Music is not only a popular form of entertainment, it can also teach, pass on information, highlight problems, and motivate people. People produce songs to express messages and meanings about shared experiences through stories, statements, and metaphors in words and music.

Lesson Objectives

  • Identify how music and lyrics communicate meanings and emotions.
  • Recognize the relationship between music and culture
  • Evaluate the social or cultural significance of a song through lyrical analysis 

Music & Emotion

Music is one of the common cultural phenomenons that connects people across all borders of nationality, race, and culture. It arouses common emotions and feelings, that are far more powerful than language. The psychological influence of music on human emotion has received significant attention from several areas of study in psychology, musicology, and music theory in order to understand the nature of emotional reactions to music and to identify which components of a musical composition or performance may elicit certain reactions. There has been an increased interest in understanding how the brain processes musical emotion.

According to Patrick Juslin in The Handbook of Music and Emotion, music creates a perceptual illusion, in the same way the mind perceived a collage. The brain automatically imposes structure and order on a sequence of sounds and that process creates a new system of meaning that is based on the sum of the collective parts. Appreciating musical aesthetic is linked to the brain’s ability to process the underlying structure of the musical piece and to predict what sound will come next. Skilled composers and songwriters know how to manipulate the emotion with a song by either knowing what their audience will expect expectations and controlling when those expectations will (or will not be) achieved.

Music appreciation and composition is rooted in the primitive brain structures involved in motivation, reward and emotion. The brain synchronizes neural oscillators with the pulse of the music to predict when the next sound will occur. This is a primarily unconscious process taking place in the cerebellum and amygdala rather than the frontal lobes. Since music involves subtle violations of timing that are not threatening, the violations are identified by the frontal lobes as pleasure. The expectation creates anticipation, and when the expectation is achieved, it creates a reward reaction in the brain.

Music also plays on the imagination. It has the ability to conjure images and feelings that do not come from memory, and the overall experiences retains mystery; this is what creates the ‘thrill’ of listening to music. Synesthesia is a perceptual phenomenon in which one sensory stimulus leads to automatic, involuntary experience in a second sensory or cognitive pathway. This is how composers couple sound with other elements such as color, imagery, and emotion.

Music & Culture

Music is a performative expression of culture. From the nature of the sound arrangements, the instruments used to create the sound, to the performers offering the performance; music and song is a cultural arrangement of song and lyrics that reflect the unique histories and experiences of the people from which the arrangement emerges.

Ethnomusicology is the study of music in its cultural context. Ethnomusicologists approach music as a social process in order to understand not only what music is but why it is: what music means to its practitioners and audiences, and how those meanings are conveyed. Ethnomusicology draws from a wide range of disciplines. Ethnomusicologists may be trained in music, cultural anthropology, folklore, performance studies, dance, cultural studies, gender studies, race or ethnic studies, area studies, or other fields in the Humanities. Yet all ethnomusicologists share a coherent foundation in the following approaches and methods:

  1. Taking a global approach to music (regardless of area of origin, style, or genre).
  2. Understanding music as social practice (viewing music as a human activity that is shaped by its cultural context).
  3. Engaging in ethnographic fieldwork (participating in and observing the music being studied, frequently gaining facility in another music tradition as a performer or theorist), and historical research.

For more information visit the Society of Ethnomusicologists.

The interconnected relationship between music and culture, the ways that songs reflect unique and shared human experiences, and the universal appreciation of music makes music a cross-cultural window connecting people and humanity. By singing together, humans can participate in sharing a meaningful experiential activity that creates pleasure, social bonding, and connectedness among friends, family, and even strangers.

At the same time however, the cultural significance of music, particularly among marginalized and oppressed populations, demands ethical considerations for singers, composers, and listeners. Music and songs may have sacred or special meaning, purpose, and/or role in the society or culture it comes from. Misappropriation, or cultural appropriation, occurs when a person or group takes something culturally significant from another group in order to perform, modify, or adopt for their own personal, private, or commercial purposes. Misappropriation fails to honor and respect the culture and music of disempowered groups.

One famous example of misappropriation is the song ‘Wimoweh’/’The Lion Sleeps Tonight’ in the United States. It was originally composed as ‘Mbube’ in South Africa, and transcribed in 1951 by Pete Seeger, a popular American folksinger. It became a pop hit in the 1960s whenit was performed by ‘The Tokens’ on television, and over the course of a few decades it was appropriated by several artists and eventually became an integral part of Disney’s The Lion King. While the song generated millions of dollars in revenue for American singers and filmmakers, the original South African Zulu producer of the song, Solomon Linda, never received any compensation; he died penniless in South Africa. Watch the documentary trailer below, and visit The Lion’s Trail by Independent Lens.


The Mbube/Wimoweh/Lions Sleeps story is only one of thousands of instances where indigneous culture has been misappropriated. There is a growing movement to reclaim cultural artifacts and restore their cultural significance within the appropriate social and historical context.


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For Discussion: Research and locate a ‘culturally significant’ song – this can be any song that communicates shared meanings and messages. Research the social and historical context of the song an write a brief (150 word) introduction; Where did it originate and from whom? What unique cultural norms, values, and/or experiences does it communicate? (This can be specific, such as the experience of losing a home during  specific war or as general as losing all motivation after  broken heart.)  After the introduction, post a link to a video or audiofile along with a transcript of the lyrics (if it has any). Interpret the song or music in at least 150 words. How does the song convey the meanings you identified in your introduction? Reflect back to the Literature lesson – symbolism, metaphor, simile, etc. How does the sound, tempo and/or beat provide or emphasize emotion? Go outside your zone of familiarity and expose yourself to a genre of music outside your own cultural or generational group. While JayZ and Taylor Swift have undoubtedly belted out some catchy tunes, pop music is oftentimes produced for commercial rather than cultural consumption. But if you discover that your favorite pop song was appropriated from another culture by the music industry, feel free to expose it.

Expression: Write a song. Feel free to post a video of you or a friend performing the song.

When you complete the discussion, move on to the Dance lesson.