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March 28, 2011 | by  | in Arts Music |
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Music: Making Communities Since Forever

We live in modern times. Most people in New Zealand do not go to a church; if you live in Wellington rather than Takaka, you’re most likely to think of your neighbours as the people that steal your recycling bin rather than people you care about or rely on.

But on Saturday, the last event of the Newtown Festival paraded itself right outside my door. The Carrara Park jazz picnic brought together all sorts of people. They were in my park to hear music and nod and bob and jive to it. So is music the magical community maker?
Psychological studies suggest that music is indeed uniquely good at fostering group bonds—particularly when there’s participation involved. For instance, one study found that groups that sang together felt more bonded and trusting when compared with groups that simply listened to music together or watched a film together. Another found that adding movement to singing increased bonding when compared with groups that just listened to music or sang without moving.

The psychologist Steven Brown claims that music and language were once one and the same thing, way back in our dark evolutionary past. Music is communicating: it’s just communicating emotions, rather than information. Or, rather than ‘emotions’, it’s communicating the capacity for emotion; the message that I am a human just like you. This ‘musilanguage’ hypothesis is still a hypothesis, but a very interesting one. It’s supported by a number of parallels between music and language: Brown observes that both music and language are formed in to distinct phrases, and the same sorts of phrase modulations seem to carry the same emotional meaning in both music and language.

There’s also some evidence that we have an evolved capacity to pick up music, just as we have an evolved capacity to pick up language. Musical psychology researcher Sandra Trehub has found that infants demonstrate preferences for unequal step scales over equal step scales, and recognise melody contours even when the notes change—well before they’ve begun to acquire the specifics of any one musical system.

When we look at how these factors work in the real world around us, there seem to be some different ways that music and community move and shake together. Sometimes communities come together to enjoy themselves with music, and other times they’re drawn together by their dedication.

The Wellington Community Choir is an amazing example of a community that’s formed itself around music. They’ve been raising their voices in song since 2005, every Wednesday, and focus on multicultural music, particularly indigenous tunes from various countries. The choir has no auditions—they encourage any and all to show up to their practices—and they perform regularly at events around Wellington.

A survey of the choir in 2008 helped reveal the things that draw people to the choir and bind them together. People get a real kick out of meeting new people. But also, the choir is better than just randomly talking to people in the supermarket; they’re not going to think you’re crazy and you instantly have something to talk about. People that go to the choir believe in the shared greatness of music and it’s good to have something in common. One choir member attests to this, saying, “I have never met so many and interesting like-minded people in any other group I have been involved with. It’s easy to talk to anyone in the choir.” Another says, “I no longer feel isolated as a single woman in the city where I live.”

But it’s not just any shared interest here; music works on another level. One of the choir members says that it always lifts the way they feel after a hard day at work. “I experience a wonderful feeling of physical and mental wellbeing, which I remember between sessions with the choir,” says another one. Music has amazing emotional capabilities. And, interestingly, this could explain a lot about its group bonding effects.

What’s particular about Wellington Community Choir is the way that everyone is encouraged to participate, regardless of their skill level. The choir is all about being non-judgmental and having a good time, which removes the fear that so many people feel when they think about singing in front of someone else. For the choir, the enjoyment is more important than musical perfection.

A different kind of Wellington community is formed around the aesthetics of music. Jason Post is a sonic arts honours student at the NZ School of Music, and he plays gigs under the name Announce. He says that he makes “experimental classical music, which takes the form of an idea called ‘spectralism’ or ‘spectral music’, which deals with sound itself as the basic compositional material”. It’s a niche market.

People that are drawn together by a particular kind of interest like this find themselves as part of group by default; but further, Post says that it’s a community. “There is far too much collaboration and interaction between artists for it to be a scene, and I kind of think that’s the point… Experimental music is about just that… experimenting. And I think that’s why people collaborate, they trade off ‘total control’ of the work for something they themselves would never be able to create alone. Also, the fact that if I wanted to try something out at [Wellington venue] Fred’s and the experiment was a flop, that community would understand and appreciate that, provide feedback and suggest direction.”

What seems to be special about this community is the way they approach music; relatively seriously. Music is super important. It’s this kind of dedication to an art form that seems to develop appreciation for this kind of music, and it’s this dedication that ultimately binds them together. Post says, “A lot of people in the experimental community are graduates or students of the New Zealand School of Music, but that doesn’t mean the music is in any way intellectual. They share a love of the medium really, and music is more of a lifestyle for these people.”

“Personally, I would say that music is so good at drawing people together because it usually deals with quite fundamental emotions,” says Post. He thinks there’s a universality to music, and in line with the psychologists, a similarity to language, that means that we can communicate with each other. And, maybe, if music can provide us with the community that churches once did, then it can provide something else too. “For myself, music is something that can be used for a kind of transcendence. It can provide an experience that can move you emotionally and physically beyond the temporal.”

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