Essay: Music in conveying Southern Gothic aspects

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  • Music in conveying Southern Gothic aspects
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What does one typically think of when they hear the word, “Gothic?” Usually, the picture is dominated by the color black. One may even go as far as Satan, metal spikes, or an abundance of piercings. However, despite the existence of people who considered Goth, there are actually many different definitions. The definition of what is considered to be Southern Gothic Fiction has stemmed from European influences, where there was a great fear of rationalism and radicalism. Since then, its parent genre, Gothic Fiction, has grown to include representations of extreme circumstances of terror, oppression and persecution, darkness and obscurity of setting, and betrayal of innocence. Southern Gothic Fiction builds on that to include representations of unrequited love, repressed feeling and desires, exaggeration, and mental instability. The knowledge of many of these topics would benefit readers in how they go about their lives. Knowing about the negativity of oppression and persecution has allowed society to grow into a more accepting atmosphere. Although the knowledge about these subjects lie simply in a Southern Gothic novel, today’s generations are pulling further and further away from literature and are becoming more knowledgeable about society’s music. This regression suggests that Southern Gothic music is more effective than Southern Gothic literature in conveying the Southern Gothic aspects to modern day generations through music’s ability to reach large groups of people, its conveniency, and its ability to set a framework of emotion.

From stadiums to concerts to radio stations, music has always been a key part of each medium. The song by Queen, “We Will Rock You” is a tradition to any spirited sports game that gets each opposing team and fans to shake their bodies. Concerts are held for rock music, rap, pop, classical, metal, and even underwater instrument playing. Radio stations make a living off of playing the latest top hits to entertain those that listen. What most don’t know about what they listen to is that some of the classics are actually considered to be Southern Gothic music because they cover themes of love, grotesques, exaggerations, unrequited love and more. Artists such as Johnny Cash, Hozier, Darius Rucker, Dan Tyminski, and The Band Perry’s have all created songs that fall into the Southern Gothic genre. Hozier’s “Take Me To Church” is probably the more commonly heard out of these artists. Lyrics such as “A fresh poison each week” and “Offer me that deathless death” and “She’s the giggle at a funeral” depict Southern Gothic aspects of grotesques, love, and oppositions. This song was originally recorded in 2013 but was released in 2014 and became so popular that it was nominated for Song of the Year at the 2015 Grammys. On YouTube, the song is up to 189 million views. All those people have now heard some of what the Southern Gothic genre has to offer and may have even gotten the song stuck in their heads for awhile.

Songs like this can be easily played over a speaker system to reach large groups of people. Communal activities almost always have some type of music playing. Whether it’s a party or a parade, songs are chosen to be played to entertain the attendees. A research report on millennials and live experiences conducted by Eventbrite discovered that 4 out of 5 (78%) of Americans, in just the last year, have attended a live event, from entertainment-focused experiences such as music concerts and beer festivals to marches and rallies. Each event features music as “background noise” or featured events. The reason, as research suggests, that millennials are so supportive of communal activities that play music is their strong desire to connect with people. Unlike literature, in which it takes more time to reach people and decreases the level of social interaction, music that is considered Southern Gothic has more of a chance to reach large groups of people in modern generations.

One could argue that literature in general, not just Southern Gothic, provides a more in-depth literary experience. Unlike music, literature has an indefinite amount of time to convey background knowledge and details. However, the price of this in-depth experience is what it does on the mind. For those with reading deficiencies, literature isn’t something wonderfully artistic, but something that is scary and stressful. Dyslexia is a common reading disorder in which the person has trouble matching the letters they see on the page with the sounds those letters and combinations of those letters make. Unlike literature, music accounts for those reading disorders through the use of sound and bypasses the difficulties that surface. For those that don’t necessarily have reading disorders may relate more to a poor attention span. Reading puts a strain on the eyes as they move back and forth which invokes tiredness. When one tries to continue to read, words and pages start to blend together and hardly anything is comprehended. Music only relies on the ears, and/or sensation for those that are hard of hearing, which eliminates that tiredness feeling.

Another benefit of music in conveying Southern Gothic aspects, as well as any aspects, is its conveniency. The only thing that would inhibit someone from listening to music, other than personal preference, would be a complete isolated area in the middle of nowhere. When driving to work in the morning, songs are played on the radio all the way up until it is shut off. When watching videos on the internet, almost each one of them has some type of background music. For those that work-out or go to the gym, a pair of earbuds isn’t far away. Music has always been one of the most common pastime activities.

One extremely helpful phenomenon that music seems to have is an improvement in memory. Typically, short-term memory only lasts about 15-30 seconds and has an average retention rate of about 6 or 7 items. However, when music is played, memory seems to improve to remembering for a longer amount of time, as well as an overall increase in the amount of retained items. A study conducted by William Balch, Kelly Bowman, and Lauri Mohler studied the effect that music has on memory with undergraduate volunteers in 1990. These professors discovered that while hearing a piece of a particular background music while being given a word to remember had an significant effect on their ability to recall the word after a 48 hour period. Another study by Patricia Purnell-Webb and Craig Speelman on the Effects of Music on Memory for Test found similar results. They examined the effect of repetition of a melody across verses, familiarity with the melody, rhythm, and other structural processing hypotheses to explain this phenomenon. They discovered an increase in the number of verbatim words recalled and the number of lines produced with correct syllabic structure. There are many more studies like these that support the effect that music has on memory and stretch from something as simple as cramming for a test to neurological disorders such as Alzheimer’s.

Time is a very important factor of life. It is spent and wasted and used for good. Much of the time allotted in one life is spent working and stressing out about the work as people are constantly on the go. When given the choice between learning through music or learning through a book with a given 10 minutes, most would choose learning through music because it doesn’t take as long to listen to a quick song than to read chapters in a book. It takes much less time to look up a song on one’s phone or through the internet than it does to look for a book. Similarly, as Millennials, most are in school or out in the workplace where they have homework or various assignments to complete. When typing an essay, it’s not convenient to look up an article about unrequited love, whereas looking up a song about unrequited love is convenient. It’s convenient in times of limited time where a quick 5-minute song would fit but a chapter would not. It’s also convenient to listen to a song when compared to reading a passage about grotesques when walking. Postal Carriers for the Postal Service walk miles upon miles every day. Looking down and reading a book versus listening to a song is more practical. While one could listen to audiobooks, most of them have differing author dramatizations and emotion, as well as cost extra money. One could argue the relaxing side of reading is more apparent than listening to music as relaxing is a convenient time to sit down and read. However, to some as previously mentioned, reading is not relaxing and can actually invoke feelings of fear. Music, on the other hand, is readily available from dark Southern Gothic music to screeching guitar solos.

Music of all genres is known for its ability to invoke both physiological and psychological feelings in an individual. Described as a “type of perceptual illusion,” music, and the appreciation of it, is tied to the ability to process its underlying structure and predict what will occur next in the song. This ability to predict what will happen is what artists manipulate to change the audience’s expectations, in the attempt to elicit the “chills.” The faster the beat of the song, the faster the listener’s heart rate is and vice versa. This physiological effect supports the idea that music is more relaxing than reading because Southern Gothic music tends to have a slower rhythm and slower beat, slowing the heart rate of the listener and providing relaxation.

Music is rooted in the primitive brain structures that are involved in motivation, reward, and emotion. Since music is perceived as non-threatening, the subtle violations of timing and rhythm are identified by the frontal lobes as a source of pleasure and results in the reward reaction. The brain prefers music as a stimulus as it has the ability to conjure up images and feelings that are unique to each listener that aren’t directly tied to the song. A lyric may mention the dark atmosphere surrounding a black cat, but the listener could think of their sweet black cat. Similarly, the artist of a song may mention positive characteristics of their current love but the listener could relate that to an ex that wronged them. Much like art, music can be interpreted in many different ways, depending on the listener. When it comes to the Southern Gothic genre, songs about love or exaggeration may typically be interpreted as sad and depressing, but when related to personal experience about true love or funny exaggeration, listeners can turn something sad to something empowering.

Immersion when listening to music is still a mystery area to neuroscientists. Immersion is a deep involvement of the mind and brain into whatever is going on. Researchers from Stanford reported that when listening to a new piece of classical music, different people show the same patterns of synchronized activity, suggesting some level of an universal experience. While classical music produced the same patterns of activity, the levels of immersion for listeners vary between what is and what isn’t preferred. Another study done by Valorie Salimpoor and Robert Zatorre discovered that just 15 minutes after a subject listened to their favorite song, their brains flooded with dopamine, which is a neurotransmitter that controls the brain’s reward and pleasure centers. While levels of immersion differ between people, the physiological effects that music has on people neurologically is the same.

To conclude, music is common for nearly every background of media, such as commercials, movies, and TV shows which allows it to reach large groups of people. Older people can listen to music whether it be at the store, at doctor appointments, or simply watching TV. Younger children and teenagers all listen to music for fun and relaxation. There are a few people here and there that don’t care for it, but it’s rare. There’s contemporary music for the more modern listeners and classical for those that like more calming music. Music is used to provide a sense of patriotism, such as the Star-Spangled Banner, or to celebrate a loved one’s passing. It’s used to dance to and have fun or to waltz to. In any manner, nearly everyone benefits. For some, it takes a lot of work to get a book and read and read for the story to come along. Dyslexia or another reading difficulty might impede the author’s ability to convey the story properly which destroys any conveniency. However, with music, all one needs to do is listen. Anywhere from 2 to 6 minutes, an entire story can be told. This provides a great conveniency for those that struggle with reading. Literature does have the ability to go more in depth about a story, as its amount of time and space is unlimited, but that can be really intimidating for those that don’t know what they are getting into. Finally, the various changes in intonation, pitch, and speed, sets a framework of emotion around the gothic story. For example, a sadder message might have slower, high pitched music to convey the sad message. “In the Arms of an Angel,” by Sarah McLachlan is one of the most common sad songs out there as it accompanies a commercial about animal cruelty and encourages donations to treat puppies and kittens who’ve been abused or mistreated. One could simply read the transcript of the commercial, but without the music, the severity of the situation would be lost. Similarly, a more upbeat message might have a faster, more empowering beat, such as “Jingle Bells” or the “Tango.” They have more positive emotions connected to them, as sadder songs have more negative emotions. A reader could choose to create their own emotions about a story, but music automatically sets the atmosphere for both sad and happy stories.

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