As a musician and music lover, Wendi Wang ’22 is interested in not only music itself, but the inner workings of everything behind music—from its production to presentation, its making to marketing. This spring, under the guidance of faculty advisor Chris Gagne, Wendi embarked on a semester-long journey to further her studies of the industry, aesthetics, and philosophy of music. She presented her findings in a session open to all CA community members on May 24, 2022.
Wendi, in her two research papers, explores music through two different perspectives. In her first research paper, Wendi discusses challenges confronted by non-Western and non-English speaking musicians in pursuit of global influence. The second half of the project assumes a more philosophical and aesthetic lens in an attempt to formulate a definition of “good music.” This term, despite its cultural ubiquity, is often vague and arbitrary—a term to justify one’s musical tastes, for example.
In an interview with the Centipede, Wendi shared her inspirations and goals behind this investigative, innovative project. The idea behind the research initially took shape when she was watching the 2020 Golden Music Awards (commonly regarded as the Chinese-speaking equivalent of the Grammy Awards) in which indigenous Taiwanese singer ABAO’s album Kinakaian (Mother Tongue)—featuring songs written in Paiwan, Amis, Taiwanese, Mandarin and English—won in the three most important categories, including Album of the Year. The songs transcended language barriers and sought to educate about Taiwan’s indigenous cultures. Yet despite her breakthrough achievements, ABAO only gained widespread recognition after winning the awards. “This phenomenon perplexed me because I was confused as to why the quality of the music was exceptional yet seldom heard by the general public,” Wendi explained.
This specific discovery, coupled with her interests in world cultures, sparked Wendi’s pronounced desire to investigate the challenges confronted by non-Western and non-English speaking musicians and artists. In an age of globalization, in a world dominated by popular English songs adjudicated by metrics such as the Billboard Hot 100, people often overlook music from non-English speaking countries—effectively pockets of “niche” culture. Thus, Wendi firmly believes in the importance of exploring these unspoken machinations behind the popularity of certain types of music and musicians. For her, cultivating and supporting talented musicians is a helpful solution, yet it’s far from enough; the world has never had a lack of talent, just a lack of recognition for the talented. “As a non-Western musician myself, I think being aware of these challenges and difficulties is crucial to accomplishing more in the field of music, especially on a personal level,” Wendi concluded.
For Wendi, the discussion of the inner workings of the music industry and its repercussions for non-English speaking artists inevitably galvanized yet another dialogue: what makes music “good”? The answers to this question may very well pose insurmountable circumstances and challenges for many musicians. Individuals’ preferences and biases, for example, define much of their music tastes as a consumer. Other external or environmental factors such as nationality, language, and even physical location can also change one’s perception of a given work of music—as is the case with any other art form. “In order to be considered popular, and, often, successful, music has to undergo the tests of both subjectivity and universality,” Wendi elaborated. Regardless, “good music” is not just measured by its popularity. There are definitely fixed, objective standards set in place to evaluate a song: its message, theme, arrangement, lyrics, and more—precisely what Wendi analyzes in her second research paper. While coming up with a set of definitions for “good music” posed a complex challenge, Wendi nevertheless completed a thorough and in-depth examination of the philosophy and aesthetics of music.
As she wrapped up her senior project, Wendi offered a hopeful note for the future of the global music industry. “This is a good era for more collaboration between all disciplines and artists from all parts of the world,” she said. Congratulations to Wendi for completing such an incredible project!