Music, Sounds, and their Associations with Place

by Brendan Colgan

As a both a life-long fan and a musician, I have always admired how music allows us to seemingly transcend physical boundaries (no drugs required, I promise). I’ve gone Walking in Memphis, danced with Mrs. Hippo in Paris, and Left My Heart in San Francisco all in the impulses of one evening. You can internalize the music, the lyrics, and in a way, they become your own – even though they are written by others. Music triggers emotional associations- even with a place.

We often associate places with sounds in general: be it the sound of language (a french accent – France); the sound of instruments (an erhu – China or Asia in general); the sound of music (the Blues – the American South); or the sound of the surrounding environment (waves – the ocean). Some of these associations are the result of personal experience (I have been to the ocean, I have seen and heard the waves, therefore I associate the sound with the place in general) But, depending on the kind of sound, there seems to be a limit to how specific, distinguished the place can be. Yes, a cow “moo” may remind us of a farm, but which farm? (check out NPR’s program entitled  ‘Geography and the ‘Sound of Place’).

But why do bagpipes remind me of Scotland? Was there some Scotsmen who said, “lets make an instrument, we’ll call it a bagpipe, it will evoke images of the highlands, people in skirts, and this, in general, will be associated with Scotland”?. No. these associations were the result of a more organic, complex process—that is to say, there was no motive. Bagpipes were common throughout Europe for hundreds of years (they were explicitly mentioned in The Canterbury Tails which was written around 1380), it was only relatively recent that it became strongly associated with Scotland.

This was primarily due to the specific type of bagpipe Scottish Great Highland Bagpipe became well-known worldwide due to the large numbers of pipers trained for military service in the First and Second World War. And its surge coincided with a decline in the popularity of many traditional forms of bagpipe throughout Europe in the advent of the gramophone and radio.

Yet, I have often wondered whether it would be in the interest a place-be it a city, region, or nation-to find, harness, develop, and promote a site-specific sound. Sure, having the Berlin Philharmonic performing Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde in New York can be understood as an example of this. The sounds they create evoke the images, the story of Tristan und Isolde and this undoubtedly leaves an impression on the foreign audience. The event itself perhaps raises awareness of Berlin. But the performance is not the sound of Berlin.

So, should we cram a bunch of local musicians together into a room and say, “make a new sound.”?;  order a bunch engineers to develop a new instrument? It might be interesting. But most likely it will be seen as completely fabricated. Moreover, it would miss the whole idea of music being a creative process. Perhaps a more practical approach would be to identify the unique aspects of local music and take an integrated approach in fostering their development. If you can identify the Blues as a sound,  and identify why the American South was a particularly suitable environment for such a musical style, could you influence it?

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