Music: Meanings, Uses and Effects

An Interview with Mário Azevedo, Vice President of the School of Music and Performing Arts - Polytechnic Institute of Porto / Portugal

Jorge Marinho*
Inês Ramos**
Luísa Gomes**                                                                    

*Ph.D. in Communication Sciences, BA in International Journalism, Professor at the University of Porto (Portugal) Journalism and Communication Sciences Department.

**Student in the Communication Sciences Program at the University of Porto (2011-2012).




In this interview, Professor Mário Azevedo addresses the social psychological effects of music, taking into account, among several aspects, the target audience. Mário Azevedo also answers questions regarding the use of music in the political and military sphere and the presence of music in the media, namely in radio and cinema. The interviewee engages in a few reflections surrounding the importance of poetry in musical compositions.


Keywords: music; Musicology; Social Psychology; media; communication.


Social psychological effects of music

Jorge Marinho (JM) – We are currently experiencing a time of economic and financial crisis. Indeed, can music help us overcome difficulties in a wide variety of domains, thereby improving our attitude?

Mário Azevedo (MA) – We need to know how to use music properly. At least I think so. These days, music could very well be a sort of necessary crutch, handrail or, if you will, a necessary surfboard, in order to surf these waves which, at times, are a bit complicated and which surround us.


JM – The constant and intense refuge in a pleasant musical environment, different from a negative reality, can this be considered an alienation?

MA – It can, of course, and that’s good. I was thinking of younger people… Going to a music concert where sound levels exceed 120 decibels or are close to a plane taking off could be an absolutely extraordinary way for me to shut myself in my complex closet that we need so badly. I don’t know whether or not you have always had that experience: in my home, when I was a bit more of a teen than I am today, I used to enjoy closing myself up in my room, I would lock myself there and my parents would always wonder. I recall how much I enjoyed listening to a kind of music my parents didn’t like hearing. That was several years ago, but I remember listening to Pink Floyd, for instance. I started listening to music to be set apart from my parents with Pink Floyd. I would listen to “Atom Heart Mother,” psychedelic things with Syd Barrett, and I would fall in love with that music. It was like a sledgehammer in my eyes, my ears and my senses. I fell in love with that. I think music can be extremely dangerous. The Greeks have told us all that. I’m not here to commend my soul to Socrates, Plato or Aristotle in particular; however, I would say music can be extremely dangerous. Of course it can. Don’t forget that there was a very dramatic expression someone said: “Whenever I hear Wagner, I feel like invading Poland.”


JM – This leads me to ask the next question: can music be used to achieve political or political-military goals?

MA – Yes, absolutely. Music can be used for dramatic purposes.


JM – As part of the music industry, can music be composed depending on well-defined target audiences?

MA – It’s not just a question of if it can, and I’m certain that it is. I don’t know if everyone is aware of this fact: the music industry is the world’s biggest industry, after the war, sex and cosmetics industries. The music industry people have such a following of psychologists, people studying the desires and the will of young people, like you can’t imagine. What’s more, there’s no secret formula for coming up with the ideal song. Today, the music industry is transformed into many other things. The industry is not solely about recording, and not just about concerts. The industry also involves merchandising.


JM – In certain contexts, can music even influence behaviors and emotions in vast groups of people from a city or country? I recall Verdi’s music in Italy…

MA – Yes, that’s true. Verdi was someone who loved a country under construction. Italy was about to become Italy. Italy has always been a nice small group of republics. When Verdi graffiti was placed on the walls, this was a sort of encrypted depiction of Victor Emmanuel, King of Italy. This means that, when the Nabucco was being sung, it was seriously being sung to be able to say we are going off to fight. Therefore, Verdi’s operatic depictions were greatly thought out, under such circumstances.


JM – The deliverance of the Jews amounted to the deliverance of the Italians.

MA – Certainly. Verdi’s case can be multiplied to many others. I would necessarily say that music can lend a color and it can be the anthem for a cause. For instance, in Portugal, fado has always had a bit of a disadvantage in being the musical genre of the fascist regime, as it remains intricately linked to this stereotype, even though fado is much more or goes well beyond this circumstance. For example, the samba phenomenon, in Brazil: samba originated in the will of Getúlio Vargas, when he said the following: let’s unite the country and, thus, let’s take Afro-Brazilian rhythms, in particular those of Bahia, and let’s justify them in the city of Rio de Janeiro. This is how samba is invented. The advantage of samba is that it gets the navel and the hips moving, while fado doesn’t. Fado requires us to remain seated and meditate, as it is a sort of inner dance. Perhaps this is why fado has not expanded as much as samba, and it’s not even about partying, in the most libidinous sense of the word.


Luísa Gomes (LG) – Music has a predominant role as a means of social expression, as occurs in protest songs. Briefly speaking, to what can we attribute the recent emergence of protest songs in abundance, in Portugal? I quote, for example, Os Homens da LutaDeolinda or Boss AC.

MA – I think that this amounts to our need to say what’s on our mind and whatever we feel like saying, though music is much more than that. Music is often just an umbrella, it’s just a utilitarian thing. I believe I have altogether stopped thinking that music is just useful for me. But, in fact, I realize that protest songs necessarily amount to a will expressed by a group of people that decidedly have things to say.


Inês Ramos (IR) – Music has always been a means of cultural contact between countries and continents. How can music projects and multicultural concerts improve intergroup relations and reduce intolerance and discrimination?

MA – That’s a good question! In Fez, Morocco, there is an incredible festival on music and faith. That festival brings together Arabs, everyone professing Islam, Jews and atheists. All kinds of people go there and everyone makes music. The funny thing is that, suddenly, we have Jews playing with Arabs, in a orchestra where everyone experiences each other. The most extraordinary part of this is that it happens every year. Why doesn’t this multiply every day and every hour? I can’t explain. However, I know that music unifies.


JM – To what extent can the meaning of a song vary, depending on how different singers sing it? For example, will the Camões poem “Mudam-se os Tempos, Mudam-se as Vontades” (loosely translated as “Changing Times, Changing Wills”), sung by José Mário Branco (a Portuguese singer) or by Portuguese fado singer João Braga, have different meanings?

MA – I think so because, when we look at José Mário Branco, we look at the political load shouldered by this leftist man, and we realize that the poem “Mudam-se os Tempos, Mudam-se as Vontades” precisely means determination and the will to change. When we look at João Braga’s rendition more to the right, we realize that things change so that they all stay the same. Here, we have a means that completely transforms the quality of a song, when we have two completely different singers in their attitudes and lifestyles. This is a dramatic question. Why? Because this raises a terrible problem. I don’t know whether everyone is aware of this: often, that which is said and conveyed by an artist should be precisely thought of as being a statement of principles. I would say that any action by an artist should be a statement. However, it’s not always that way. Thus, there are artists who say one thing, but don’t declare it, but only express it. I will close my reply for comments here, so as not to touch a nerve. I hope someone will suddenly ask me: is there good music and bad music? What is the difference? What is the barrier that places us between being good and being bad? I don’t have many truths to tell you about this, but there is something I do know. All good music always stems from a principle: being fair with its esthetic, technical and ethical quality. Any artistic representation should be blended into this basic principle. This means that, on the other side, we will find bad music.


Mário Azevedo: "Today, the music industry is transformed into many other things"


Music in the media

JM – What influence has radio had (and still has) on musical compositions?

MA – It has enormous influence. There is music that is worthless, and yet, when broadcast 50,000 times a day, it becomes immensely valuable. Radio is an incredible broadcasting medium for this circumstance. And so, is radio sinful? It is. Part of radio includes the famous playlists comprising sales of certain companies so that those 10 songs are played every day, at a given time. It’s dramatic to say this, but it’s extremely important for us to be warned about this circumstance. Then, the problem of radio is dramatic. Those not on that playlist don’t go to festivals and, therefore, by not going to festivals, they don’t appear on television and, thus, by not appearing on television, it doesn’t make sense. The circuit closes up to a very small group of musical inventions. In many circumstances, radio and the other media often somehow harm what I would call the ability for musical creation. Without a doubt, they cause harm. Sorry to say this, but it happens this way. It’s true.


IR – As concerns cinema, musical meaning has always manifested itself as a predominating aspect in the act of associating sound to images. To what extent are we socioculturally formatted to understand music, in audiovisual terms, from a certain standpoint?

MA – I think that images always win out over sound. It’s dramatic, isn’t it? I don’t know why, but perhaps it’s because we are audiovisual beings. Images have a dramatic and predominating effect on us, as I am more immediately inclined to dance with the sight- and hearing-related areas of my brain. The hearing-related area always takes a back seat. I’ll give you a beautiful example of a recent Lars von Trier movie that disturbed me – “Melancholy.” In the movie’s first eight minutes, the weight of sound on the images is absolutely extraordinary. Another dramatically beautiful example is the use of music by Stanley Kubrick. Let’s take the movie “2001: A Space Odyssey.” Are you imagining the start? What music do we hear? None! Absolutely nothing because it’s just space. When Kubrick was asked something along the lines of “Well? You’re not putting any music?” he replied that music can’t be heard in space. That’s true, since no waves move through space. Therefore, nothing! Next thing you know, suddenly he imagined the heavenly bodies dancing “The Blue Danube.” Suddenly, we move from nothingness to the melody of “The Blue Danube.” When I think of Hitchcock’s “The Birds,” I think of the sound. When I think of Kubrick’s “A Clockwork Orange,” I think of Beethoven. Therefore, there is an extremely important dramatic relationship in the middle of all this. Of course there is.


LG – The same musical genre can be ser interpreted in different ways by different cultures. To what extent is this circumstance positive?

MA – I will use an expression coined by French film director Eric Rohmer, who says that everyone has a right to talk about music and that everyone has a right to make music. Everyone! We are about seven billion. Everyone can have their own style, their own mannerisms, and their attitude for making music. Whether each of us has a right to infect others with his music, that’s another story. However, in fact, everyone has a right to express themselves in musical terms. Still, I should say that this is extremely dangerous because, then, dramatic phenomena emerge, via the mass media, particularly television because radio is not all that suitable, in this case, with phenomena such as “Star Search” or “American Idol,” where, suddenly, the following dramatic imagination is created: that it’s easy to be a musician. That’s a lie. A musician is a top-level athlete. A musician works every day, for hours on end, hours and hours and hours… to jump from one note to another…every day, for hours. Being a good musician is incredibly monotonous. It’s terrible. There are very few people that are able to put up with this because, in the end, that note they are able play so well is so very unique that everyone is amazed by it. The person who said this was Rostropovich, an absolutely extraordinary Russian cellist who left his village one day, when he was young. He played very well and was a virtuoso. He attended Moscow Conservatory and, when he returned to his village to play a concert, he played only one note. Everyone just stood there looking at that: you played just one note! He said something like, “It’s my note. My color, my sound.” You might be wondering how often you’ve heard authenticity on a stage. That is the issue of music: authenticity. That’s very difficult. How do I find myself in the presence of seven billion people all around me, so that they can hear my music. Music is a sort of stage for truth and lies at the same time, and we can tell right away when someone is lying. Right away!


Music and poetry

IR – There is an intrinsic relationship between the lyrics and the music. How do poems gain new meaning when they are turned into music?

MA – Eugénio de Andrade (a Portuguese poet) used to say that music and poetry drank from the same fountain. Indeed, I would say that poetry and music are expressions of the same human exaltation. However, one holds an advantage in relation to the other. One is free because sound does not take into account an immediate symbolic load. We are the ones who put it there. As for words, they are necessarily an exercise in metalanguage, as they are fraught with meanings. Thus, the tendency in our first approaches regarding music is that we are rarely limited to the so-called instrumental music, as we fall in love with a song. Why? It is the sweetness of the word that dazzles us and helps us remember things. I would say that, if we are able to combine extremely beautiful poetry with extremely beautiful music, we further expand this means of making music or of making poetry. Still, I would say that poetry is music. Poetry is rhythm condensed in an absolutely extraordinary and with absolutely magnificent timbric colors.


This interview was conducted on April 11th, 2012, on the premises of the University of Porto Study Program in Communication Sciences, as part of the curricular unit of Social Psychology of Communication lectured by Jorge Marinho.

Picture by: University of Porto Study Program in Communication Sciences Media Laboratory

Published by Marinho Media Analysis / December 1, 2014