• Danny Kilmartin

How Does Music Shape Identity?

Music shapes who we are in many ways - but how?




Music plays an important part when we think about identity. Think back to the kids you knew at school – the rockers, the emo kids, the ravers. Think about the music they listened to, how they dressed outside of school, the way they spoke, the people they hung around with. All these things told us something about those people.


What does identity mean? The answers are not absolutely predetermined or permanent. Our family and friends, hometown, the school we went to and the decisions we make in life all add to our identity – who we were, who we are now and who we might become later. Our identity is our story. It is made up of several chapters and arcs. Everything that happens to us or that we do contributes to it. It is flexible and constantly happening – and music gives us the chance to experience this in real-time. But what does that mean? To say that we listen to any one type of music because it supports our story or fulfils a desire or need within us is too easy.


Music surrounds us, and when we are in the midst of a soundscape, music does more than just meet our demands or needs. It shapes them. It’s like a time capsule. A song can encapsulate what is happening in the world at the time it is written, recorded and released – or, on a more personal level, when we first hear it – for the rest of our lives. The language that comprises the lyrics can be suggestive of the era the song was conceived to the point where one might remember when the song was released on what it mentions alone, whether it’s contemporary fashion, technology, food or celebrities. You’d probably rather forget ‘#SELFIE’ by The Chainsmokers, but the song that referenced the social media phenomenon became one in and of itself. Or what about ‘You Get What You Give’ from one-hit wonders New Radicals from 1998?


“Fashion shoots with Beck and Hanson, Courtney Love and Marilyn Manson, You’re all fakes, run to your mansions, Come around, we’ll kick your ass in!”


Often the first social interaction we are involved in in our lives comes from music. Most of our parents sang to and played music for us in our early stages of development. The alphabet is taught through song. Lessons in second languages at beginner level often involve music, too. Music offers a fun way to engage the part of the brain that controls memory. You don’t even need to speak another language to remember the words to a song that isn’t in your own. How many of your friends could sing along to ‘Despacito’ without missing a beat, despite probably not knowing the words? How did ‘Gangnam Style’ get so big? Psy himself said "The world’s most famous and popular language is music". It’s hard to argue given the absolute magnitude of his own monster hit.


Music is often the centrepiece of celebration and ceremony in life, from birthday parties to first wedding dances. ‘Seven Nation Army’ has been incorporated into football chants, which in turn has influenced other songs - only recently has a young man gone viral for joining grime artist Dave onstage at Glastonbury to perform "Thiago Silva". Dave Grohl, when asked the question of what song he wishes he’d written, joked ‘Happy Birthday’ because he’d be bringin’ it to the bank." Music, parties, celebration and happiness all go hand in hand.


Most of us can remember what our favourite artists wore in their music videos or during live performances. Some of us have even tried to replicate that look. Regardless, music has set standards for what’s fashionable for decades – from The Beatles’ moptop haircuts, to Stevie Nicks’ gothic romantic garb and Bob Marley’s M-65 jackets and Adidas tracksuits to Kurt Cobain’s flannel, thrift store sweaters and ripped jeans – what is trending in music has often been reflected by the fashion trends of the masses.


One of the most powerful aspects of music is its power to connect people of varying age groups, ethnic backgrounds and global location. Music is one of the few things that can be shared in this way. As shallow as it may seem, while often a topic of division during most people’s school days, music was also one of unity. Friends were chosen or rejected based on what kind of music they listened to. Cliques were formed. If we look to the digital world, music forums exist for just this purpose – to discuss music with people of similar interest but of a multitude of circumstances. If you’re looking for an example on just how unifying music can be, look no further than the AF Gang Facebook group, a group by, of and for fans of Bristol post-punk iconoclasts and Mercury Prize nominees Idles.


Music also gives us formative memories through performance. Our first real gigs are milestones in our lives and events that are likely to stay with us for the remainder of our lives. But whether you’re going to an outdoor venue, stadium, theatre, bar, nightclub or watching a street performance; cultures everywhere boast and delight in live music performances. Despite whatever contextual differences that may exist between different kinds of music performance, what is common between them is their common purpose of entertaining and connecting a certain demographic of the general public. For the attendees there is the shared experience of seeing a favourite performer with friends and strangers alike.


The world of popular music has also been a source of both controversy and social progress. Every new trend has alienated the parents of its fans, from rock ‘n’ roll to punk rock to gangsta rap and beyond. Clean cut crooners made way for greased up, hip shaking rockers. Of course sexuality and profanity in lyrical content have gone from being completely taboo to being open for discussion for those of us privileged enough to live in the Western world. Music has long been an avenue for pushing the boundaries of self-expression and free speech. While the world does not express itself in the same way, the progression of musical trends over the course of history has provided an insight into what was deemed acceptable or otherwise at any given time or place, and has often given a voice to and provided comfort to the marginalised and ostracised.


All nations have a common difference – that is their flag and national anthem. A national anthem, generally speaking, is composed to evoke pride in the history, tradition and struggles of the people and nation it represents. Beyond this, unique regional sounds, subcultures and musical instruments can be found all around the world and have come to be incorporated as part of bigger trends in music. Would Paul Simon’s Graceland have been as resounding a success without the influence of African rhythms? Can the phenomenon that is k-pop sensation BTS be denied? Music is transcendent. Without further description or having been to a certain place, we can be transported there by hearing its sound.


Growing up, most of us reach a point of wanting to step out of our parents’ shadow and carve our own path. Music plays a significant role here. Seeking out new music for ourselves and figuring out our own tastes allows us to step away from the sounds we grew up with and towards the unknown. This can be an act of defiance, one our parents usually can’t stand, but finding our own place in society and culture is essential to our own personal narrative. Our taste may start to realign with those of our parents as we reach adulthood, but we must reject the old and embrace the new before we can appreciate what came first. It’s part of growing up.


Most importantly, though, is that music is an essential part of our day to day. We don’t live without it. We can’t. It is so part and parcel with life that the old adage “silence is golden” exists for a reason – it’s rare. Whether background noise, listening deeply and intently on the best headphones money can buy, or strumming awkward chords on a guitar, our heads are filled with glorious sounds from one end of the day to the next. Music is the world’s favourite hobby and this manifests itself in many ways – kids form bands, some people collect records, others collect wristbands and concert stubs. It’s who we are, and it’s a beautiful thing.

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