Not just a pleasant sound

When people use music to share stories, comfort peers or worship gods, it takes on new meaning. Music’s roles vary depending on time and place. 

Bonding: Battle hymns, national anthems and alma maters unite people for a common cause and make them feel that they are a part of something larger. Marching bands (shown), for example, can rile up crowds and promote pride at sporting events.

Click here to listen to “The Star Spangled Banner.”

Relaxation : Mothers in almost all societies sing lullabies to put little ones to sleep. Called a huluna in the Philippines province of Batangas, the lullaby is so popular there that almost every mother has composed at least one for her child. And in Denmark, writing lullabies is an art form. A classic Danish lullaby, “The Sun is So Red, Mother,” was written by a novelist, playwright and poet named Harald Bergstedt and arranged by famous composer and violinist Carl Nielsen.

Click here to listen to “Hush, Little Baby.”

Creative expression: The Chopi people of Mozambique are known for their timbila music, played on xylophones. The music and accompanying dance is developed like a symphony and also has room for individual players to improvise and show their creativity. Like music elsewhere, timbila helps the Chopi share who they are and where they come from.

Click here for a YouTube video of timbila playing.

Meditation/Trance : Music is believed to provide a way for shamans (one shown in British Columbia) to enter a trance state and get in touch with the spiritual world. The Sami, indigenous people of northern Europe, have a traditional form of song called yoik said to open the door for communication with animal spirits. Drumming helps the shamans enter the spiritual world.

Click here for audio samples of yoiks from the University of Helsinki.

Learning : The “Alphabet Song,” among other simple rhymes, helps children learn and remember facts. Some researchers believe that early songs, such as “Itsy Bitsy Spider,” may also prepare infants to learn cultural rules and practices.

Click here for “Itsy Bitsy Spider.”

Revolt: Music can represent the emergence of a subculture that turns against traditional ways. All-night dance parties popular in the 1980s offered a way for people to let loose, experiment and declare their independence. In the early 1990s, municipalities across the United States and United Kingdom passed bylaws to limit the organization of these raves.

Worship: A wide range of religions employ music. In Indian tradition, bhajans express love for God (shown). Gospel music helps Christians praise God. And, though music is not a large part of Islamic tradition, five times a day Muslims are called to prayer as a muezzin chants in praise of Allah from the top of a mosque’s minaret.

Click here for “Amazing Grace.”

Social pressure: In rural Sudan, women known as hakamas (shown) use chantlike songs to motivate men to fight in wartime and to call people to brotherhood during times of peace. In a society where men hold higher status than women, the songs empower women: Going against the songs is considered shameful.

Mourning: Dirges are an integral part of funerals for the Akpafu of southeastern Ghana. A ceremony begins when drums are beaten to announce the death to various clans. While clans are assembling, women begin to sing the first funeral dirge. Each activity of the burial ceremony has special dirges. And 30 to 40 different songs may be heard while family keeps watch over the body.

Declarations of love: The ncas, a brass mouth harp, is played by Hmong men outside the wall of a lover’s house. Though the men may also whisper softly during courting, they will inevitably switch to the ncas to woo a chosen gal. Lloyd (John Cusack) may have had the same idea in Say Anything when he lifted a boom box playing Peter Gabriel’s “In Your Eyes” above his head.

Click here for Hmong music.

Work: Sea chanteys are onboard working songs, the rhythm of which helps synchronize the repetitive movements of sailors. There are different songs that provide the right tempo for hoisting sails, hauling nets and pulling up anchors.

Social interaction: Much of African music takes the form of call and response, meaning the activity is participatory. A leader will sing or play an instrument and the rest of the group will respond with hoots, hollers, clapping or a traditional refrain. In this way, much of the music becomes cyclical, with no clear end.

Mythology: Among Aboriginal Australians, each clan may share songs that tell stories about the journeys that mythical ancestors took as they carved valleys and built mountains to create the Earth’s landscape. The songs trace ancestral history, tie the people to the land and lay down rules of conduct.

Entertainment: Music is a whole-body phenomenon. In some cases, it lightens the mood or passes the time. From noh, a traditional form of Japanese musical theater that dates to the 14th century, to the pop concerts of today, watching others make music makes people feel good.

From top: Ted Spiegel/CORBIS; Robert Harding Images/Masterfile; worldpicturenetwork/; Frédéric Noy/Cosmos/Aurora Photos

Elizabeth Quill is former executive editor of Science News. She's now a freelance editor based in Washington, D.C.