artistic rendition of the globe with painting and music theme

Anthropology: The Sociocultural Impact of Music Around the World

Music is everywhere. You can listen to it on your smartphone, in nearly every grocery store and sometimes even in restrooms and elevators. It can amplify or possibly change your mood, music obviously has an impact. Everybody knows some unwritten laws like listening to slow music when your sad, upbeat music during exercise and oldies when you’re feeling super happy.

It is one of the world’s leading industries and artists make millions of dollars every year. Music serves a lot of different purposes depending on the listener and the society they live in. In the following paragraphs, you will learn about the general impact of music on the human brain, how music shapes society and how and why the role of music is different around the world. In the end, you will take a small detour and learn about protest music.

The impact of music on the human brain

First of all, let’s talk some science. I don’t want to get in to too much detail, because I don’t want you to exit this post, but overall, you could say that music activates different parts of the brain. These areas send signals to release different hormones. For example, music that makes you happy can release dopamine. Once dopamine is released, it gives you the same feeling as love does, warm, fuzzy, and exciting.

With sad songs, on the other hand, it’s obviously a different mechanism. When you’re feeling sad, most of the time, you also feel lonely and as if you’re the only one going through this. Sad songs give you exactly what you need: the feeling of being understood. Going through a bad break-up and listening to “Someone like you” by Adele can make you relate to the lyrics and therefore help you with not feeling lonely. You realise that there are millions of people who went through or are going through the same situation. I guess that is exactly what it means to feel like a song is speaking right to you.

Moreover, the impact of music can also be linked to memories. You might still remember the song you listened to after your first kiss, when you last sang your heart out in the car with your best friend or your first break-up song. I do. It’s: “Sleep On The Floor” by The Lumineers, “I’m Outta Love” by Anastacia and “Ending” by Isak Danielson.

A last few words on the scientific background: music has a great impact on human well-being and brain health. In 2020 the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) conducted a representative survey in conjunction with the Global Council on Brain Health (GCBH).

Findings, that are most important to this article, include that American citizens over the age of 18, who engage in music, report greater overall health, brain health and cognitive functions. Furthermore, listening to music has a small, but statistically significant, positive effect on overall mental well-being, anxiety, and depression.

A man is standing in the middle of a street and listening to music with his headphones.
Image source: Henry Be / Unsplash

Music around the world

Music, like fashion or literature, is obviously different in all parts of the world, and it is an important part of the identity of a society. It is nearly impossible to talk about every country, which is why I decided to go further in depth for the following four regions: Brazil, Germany, East Asia, and Africa.

The impact of music in Brazil

Diversity is probably the word that best describes music in Brazil since it is a brought mix of Brazilian Pop, Rock, Sertanejo and Samba. It is probably as diverse and colorful as the people living there. The music in Brazil is very rhythmic, loud and includes traditional and modern elements.

In the same way citizens, tourists and exterior influences shape the music, it shapes the people in return. The best example would be Carnival season in all of Brazil. People go outside, celebrate and enjoy everything life has to offer. They let the music take control. There is absolutely no way not to start moving while you’re on the streets with thousands of people dancing and singing around you.

Mixing tradition and present is not only music’s way of going and growing with time, but also an effective tool to never make people forget about the past and about highly praised traditions. It can also combine religion, prayers and dance, which is a form of “Candomblé“. This art form makes people enjoy their religions even more than they already do. They get to release all the happiness and gratitude they feel and express it in the art of music.

To draw a conclusion on the impact music has on Brazilian society: it expresses the diversity in the population and makes everyone feel welcome.

People with drums in the streets of Brazil during carnival.
Source: Mauricio Santos / Unsplash

The impact of music in Germany

Music is a powerful tool when it comes to protesting and resistance. Germany is a good example when it comes to this. In this section I will be going into detail about the music during the time before and after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. This chapter in German history defines a dark past: A wall dividing not only a whole country in east and west, but also society. Families, friendships, romantic relationships were ripped apart, and all that was left was a broken community.

Not only did the average German citizen raise their voice against this, people of all ages, races and social classes did. Even people not even of German descent.

David Bowie lived in Germany at the end of the 70s and considered himself personally involved in this topic. Everybody knows his famous song “Heroes”, but only a few know about the message behind it. It is about two lovers living in the shadow of the Berlin Wall, which draws even more international attention to the fact, that the Berlin Wall ripped apart all kinds of relationships.

Another popular example is “Looking for Freedom” by David Hasselhoff, which wasn’t originally designated for this purpose. This song became important because it expressed what the people obviously longed for: Freedom. Music immediately became one of the driving forces in the fight for freedom in this country. The impact of music is obviously uniting all different kinds of people.

After the Berlin Wall finally fell in 1989 songs like “Wunder gescheh’n” from German artist Nena and “Winds of Change” by the Scorpions became hymns to this spectacular win in German history.

Part of the Berlin Wall with Leonid Breschnew and Erich Honecker kissing.
Source: Nick Fewings / Unsplash

The impact of music in East Asia

Stereotypically, people think that every Chinese, Japanese, Korean, or Asian in general, knows how to play the piano and the violin. Hence, everything they listen to has to be classical music. If not that, everybody imagines “Kung fu fighting” by Carl Douglas. While that’s partly true, stereotypes are called stereotypes for an obvious reason: They are not facts. But here is a Fact: The twelve-tone system is based on the pitches of bamboo pipes by Ling Nun, the Yellow Emperor.

Music in East Asia is way more diverse than “just” classical music. It includes hundreds of different styles, which is due to many regional groups speaking diverse languages. Music in Japan, China and Korea is far ahead when it comes to being one of the oldest artistic traditions the world has to offer. It dates back to hundreds of years before Christ and parts of the early music are still represented today.

It is based on the pentatonic scale with only five notes creating an octave. This marks a difference to the Western scale, in which seven notes create an octave. Furthermore, it is characterized by linearity, emphasizing melody, transparency, focusing on individual instruments, and word orientation. You rarely find abstract music and the focus lies on the utilization of traditional instruments.

Still, as most music genres, it evolves with time and implements more and more modern elements, which becomes obvious in K-Pop (Korean Popular Pop). East Asian music is really traditionally oriented and keeps listeners grounded and aware of their roots. This music has contributed to the region’s brought identity in shaping its unique culture.

Picture of a typical asian palace by night.
Source: Charles Postiaux / Unsplash

The impact of music in Africa

The impact of music becomes very clear in Africans worshipping religion. Natives use it in rituals and ceremonies to pass down stories from generation to generation, while singing and dancing along. Usually, this music is not written down and has to be passed on orally, which makes it nearly impossible for strangers and tourists to learn it. On the other hand, it makes it more important for natives to participate. Moreover, it serves the purpose of truly keeping it traditional and not Westernizing it.

You can identify African music by its very complex rhythms on top of other rhythmic patterns. This technique creates polyrhythms. Like Brazilian music, which partly originated in African music, it is very bold, colorful and ceremonial. Practitioners have the goal of celebrating life through sound. They celebrate happiness, sadness and grief, since they are all an inevitable part of the gift of life.

It is different from typical Western music in the sense that it does not necessarily combine different musical tools in the most harmonious way. They accomplish harmonization by adding singing.

Music in Africa is a social activity in which almost everyone participates. It highlights the values and traditions accompanied by a melody. People celebrate most important events, like marriages or births, with music.

African-Americans making music in the street.
Source: Tope A. Asokere / Pexels

Protest music

Let’s start with a short definition: A protest song is a song you can associate with a longing for social change. It is part of the category topical songs and can be of every genre. Protest music is so specific to a certain problem or movement, you can never mistake it for anything else. Artists can express their discontent with socially critical topics and use their impact on fans to draw attention.

Topics of protest songs can include climate change, racism, diversity, LGBTQ-Community and injustice against anyone.

Popular protest songs

Protests and resistance against social injustice have always been a great problem all around the world but have seemingly peaked in the 21st century. However, protest music has been around ever since social problems have. That is to say: Forever. In early ages some of these songs even got banned because they were too critical on politics. Many artists took it as their mission to make use of their reach and try to make an impact.

Macklemore & Ryan Lewis (feat. Jamila Woods) – White Privilege II

One of the more recent songs is “White Privilege II” by Macklemore, Ryan Lewis and Jamila Woods. It features lyrics like: “My success is the product of the same system that let off Darren Wilson – guilty”, in which he argues his own success. White Privilege II speaks up about the Black Lives Matter movement and how some white people still think, that there is no such thing as white supremacy. The song’s chorus states: “There’s blood in the streets, no justice, no peace. No racist beliefs, no rest ’til we’re free”, which is an obvious criticism to systems of justice around the world.

Macklemore & Ryan Lewis (feat. Mary Lambert) – Same Love

In 2012, he released “Same Love” in collaboration with Ryan Lewis, featuring Mary Lambert. This song is about the problems homosexuals Americans must face on a day-to-day basis. He picks up about stories of American teenagers committing suicide because society does not accept them. The artists take a lot of consideration in their lyrics, and they turn out truly powerful.

The lyrics state that “The right-wing conservatives think it’s a decision, and you can be cured with some treatment and religion”, which specifically attacks one side of the political spectrum.

Being white and heterosexual, Macklemore shows that you don’t have to be personally offended by injustice to care about it and to want to change society for the better.

John Lennon – Imagine

John Lennon wrote “Imagine” during the Vietnam War in 1971. It has since become one of the biggest hymns of the peace movement worldwide. He had a great vision of a society free from religion, nationalism, and possessions. With this song he calls on the people to always strive for peace.

Lyrics like “You may say I’m a dreamer, But I’m not the only one, I hope someday you’ll join us, And the world will be as one”, make it obvious that the world is divided and can only come together if overall peace is accomplished. To this day, the lyrics have not lost their power.

Tupac – Changes

In 1998 Tupac Shakur released “Changes” to speak up about his deep inner thoughts. He lived in an American slum, where racism and injustice were his only constants. Tupac vividly describes how he, and innumerable people from similar origins, must fight for their lives every single day. Stealing handbags might seem wrong to us, but he describes how these things were his only option to survive. It is nearly impossible for a person like him, coming from a broken family with no access to education, to make an honest career.

Lyrics such as “Cops give a damn about a negro, Pull the trigger, kill a nigga, he’s a hero”, have sadly, after over 20 years, not lost their truthfulness. Tupac states that “as long as [he] stay[s] black, [he] gotta stay strapped”, which emphasises the suppression of black people.

Poster that has a globe and the words "One World" drawn onto it.
Source: Markus Spiske / Pexels

Anthropological significance of music in the world

Music is undeniably a great pleasure for leisure time. However, and way more importantly, it can be an extremely powerful tool to raise awareness on socially critical topics. People just have to listen. Blocking off, even if you are not personally involved, is not an option.

John Denver, whom you may know from his famous country song “Take Me Home, Country Roads“, once stated strong words on the impact of music: “Music does bring people together. It allows us to experience the same emotions. People everywhere are the same in heart and spirit. No matter what language we speak, what colour we are, the form of our politics or the expression of our love and our faith, music proves: we are the same.”

Related: Significance of ‘The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill’ in Cultural Exchange

The language of music speaks to all, no matter their race, social status, or origin. Music unites – and so should governments.

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