10 Jun

Why Do People Sing?

Posted By polity_admin_user

By Paddy Scannell

Why do people sing? There is no reason. We do not have to. The wonder of singing is a joy, a blessing in itself. Something like this I try to explain in the fourth and last chapter of my short book.

The other three chapters all lead into the final question that gives the book its title. Its basic theme is the human voice as it speaks and sings. I came to this topic after years of studying British radio and, later, television. On both broadcasting media, but especially radio, you hear people talking and singing. Talk is what got me started. It’s a neglected thing, and I start with a discussion of how infants (speechless little children) learn to talk with their parents, usually the mother. In learning, through playful interaction with a familiar adult, how to talk, the child is learning how to communicate. And in learning how to communicate, the child is learning how to become human. Language is part of this, but does not define it. The key thing is connectivity, communicating with others, through a complex mix of gesture, face-work, gladness of countenance, and blandishments.

The question of communication emerged as a key topic in the last century as academics turned their attention to the study of the mass media; radio in the first half of the 20th century, and television in the second half. I argue that the age of broadcasting, covering the century, prepared the ground for today’s noisy, talkative world in which everyone has their say. Back in 1900 the universe of what could be talked about, and who was entitled to talk publicly and have their views heard was limited to educated, adult, white, male elites. Everyone else could talk among themselves in private – women, children, non-whites, servants, the lower orders – but had no public voice. I show how, over the century more and more people, of all sexes and classes, entered into public life and found their voice on radio and television: and this as a prelude to the universalization of talk in today’s world, brought about by social media.

It is not just the voices of the living that we hear on today’s media. Audio and audio-visual recordings, developed by radio and television to overcome the limitations of live transmission, brought the dead to life in quite unprecedented ways. When you see, for instance, Jack and Jacky Kennedy, recorded live on an old TV show, we do not see or hear them as ghosts. We see then now as they were then, alive and in their prime, through the miracle of recording technologies. History is no longer the relationship between past and present, but is redeemed as the connection between the living and the dead.

And at last we come to singing, wherein the glory of the human voice finds its fullest, freest expression. Voice, as I hear it, is the soul of talk, the living heart-beat of the human world. The silence of the grave. The sounds of life.

Paddy Scannell is Professor Emeritus in the Department of Communication Studies at the University of Michigan and author of Television and the Meaning of ‘Live’: An Enquiry into the Human Situation. His latest book, Why Do People Sing?: On Voice, is now available from Polity.