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Elizabeth Kinder
Photo: Sophie Ziegler

The Elusive Ethnomusicologist

Elizabeth Kinder’s monthly column

The question this column asks is “Can Police Dog Hogan save the world?”. It sprang to mind after Theresa May’s pathetic attempt to gain some leverage in Europe by offering herself as “a bridge between Europe and America”, when the Lithuanian President, Dalia Grybaskaite, swiftly speared the anachronism. “I don’t think there is a necessity for a bridge. We communicate with the Americans on Twitter.”

Thing is, a recent report suggests that smartphones are eroding our ability to be good at being human. So let’s hope she doesn’t use hers to engage with the trillions of tweets pouring out of the orange twat in the White House. It seems that smartphones “hijack our attention faculty, and we lose our ability to synthesise information”. Also information stored on them mitigates against us thinking for ourselves and we become “passive to information and judgment”. Our reliance on our phones means we are not creating the neural pathways necessary to build short term memory or transfer short term memory into long term memory wherein lies our ability to assess new experiences in the context of what’s gone before. In other words, we are losing our ability to learn from history!

We are rendering ourselves biologically incapable of absorbing anything other than short soundbites of information for brief amounts of time and losing our ability to assess its veracity. Hello fake news! (Not news, just a lie!)

Whilst seeming to facilitate communication and the spread of compassion, texts and tweets actually weaken our ability to empathise. Turns out it’s too easy to wish someone well in a text and move on. We’re not strengthening those vital neural pathways. We don’t even need the orange twitter twat to confirm that conversations tapped into phones are more primitive and that we are in danger of destroying the elements of humanity that uplift us from the primordial swamp.

Which brings us to Police Dog Hogan and their accidental Bestival appearance in the children’s area. The kids were crying. They wanted songs they knew. Plus there wasn’t even a real police dog. But PDH would really have been good for them, as good as eating their greens. The repetitive music they were anticipating ingrains in their young brains an unrealistic sense of comfort, as expectation is always met. It’s why simple song forms are used to great effect as propaganda by dictatorships: delivering on that comfort, they can ram home their message in the lyrics.

Whereas PDH bass player Don Bowen says he’s always on his toes. “It’s not just verse, chorus, verse chorus stop. There’s always a short chorus, or the chorus that starts before the verse ends.” The music offers comfort through melodic repetition, but then delivers a surprise. Structurally, it subverts expectation. Yet it always resolves in a good chorus, so there’s a positive outcome.

Playing music that does this, maybe we’ll subliminally prepare the neural pathways of the next generation to pay attention to what’s actually happening – to think, as things don’t unfold as expected. As the music finally resolves, maybe we’ll be subtly preparing a new generation of optimists with the facility of critical thinking simply by singing along. The message doesn’t even have to be in the lyrics. It’s in the music itself. Bring it on.

Elizabeth Kinder


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