The Music of Politics

by Michael Maynard
April 18, 2014

There is a lot of speechifying and talking heads in today’s politics. What’s missing is great oratory to inform and motivate the despairing citizens.

I have been experimenting using WordPress in writing my columns and articles. WordPress is relatively easy to use, but it can be maddening at times because the software tries to do too much. WordPress attempts to be software for blogging, website development and writing articles or columns. It does some of each well, but it is not WYSIWYG (what you see is what you get). In order to do something that you take for granted in other document creation software, like add font icons, you need to add additional software, a plug-in. To do other functions, you either need to learn the HTML programming language or install widgets. But WordPress does provide more feedback options, like adding a poll or asking questions for reader comments. I encourage you to use the comment function to engage me and other readers in conversation and exchange of ideas.

What WordPress does well is facilitate use of graphic, video and audio content. I have been including YouTube videos and SoundCloud music in my columns. I think adding a graph or using a video to help substantiate an idea or concept adds an impact and validity that you cannot get with plain text. This is why Ezra Klein’s Vox Media may lead to the 21st century transformation of the traditional newspaper and magazine. I don’t want my printed Boston Globe, New York Times and The New Yorker that I can hold in my hands to go away, I want them to be more interactive. Perhaps the advancement of Google Glass technologies will be their answer.

While I’ve been adding photos, graphs and videos from when I first started to use WordPress, it is only recently that I have been adding music at the beginning of the article. The music does not start upon opening the document, you can choose whether to play the music or not, just as you can choose to watch the videos or click on links to other web sites and documents used for reference materials. I love music and by including the link to play the music, I’m trying to show my mind set and mood when I wrote the column, as well as to add emotional content. WordPress provides me an opportunity to revise articles and columns I have written previously and update them to make them timely through added multimedia content.

I recently asked you whether I should continue to add the music to the columns and articles. I found the response surprising. Approximately 20% of you said no, don’t include the music. I expected one or two negative responses, but not 6 – 21%. Unfortunately, I didn’t ask for comments with the poll question. If you voted no, please contact me. I would like to better understand your reasons.

Music Question

WordPress Music Poll

Recent research by Finnish neuropsychologists shows that only listening to music stimulates the total brain functions. 

The researchers found that music listening recruits not only the auditory areas of the brain, but also employs large-scale neural networks. For instance, they discovered that the processing of musical pulse recruits motor areas in the brain, supporting the idea that music and movement are closely intertwined. Limbic areas of the brain, known to be associated with emotions, were found to be involved in rhythm and tonality processing. Processing of timbre was associated with activations in the so-called default mode network, which is assumed to be associated with mind-wandering and creativity.

Those findings make intuitive sense. What is the first stimulus you had? Hearing your mother’s heartbeat when you were in the womb. Our heartbeat is the underlying tempo to our daily life.

The spoken word is our major source of  communication. Our speech is our music – our tone, timbre and rhythm. I have an average voice. It’s good for normal conversation and OK, but not great, for public speaking. I wish I had the voice of James Earl Jones or Patrick Stewart, which are distinctive, melodic and authoritative.

A great orator can evoke strong emotions from their audience. In politics, when used appropriately, it is a great asset. When used to manipulate the populace for evil intent, it is an ominous threat.

I think what is missing in today’s US politics is great oratory. Unfortunately, our last three great political orators were killed, in too rapid succession. President John Kennedy’s inaugural speech introduced the country to the New Frontier and inspired the young to perform public service.

Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream” was central to the moral authority and immediacy of the Civil Rights Movement.

Robert Kennedy’s rallied a stunned nation and world by providing “A Ripple of Hope”.

It was their use of metaphor and the tone, timber, cadence and pitch of their voices that made them effective speakers. It was their abilities to inspire through the passionate presentation of their ideas and to connect emotionally with the audience that made them great orators. It is their poetry, their music. Greatness was inside these men, but their oratory skill showed their greatness to the world.  Speak their words in the tone, tenor, rhythm, emphasis and cadence yourself.

Ask not, – -, what your country can do for you, – –, ask what you can do for your country.

I  — –  say to you today, – – my friends, — so even though we face the difficulties – – of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. – – It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream. ….. FREEATLAST!– – – FREEATLAST! — Thank God Almighty — FREEATLAST!

I suggest that it was not only the tragic violent deaths of President Kennedy, Reverend King and Senator Kennedy that has led to the malaise that his gripped our nation, but also there has been no great and inspiring political orator since to lead us out of it. There has been no shared music, no synchronized heart beats to unite an engaged and inspired public. It was the words of  great men that helped lifts the spirits of a depressed nation and the world during its blackest times.

After listening to all of these great speeches,  it is evident that each orator had vocal limitations. The Kennedy Brothers had the famous Boston Brahmin accent,  words ending in er were pronounced with an ah. Dr. King had a slow cadence, the preacher doing call and response to his flock. Prime Minister Churchill spoke in a guttural voice, sometimes what he said was unintelligible. Adolf Hitler’s voice  has a reedy tone and timbre. What made all these speeches historic and memorable was the mise en scene , the understanding if the importance of what was to be said, and the appropriate choices of words. What made them great oratory was the musicality – the  unique combination of tone, pitch, timbre, cadence and rhythm with the emotional connectedness of passion.

President Barack Obama is a good, but not great orator. He presents like the technocrat and the constitutional lawyer he is. The Midwestern accent in his voice is flat in tone and tenor. He too often steps on his applause lines by talking over them. His cadence and rhythm are too fast. At times, his words are effective, his reserved delivery undercuts them. When’s he’s on his game, he can be an effective speaker. You cannot be a 21st century president without being an effective speaker.

His “We Are An America Family” victory speech was very good, but a missed opportunity to heal, despite the call to unite message. His oratory did not soar to the levels needed to inspire and provide hope to a dispirited nation. It is his inability in this speech to rouse the passions and ease the concerns of the audience, the nation and the world that makes it frustrating to hear.  His voice is much like FDR’s, his tone and timbre are similar, but the right tenor is not there. He is convincing, but not connecting. A good speaker, but not a great orator.

President Obama is prose at a time when poetry is needed. He speaks words when singing music is necessary. What has been missing from the Obama administration from the start was the communicative connectedness to the public, needed and necessary to cut through the discordance and cacophony of the 24 hour news, Fox/MSNBC/CNN talking head cycle. The Administration’s inability to effectively communicate the features and benefits of the Affordable Health Care Act (ACA) gave the ACA’s opponents the opportunity to capitalize on the initial technical difficulties to paint a negative image in the minds of the public. The ACA, was a historic accomplishment. Presidents since Harry Truman have tried to get universal health care enacted, but failed. William Jefferson Clinton, a very good speaker, could not get his version of ACA passed, because he became too bogged down in the myriad of details to explain it effectively. The ACA  was not communicated as a historic accomplishment, so it did not become a national source of pride, which it could and should have been.

President Obama made  the same mistakes as President Clinton did. He assumed the public understood the merits of  the legislation and would support ACA because it benefited them. Having healthcare for you and your family is a very personal and private concern. But the emotional connection needed of how the ACA would benefit each citizen was not made.  The citizenry’s hearts and minds were not engaged because the calls for the unity behind what was in the national interest was not done.  The tired, the poor, the huddled masses yearning to be free from the worries and burdens of not being able to pay for the basic right of health care were not shown how this would be accomplished. If  not called, there is no response.

Remember how the world rejoiced of the youth, projected idealism and ethnicity of the new United States President when he took office on January 20, 2009? Perhaps the hopes and expectations of a new JFK were unrealistic. Perhaps we all underestimated the amount of racial and generational animosity that still divides our nation .

In the remaining 2+ years President Obama has in office, he is free from the restraints of running for election. He still can find his voice and use it to set the rhythm, tone, timbre and tenor of the next 750 days. It is his last chance at achieving the public’s emotional connection through his spoken words, his poetry and his music,  that will define the legacy of his Presidency.

Does he have the music in him?

Columnist/Journalist/Writer/Book Editor Co-Founder/CEO of Azimuth Partners, high tech consulting firm for 30+ years. Former columnist for the Washington Post/Newsweek syndicate.

2 Comment on “The Music of Politics

  1. Pingback: A Total Eclipse Of The Heart (And The Brain And The Spine) | MICHAEL A. MAYNARD

  2. Pingback: The Hard Way | MICHAEL MAYNARD

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