Music comes alive in its cultural context

Don’t get me wrong; I love recordings. I absolutely enjoy having access to just about any recording I want to hear, anywhere, whenever I want. But at the same time, something gets lost in translation, as it were. There’s very little cultural context for the music as we experience it. While it’s true that music transcends it’s origins and can speak to us directly, it can benefit our understanding of music to get a good taste of the culture it originated in.

Having grown up in the suburbs of New York City (But not right in the city itself; I didn’t experience much music in any unique cultural context. My friends and I listened to recordings of our favorite music, studied music in school, and jammed together in jazz and rock bands. This is great and I hope you have the chance to do the same. It was like we created our own culture, pieced together out of many diverse elements.)

I never knew what I was missing until, as an adult, I went to France to visit Normandy. One day I was driving along, listening to the French classical radio station (which, BTW, only played French music), and the Duruflé Requiem came on. This was never a piece that had previously appealed to me, despite the fact that I sang it at Carnegie Hall as a member of my college choir. I knew it was a “great” piece but it always seemed a little dull to me. I preferred Germanic works like Mozart’s Requiem or Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis.

But hearing the Durufle piece while driving through those small Normandy villages and breathing French air was something altogether different. I “got” it. This music was in the landscape. It was in the air, literally. The music was the same as I had heard before, but listening to it in its unique cultural and geographic context was a vastly different experience than hearing it in New York (even in Carnegie Hall). On its “home turf,” the piece simply came alive.

I’m not saying that it’s always necessary to go to a music’s country of origin to be able to understand it. But there’s no denying that hearing music in its original cultural context can help us experience the music in a way that relates to the surroundings in which it was created and developed. Country music sounds like, well, the country. Bebop captures the crackling energy of the city. Does rap music sound the same on a hot, lazy August day on a farm as it sounds in The Bronx or Philadelphia? In a way, it’s bringing a touch of The Bronx to the farm.

Check this out for yourself. It doesn’t matter what your personal music preferences are. The next time you’re traveling, seek out the music or art that was born there. Irish music in Ireland. Electric blues in Chicago. Jazz in New Orleans. Mozart in Salzburg or Vienna. You just might gain insights into that music in a way that will change the way you hear it for the rest of your life!

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