Words Beneath the Sound

A few Sundays ago, Molly and I had the pleasure of filming VCUarts Department of Music’s Darryl Harper and his talented colleagues in concert. Under the title “Those Who Make Believe,” Darryl, his accompanying ensemble The Onus, and classical guitarist Freddie Bryant took to the stage with several compositions, both originals and jazz standards.


I love live music, so I was stoked to be spending a Sunday afternoon working this concert. I enjoy the feeling of music “beating me up.” There has to be a better way to phrase that, I know, but I’m sure you’re already familiar with what I’m talking about – when you can feel feedback of a speaker system echoing off your eardrums, low bass pummeling your chest and vibrations filling up the hollows in your ribcage and below. It’s a little difficult to describe, but sit close to the speakers at any live show and you’ll understand what I mean.

With piano, upright bass, guitar, clarinet, and percussion working together, this feeling was definitely achieved during Darryl’s concert. Even sitting up in the balcony on camera duty, I could feel the impact of the music compelling me to swing my foot by the ankle and nod my head. What I didn’t anticipate, though, was what I could observe from above.

The impulse to tap your feet or clap your hands to a beat isn’t new; it’s Rhythm 101. In American preschools we capitalize on it with simple songs like ‘This Little Light of Mine’ and ‘If I Had a Hammer’ and ‘If You’re Happy and You Know It,” which equip us with one basic accompaniment skill most keep for life. I don’t know if the desire to keep in time is uniquely human (evidence suggests it could be) – but we at least know that music and the concept of music-making as a form of expression is.

Animals of high intelligence can demonstrate emotional reactions, but none of them manifest their feelings into art as humans do. Now, we know that sound-making is essential to the majority of species’ intracommunication… duh. Sound-making to communicate happens at all levels of intelligence. The thousands of complex languages we speak originally started as clicks, grunts, and groans – the same sounds that millions of other species use to great effect to survive today. As lifeforms, we’re all on a sort of level playing field in that making noises = “I have information to convey.”

Humans, though, are the only species that has taken sound-making to an exponentially more varied degree than any other. Rudimentary sounds turned into language and music, two things which now have branched into innumerable different forms. As the only beings we know of with this capability, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that hey, we’re animals, too.

However, the fact that human beings have taken communication through sound-making and elevated it to the point where simply hearing certain frequencies generated by tools can evoke strong emotional and physical reactions… that’s pretty astounding. The power of music treads an incredible, mysterious line between speaking to our intellectual selves while tapping at that deeply visceral and emotional animal that still sits in every human’s core.

Many musical genres are formulated to trigger those emotional reactions — musical theatre standards and opera music are most known for this. When there’s a conscious pairing of descriptive language with appropriate sounds, music becomes a powerful vehicle for processing emotion. It hands us our own feelings on a silver platter.

Jazz is a particularly fascinating counterexample; it relies heavily on the act of improvisation – loosely structured, unplanned, nonuniform phrases that fit (or don’t fit) into a chord progression. When you’re at a jazz concert, the likelihood of knowing exactly what notes are going to hit your ears is extremely low – the same can’t be said for most other genres of music. Still, jazz music evokes emotion and reaction, nonstandard notes and all. This became extremely clear from my balcony seat, and got me thinking even further.

From above, I could see people – all ages, all types. Through dimmed lights I could see multiple heads bobbing, foreheads outlined by the warm soft oranges emitted from stage lights. I could see the tops of people’s knees going up and down repeatedly. I could see feet swinging like mine, and fingertips dancing on armrests and on top of thighs. This is already kind of a cool sight to behold, but what made it most interesting was the fact that each undulation was its own – everyone was, for the most part, pretty out of sync with each other. The effect was similar to watching water; various points peaking and receding organically and unpredictably.


So many bodies, all out of sync. Why?

When I got home later, I did a little research and found that Johns Hopkins researchers had some really cool findings on jazz musicians and the regions of the brain that activate when jazz music is heard. Charles Limb, M.D. (an associate professor in the Department of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine… and a musician who holds a faculty appointment at the Peabody Conservatory… aka total boss) is quoted as saying,

“We’ve shown in this study that there is a fundamental difference between how meaning is processed by the brain for music and language. Specifically, it’s syntactic and not semantic processing that is key to this type of musical communication. Meanwhile, conventional notions of semantics may not apply to musical processing by the brain.”

In a nutshell, when a jazz musician hears jazz music, the part of their brain that lights up is not so much the part that associates music with abstract ideas, but moreso the part that understands how to process the ebb and flow of a conversation: the part that recognizes when to get a word in edgewise, or not; the part that knows when someone is trying to end and interaction or prolong it; the part that recognizes when something has or has not been said.

This makes total sense when you consider how jazz music typically operates. Every instrument in the ensemble takes turns chiming in, sometimes soloing and other times playing a supportive backing role. Players throw the tune to one another to play with and manipulate until they finally reach a natural stopping point. Depending on how much jazz you listen to, this “conversational” approach can either be really apparent or totally hidden… but regardless of your degree of familiarity, the astonishing thing is this: your brain is trying to make sense of the sounds in the way it makes sense of words.

This is crazy interesting. For me, it brings up questions of how we’d respond to music if lyrics didn’t exist — what would Bohemian Rhapsody be if it were completely instrumental, and the words we tie the song so closely to were never spoken? What emotional conversation would we be having with that song? The answer is as varied for any music that doesn’t include speech… but I suppose the question that sits at the heart of this (at least for me) is this: if every individual’s brain processes music in the same way it processes spoken language, and the sounds we recognize as speech are innumerably varied, what do we call the phenomenon of musical compositions that are universally (or even just commonly) understood as “sad” or “aggressive” or “happy?” What do we call that point of emotional recognition? And what does it say about the animal that lives at the core?


I took an excerpt from my favorite piece in Darryl’s concert, available for listening above. No excuses for the bad in-camera audio… but hopefully it can help you imagine the scene I got to see that August afternoon.

When I looked down from my balcony seat, what I was seeing was the manifestation of people’s experiences with spoken language – whatever talking-tos, fights, deep conversations, lullabies, and jokes had shaped the way they communicate, it was expressing itself in the nodding of heads and tapping of limbs.

A hundred different conversations happening at once, in silence. Together. Almost.

happy listening,



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s