Understanding Communication

By Professor Stephen A. Stuart

Photo Credit: Ryan McGuire

Philip Glass, arguably the most influential composer of the late 20th century, started his career with a question, “Where does music come from?” He spent the next six decades of his life trying to answer that question and, over the years ‘reformulated’ it as he strove, through experimentation and experience, to find the answer. In his own words, it eluded him, but his music serves as a testament to the value of his trying to make sense of the world. Music is a most powerful aspect of communication and yet, this key exponent of its evolution throughout the past 70 years, struggled to articulate a satisfactory response to his basic question. His journey to ‘enlightenment’ produced some magnificent music that resonates with audiences worldwide and stirs powerful emotions in those who hear it.

Most people won’t be familiar with the name Damien Chazelle, though many will have heard of his film Whiplash which received much praise and some criticism last year as it earned five Oscar nominations. A substantial part of the audience who has seen the movie will likely have moved on without reflecting on the essential human story that lies at the heart of the script. That story is the struggle to succeed against adversity and how the individual tries to exceed the expectations of others. The film uses various conventions to communicate this story, and the audience, more often than not, understands at least some of the intention of the filmmaker.

Music and movies are forms of communication that can transcend the boundaries of language and engage people in a dialogue about our shared human experience. They are eminently suited to our nascent digital world, where the Internet is changing the nature of human interactions in ways that are often unclear, with unintended outcomes.

Successful communication lies at the heart of the human experience. Without a means to convey our thoughts and emotions, our interpretation of reality, the intention of our actions, or the wherewithal to understand the perspective of others, society, as we know it, would not exist. Individually, we struggle to make sense of what it is to be human, and the relevance of our existence. On a collective level, we exchange meaning to negotiate the fluid and dynamic foundations of our civil society, and the ways in which our individual lives can be enriched, our shared existence enhanced. Our abilities to interpret all that we experience are enhanced by exposure to such communicative devices as music and film.

In the Social Communication program at Saint Paul University, we explore how meaning is created, communicated, and consumed in the digital age where media are increasingly disposable, and where technologies have enabled us all to become creators and consumers of meaning. We work closely with our students to critically examine and interpret the myriad facets of meaning that exist and reflect their various truths into a crowded and noisy communication environment. We show them the need to comprehend how the framing of meaning dynamically impacts understanding.