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Music As A Cultural Shorthand


Everyone at The Music Junction firmly believe in the power of music; its ability to arouse emotions and to communicate without words.

We think of these as mainly positive attributes but we recently listened to NPR’s Code Switch report and were intrigued by another — albeit disappointing — tool of music.

The NPR piece focuses on a nine-note pattern whose first four notes repeat and uses the pentatonic scale. It has become a way to represent Asian culture to viewers and listeners.

You know the pattern. It appears in the 70’s song “Kung Fu Fighting” and in the Disney cartoon the “Aristocats” among many other songs, movies and television shows. Click on the story above to hear it.

NPR tries to find the origins of this tune we were astonished to learn that these notes can be traced centuries ago to the 1800s.

“In the 1800s, men from China were coming to the U.S. to work in gold mines and on railroads,” NPR reports. “By 1880, there were 300,000 Chinese in the States — and there was a lot of anti-Chinese sentiment. In 1882, the U.S. banned Chinese immigration with the Chinese Exclusion Act. It took until 1968 for such restrictions to be lifted.

“Think about it: Most people back then had limited interactions with people from China and other Asian countries. So playwrights and writers had to come up with a shorthand way of saying, ‘This is Chinese; this is Asian.’”

It’s something to keep in mind when you’re playing music or fiddling around on the piano composing your own tunes. Music is a powerful tool and we should always strive to send positive messages.

The Music Junction offers piano and voice lessons at our Burbank and Hollywood locations. Call us today to learn more.

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