Inspired by the enthnographic adventure mix that On the Corner creator Pete Buckenham produced for Space Doctors, we decided to investigate the connection between music and meaning for ourselves and find out whether Do Re Mi means the same to you as it does to me.

A couple of weeks ago, Space Doctors was treated to a visit from Pete Buckenham of ‘On the Corner’ Records, a fascinating individual with a brilliant tale to tell of travel, exploration, discovery and enlightenment. Pete’s talk was particularly fascinating as it was presented alongside a selection of music that, for Pete, perfectly represents his journey, both in narrative and in more abstract personally emotive ways. The fusion of his spoken words and the music that accompanied them formed a powerful tool in understanding what Pete was trying to achieve, and went along way in furthering the contagious nature of his enthusiasm. His success was down to a combination of factors, most important being, engaging content and passionate communication. However, there are barriers to the effectiveness of this technique. No matter how hard you try, the meaning that we infer from Pete’s choices of records, cannot come close to the meaning that Pete has for them himself.

We know that music affects us as individuals. Everyone has an anecdote of being whisked back to their childhood, a person or a location at the mercy of a familiar and deeply entrenched melody. Who hasn’t, in moments of fragility, sprung an eye leak at the visceral feelings evoked by a particularly meaningful song? The effect of music on the individual in a unique fashion is perhaps one of the main ways in which we think about music and its meaning – particularly one that, as in the case of Pete, is so inherently personal.

The meaning of music, however, does not solely exist in the realms of memory. It can also affect humanity in a number of ways, on both micro and macro scales. Consider Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries; a song declared by the Royal Automobile Club Foundation for Motoring as the most dangerous song you could listen to whilst driving, given the distorting effect it has on your unconscious ability to regulate notions of speed and time. Music has also been used in warfare for thousands of years: from the Joshua’s Israelite army trumpeting down the walls of Jericho, to the British navy’s use of Britney Spears’ music to “scare off” Somali pirates (apparently the logic was that “these guys can’t stand western culture or music, making Britney’s hits perfect. As soon as the pirates get a blast of Britney, they move on as quickly as they can.” [state sanctioned labelling of Britney as the epitome of Western decadence does recall Chris Crocker and calls of leaving that poor pop princess be]).

These two examples demonstrate that music provides meaning and exerts influence in both conscious and unconscious ways; the unconscious speed demon released by Wagner, and the conscious rejection of Britney as a symbol of the West (either that or Somali pirates are more Little Monsters than the subjects of the Princess of Pop). But how are these limited and can there be such thing as a universal meaning for music? Is the fear provoked by the climatic phrase in Psycho one that will chill the souls of the whole globe? Or is it a case of ‘that’s not a horror movie soundtrack, this is a horror movie soundtrack’?

To investigate this question, we decided to test the theory by conducting a little experiment. The aim of the test is to see whether we can identify any evidence for a universally understood meaning conveyed in music, or whether, meaning is provided purely by the context in which we experience the music and the information we have available to us at the time. Taking two groups of Space Doctors, we played one a set of compositions without any introduction and the other, we played the compositions after briefly explaining what the song was called, who it was by and a little of its original context. Space Doctors were asked to simply jot down what they thought the song meant and any other thoughts on the effect it was having on them.

The results were compared to see how well we can identify base emotive meaning compared to implied contextual meaning when listening to music. The choice of songs to play was largely formed around songs that were unlikely to have been heard before (to eliminate the effect of memory on interpretation) and being selected from a variety of time periods, cultures and geography. None of the songs are performed in English in order to mimimise the effect that language has on giving us contextual cues.

The music

甜蜜蜜 (Tianmimi) – Teresa Teng
‘Tianmimi’, which translates as ‘sweet honey/very sweet’, is a beautiful Chinese love song made famous by Taiwanese pop star Teresa Teng. Enormously popular as a KTV choice in China and frustratingly catchy.

Asesinos – Los Crudos
Los Crudos, hailing from Chicago Illinois, are a group of ethnically Latino punk rockers with a collection of highly politicised and almost exclusively Spanish language songs. ‘Asesinos’ (‘murderer’/’assassin’) has a rousing chorus of: “Bush, Pinochet, Hitler, Baby Doc, asesinos” and could be described as quite angry.

Jag Kommer – Veronica Maggio
‘Jag Kommer’, or ‘I’m Coming’, is a number one hit single from Swedish pop star Veronica Maggio. It tells the story of an unrequited love, whilst our protagonist wallows in helpless obsession; “Yes, I know that she’s pretty but it has to be you and I”. Another catchy song with an edge of the bittersweet.

Nosferatu – Lodi Luka
The 1922 horror classic Nosferatu had a score that was performed live during performances (as most films did at the time) which has largely been lost. As a result, many have since created their own accompaniment for it, or simply matched other music to the images. This version, by Lodi Luka, was performed in Sienna in 2012

Daxaar – Steve Reid (55:10 into the mix)
Sneakily in the middle of the selection is a choice from Pete Buckenham’s guest mix for Space Doctors. Pete spoke about this record with such passion describing it is ‘life changing’, and comparing it to a quotation from Sun Ra (“you can be travelling the right road but going the wrong direction”). You get the sense that this track is meteoric in Pete’s life that it must be filled to saturation with meaning and memories for him, and I wanted to know what it meant to our participants.

Chuncho – Yma Sumac
‘Chuncho’ (‘The Forest Creatures’) is a piece that shows off the incredible superhuman range of Peruvian soprano and Incan princess Yma Sumac. It is an ode to nature, an audio texture that represents the atmospheres of the forest.

O – Bangtan Boys (BTS)
Bangtan Boys (or literally Bulletproof Boy Scouts) are a seven piece K-Pop group who occupy the disgruntled school kid bracket. ‘N.O’ is all about frustrating feelings of being a young person in school, the pressures from parents and the sense of bluntness and lack of control that you feel: “There’s no choice but to consent. Even if we think simply, it’s survival of the fittest…Everybody say NO”. It’s contrived angsty K-pop at its very best.

Lover’s Eyes – Damian Lazarus & Ancient Moons
Apart from Damian Lazarus’ brilliant production, ‘Lover’s Eyes’ features Fareed Ayaz, Abu Muhammad and Hamza Akram, three of Pakistan’s leading Qawwali singers. Qawwali is a traditional style of Sufi spiritual performance dating back to the 13th Century and I am interested to see if the modern electronic dance juxtaposition will have a bearing on people’s interpretation.

Manifiesto – Victor Jara
Victor Jara was a political activist and cultural figure from Chile who was ultimately tortured and murdered by Pinochet’s men in 1973. ‘Manifiesto’, along with many of his compositions uses beautiful language of peace and love: “I sing because the guitar makes sense and has a reason, it has a heart made of earth and wings of a little dove”

The results

It quickly became clear that Space Doctors from both groups did not have much difficulty in identifying the primary emotional basis of songs, or in cases where the primary basis was mistaken, for example, track 3, consistency of error was found. In fact, there was not much difference between the two groups at all. This feature of the universal experience of music is not a huge surprise to us. We know that humans are good at unpicking simple emotions from music, even music that is from a culture completely alien to their own. In 2009, Thomas Fritz and his gang of merry cognitive neuroscientists, conducted a fascinating study in which they played Western music (presumably Britney Spears) to the Mafa, a tribe that had never been exposed to it before. The Mafa could consistently identify whether the music was happy, sad, or scared/fearful. How do they do this? Fritz concluded that the meaning we infer from music is the same as the meaning we infer from language; in that cadence and prosody can give us meaning even when we do not understand the words that are being spoken to us. It is this feature of language that comes close to being universal, though, there are of course exceptions within languages, cultures and even accents. Consider the way in which British English speakers differ from American English speakers in the tone they adopt to convey their meaning (“good for you”), or this youtube classic.

Given that there is evidence for a universal understanding of how to interpret basic emotions from sounds, what have we learnt about the way that we attribute meaning to music? The results have in fact highlighted a passivity in music in the distribution of meaning. For many of the tracks, it seems that what was evoked, rather than the specific meaning of the song as intended, was our preconceptions, clichés and, in many cases, our prejudices about the genre or type of music. For example, track 7 was a fine demonstration of a genre of music that dominates a large part of the globe, our favourite dreamy boy band, The Bangtan Boys. Both groups used language that emphasised posturing, commercialism and soullessness, such as: “TV”, “cosmetics advert”, “posing”, “soundtrack”. There was also a surprising prevalence of insults: “completely clichéd”, “bad”, “shit”, “lame”. Only one participant alluded to the meaning of the song as intended, with the word “aggro”. This affect doesn’t have to be pejorative, as in the K-pop example.

Track 5, the Steve Reid composition, elicited repeated reference to tribalism and community derived from it, with 80% of participants referring to it explicitly. Equally, this idea that our knowledge base informs the meaning that we withdraw from music is supported by the inferences drawn from Yma Sumac’s track. The track itself is far more abstract and unfamiliar and, therefore, is less giving of cues on which to base our opinions on. The blind group were left with a confused interpretation, with responses ranging from “eccentric” to “melancholic”, whereas the group that were informed of the title of the track (‘Creatures of the Forest’) all identified ‘natural’ sounds. Indeed, this sense of meaning as a product of a point of reference was nicely put by one our participants in response to track 9, a track that he was familiar with: “Beautiful. Wise youth. Amazing right hand….Rich depth. Melancholic but uplifting. Would I like it as much if I didn’t know the back story?”.

Compare this with strongest impression the song gave to a member of the same group who had not heard it before: “travelling in S. America in a jeep through beautiful landscapes – gentle and calming.” The difference of interpretation is enormous, based on previous exposure and knowledge of the source. It seems that in interpreting music, we largely rely on our given impression of it and where it lies in terms of genre. K-pop, to us, is the apex of commercialism, therefore, that is what that song means. Steve Reid’s track draws from African music, and therefore, it means tribalism, it means community and yes, this is in some ways true, but it is not the whole story. Pete Buckenham points out an example of this: “The origin of the what is know as the blues (U.S.) when traced back to West Africa has wrongly led to artist such as Ali Farka Toure being incorrectly labelled or even genre’d as ‘Desert Blues’. The music may share origins but it’s meaning, poetry, mood and emotion are ultimately at odds having been transformed.” There is a sense that we do not allow the song to mean anything beyond what we allow it to. We give it meaning.

Our mini experiment is a reminder that music is a powerful force in conveying meaning, it is a medium that offers a universality in experience that unites the world. But it is also fickle. It is dependent on our individual knowledge and our acquaintance with any given situation. For Pete, his mix for Space Doctors formed a powerful narrative, but only in conjunction with his personally passionate oration. To listen to the mix on its own is to grasp an understanding of his adventure, but it cannot form the whole story.

Music, for me, is a medium that works best in its most raw form. Our base emotions are amongst our most powerful, and are ones that have not deviated, and will not deviate unrecognisably. For what other tool can affect the world in a single way?

There is something oh so comforting about the knowledge that the screeching of strings as the shower curtain is ripped aside will send a shiver down everyone’s spine, for now, and for ever.

By Harry Kinnear