many cases, an integral aspect of the very fabric of the musical performance. This post will seek to expose the reader to the variety of improvisation that exists around the world.

First we will look at improvisation in the world of jazz. Jazz has many strains with many visionaries, but when I think of a true soloist and composer I think of trumpeter Miles Davis. Davis could throw himself into any musical situation and figure out a way to turn it into a work of art. He was at times very avant-garde, but this really demonstrated the boundaries he was willing to push in order to constantly shape the idea and practice of jazz. Davis’ strength was modal jazz, which would lead to him improvising in modes. Modes date back to the Gregorian monks, and the way theoreticians look at the modes is that they are altered scales. For instance, in order to build Mixolydian mode (yes, it is my favorite mode hence the name of this blog), you must take the major scale and flat (or lower by one-half step) the seventh scale degree (Ti in movable do solfege and Si in fixed do solfege). The modes are beautiful scales for improvising, as each mode has its own unique character. Take a listen to Miles improvising in Lydian and Phrygian modes.

Another music area well known for improvisation is the blues. Considered by nearly every musicologist to be a precursor to rock music, blues has left indelible mark on the world of music. When I think of improv in the blues, a few guitarists come to mind, namely Lightnin’ Hopkins, Robert Johnson, and Muddy Waters (each belonging to a different strain of blues). Lightnin’ Hopkins belonged to the country blues genre, and was known for his single note style solo technique (you can trace a lot of modern guitar techniques to this style).  Robert Johnson was a pioneer of Mississippi Delta blues, and used a bottleneck slide style which allowed him to slide to notes all over the fretboard with ease. Muddy Waters is considered to have brought electricity to the blues, meaning he was a pioneer of the electric guitar in the Chicago blues genre.  Each guitarist has given numerous guitarists (such as Eric Clapton, Keith Richards, John Mayer etc.) a reason to play their instrument. Check all three out below (Robert Johnson is first, then Lightnin’ Hopkins, and then finally Muddy Waters).

One region of the world that improvisation is considered a fixed part of the classical performance is North India. Hindustani Classical music contains a section in the very beginning of the performance called Alap where the performer(s) develop the raga (set pitches in a vast and complicated system honored by centuries of oral tradition). The Alap in many ways sets the tone for the entire piece. Take a listen to this example where in the first section Ravi Shankar plays an Alap on sitar (notice that it is an unmetered section).

In the Near Eastern music, one of the true tests of a musician is their ability to perform a maqam (or makam in Turkey) within the context of a taqsim (or taksim). True masters of their instrument will be able to create beautiful and technically challenging compositions within an already existing piece. Look at this example on ‘ud (lute) from the late master Hamza el-Din.

Finally, and yes I saved this for last since I play this music , is rock music improvisation. Solos in rock come in all shapes and sizes, and are able to exist on many different instruments. Drummers improvise, as do bassists (and of course guitarists). There is nothing quite like listening to a roaring crowd while a solo is happening. Check out these three examples, the first is a drum solo from Alex Van Halen, the second is a bass solo from Billy Sheehan, and the final is a guitar solo from John Petrucci.

Ultimately it is in improvisation that the musician finds their true voice. It is always a pleasure as the listener to see what different perspective an instrumentalist can give. It is one thing that gets me up every morning, and will continue to do for a long time.

(Sources: Miles Davis: The Definitive Biography by Ian Carr; Encyclopedia of the Blues by Edward M. Komara; Shruti : A Listener’s Guide to Hindustani Music by Sandeep Bagchee; Grove Dictionary of Music)