Functions Of Songs: Music That Keeps Playing in Your Head

Who hasn’t ever woken up in the morning with an earworm on repeat? Or which of us hasn’t replied to a question with a song with the perfect lyrics? Who hasn’t noticed how our mood changes when the music suddenly switches from an up-tempo piece to a slow-paced and melancholic song? I will be talking about songs today; about songs that have been sung since the beginning of history and their influences on individuals and societies.

Song lyrics are among some of the best tools to pass down specific cultures and life experiences when there are no written or recorded information available. Fairytales and stories are important in this aspect as well, but they undergo changes through time. However, lyrics can be passed down from generation to generation with accuracy, even if the melodies change.

A great example to the unchanging nature of song lyrics and how they function as cultural tools are nursery rhymes. It is almost impossible to remember the advice given to us by our parents or teachers verbatim. However, anybody raised in the same culture as myself will remember the lyrics exactly if I start reciting “one day one day a child/Came home but no one was there”. They would know that the medicine mentioned in these lyrics is not sugar. My grandfather knew this song, so did my father and myself. My son knows this now, so I am talking about a life experience that has been passed down for four generations without any changes to its words.

The unchanging nature of these lyrics sometimes carry the utmost importance. For example, Australia’s native aboriginals teach their children a particular song. This song describes a migratory route as these aboriginals move from one end of the continent to another each year. Knowing the exact lyrics to this song carries repercussions of life and death. One of the rites of passage into adulthood for aboriginal children is to memorise this song word by word.

Some African tribal songs talk about which mushrooms are edible or poisonous. An adult member of the tribe who knows the lyrics also knows which mushrooms to put in his basket when he goes foraging. Folk songs are great tools in creating and preserving a collective consciousness. Natural disasters and wars find their places in these songs and remain as elements of that particular culture in spite of the passing years. The same method reminds and immortalises folk heros. This way the collective consciousness is kept alive and beating. Songs are also used as healing tools. Asclepios temples (similar to a hospital) in Ancient Greece had a department for music therapy. The patients listened to pieces that were believed to have healing qualities as they were performed live in this room surrounded by running water.

Another example of this method which has come to be known as music therapy today would be the affinity of shamans to music. The shaman’s singing helps in solving the mystery of life and in healing the ill, according to the local folk.

Communities based on religion did not fail to notice how song lyrics could be preserved without any change to their messages for generations. Songs were the best expression of God’s words as they are also unchanging. Almost every religious society used songs to convey and expand their messages under the name of prayers. This was so important to the core of religions that their temples were designed for the best acoustics and song were repeated so much so that they were memorised for the many generations to come. The songs were initially sung by the entirety of the congregations but then were left to chuch singers, causing them to lose their effectiveness until Martin Luther, a musician himself, composed Protestant songs which were to be sung in the singers’ own language in unison. This enabled the formation of a community that shared similar values and loyalty. Another important characteristic of songs is that they allow the secretion of serotonin, also known as the happiness hormone. This way, a feeling of trust is shared through song, even if you don’t know the person you are singing with. The best example to this situation is how football supporters sing together during games. You can find yourself embracing someone that you wouldn’t even think of associating with while singing, even if a goal goes unnoticed. You can easily blame the guilty feeling that follows on singing together, because your body is producing an excited hormone cocktail in that moment which gave you the security to trust and share the same feelings with someone you don’t know.

The same unity of feeling can be experienced during marches. Everyone sings the melody in their own level of singing (or fail at), but some lyrics are written in stone; they cannot be changed and they bring together everyone who is singing. For example, Moorsoldaten (Soldiers of the Marsh) was written by a communist worker before WW2 had started and afterward became a symbol of resistance against fascism in the concentration camps, being sung in unison by the prisoners. This is such an influential song that it is said that even some Nazi commanders joined in. Later on, this song was banned. However, its fame had long exceeded the limits of the camps and it was even sung during the Spanish Civil War.

Another important function of songs is to coordinate and regulate the tempo of a working community. You must have seen rowers in the deck of a galley (a wooden ship) in the movies. Everybody needs to row in the same tempo and direction, so that the ship could steer in the right direction and speed. This requires the presence of a drummer who direct and coordinate the tempo of the rowers. Another example is how road construction songs bring together the group of people working, allowing them to work in the same tempo while also minimising tiredness through the secretion of the happiness hormone. Finally, we cannot forget to mention love songs. I don’t believe that anybody will question the power of the lyrics written for a lover. Songs are the best tools to express the emotional state known as love by everyone. You shouldn’t think of love as a feeling that is shared between only two people. Divan Literature and even Arabesque music accept God as the receiver of love and they are a declaration of this love. The receiver of love does not become the lover, but this is not frowned upon. The mortal lover, on the other hand, suffers due to the platonic nature of this love.

The influence of songs on individuals and society cannot be denied, whether it is to entertain, to cry, to prepare for war or to search for the meaning of love. Songs without a message that the listeners can empathise with cannot find cultural footing. As I recommend paying utmost attention to this situation while composing songs that are cultural building blocks, I will conclude this article with a saying:


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