Friday, February 3, 2012

Language, Universality of Music and… Musicians?!

Like language, music is a human unversal in which perceptually discrete elements are organized into hierarchially structured sequences according to synthatic principles. According to a new report published online on March 19th in Current Biology, (ScienceDaily, Mar. 20, 2009), “Native African people who have never even listened to the radio before can nonetheless pick up on happy, sad, and fearful emotions in Western music. The result shows that the expression of those three basic emotions in music can be universally recognized, the researchers said.” In other words, what’s being played in this part of the globe could have meaningful interpretations in another quarter. There is a close relationship between language and music. In fact, now, researchers from Georgetown University Medical Center have found evidence that the processing of music and language do indeed depend on some of the same brain systems. Their findings, which are currently available, published in the journal NeuroImage, are the first to suggest that two different aspects of both music and language depend on the same two memory systems in the brain. One brain system, based in the temporal lobes, helps humans memorize information in both language and music— for example, words and meanings in language and familiar melodies in music. The other system, based in the frontal lobes, helps us unconsciously learn and use the rules that underlie both language and music, such as the rules of syntax in sentences, and the rules of harmony in music. Language learning (and teaching, for that matter) short of savoir faire about the culture in which it operates, is like learning bare or meaningless symbols. One part of culture is, certainly, music. But music, so they say, is far deeper than a language: it is a universal language, and even some go as far as saying that “it is the purest form of self-expression.” Hence, it’s neither restricted by boundary and race, nor by character of the language in use, be it Latin, Semitic, Cushitic or the like. Then one might wonder, “Okay, let music be universal as language, as a form of self-expression. Does this mean that musicians could be, too?” The current piece attempts to reflect on this notion by taking an analogy of recent incidents that took place in different parts of the world. Well, the recent tragic deaths of both the Ethiopian music superstar Tilahun Gessese and the world king of pop, Michael Jackson, have triggered some discussions locally as to their actual similarities. Of course, the scope do vary greatly. However, the following parallels stick out : they both started music at their early ages; their music have been No. 1 hit for more than 3 to 5 decades in their respective countries; Ethiopians owe both celebrities for their moving melodious songs at a crucial time when Ethiopia was hit by a severe natural calamity in the 80’s. While Tilahun sang in tears his tour de force, “Way Way silu”(literally, ‘when they utter trickling lamenting sounds’ at a loss of loved ones), Michael, along with other several musicians around the globe, sang the powerful summon, ‘We’re the world’ at a fund-raising campaign for the victims of drought. What’s more, overlooking their life styles, they both were rehearsing hard for what were to be their greatest comeback bid, shortly before the end of their lives, perhaps once again, aspiring to finish it with stardom. What’s even more surprising is the fact that both singers had tragic unexpected deaths at the same year and of the same medical cause – probable cardiac failure; Could this have been just a quirk of fate? Or may be,… just may be, like music…, could musicians, too, be universal? Long ago, a lay admirer from a neighboring country, who knows the Amharic language a little, once coined a doggerel to this iconic Ethiopian singer. With his frail lyrical skill but with bold determination to pay a personal living tribute to Tilahun’s wonderful music, he jotted down: awroplan hedə Ϊyə gəsəgəsə kə zəfaňoch andəňa T’Ϊlahun Gəsəsə. literally translated ‘The aeroplane has swiftly gone, Among the musicians Tilahun Gessesse stands number one’.
While there’s no obvious link between the airplane that went swiftly and the fact that Tilahun ranks first among others in musical skills, the individual seems to have achieved his objective of being appreciative of the melodic talent in his own way, rising above his own language barrier and border (though, I have to say, the verse created a gag amid the literary critics at the time). That’s even more evident in Michael’s global musical legacy, as well. His music touched millions across the globe, in spite of language and cultural differences. Indeed, many would agree that music is a universal language. Would it be possible to consider musicians universal, too, owing to the many bona fide parallels that could be drawn from vocalists all over the world? Məlkam samΪnt ! → Have a good week!

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