What sounds good? The pleasure that we, as listeners, derive from music, has been a frequent matter of inquiry in aesthetics, music theory, and even psychology. A debate revolves around whether it’s the form of a piece (its composition) or a more personal link that we, as listeners, curate to connect us to particular musical works. I personally believe that the most beautiful aspect of music is its ability to be interpreted uniquely by each listener. The pleasure we feel when we listen is a product of our personal histories resonating within the many layers a piece has. Through studying psychology and having an amused fascination with psychoanalysis, I’ve arrived at a farfetched but fairly reasonable theory aligning with (get this) Freud’s unconscious.
The concept of the unconscious has, since its origins, remained a disputed entity within academia. With direct connections to notoriously problematic figures such as Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, subliminal psychology has been inevitably tied up in red tape. Nonetheless, the possibility of an existent yet inaccessible shadow of our conscious mind has enamoured many. While part of the unconscious has been said to consist of a bank of societally unacceptable desires and attitudes, the unconscious has also been noted to possess a link to the psyche’s desires and anxieties. Jung notably expands on the notion of an individual unconscious through theorising a potential collective unconscious. Jung argues for the existence of a shared unconscious mind within a group of individuals. For example, a nation can be subject to possess a collective unconscious through its shared history and environment. Even those under a particular religion that are subject to a set of beliefs, principles, and rituals are bound to share a collective unconscious.
Tapping into and thus understanding the unconscious has been considered to be beyond human ability. Psychiatrists and psychologists alike have tried to wrap their heads around how to access an entity that even their patients aren’t consciously aware of. The fascination with the unconscious even expands beyond the realm of psychology and into the fine arts. Surrealists are notorious for their automatist technique in their artmaking, where they suppress conscious control. Their finished workings were thus a medium through which they could analyse and understand their subconscious. A more mainstream approach to understanding our subliminal identity (popularized by Freud) is dream analysis. Clinically, analysing one’s behaviour and emotions is widely used to provide meaningful insight on a patient's unconscious psyche. Following the emotional stream can supposedly allow access to understanding the unconscious processes that shape our behaviour.
I propose that one of the factors within an individual’s life that not only has the ability to tap into the unconscious but also to characterize the unconscious is music. When we like a particular piece of music, a specific element within the piece strikes a chord within us. That chord within us is our unconscious. Surely music can’t touch our literal heart, nor do our ears have the capacity to feel emotions. Rather our brain, based on the noise feedback it receives, channels our unconscious to produce emotions. I’ll now elaborate on this idea through explaining specific examples of music across the world, starting with reggae and rocksteady.
Originating in the late ‘50s, an entirely novel sound called ska was curated by young Jamaicans such as the likes of Desmond Dekker. With a walking bass line and accentuated off-beats, this new sound was rooted in Western jazz and Caribbean calypso influence. Through its immense popularization, about a decade later in the late ‘69s, ska gave rise to aslower sinuously swaying sound called rocksteady. Finally, in the early ‘70s, integration of heavily rhythmic percussion gave rise to reggae. While reggae’s Caribbean origins characterise its easy-rolling grooves, the genre is also known to be incredibly socially conscious with spiritual and political undertones.
Reggae came to prominence at around the same time as Jamaican Rastafari, a religious and political movement originating in the ‘30s; reggae’s artists and generative culture forged strong associations with the movement. Along with its encompassing principles of black repatriation, Rastafari’s link to the increasingly popular music genre helped its spread across the West. While reggae and its respective sub-genres resonated with listeners across the world, the genre especially stuck with Jamaican expatriate communities. Unconsciously clinging to their sounds from home, Jamaican communities,such as those in Brixton, fostered a sound-system culture in which they would gather to celebrate their culture. Through collecting, listening, and dancing to reggae records, the genre became as sacred as Rastafari to these groups. Moving away from these specific communities, the gritty countercultural undertones that reggae, ska, and rocksteady possess would gradually influence more complexly layered genres such as ska-punk.
Amongst the skinhead and subcultural movements in England, in which working class pride was embraced, rhythms of ska, reggae, and rocksteady were massively influential. Through the psychoanalytical lens, I propose that the two cultural groups (English subcultural and Jamaican expatriates) shared a collective unconscious which fuelled their connections to the genre. Taking into consideration the coinciding themes within their lives, both groups shared similar socioeconomic statuses in which they faced forms of oppression. While Jamaican expatriates were deemed as social outcasts, and thus limited to their own communities, skinheads similarly were notorious in their pursuit of social alienation through the adoption of subculture. Therefore, general society’s opinions of the two groups were relatively similar. So, psychoanalytically speaking, when considering these groups; contextual backgrounds in relation to a fervour in reggae, one could conclude that the abnormally raw undertones of the genre satiated the collective unconscious within both groups.
Another movement that I believe can be interpreted through a Freudian lens is Ethio-jazz. Mulatu Astatke’s Tezeta (Nostalgia) has gradually gained international respect and recognition as one of the most emotionally stirring jazz ballads of all time. The piece alone defines a sub-genre in Ethio-jazz called Tezeta, translating to ‘nostalgia’ or ‘longing’. Notorious for living up to its name, various pieces in the Tezeta genre have been known to evoke emotional reminiscence from its listeners. Influenced by the sound of congo and bonga drums in Latin Jazz, Mulatu integrated Western, Latin, and traditional Amharic sounds to pioneer Ethio-jazz. Similar to the stories of many Jamaican expatriates described above, Ethiopia’s diaspora is incredibly significant in breadth, with millions of natives and their respective generations spread all over the planet. Mulatu’s Tezeta (Nostalgia) is one of the few musical pieces out of Ethiopia to travel across the world, touching the souls of many in far flung communities, reminding them of their ancestral roots and robust culture.
Ethiopian bands and solo artists followed Mulatu’s sound to add works of their own to the Ethio-jazz repository, including Hailu Mergia and the Walias. Recognised by its pentatonic note scale alongside a slightly offset circular jazz rhythm, the Tezeta sound has generated a following of its own. Éthiopiques, a series of 30 compact discs featuring Ethiopian native artists including Mulatu, have helped foster the dissemination of Ethio-jazz and its respective artists throughout the Ethiopian diaspora. In fact, since the first Éthiopiques release in the late ‘90s, artists and bands from all over the world have incessantly sampled Ethio-jazz, working artists like Mulatu into hip-hop, folk, and electronic genres. Other notable Ethio-jazz artists featured in Éthiopiques include Getatchew Mekurya (saxophonist), Tsegue-Maryam Guebrou (pianist), and Mahmoud Ahmed (vocalist). Together, these artists have not just enshrined Ethio-jazz’s sound into their nation’s identity, but also defined a collective Ethiopian unconscious.
Early last summer, when I first heard Tsegue-Maryam Guebrou’s Homesickness pt.2, the piano’s cascading melody, that somehow juxtaposed wistfulness and yearning, evoked a great deal of emotion from me. Since then, the piece has hauntingly played at the back of my mind, urging me to press play and hear it once more. Yet every time I go back to this tune, the resulting emotion never diminishes, doing the piece a timeless personal favourite of mine. Many other pieces within Ethio-jazz, including those of Mulatu’s, have similarly evoked the same degree of emotion from listeners as Homesickness pt.2. While I can’t explain how the particular sound can have the capability of producing such emotions, I can apply my understanding of the unconscious to explain mine and many others’ affection for pieces within this genre. Whether it’s for a person, a place, or even a memory – we all have a longing. This genre seems to have the ability to cling to that yearning and romanticise it beyond our conscious mind. For the Ethiopian diaspora, their unique longing for a culture and people that they’ve physically lost/left is brought out through the medium of music. And for a listener like me, I find that my internal longing is converted to a musingly sad emotion whenever I hear a Tezeta ballad such as Homesickness pt. 2. While we listeners are able to maintain distinct justifications to connect to pieces of music, these justifications all share a collective common ground that lies in the subliminal.
To wrap up this long-winded theory, I argue that music should be seriously considered as an instrument to understand not just cultural movements, but also the individual. Since truly thinking this argument out, I find myself reflecting on particular pieces of music I exceptionally connect to, trying to decipher what they subliminally reveal about my personal beliefs and background. Whether it’s a piece’s lyric, contextual background, or simply its euphonic composition, I always come up with an explanation. While this piece has only mentioned two examples of music’s ability to facilitate a collective identity between and within cultures, we must not forget the individual listener who (whether they know it or not) actively listens to pieces that ultimately satiate their unconscious.
¹ "The First Woman Rapper MC Sha Rock Talks Women in Rap, Sugar Hill Records, & Her Movie Project”, < https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_8UBKxJg1SQ >
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Music never lets you down
Puts a smile on your face
Anytime, any place
Dancing helps relieve the pain
Soothes your mind, makes you happy again
Listen to those dancing feet
Close your eyes and let go
But it don't mean a thing
If it ain't got that swing
Bop-shoo-wa, bop-shoo-wa, bop-shoo-wa
Chic - Everybody Dance from the album: Chic (1977)