Our Society Through A Musical Lens


“But since you been gone. I can breathe for the first time. I’m so moving on.Yeah, yeah…” You know this song. It’s the one that has been repeatedly played on the radio at the mall. And the grocery store. And the gym. You get it. It’s everywhere — whether you like it or not. Music is an unspoken language or innate sixth sense of sorts expressing what cannot be said, and intensifying the perception of our world. Plato asserted, “Music is the movement of sound to reach the soul for the education of its virtue.” It is through music that we can wipe away the emotion of fear and confusion to find healing or comfort.

When words cannot fully express your meaning, music follows through exhibiting a paradoxical inanimate sense of empathy. With a few taps or plucks, an environment of ease, tranquility, or excitement is created. With quivering tremolos, a sudden sadness can overtake you. When notes are held longer, fading just slightly before the next measure takes over, a warm comfort of peace blankets your worries and problems. And sometimes, the driving drums in the back, just tickles your dance glands. Some of this might be an exaggeration — but there is no doubt that music, no matter which genre, can stir something within you. This emotional tie is linked with music. It develops unity amongst the most divergent characters, and allows people of all races, ethnicity, and religions to come together under a single, common anthem.

This annotated bibliography gathers articles from The New Yorker that are all interconnected and focus on the development of music and how it has affected aspects of our society. It begins by taking music from a broad perspective and progressing to become more specific and current to our daily lives. At the start of this bibliography, I found that it was important to address the chrysalis of music over time. I specifically analyzed the characteristics of popular music and rock n’ roll, and how mere variations in one genre may result in evolution of another. This lends the question — what goes on behind the scenes of music? What influences composers and performers to do what they do?

Finally, I delve into the partnership of music with specific facets of our lives. I evaluated the leverage of music in the war, technology, and medicine. I ended with a short story that displays the emotion and distrust that may hide behind music. This annotated bibliography was created to give the reader a greater perception in the music that is occurring all around.

The Elvic Oracle

Louis Menand, The New Yorker, 11.16.15

“Little darling, it’s been a long cold lonely winter. Little darling, it feels like years since it’s been here. Here comes the sun, here comes the sun. And I say it’s all right.” They sparked a period of musical revolution with their use of musique concréte and idyllic lyrics. The Beatles were a worldwide phenomenon — capturing the hearts of youngsters with their charm and experimental sound. It’s hard to think about rock n’ roll and not think about the Beatles and their impact on this genre. However, what or who influenced the Beatles? Who was responsible for the birth of Rock n’ Roll? Could there be a single starting point to it all? Louis Menand’s “Elvic Oracle — The Real History of Rock n’ Roll” argues that “Sam Phillips, the founder of Sun Records” contributed most to the development of rock.

Established in Memphis, TN, Sun Records had a variety of artist that were sometimes picked by Phillips or just came to him looking for a chance at in the music business. Sun Records was the epicenter for the development of pure soul. It was known to have hard driving rhythms and a melisma, “honey-like”quality. Completed with raspy, full throated vocals and swoops and falsetto, the sound of soul is unmistakable. However, how can this even be the beginning of rock? Can the rock that “feels uninhibited, spontaneous, and fun” be birthed from something so distinctively different. I argue that it began with the blues — back in the farm when workers would sing and establish a call and response technique. This antiphonal sound paired with simple strophic structure is perhaps the most traceable beginning of it all. And as each new genre emerges, it picks and chooses what elements of the other genres to combine into their own to create something new and bold. Blues can be separated into rural and urban categories, which can be then further divided into Mississippi Delta and Texas Rural Chicago and Texas Urban. And with the help of blues, there was an emergence of rhythm and blues that borrow strophic song form and harmonic chord progressions from the blues. However, it was different in the fact that it added a horn section and established a strong emphasis on the back beat (beat number 2 and 4). There was no single rock band that began it all,but rather a simultaneously dawning of a similar idea all across the country that was named rock n’ roll — for the head banging tunes it was known for. The North rock bands were known for the steady mechanical meters and slapped, walking bass lines, while New Orleans rock drew influences from the the boogie woogie barrelhouse style and included looser beats. Others included the Rockabilly movement in Memphis, Chicago rock with its even beat divisions and monochordic progressions, and vocal rock groups that had more than one singer and established a “doo — wop” progression. Following this development of the rock, came soul which had interconnecting periods with that of the rock bands. Hence, I argue that blues was the start of it all or perhaps the inkling that gave rise to rock n’ roll craze of the 1960s. I believe soul was simply another branch that developed alongside and became it own genre. However, when it boils down rock is the embodiment of free thought and new ideas.

The influencers of our generation — the millennials.

“The Sound of Sweden”

Sasha Frere-Jones, The New Yorker, 12.1.2014

The British were coming … again. On the verge of the 1960s, counterculture was beginning to take root in America. The idea of “experimentation, modern incarnations of Bohemianism, and hippie alternative lifestyles” waltzed its way onto the American music scene — giving rise to “the Beatles, the Dave Clark Five, the Kinks ,the Rolling Stones, and the Who”. These bands have played a monumental role in building a foundation for the music of today. However, the “traditional” British sound is now being overshadow. Sasha Frere-Jones argues — the Swedish are coming. The sound of our distant friends are infiltrating every aspect of popular music, and has aided in establishing perhaps the biggest “pop star” since Michael Jackson.

The popularity of Taylor Swift cannot be doubt nor debated. With songs skyrocketing to the No. 1 spot on Billboard Top 100 list, Swift has amassed a fortune and changed the face of pop music — with the help of “Max Martin, a Swede”. With her 1989 album, the musical influence of Sweden has increased beyond the scope of Europe, and has reinforce the fact that the Swedish sound may now be the reigning pop language everywhere.

The first hint of Swedish sounds was when the “group ABBA was dominating the music charts, and were followed by the equally successful Ace of Base”. Martin was paired with Shellback to write chart toppers that avoided “feeling overwrought or lyrically complex — they hang back at first, before leaping up the scale, high enough to excite but not so melodramatic that they invoke opera or hair metal”. And over the years the Swedish sounds has developed very specific and distinct characteristics — “three part formula, one character part”. It is described by Frere-Jones to have “clear but simple lyrics, is a lot about the melody, and also having a little bit of melancholy or a darker sense to it, to not make it too sugary or too bubblegum.” It is these simple, yet catchy Swedish songs have overtaken the American scene.

I find that popular music is popular, because it not only appeals to the general majority’s taste but it is relatable and personable. And with the invasion of the Swedes, music has become broader increasing the span of the middle ground where people with varying taste can unite to enjoy a common song. Frere-Jones describe how the Swedish sound is able to reach millions of people — spreading a youth, carefreeness that is distinctly different from music of ballads of Generation X. It ties to the theme that sounds can influence everyone everywhere — it is not specialized for a certain group.

Musicians from Wandelweiser who are evaluating and integrating the silence(s) rather than an ongoing carpet of never-ending sounds.

“The Composers of Quiet”

Alex Ross, The New Yorker, 09.05.16

An open-ended area with no real true definition or answer. Music is an unbounded and infinite medium for our imagination. And with the new age and experimental composers coming out, there seem to be a new instruments and sounds appearing from thin air. Though what constitutes music or an instrument?

Sound. Does all sound count as music? Silence. Is that music? Is the wind and and the sound of the falling leaves mother nature’s own instrument? Wandelweiser, an “informal network of twenty or so experimental-minded composers who share an interest in slow music, quiet music, spare music, fragile music”, seems to think so. Translating to “signpost of change or sage of change”, they are the group redefining the traditional concept of music. They believe in the sounds of life. The daily noises and nuisances that seem hindered our train of thought is actually apart of the orchestral soundtrack of life.

Perhaps, the most infamous composer of this school of thought is John Cage. His most known work — 4’33’’. It is a piece that lasted 4 minutes and 33 seconds of pure “silence”. It is seemingly silent. Instead of hearing the ringing strings from hollowed out pieces of wood, you hear every breath — sometimes coming in unison, other times sparse and spaced apart. Every finger twitch, foot readjustment — you hear it all. Cage intends for his piece to force the audience to listen to sounds around them because music is “not a duration to mark, but a space to occupy”. “The leading American member of Wandelweiser, Michael Pisaro” likens this approach to music as a “move from city to country” saying, “after a history walking down narrow streets, cluttered with shops and traffic, music is able to walk in open spaces, to measure itself against the limitless.”

This article establishes the variation of music and how it is apart of everyday in forms different from a traditional view. Music is very perceptive and personal in that there is varying spectrum for each person to determine what is “good” or “bad”. This article informs us that music is anything and everything. It is a lens with many parts — rotating and interchanging, giving us a range of views and thoughts, and bringing diversity and acceptance.

“Her Way”

D.T Max, The New Yorker, 11.07.11

Extending beyond printed black and white sheets, Hélène Grimaud “does not fetishize refinement” of classical music. Instead, she emphasizes the troughs and crest of each measure to bring a stunningly natural, yet complex quality to the piece. Grimaud is distinct from other pianist in the fact that she is a “rubato artist, a reinventor of phrasings, a taker of chances”. Not believing in a wrong, she simply states that it is just heard differently because of fear. She builds around this “error” to make it sound as if it was meant to be there. She shakes up the conventional pianistic wisdom with “her two overriding characteristics are independence and drive.” She is comparable to the composer, John Cage, who is most known for his piece entitled 4’33”. They both moved beyond the dull boundaries drawn before them to bring to the audience not only a sounds they have never heard before but as well as emotions never felt. Her style of playing is not liked by the “the conservative classical police”. She simply states her playing style is “not everyone’s taste, perhaps because it’s too impulsive, more emotional than controlled.” This is equivalent to the thought that Cage represents. They both want to bring classical music to the typical listener,and pull them in with emotion — not attempting to be excessively refined but natural in a way that is rough and unfinished yet soft and striking.

This article further develops the role that diversity in music and how it is able to bring about new schools of thought and edgy techniques. It reminds us that music is played in a specific way to affect its audience. I listened to Grimaud’s performance of Rachmaninoff’s “Piano Concerto 2” — she was incredible strongly and fluent yet contained in a way that allowed each instrument to be heard in a remarkable unison. It is through music that she is able to convey feelings that are not able to recreate when spoken and where there is no right or wrong. She allows the audience to take a step into her world. This article emphasized music is a language that all understand — even the deaf can feel the emotion through the sight of performance and the vibration of the collective strings.

“Yuja Wang and the Art of Performance”

Janet Malcolm, The New Yorker, 09.05.16

Known for her intoxicatingly beautiful piano scores and equally shocking outfits, Yuja Wang has put on a new spin on piano performances, concerts, and recitals. She is an exotic species of sorts in the world of classical music. She was borned in China, and was founded to be exceedingly talent at the piano. She laughs during the interview with Janet Malcolm that her mother wanted her to be a dancer like herself, but Wang says that she was “too lazy” and wanted to sit down. Hence, she chose to play the piano.

Wang is an interesting character in a world where the refined are more respected. She has caused a sort of commotion in the concert world. She has a “fondness for riskily short, clingy dresses” that people seem to think may affect the audience’s reaction towards her piece. She retaliates that she is twenty-six, and will dress as such. She proves this with her concert featuring the piece “Hammerklavier”. The critic, Mark Swed, remarks that there is an obvious effect of the dress. It makes her stand out — shining almost. He compares her performance with that of Murray Perahia, forty years her senior, who performed the piece with much talent and beauty. However, Swed remarks that she is young and has the finesse and energy to play through not only “Hammerklavier”, but as well as 3 equally stunning encores. She is talented and goes to prove that no matter what she wears her talent is not affected.

I personally feel she is a great role model and shows young girls and boys that you can choose to express yourself in anything that you wear. And it goes to prove the age old remark to not “ judge a book by its cover”. She is someone who I will look forward to watching impact the world of piano, and for inspiration. She showcases the versatility that lies within even the most conservative and traditional form of music.

“It’s All Noise”

Hsu Hua, The New Yorker, 07.27.15

Times were changing. Clothes were changing. Morals were changing. We went from romantic loves songs like “I knew I loved you before I met you.I have been waiting all my life” to hard rock ‘n roll music that was “a modern revolutionary group heading for the television station.” Now changing to rap, it proves — there’s always a new generation with new music.

It is the most turbulent of times. It is the most thunderous of times. This is the time where noise has become music. The music scene is exploding with sounds more dramatic and grander than ever, and it beginning to look like freedom from dreary notes. Beginning in an era where subtle changes and distinct trills were praise, we have reach a point where every contemporary pop song “sound as if they were being belted from within a jet engine.” Taylor Swift has long abandon her soft country roots for that of pop songs that buzz boldly with repetitive riffs, verses, and chords. Hua Hsu declares that “loudness has won”. However, it doesn’t seem to be a control, precise loudness. Hsu analyzes the intonations and playing style of the band HEALTH — the pioneers of American “noise rock”. They are known for their experimental electronic style and remixes, but in no way could they compete with the likes of Kanye or Kendrick Lamar in today’s generation. Beyond their loud playing, “there are moments amid the seeming chaos that reveal the band’s care and precision — a sliver of silence on either side of a monstrous drumroll, the way that Duzsik’s dreamy, whispered vocals rise above the hellish shambles, oblivious of it all. HEALTH’s self-titled début, from 2007, was all catharsis, the sound of a band twitching, shaking, and shivering through all its noisiest ideas at once.” However, it’s coming — another variant of “noise rock”.

This article is yet another example of the development of music and its performance. It is concurring in the same time period with that of Yuja Wang’s own rebellion against traditional performance of classical music. In the time span of our lives, music is branching off catering to the needs of everyone. Becoming the deafening noise we want to use to drown out the sorrow of life, and the whispers of peace when we want to take in the beauty of life. Noise rock was shaped by our wants. It was created by the will of those who found other music did not resonate with them — diversifying music.

“How Music Makes Us Feel Better”

Maria Konnikova, The New Yorker, 09.23.14

At Teikyo University’s Department of Surgery, in Tokyo, Japan, “researchers observed patients to see how the different types of background sound would affect their recovery”. A set of rooms are filled with a steady sound frequency between a hundred and twenty thousand hertz. Some rooms were left silent with only the incessant beeping of the monitors and the snaps of latex gloves. In others, Giuseppe Verdi’s “La Traviata” played in the background. From yet other rooms emanated strains of the “Berlin Philharmonic’s interpretation of Mozart, or New York Philharmonic’s rendition of Chopin”. This musical healing of sorts had proved to shorten the day of recovery for open-heart surgery patients, reduce onset symptoms of “dementia, schizophrenia, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and cerebral ischemia”, and ease bouts of depression and PTSD. At Teikyo University, studies were conducted to determine the recovery rate of mice, who suffered from “acute graft rejection”, while listening to varying genres of music. Their findings indicated that Verdi or Mozart “significantly improved survival outcomes, living an average of twenty days longer”, while mice that listened to Enya lived “just four days longer, on average, than the mice exposed to noise or silence.” It leaves many spectating the true power of music. What about music so severely influences our livelihoods?

Stripping down the excess ornaments, “ particular harmonies and musical features of a piece of music” denote positive or neutral effects. “Lyrical melodies and rhythms of about sixty to eighty beats a minute”, which is common to much classical music and bird song, can stimulate relaxation and alpha brain waves, a type of pattern associated with wakeful relaxation. Yet music that departs from either of those tempos confers none of the benefits. Could music be the elixir that grants mental and physical fitness? Can it evolve into becoming the chosen potion of life and youth?

This article intertwines music and science — it establishes the proportional relationship to one another. I found that this article was appealing because it features music as a prominent role in science. It exhibits that music is everywhere even when we less expect it. Who know our bodies were so sensitive to the music that we played? It made an interesting claim that it was only types of music that made us genuinely happy — light, classical, perhaps even pop music. However, it pointed out heavy metal music never truly increase satisfaction or cheerful even if some affirm its their favorite type of music. It is an article that brings to light yet another aspect of our lives that music is hidden in.

Literal “use” of weapons in the battlefields.

“When Music is Violence”

Alex Ross, The New Yorker, 07.04.16

“Music has the power to cloud reason, stir rage, cause pain, even kill.” It is an invisible hand that has become a war weapon. “The fact that ears have no lids — earplugs notwithstanding — explains why reactions to undesirable sounds can be extreme. We are confronting faceless intruders.” In Panama City, in the midst of looking for Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega, music was used to take away his sanity — using songs that conveyed “threatening, sometimes mocking messages: Alice Cooper’s ‘No More Mr. Nice Guy,’ AC/DC’s ‘You Shook Me All Night Long.’” This intersection of music and war has become a debated topic. Music has been weaponized to fit the modern war field. The music that one listens to driving down the highway blasting on the stereo is now used by the military as a form of psychological torture. “When music is applied to warlike ends, we tend to believe that it has been turned against its innocent nature.” Alex Ross makes a point to emphasize the stark difference between vision and auditory perception writing:

All sound is the invisible in the form of a piercer of envelopes. Whether it be bodies, rooms, apartments, castles, fortified cities. Immaterial, it breaks all barriers. . .Hearing is not like seeing. What is seen can be abolished by the eyelids, can be stopped by partitions or curtains, can be rendered immediately inaccessible by walls. What is heard knows neither eyelids, nor partitions, neither curtains, nor walls . . . Sound rushes in. It violates.

The beginning of musical torture can be traced back to the World War II in the Nazi regime — the “pioneers of musical sadism”. With the invention of the loudspeaker, they were able to not only drown out the curdling screams of their victims but driven them of the cliff into a pit of insanity. It has progress up to 2001 when they United States used songs by Christina Aguilera, Metallica, and from the children’s TV Barney to “culturally offend Iraqi POWs”. Although it remains here in the States, it has been prohibited by the United Nation and the European Court of Human Rights. Is it ethical — to use the music that brings out our human emotions to tear down others?

This article is radically different from how music is used in the field of science and medicine. Rather than healing or increasing our enjoyment of life it has morphed into a weapon pawned from the minds of sadists. This article clearly states that the role that music has in our lives is not all in comfort and pleasure. It has been twisted by the hands of man to hurt others. It depicts how innocence has been taken away and replaced with the anger and hatred in our world today. It reminds us that there are two sides to every coin. This annotated bibliography up until this point has been quite biased presenting only the positive effect of music on our society and how we in society have in turned shaped the development of music. This specific article tears away from our 1st world perspective and moves beyond to developing countries where even the music has turned sour. Music does not only depict comfort and unity, but coldness and discord.

This is a collage of important hip hop songs and artist.

“Hip-Hop Is Turning On Donald Trump”

Allison McCann, FiveThirtyEight, 07.14.16

On June 14, 1946, a little boy born to Fred and Mary would grow up to rule the free world. Who knew? Donald Trump made his unforeseen entrance onto the American political scene in June 2015 promising millions to “Make America Great Again”. However, even before his emergence as the Republican candidate for the presidential election Donald Trump has always made his presence clear and flamboyant. He has been receiving attention from the media since the early 1990s — most notable in hip hop lyrics. He was an interesting character with sky-high extroversion combined with off-the-chart low agreeableness. It is a not a wonder why he was easy to allude to, ridicule, or simply rhyme to. Unlike her Republican opponent, Hillary Clinton was mention in much less lyrics — almost 50% less than that of Trump. Starting from the early 1990s to the mid 2000s, he is mention in a positive light up to 5–6 times a year. Moving from 2010 to 2014, there is a surge in the amount of times he is mention. Peaking at nearly 18 times in 2013, he obviously has some type of presence. However, by 2016, positive Trump lyrics reduce to only 4, and is inversely proportional to the 15 times he is mention in a negative light. Hip hop lyrics express the sentiments of the common people. And in the way, it is the Waffle Houses of political indicators. Through these lyrics, the support for Trump can be gauge. It is more probable for hip hop artist to be Democratic and even more likely to be against someone who tries to oppress the minority. Hip hop, just like any other genre of music, is a form that one can use to express their own thoughts, aspiration, and concerns regarding political, social, and personal issues. It is a platform like no other that is able to span further than that of speeches and articles, and is sets a casual tone that is safe for sharing with others. In this case, music is influenced by politics and the same way the music can influence politics. With the aids of popular celebrities, such as Katy Perry, Lady Gaga, and Miley Cyrus, they can also help swing votes and promote change. Music has become more politicized more than ever — we waiting for yet another politic target in hip hop.

“Killing a Piano”

Adam Resnick, The New Yorker, 04.23.14

My childhood comfort was a glossy upright piano I got when I was 5. I wasn’t tall enough to the reach the golden pedals that made every song sound great. And my chubby toddler hands couldn’t reach beyond a fourth — maybe a fifth. Looking back, it seems odd. Something so large and overpowering was where I found comfort. I found that the learning curve for performing the stuff is short; however, the learning curve for appreciating it is nonexistent. However, piano may not resonate the same type of emotion in others. Sometimes, it may just be “big ugly things, those pianos. Dust catchers.”

In Adam Resnick’s “Killing a Piano”, he tells the story about his daughter wanting to pursue the piano. However, as a Resnick tradition, he states, “No Resnick, I reiterated, will ever, ever be able to play the piano”. He does not explain why, but makes it obvious that he thinks this is simply failed dream. He gives into his daughter, when she decides she wants to start playing, saying that “kids live in lollipop land” and that it’s not time yet for their hopes to be spoiled.

In summary, the kid begins lessons playing on a piano purchased from the neighbor upstairs. Resnick fumes that it takes us too much space and that it is an eyesore. Soon, his daughter is frustrated with her lack of progress and as he puts it “gave up on music and will be sticking with television, an instrument she’d already mastered.” The only thing he now needs to do is to get rid of the piano catching every speck of dust in the apartment. He waits until “the kid was invited to visit a friend in the country for a few days over winter break” to which when she came back would be told the story, “Mommy read about a little girl in the newspaper who lived in a homeless shelter. Every night, the little girl kneeled by her rusty cot and prayed to Santa for a piano. But with Santa in a bind, we gave her ours.” Resnick hope that after failed craigslist ad that if he simply left it outside someone would pick it up. It goes onto to reveal that some people, mostly drunk college, would stop by and play it without ever moving it to a new home. It spirals to where his wife and him get into an argument about the piano and “issues dating back to more than a decade.” The kid came back, and Resnick spilled the beans. He worries that he has betrayed her. He frets she will remember this incident for years — later telling her college roommates about the time “my-father-got-rid-of-my-piano”. It ends with him meeting the neighbor, the previous owner of the piano, and apologizing for it “not working out”.

I found that this short story to be the embodiment of all of the insecurities that come about in our lives. Specifically for Resnick, I think there was too much responsibility in the piano. He pessimistically says, “unlike rabbits or tropical fish, they never die. Your family dies around it. The piano always gets the last laugh.”He fears the worst before it even comes. He throws the piano out onto the streets hoping that by chance someone would be able to free him from the guilt he felt with his daughter or to take the responsibility the piano itself. This short story displays a how a physical piece of music changes our lives. It shows a negative side where it is simply a reminder of failure and stress. I found this story to funny and quite sad at the same time. It was amusing for him to put such thought, stress, and worry behind an imitated object. It was depressing to the see the piano soaking in the wet snow and Brooklyn winds, and how easily the search for musical intelligence was given up.This short story ends this annotated bibliography to uncover the personal affect of music on individuals. It bring out all sorts of emotions that we as a society associate with music. Carl Jung quotes, “It all depends on how we look at things, and not how they are in themselves.” It is how we see music that will define our relationship with it.


Now you cannot forget its presence. Music is everywhere — adding a laugh tracks when we goof. And tiny violins we fail. And warmth when we are cold. So, no matter the genre we listen to, we are all able to connect due to the fact that it is brings emotion. It is music that sets us apart from domesticated dogs and our ancestral cousins, the chimps. And no matter, if we play music in a classical, traditional, or radical style, it threads a common string of interdependence amongst us all. Music reminds us we are never alone. It can be a friend in the darkest time. And a shoulder in the saddest of times. And it can be the “sick beat” everyone get down to when you gather for festivities. Music is our expression and usage of free speech. It is the embodiment of natural human rights to the fullest extent. It relays our opinions and stances on everything and anything. It is also our legacy. The music that we leave behind for the generations to come represents us — our evolution as a species — our struggles and successes. It is all engraved in the lyrics and notes that may seem so ordinary to us now — when it is in fact writing history, defining what we have accomplished in our short time on earth. Exceeding the boundaries of a musical setting, we can branch off see what other thing influence music — immigration,and science. To where shall we go?