Music is another language. By listening to the radio you can learn to speak melody, just like you can learn French by listening to conversation in Parisian cafés. If you listen to enough pop music you can memorise a catchy tune before you have heard it resolve, because you begin to recognise certain patterns of notes just like you can recognise certain patterns of speech. Just as you can take the words right out of someone’s mouth, eventually you can take a tune right out of their mouth too.
Unlike other languages, however, music doesn’t have a clear structure of signs and symbols; a haunting, reverberative flute solo might invoke the harsh desertscapes of South America; a frenzied fiddle thigh-slapper could be reminiscent of a smoky Irish scotch house – but ultimately, melody is an unstable signifier. When we are young, we learn that major keys are ‘happy’ and minor keys are ‘sad,’ but that’s about as far we get trying to imbue notes, chords and melodies with clear meaning. So in some ways music is a language that everyone and no one can speak.
for those languages which remain a mystery to us, why not sample their pop music?
Because it is impossible to fully comprehend the illogical language of melody, philosophers have often cited music as the only art form capable of allowing us to truly escape the world. Music helps alienate us from our logical, analytic, linguistic selves, who never actually experience the world around us, but instead become mired in a numbing process of reading into the symbolism and ‘meaning’ of our stimuli. When our everyday semiology disappears, we are suddenly liberated.
Lyrics help drag music back into a world of stable signification. Reintroduce the stock themes of pop music – which never stray far from, either “I want to be with you,” or “I’m beautiful and have lots of money” – and music loses some of its transcendent power. But, what if we listened to music which contained not just the alien language of melody, but another language that we did not understand? What if we listened to foreign pop music…
This is not a manifesto for philistinism! We shouldn’t revel in not understanding Icelandic or Spanish, but perhaps listening to the music of these nations can kindle an interest in learning them. But, even an outstanding polyglot will never understand every language, so for those languages which remain a mystery to us, why not sample their pop music and enjoy the experience of escaping from language altogether?
This week: Arctic Circle
Greenlandic band based in the capital Nuuk. The band honour their nation’s Inuit and Danish heritage by singing in both languages. Their work ranges from upbeat, guitar-driven folk, to sweeping ballads like ‘Sequinitta Qinngorpaatit.’ Christian and Frederik Elsner’s horse falsettos in songs like ‘Kisimiinneq’ create genuinely powerful and emotive experience.
For fans of: Bear’s Den, Travis, Bloc Party
Iceland’s answer to James Blake: Ásgeir can serve up laid back evening grooves like Leyndarmál, yet also deliver gorgeous numbers like ‘Dýrð í dauðaþögn’ which start quiet and slow, but swell into joyous bursts of light.
For fans of: James Blake, D’Angelo, Passenger
Sami culture is the native culture of northern Scandinavia. Sápmi (or Lapland as it is pejoratively known in English) covers parts of northern Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Russia’s Kola Peninsula. Traditional Sami vocal music features a technique called yoiking, a kind of throat singing, which has been popularised by singers like Sofia Jannok and Mari Boine. Jannok blends pop music forms with this traditional singing technique. Her album Áššogáttis is full of sweeping piano-driven ballads, most of which are include yoiking refrains or interjections. The most striking example of Jannok’s use of yoiking is on the track ‘Irene’. But, Jannok’s music presents us with a dilemma: does bringing yoiking off the frozen tundra and into the recording studio disrespect or diminish it somehow? Is Jannok using her cultural heritage to sell records? Or is the commercialisation of this ancient technique a legitimate way of honouring and preserving a culture at risk of being marginalised?
For fans of: Keane, Dido, Ellie Goulding
Eclectic, bold, and challenging alternative pop. Sigur Rós are perhaps the most established of the four: they will try anything except being boring. They sing in their native Icelandic, in English, and occasionally in made up gibberish. They sing moving pop songs with ambient orchestral backings like ‘Hoppípolla’; frenzied nursery rhymes like ‘Gobbledigook’; and haunting soundscapes like ‘Starálfur’. The band’s impact on other experimental bands of the far north can be heard in this very playlist: lead singer Jónsi’s fragile falsetto can be heard in the music of Ásgeir and Nanook. Their progressive style can also be heard in the work of post-rock artists such as Mogwai, Godspeed You! Black Emperor, and Explosions in the Sky.
For fans of: Radiohead, Bon Iver, Jeff Buckley
(Feature image: Travel with Norma)