Not Just a Pleasant Sound

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When people use music to share stories, comfort peers or worship gods, it takes on new meaning. Music's roles vary depending on time and place.

Bonding: Battle hymns, national anthems and alma maters unite people for a common cause and make them feel that they are a part of something larger. Marching bands (above), for example, can rile up crowds and promote pride at sporting events.

Relaxation: Mothers in almost all societies sing lullabies to put little ones to sleep. Called a huluna in the Philippines province of Batangas, the lullaby is so popular there that almost every mother has composed at least one for her child. And in Denmark, writing lullabies is an art form. A classic Danish lullaby, "The Sun is So Red, Mother," was written by a novelist, playwright and poet named Harald Bergstedt and arranged by famous composer and violinist Carl Nielsen.

Creative expression: The Chopi people of Mozambique are known for their timbila music, played on xylophones. The music and accompanying dance is developed like a symphony and also has room for individual players to improvise and show their creativity. Like music elsewhere, timbila helps the Chopi share who they are and where they come from.

Meditation/Trance: Music is believed to provide a way for shamans (one shown above in British Columbia) to enter a trance state and get in touch with the spiritual world. The Sami, indigenous people of northern Europe, have a traditional form of song called yolk said to open the door for communication with animal spirits. Drumming helps the shamans enter the spiritual world.

Learning: The "Alphabet Song," among other simple rhymes, helps children learn and remember facts. Some researchers believe that early songs, such as "Itsy Bitsy Spider," may also prepare infants to learn cultural rules and practices.

Revolt: Music can represent the emergence of a subculture that turns against traditional ways. All-night dance parties popular in the 1980s offered a way for people to let loose, experiment and declare their independence. In the early 1990s, municipalities across the United States and United Kingdom passed bylaws to limit the organization of these raves.

Worship: A wide range of religions employ music. In Indian tradition, bhajans express love for God (holy men shown above). …