A Musical Species

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

The term ethnomusicology is attributed to Dutch scholar Jaap Kunst, who used it in the subtitle of his 1950 book Musicologica: A Study of the Nature of Ethnomusicology, Its Problems, Methods, and Representative Personalities. Since that time, ethnomusicology has developed into a rich and multi-layered academic field. Viewing music as a complex social phenomenon, scholars of the discipline share an interest in worldwide music-cultures, a penchant for fieldwork and a curiosity about what music means to its performers and audiences. These interests depart from the subjects and trajectories of conventional musicology, which concerns itself with the history and literature of Western art music. For ethnomusicologists, no society or musical style is off limits for investigation, which might integrate tools from folklore, performance studies, cultural anthropology, gender studies and other areas of the humanities and social sciences. Most critical is that music is appreciated both for what it is and for what it does.

Although this holistic approach is a newcomer to scholarship, it is not outside of our everyday experience. Societies throughout the world are fluent in music’s many purposes. In all periods and places, extra-musical meanings and functions have contributed more to the survival of musical activities than the sounds themselves. “Music as entertainment” is a late and relatively rare occurrence in human history. Music usually serves other objectives and events, whether educational, ceremonial, vocational, recreational or something else. And its role in shaping, preserving and demarcating personal and collective identity can scarcely be overstated.

Because the integration of music into assorted pursuits is seamless and second nature, we are not always cognizant of its crucialness. That is what makes ethnomusicological research so enlightening. However, we do find scattered acknowledgement of music’s cultural import in pre-modern literature. An example is the first reference to music in the Hebrew Bible, which comes in a compressed passage in Genesis listing the descendants of Cain and the growth of human civilization (Gen. 4:17-22).

As in many ancient cultures, the Israelites linked the invention of music with a single personage. His name is Jubal, “the father of all those who play the lyre and pipe” (v. 21). This short verse is the only place Jubal appears in the biblical text; we have no other accounts of his personality or the music that he made. It is therefore likely that Jubal is a survival from a longer saga about the birth of civilization, which was probably the basis for the verses in Genesis.

Jubal’s significance can be garnered from the context in which he is found. In the same passage, we read that his brother, Jabal, was the first to raise cattle (v. 20), and his half-brother, Tubal-cain, “forged all implements of copper and iron” (v. 22). Mention of music’s invention alongside the origins of cattle raising and tool forging shows an early recognition of the vital place of music in society. The Bible seems to intimate that food production, manufacturing and music-making are the three undertakings upon which humanity depends.

This is not as far-fetched as it might seem. Human beings are a musical species. With rare exceptions, we all react to musical stimuli and integrate them into sundry facets of our lives. The musically inclined and disinclined benefit from music in essentially identical and equal ways; absence of individual skill does not correspond to lack of capacity. Music plays an unparalleled role in the conveyance of information, retention of memories, coordination of labor, assertion of affiliation and so on. In this sense, it is as vital to civilization as anything else. The message of the Jubal legend is valid: life without music would be sorely depleted, if not downright unfathomable.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

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