As intercultural trainers, some of us introduce music to our participant's ears, often to open the mind to difference in a culture we are studying that is unlike our own in sound as well as habit. Unfamiliar rhythms, instruments, vocalization start to transport us to the destination of our study. Well and good – perhaps we should do more of it. But there is a vast cultural dimension, often unaddressed, to be explored about the sound of music and the music of sound. Many of us have called our participants attention to the fact that not only do pictures speak louder than words, but that physical and facial expressions, gesture, rhythm and tonality can construct up to 90% of the meaning of what we say. We conduct exercises around gesture, but seem to lack interest or perhaps tools for dealing with the dimension of sound. Some of us use breathing exercises for dealing with the knee-jerk schematizing, framing that leads to bias. What about meditative sound?
Thinking in terms of diet and cuisine, we might ask, what sounds are physically and culturally digestible and which are not? What music belongs in our cookbook, and what is alien kitchen? What is natural, what is synthetic? But sound is more penetrating than taste, sometimes subtle sometimes brash. Like the air, it can penetrate us odorless, or it may foul the atmosphere inciting us to flee. We may be comfortable with or annoyed by elevator Muzak in public places. A great deal of a cinematic plot can be told as our feelings are managed or manipulated by background music at the flicks. I remember at one point in my life abroad, watching foreign language adventure films that were not subtitled. I discovered how few words were actually spoken, how the plot was carried by the music and sounds that interpreted the actions of the protagonists. I got the story.
" It is forbidden to kill; therefore all murderers are punished unless they kill in large numbers and to the sound of trumpets." (Voltaire)
Dare I mention beatboxers? The human capacity for making and digesting speech, sound, and music is vast, unexplored, and largely limited by the socially constructed rules of shush prevailing in our cultural group.
It is a proven fact that, depending on ambient sound or the sound of silence, you are likely to treat the others around you differently. Consciously or unconsciously it is a mood manager. This may be the case of a deliberately created soundsphere, or by the rhythm or noise of the traffic around us, in the room or in the street outside. Rhythm and meter are fundamental to music, yet they can also be culture specific. Being alert to acoustic contexts of different cultures can be cultivated. I can remember staying in a small town in the south of Puerto Rico, where people, used to more intense noise of busy human interaction, told me that they found moments of dead silence during the day scary. Perhaps the adjective “dead” tells it all!
Sound can also be a weapon! Witness the use of loud music, blasted day and night, as an instrument to torture political prisoners or induce “psychoacoustic correction”. Sound can be focused to destroy the hearing and interrupt the activity of targeted victims; acoustic crowd control a new armament of the police force. Sound can be used to repel rats or teenagers.
Songs may not need lyrics to send a message, though when they are present they are likely to penetrate our cognitive apparatus with less resistance and stay to influence us longer or permanently. Commercial jingles may echo in our minds long after the product they flogged is under the trash heap and the company that produced it has gone out of business.
Can you share approaches to sound and music that you or others have used to increase both cultural awareness of difference as well as their effect on the self and the group? Perhaps to manage culture?
Image: High school Hillbilly band
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