Note by Note, Music is Communicating. Plus 10 Interesting Things of 1990

How music molds our moods and helps provide a common ground to communicate.

There has been no better way to spend the last 15-plus years than understanding, creating and delivering communication and stakeholder strategies. Even in my spare time I will read, watch and listen how folks exchange greetings, information and advice. Yes, there are similarities in how we all communicate and yes, each dependant on various factors as language, geography and culture. All said and done, what’s a person to do when faced with multiple communication barriers? Hand gestures are good. A few grunts can help, but you may find yourself becoming perilously close to insulting your host or community partner. Equally, communicators are faced with very little time to deduce cultural and geographical nuances.

Let’s look into the research behind music and its ability to communicate followed by my own realization how important this lesson is to all communicators.

Altering our Behaviour

Face it. We all love music.

Either cranked and blaring, or soothingly pastoral, our insatiable measure for melody has helped us along the road of life. We have all experienced moments where music has helped form moods beneficial to lifting us out of depression and offering that extra bit of ‘power’ when cleaning the garage. When our own esteem is not enough to change our disposition, we put in the ear buds and let music work.

But hold on, if music is not complex enough, it seems to have the ability to bait more deeper thinking and reflection.

What can be more relaxing than unwinding to Sarah Vaughan’s Misty?

Yes, her flawless cadence and vocal range reduces our stresses, but if we listen carefully to her lyrics, something deeper is at work. Misty actually tells a story of loneliness and love (soon) to be lost – common themes in jazz music. A few minutes later you find yourself relaxed, but a little gloomy.

Is music that powerful to transcend you from relaxation to melancholy?

You bet it does! Music directly communicates particular behaviours clearly and succinctly.

What is it about music that helps to us communicate without ambiguity?

According to Ujfalussy J. of the Institute of Musicology, Academy of Sciences, Budapest, Hungary, his study details a more contextual understanding. He says, ‘It has never been doubted that music is a kind of communication, the mediator of human relationships, but it has been a question what music wants to express.’ 

Makes sense and solid rationale for ‘Misty’ sounding sumptuous upon initial listening but teary eye’d by the end. Has the song communicated what it ‘wants to express’ to me? Ujfalussy goes on to state, ‘simultaneous combinations are suitable for erecting the audible, dynamic models of human relations and types of behaviour.’ If I’m hearing him correctly, this means combining music and lyrics are suitable towards building a sound common to particular types of human relationships and behaviours. Each musical piece, whether with lyrics or not, is directly relatable to many moods and behaviours.

This research is telling us, music and the emotions it brings with it, effectively represents a common vehicle for communication.

Julian Cespedes Guevara at the University of Sheffield, sews this up in saying, ‘…a person has a musical emotion when the changes induced by the music in her core,affect (i.e. her arousal and affective levels) are implicitly “categorized” by the information she has at hand about the about emotions (e.g. the emotional vocabulary of her culture).”

So what Mr. Guevara is saying, its hard-wired into all of us through our individual cultures.

Back to communications management and stakeholder relations, today, many clients are based within diverse communities and strive to bring a ‘common ground’ in order to communicate what is important to them.

Richard D. Lewis in When Cultures Collide, although not directly referencing musical cultures, says, ‘…the behaviours of the members of any cultural group is dependant, almost entirely, on the history of the people in that society…’

Music is indeed a singular platform for exchange between cultures unified by an inherent need to communicate.

Looking back over my life, I was taught this many years ago while tramping across the globe.

Happy #throwbackthursday and the day I clearly understood the power of music and communication.

Napier NZ_FotorDateline: February 1990, Fox Glacier, New Zealand 

Before a career in communications, I travelled the world to find amongst other things –  good and enriching conversation. Don’t get me wrong, food was the main catalyst for leaving, but I always loved people. Travel offered me the agency to explore and comprehend how people in many countries act and react with each other.

It’s 1990, you are young, say pushing mid-thirties; after all being in your mid-thirties equates to mid-twenties – right?

It’s Friday morning and you reference your trusty Lonely Planet ‘yellow bible’ for the first stop on the Indonesian leg. Blankly you stare at the pages with little interest as you are exhausted from day after day of laborious backpacking ritual. Lock your goods, eat your provisions (as sure as heck it will be gone within the hour) and stash your money! Minus a few bucks for snacks and beer. Yup, just one ale tonight as your five month journey has barely cusped the two month mark and money is precious.

By now you are very familiar with all the different languages being spoken at the backpackers but yearn for a conversation with more than one.

An 80 year-old Italian gentleman sits me down at breakfast to inform me, in broken English, ‘You walk five miles a day. You live as long as me!’ Sounds like good advice but others at the table had a hard time with his English and left him half-sentence.

As Germans hung out with Germans, and French hung out with French, I felt a little peeved at them for not trying harder to communicate. His story although fragmented was interesting and lead me to trek the Fox Glacier the next day.

Upon arrival back it was the afternoon and through a sigh I whispered, ‘What will pull me up on this lazy Friday afternoon?’

Then out of the blue there lies a red sun burst no-name 6-string. Duck taped body, worn fret board, mother-of-pearl inlays missing and old – really old – strings. But what the heck, you need a distraction on a long day and you pick it up.

Tuning is relative but if you play loud enough who cares. I had just picked up The Smiths’ Meat is Murder cassette tape and really liked the song, ‘That Joke Isn’t Funny Anymore.’ Can’t be that hard to strum on this relic?


Thank god for tabs of which my good friend Chris Robinson taught me to use and a couple of G chords later – presto! We’re rocking.

Then a very interesting thing happened. People started to gather around to listen, hum and sing.

This out of tune guitar mixed with a little chord and lyrical improvisation, had produced genuine language parity. A common ground to communicate.

Germans, French, British, Spaniards and Americans joined together and struck down all language barriers with one contemporary song. Some spoke English but all knew the rhymes and rhythms of rock and roll and this popular British band.

Music had eclipsed all languages and offered one unified voice.

Today when working with communities, more times than I can remember, a song will break an initial language barrier and provide a commonality of interest and enjoyment. This doesn’t mean you have to break out in song, but it’s understanding how we use common elements, as music, to bridge language gaps and provide a clear and resonating voice.

The Top 15 Other Happenings in 1990 (2014 realities)

  1. Dow Jones hits record 2,800 Dow Jones average hits a record 2,821.53 (TSX hits >115,500)
  2. Panama’s leader Gen Manuel Noriega surrenders to US authorities (served time and now back in Panama)
  3. China lifts martial law  – imposed after Tiananmen Square massacre (social disobedience still punishable by law)
  4. South Africa says its reconsidering ban on African Natl Congress (ANC continues as a relevant political party)
  5. “Bradys” return to TV for 6 episodes on CBS TV (Really? Cindy is 51!)
  6. Nelson Mandela released after 27 years imprisonment in South Africa (Mandela left us last year)
  7. Angela Bowie reveals that ex husband David slept with Mick Jagger (David is a recluse and Mick is still struttin’)
  8. “U Can’t Touch This” by MC Hammer peaks at #8 (He lives at Oprah’s)
  9. Boris Yeltsin quits Soviet Communist Party (Sadly, in his death, he is a You Tube star)
  10. US, England, France, USSR, East & West Germanys sign agreements allowing 2 Germanys to merge (Roger Waters is still making dough)
  11. “Godfather III” premieres (They keep pulling Al Pacino back!)
  12. Right to Die case permits Nancy Cruzan to have her feeding tube removed, she dies 12 days later (The right to die is not law – yet)
  13. TV movie “Return To Green Acres” airs (is Arnold Siffle starring?)
  14. “In Living Color” premieres on FOX-TV (Is Handycap Man PC?)
  15. Bob Goodenow succeeds Alan Eagleson as NHL players association exec director (Gary Bettman is a mighty mighty man!)

John K. Bromley