in this section:

Musical/social skills: parallels

I would like to offer this parallel between musical and social behaviour as a metaphor that may help to describe what is happening when we sing together, and harmonise. We humans are social beings, highly communicative group creatures, and music expresses this aspect of our lives directly.

Some of music's elements, like some elements of social situations, are immediately audible and 'on the surface'; others lie deeper, and inform the whole atmosphere. Our perceptions of a song, for example, tend to start on the surface (probably with the 'tune'), and then we might become aware of chords, expression, style, structure and so on.

But we sense the quality of music and of human interactions simply and directly, without analysis or education, in our feelings - which reach all the way to the deepest and subtlest levels of what is going on. And often, it is the 'untrained', or unprimed ear which responds most accurately and innocently to a song, or to a real life situation.

A few points: everything, in music and social interactions, is contextual. The same note, words, phrase, action can be right or wrong, depending on the moment - on everything else that is going on in the moment, and has been going on up until that moment. So: listening, and awareness of what's going on around us (and within ourselves) is essential to both sets of skills.

The following is just a sketch of a stretching of this metaphor:

Melodic lines, or 'tunes' - correspond to what we say or do, the arc of expression - how we instigate communication, or respond to others. Questions: does it fit? Does it clash? Is it attractive/ enjoyable/ harmonious? What feelings does it evoke?

Rhythm - corresponds to the pulse or heartbeat of a situation, its mood or tone - is it humorous - sad - excited - subdued? Questions: what is appropriate in this moment? How to 'get in step'? Or can we try syncopating enjoyably, maybe humorously, with the 'on beat' expectations?

Chord structure - might correspond to the underlying dynamics of a situation or a group - the assumptions, motivations, atmosphere. Question: can we sense the underlying structure, recognise its movement, orientate ourselves by it, find our place within it, move along with it, in its recurrent wavelike motion?

Harmony, in music - corresponds to social harmony. We all know how easy and delightful this feels, both in music and in social life, when it's easy, and how impossible it is to force into being. We know when it is happening, when everything feels correct and natural and working together, so that each element enhances the others, and contributes to everyone's enjoyment; and we feel it too when there are discords, both socially and musically. (It's worth remembering that a lot more can work together - musically and socially - than the 'rules' we have learned may stipulate.)

©Yvonne Burgess, 2008