Music, Sound, and Social Mediation


Scientific understanding of the physical constraints on the production and perception of sound is well represented in literature about language and music. Language can be thought of as a set of communicative—acoustical and gestural—resources that may be used to change the information about states of affairs in the world that is shared between members of a culture. The acoustic properties of speech (i.e., vocal level, speaking rate, articulation, etc.) are important factors in the sensory and perceptual processing of aural communication. These properties are modifiable in response to environmental and interpersonal milieus that affect speaker intelligibility and perceiver response. The physiological and cognitive abilities of human audition also allow for the processing and interpretation of complex sound events, or auditory scene analysis, which involves differentiating and processing sound sources in acoustically complex environments. Nonverbal and paralinguistic vocalizations are crucial not only for sharing information, but for facilitating affective social engagement through phatic communication, or the non-referential use of sound for conveying the emotional and motivational states of individuals and groups. Although the extent to which all emotional speech vocalizations are cross-culturally recognized is debated, a recent study states that “vocal emotional expressions seem to exhibit a core set of acoustic perceptual features which promote accurate recognition across languages, but that there are also language-specific differences which lead to an in-group processing advantage”.

Another research study suggests that humans compensate for language barriers by using emotional signals as a communicative system, possibly constituting a “psychological universal.” They report on an experimental study with European native English speakers and Himba participants (seminomadic pastoralists in rural Namibia). These experiments sought to explore cross-cultural recognition of basic emotions, such as anger, joy, and sadness. Their results indicated “that a number of primarily negative emotions have vocalizations that can be recognized across cultures, while most positive emotions are communicated with culture-specific signals”. This suggests that the prosodic features of vocal sounds, such as rhythm, pitch, stress, and intonation, share some commonalities across cultures, with a bias toward avoiding conflict on the affective spectrum. Complementary to linguistic aspects of aural communication, and most likely overlapping with prosodic aspects of speech in terms of cognition and behavior, “music” often involves vocalizations, sound tools, and gestures, which may be manifested in the context of everyday activities and in more formalized modes of interaction like ritual. Music can be thought of as a complex patterning of sound— pitch, rhythm, timbre, and intensity—and action that often involves cyclical temporal structures based upon a regular pulse, with social meanings that are both shared and deeply personal. It has the flexible capacity to affect motivational states of individuals and groups in a way that is not dependent upon the transmission or explicit understanding of language-bound information. Music’s proximal functions such as entertainment, aesthetic stimulation, and social bonding—in Nettl’s (2005) terms, music’s “uses”— can be clearly specified, although they vary from culture to culture. However, a distal function can be proposed, deriving from McLeod’s (1974) suggestion that “music tends to occur at points of conflict, uncertainty, or stress within the social fabric”. Cross (1999, 2012a) suggests that music’s semantic indeterminacy, combined with its capacity to entrain participants to a commonly experienced regular pulse, means that it can be used for regulating situations of uncertainty on both inter- and intragroup levels, between individuals, and with nonhuman agencies.

Socially organized sound such as music has been shown to play a role in memory creation and recollection. It can also act as a means for learning about the cultural ties to a surrounding environment and reaffirming a shared identity. Impey’s (2006, 2013) work in the western Maputaland borderlands of South Africa, Mozambique, and Swaziland describes a situation where music constitutes an “act of remembering though sound and performance”, which is deeply connected to sense of place. Communities that once lived in the area occupied by the Ndumo Game Reserve in South Africa were forcibly displaced when the reserve was created. The types of songs created during and after this period reflected what Impey (2006) referred to as “social and spatial rupture”. In this way, music has helped to mediate the effects of social trauma and facilitate group cohesion where a collective identity is threatened.

The bio-cultural significances afforded by the acoustic and auditory aspects of human behavior are likely to be intrinsic components of individual and group survival, framing the dynamics of inter- and intragroup relationships. Combined with other modes of sensory interaction, the recognition and interpretation of socially structured sound can be a vital tool in the ability to negotiate situations of uncertainty or tension. The ability to adapt sound to different circumstances based on a need for facilitating fluid social interaction was undoubtedly as significant in the past as it is known to be in modern-day societies. Nevertheless, it is also necessary to consider how environments affect its usefulness as an interactive, communicative tool.

SOURCE: Elizabeth C. Blake and Ian Cross (February 2016)
The Acoustic and Auditory Contexts of Human Behavior
Published by: The University of Chicago Press on behalf of Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research
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