In this essay, I will argue that geography, including relative location, topography and climate, do indeed affect music, but that this influence has not been as strong in recent history as major advancements have been made in sound technology, most notably the invention of the radio, personal music players, and later the Internet, to lead to the globalization of music.
Furthermore, the education and training required to become a classical musician or composer demands that the musician practice indoors, away from the elements and unwanted distractions. Not only has the evolution of classical music been determined by the elements, but it also seems to depict or arouse impressions of extreme elements in the listener. For a music that is so frequently played indoors, it seems quite preoccupied with weather. In a study made in Eos, Transactions, American Geophysical Union, in which composers were asked to depict a particular kind of weather in a piece of music, “storms, wind, and rain were the most popular weather to be represented, presumably because dramatic weather allows for effective depictions of emotional turmoil. Calm, peaceful weather was pictured less frequently Perhaps unsurprisingly, the pieces depicting miserable weather tended to be in minor keys, and the pieces depicting fair weather tended to be in major keys.” (Aplin 347-348).
Why do classical composers appear to choose to depict severe or stormy weather over calm, mild weather when given the choice? Perhaps because classical music so often features such dramatic rises and falls in tempo, sudden, violent changes in rhythm to capture the emotional effect they are going for when composing.
The Czech composer Antonin Dvorak, who travelled to New York to compose his New World Symphony at the turn of the twentieth century, was very impressed by the music he heard coming from the plantations, and believed that the foundations were in place from which to form what he thought could become a great twentieth century musical tradition. To appreciate what made Dvorak make this prediction, it is necessary to look at the evolution of the blues, and what geographical issues impacted its inception and development.
The seed of what came to be called the blues was a type of chanting or singing that was practiced by black slaves working on plantations in the Southern states of America, particularly in the areas surrounding the Mississippi Delta. As a lot of the work was being done outside, this allowed for communal participation. Groups of slaves working in the same field would begin to sing, making the work more tolerable, “black slaves developed a ‘call and response’ way of singing to give rhythm to the drudgery of their servitude. These "field hollers,” served as a basis of all blues music that was to follow.” (Pendrak).
So before African slaves began picking up guitars to pound out the heavy, relentless beat so fundamental to blues music, the structure was already formed, with one person singing a line, or a call, and a group of people singing the second line, or response. Perhaps this marked the beginning of what would become the classic blues turnaround. As many slaves were often working on farms and cotton plantations, the geography of this part of America provided the ample space and dry weather in which the slaves could work and sometimes sing their way through the day outdoors. While the slaves were laying the platform of what would come to be called the blues, it is interesting to note how the white men of the time were expressing themselves musically.
It was not uncommon for the white men of the same period, to take out their mainly stringed instruments at night, and play a music that had its roots in the folk music of England, Scotland and Ireland. When we consider that the early folk music played by white settlers was often done in the Appalachian Mountains and surrounding areas, we come to see how the physical landscape informed their compositions. Songs composed at this time often used chord structures of the folk music of the Old World, but often had the wondrous beauty of the new land as their subjects.
American folk songs like Shenandoah were written at this time, the impression the physical landscape of the New World must have had upon the settlers made clear in the line, “the Missouri she’s a mighty river.” As the white men were using chord structures inherited from the folk music of England, Scotland and Ireland, and adding in themes about their take on the new landscape, the back slaves were also making their mark on the music created in the new American land.
Bringing things back to the present, I believe that geography, topography, climate and relative location do inform what kind of music is played somewhere, and how it is played. However, as major advancements were made in science and sound technology, the geographical constraints became less defined, and people began listening to music that had until then been exclusively performed in another part of the world. The cross-cultural transportation of music meant that jazz was brought to Europe, and then teenagers in England and elsewhere became so obsessed with the blues they heard on the radio, that they began to form groups drawing heavy influence from the blues, some of whom went on to be hugely successful back in America, where the blues originated. By the end of the last century, geographical boundaries had been almost completely destroyed, at least for music that was promoted on an international level, and it was not uncommon common to hear people in English speaking countries listening music from exotic places, and people in Europe and Asia listening to hip-hop made in Los Angeles, for example.
Although advancements in communications and technology made some regional music popular on a much larger scale, does that mean that geography as a factor in what type of music is played somewhere has been undermined? I believe this to be the case, for better or for worse. This can be seen when you look at, for example, how popular punk music has been in Asia, and the multitude of groups that sprang up there in light of the punk movement born in England and America, playing structurally similar music.
In terms of what chords musician choose for their progressions, this pool seems to be getting narrower, as Dave Carlton documents in Hooktheory. For this experiment, Carlton analyzed 1,300 pop songs and looked for patterns in chords and keys used, and what relationship chords have with each other, are they often in the same progression or not. Researching the most popular key to write in, he discovered that “C (and its relative minor, A) are the most common by far.” Carlton also explains how, “If you write a song in C with an E minor in it, you should probably think very hard if you want to put a chord that is anything other than an A minor chord or an F major chord. For the songs in the database, 93% of the time one of these two chords came next.” (Carlton). In other words, pop songs are so familiar to everyone because of the radio and Internet, that composers, perhaps without realizing, choose familiar progressions and chord combinations they have heard before, all because of the fact that the possibilities for hearing music from very far away are many. If someone listens to a genre of music quite exclusively, his or her own compositions in that genre may be narrow or unsurprising. Now it is possible to listen to music from almost anywhere, I think we should use that to keep things interesting.
Aplin, Karen L. “Whether Weather Affects Music.” Eos, Transactions, American
Geophysical Union 93.36 (2012) : 347-348. Web. 31 Mar. 2013.
Carlton, Dave. “I analyzed the chords of 1300 popular songs for patterns. This is what
I found.” Hooktheory. Hooktheory, 6 Jun. 2012. Web. 31 Mar. 2013.
Dugan, John. “Aboriginal Traditional Music.” Nat Geo Music. National Geographic
Mag, n.d.Web. 31 Mar. 2013.
Pendrak, Stephen B. Blues Music Rocks. University of Scranton Academic Web
Server, n.d. Web. 31 Mar. 2013.