Influential Beats: The Cultural Impact of Music

By:  Selwyn Duke
Influential Beats: The Cultural Impact of Music

Music can have a powerful influence on people, enhancing feelings of competitiveness, romance, isolation, hate, or patriotism. It can even help make or break a culture.

The Devil really is a fellow of wine and song,
Playing a tune that trades right for wrong.
The tone-deaf man will hear his notes and say,
What could be wrong with being festive and gay?
And when a sad tomorrow that tune does bring,
Few will know that from their own lips it did spring.

There perhaps is something primal about music, something that can touch or twist one’s soul. This is no doubt why Ludwig van Beethoven said, “Music can change the world,” and William Congreve famously wrote that music “has charms to soothe a savage breast.” And music’s power is tacitly acknowledged all the time. For example, last year Michelle Obama lent her name and image to a rap album that complements her “Let’s Move!” anti-obesity campaign. And while a track featuring a trio called “Salad Bar” and a song entitled “Veggie Luv” is easy to mock (given their mother’s priorities, I can just hear Sasha and Malia singing, “And we’ll have fun, fun, fun till daddy takes the tea cake away”), there is method to the first lady’s madness. As Boston College professor emeritus William K. Kilpatrick wrote in his book Why Johnny Can’t Tell Right From Wrong:

[We] tend to learn something more easily and indelibly if it’s set to a rhyme or song. Advertisers know this and use it so effectively that we sometimes have difficulty getting their jingles out of our heads. But there are more positive educational uses. Most of us learned the alphabet this way and some of our history as well (“Paul Revere’s Ride,” “Concord Hymn”). Recently some foreign language courses have been developed which employ rhyme and song as the central teaching method. Similarly, one of the most successful new phonics programs teaches reading through singing.

Quite true. To this day I can recite a McDonald’s Big Mac-recipe jingle I heard as a little child — verbatim. And I only had to hear the weather advice “Red sky in morning, sailor take warning; red sky at night, sailor’s delight” once to remember it forever. But since all power can be misused, can music possibly usher in a storm of civilizational upheaval? If it can soothe the savage breast, does it not follow that it can also inflame it?

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