Tag Archives: Ethnomusicology

Ignoring Noise

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

As a rule, musical sounds are more clearly distinguished from non-musical sounds (the sounds of “reality”) than visual arts are distinguished from the shapes and colors of the visible world. What makes a photograph, abstract painting, or found object distinct from non-art is more difficult to pinpoint than what makes music sound like music. Satirist Ambrose Bierce addressed this in The Devil’s Dictionary, which defines painting as “The art of protecting flat surfaces from the weather and exposing them to the critic.” The viewing venue, in other words, plays a central role in the creation and perception of visual arts. (Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain, a porcelain urinal signed “R. Mutt,” is an extreme example.) Contrastingly, music is invisible, and thus cannot be confused with visible forms; it has no direct analog in the physical world.

Music is a culturally defined sonic phenomenon that, while impossible to define universally, is immediately recognized when heard in its cultural setting. Historically in the West, this has included a division between “pure” tones and “disordered” or “unwanted” sounds, generally called “noise.” Physics seems to support this bifurcation. While the various sound waves produced by music can be isolated into individual frequencies, with some being more dominant than others, noise contains jumbled frequencies of sound without a dominant frequency. However, ambiguity lurks beneath this observation. Despite Western music’s self-perception of “noiselessness,” such sounds do exist within the organized matrix of frequencies.

Performers, scholars, and aficionados have long understood Western music (esp. concert music) as purified of noise. This assumption surfaces in descriptions of non-European musics. As Dena J. Epstein chronicles in her book, The Folk Banjo: A Documentary History, European travelers and missionaries regularly described the timbres of African vocals and instruments as “crude,” “wild,” “peculiar,” strange,” “weird,” or “noise.” Contemporary ethnomusicologists credit “ethnic” musics for retaining noisy elements, and eschewing—or never developing—the Western affinity for “pure” tones. The African mbira, or thumb piano, is a favorite example. Bottle caps and snail shells are attached to the soundboard and resonator, creating a buzz that muddies the otherwise focused timbre of the plucked idiophone. Efforts to reintroduce “noisiness” into Western music, notably with fuzz and overdrive guitar distortion, is sometimes heard as an aspirational return to naturalistic sound, albeit through electronic means.

All of this overlooks the presence of noise in even the most cleaned-up Western musical forms. The scraping of the bow against a violin string; the clacking of the keys on a clarinet; the sliding on the fingerboard of an acoustic guitar. According to filmmaker and composer Michel Chion, author of Sound: An Acoulogical Treatise, the Western listener tends to “scotomize,” or mentally delete, these sounds. Moreover, studio recordings tend to minimize or mute out such idiosyncrasies. “On the other hand,” writes Chion, “recordings of so-called traditional musics are often made by and for people who find something charming about such noises, and such documentations strive to preserve them and even to emphasize them in the recording process.”

Chion’s compositional medium, musique concrète, places all sorts of sounds into a musically organized framework. Compositions consist of multifarious field recordings, which are modified by altering pitch and intensity, extending or cutting off, adding echo effects, playing backwards, and so on. [Listen to Chion’s Requiem]. The finished piece is an artistic unity that challenges standard ideas about music. It can also train us to hear assembled noises as musical, and to listen for noise elements in conventional music.

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

Whence Came the Musical Bow?

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

A note of caution should be added to any discussion of musical origins. Musical history predates recorded history. Practice comes long before theory. Current forms mask a gradual evolutionary process. Using the present to reconstruct the past is as tempting as it unreliable. As ethnomusicologist Klaus Wachsmann related, “Perhaps the most important lesson to be learned from ethnological studies is that argument based on plausibility can be dangerous.”

Wachsmann’s warning came in a 1962 article, “The Earliest Musical Instruments.” A pioneer in the study of African music, he learned firsthand the fallibility of “practical” assumptions. These include hunches concerning the musical bow, one of the oldest known instruments. “What for instance could be more plausible than that the shooting bow and the manipulation of its string led to discoveries in the sphere of harmony?” British archaeologist Henry Balfour proposed such a timeline in his 1899 treatise, The Natural History of the Musical Bow: the shooting bow was emancipated from hunting and warfare to become a musical instrument, in the process accumulating modifications.

A hunter happening upon a bow’s musical qualities is not the only possibility, nor is it the most likely. Musicologist Curt Sachs, writing twenty years before Wachsmann, declared the idea “plausible but wrong, like many plausible explanations” (The History of Musical Instruments, 1940). According to Sachs, the false assumption hinged on two biases: the practical (hunting) always precedes the aesthetic (music), and similar forms necessarily point to a shared source. He asserted that the oldest musical bows were ten-feet long, and therefore useless for shooting. Other early designs were idiochordic, with the bow and string cut from the same piece of cane and still attached at either end—an equally ineffective hunting tool. Moreover, to make a clearly audible sound, the bow needs a resonator, usually a hollowed-out gourd or the player’s mouth. This effect does not come about naturally by simply shooting an arrow.

The musical bow’s cultural meanings are similarly mixed. A cave painting at Trois Frères, dating to about 13,000 B.C.E., apparently shows a bison-man playing a hunting bow, and Plutarch described Scythians playing music on their hunting bows. Yet, Wachsmann considered the cave painting too ambiguous to be conclusive, and cautioned that a hunter plucking his bow tells us nothing about which came first. Complicating the matter, Sachs noted several customs unrelated to war or the hunt: “among many tribes only women play [the bow]; in Rhodesia it is the instrument played at girl’s initiations; and the Washambala in eastern Africa believe that a man cannot get a wife if a string of the musical bow breaks while he is making it.”

Absent a time machine, it is impossible to know for certain if the musical bow derived from the hunting bow, the hunting bow came from the musical bow, or the two emerged independently. When an instrument’s lifespan extends so far into the unrecorded past, it is perhaps unwise to disregard any plausible theory. Nonetheless, there is enough evidence to refute a simple, mono-directional development from hunting to music. Resemblances between the modern-day weapon and instrument could reflect later interactions, rather than a conjoined evolution. After all, just because we can set up pots and pans in a drum set configuration does not mean the cookware gave rise to percussion instruments, or vice versa.

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

The Original Musicology

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Musikwissenschaft, the historical study of European art music, began in nineteenth-century Germany and Austria. Johann Nikolaus Forkel’s biography of J.S. Bach (1802) set the tone for the field, which focuses on musical rules, periods, pieces, and personalities. Two more branches of musicology were added during the twentieth century: ethnomusicology, which examines socio-cultural dimensions of global musics, and systematic musicology, which engages the sciences and humanities in investigating musical phenomena.

The three sub-disciplines of musicology have matured and diversified over the decades. Systematic musicology has an especially modern feel, with its interest in acoustics, neuroscience, psychology, and social theory. Guido Adler laid the groundwork for this interdisciplinary approach with his 1885 essay, “Umfang, Methode und Ziel der Musikwissenschaft” (“Scope, Method, and Aim of Musicology”), which divides musicology into historical questions about the development of musical conventions and the succession of “great” composers, and systematic questions about the nature of music and human responses to it.

Today, systematic musicology is itself divided into two areas: empirical/scientific and social/cultural. Its tools of computation and theories of analysis are decidedly twenty-first century, integrating lab studies, computer data, semiotics, and the like. However, the questions it pursues are much older than even Adler’s seminal essay.

Centuries before receiving its proper name, thinkers were systematically assessing music in human life. Around the third century, Greek theorist Aristides Quintilianus was already categorizing musical studies into theoretical/speculative (systematic) and practical/didactic (historical). Franchinus Gaffurius (fifteenth century) examined how musical sounds achieve specific ends. Marin Mersenne (seventeenth century) scrutinized acoustics and the speed of sound. As a rule, European scholars prior to the nineteenth century were preoccupied with the big picture. And, even as music history became the dominant focal point, scholars continued to ponder the larger cognitive and spiritual aspects (see my edited collections, The Value of Sacred Music: An Anthology of Essential Writings, 1801-1918 and Music, Theology and Worship: Selected Writings, 1841-1896).

Systematic musicology has benefited from the growing sophistication of the diverse disciplines it draws upon. Yet, underneath its contemporary garb are questions that have attracted thinkers throughout the ages: What is music, how does music work, and why does it move us? Although the sub-field is relatively new, its questions long predate interest in historical periods and cultural practices. For this reason, it can be called the original musicology.

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

Is All Music Ethnic?

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

“If all music is ethnic music, then the ethnicity of programmed music is capitalism.” This provocative statement appears in Jonathan Sterne’s widely cited study of piped-in music at the Mall of America (Bloomington, Minnesota). According to Sterne, the music of that commercial space is the soundtrack of a loose community of shoppers engaged in a culturally specific ritual of browsing and buying—an activity that tacitly reaffirms the principals of capitalism.

Sterne’s observations are indebted to David P. McAllester, a founder of ethnomusicology who coined the phrase “all music is ethnic music” in his introspective essay, “The Astonished Ethno-Muse.” McAllester was drawn to the historically rich and meaning-laden ceremonial music of the Navajo Nation. He later realized that his focus on particularistic practices distracted him from the Navajos’ broader penchant for country and western music. He came to appreciate record stores and radio stations as important research locales, and see ethnomusicologcal potential in all socio-musical contexts. As he explained, “We [ethnomusicologists] are so captivated by the panpipes in the hawthorns that we hardly hear the music on the TV show in the living room.”

Sterne’s paper was published almost twenty years after McAllester’s (1997 and 1979 respectively), and McAllester’s epiphany came two decades after the field of ethnomusicology was formally established. Thus, in the space of roughly forty years, the discipline had grown from a narrow interest in “exotic” sounds of native peoples to include subcultures based on a range of social glues: work, class, peer interests, recreational experiences, etc. Navajo ceremonies and holiday shopping were placed side by side without any irony or cynicism.

Mature ethnomusicology, as it is sometimes called, has retrieved the core meaning of “ethnos” as a social entity. The term dates to the writings of Herodotus (c. 484-425 B.C.E.), who defined Greek identity as kinship (homaimon: “of the same blood”), language (homoglosson: “speaking the same language”), and customs (homotropon: “of the same habits”). To be sure, this tripartite classification does not apply to all national ethnicities, let alone other groups of people (the blood requirement is particularly problematic). But the elements of language and customs remain central to ethnicities of all types and stripes.

Language here is not just verbal and written communication, but also a complex of sounds (including musical), gestures, movements, shapes, symbols, colors, and attire. Likewise, customs are not just formal rituals, holiday observances, or heritage recipes, but also habits and informal activities common to a population (fast food, morning commutes, picnics, loitering, etc.). Hence, the ethnicity of shopping mall muzak, Navajo country radio, and music on American television. In short, because humans exist in groups and human music is fundamentally social, all music is ethnic music.

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


Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

The seventh volume of The Roberts English Series, published in 1968, notes that several academic disciplines end with –ic. Roberts observes that some of these take the plural form, like physics and mathematics, while others do not, like arithmetic and music. Moreover, words like mathematics “are usually construed as singular, despite the plural form.” Two oversights are made in this brief grammar lesson. The first is that, by the 1960s, ethnomusicologists were using the term “musics.” To be fair, the discipline’s newness and relative obscurity would have made the neologism easy to pass over. The second issue is that, unlike mathematics, “musics” was meant to emphasize the multiplicity of musical expressions. It was not a singular noun in the guise of a plural, but a plural noun that challenged age-old assumptions about music.

It is hard to pinpoint when or by whom “musics” was coined. It appears in the title of the multi-volume Bibliography of Asiatic Musics, the first installment of which was printed in 1947. With the launching of the Ethno-Musicology Newsletter in 1953, the founding of the Society of Ethno-Musicology in 1954, and the development of ethnomusicology graduate programs at UCLA and elsewhere in the 1960s, musics gradually became a preferred academic term. In contrast to the singular form, which implies a monolithic phenomenon (as in the German die Musik), the plural highlights the multiplicity of cultural manifestations, each of which should be appreciated on its own merits.

Some of the earliest references to musics are found in studies on American musical styles. For instance, The Story of Jazz (1956) by Marshall W. Stearns sets out to examine “jazz in a perspective of musics of the world to show how it differs from other music.” John A. Flower’s article “The Composer in Today’s World,” from a 1964 issue of the Michigan Quarterly Review, states: “We can talk about American music, but only in the abstract. What we have is American musics. The sum total of our musics is not at all the same reality that the term American music implies.” Neither author was an ethnomusicologist: Stearns was a jazz critic and Flower was a classical pianist. And neither was writing on music outside of his own culture. Yet both were attuned to the emerging lexicon of ethnomusicology, either through direct involvement or by absorbing the zeitgeist.

Musics received an official seal of approval with its inclusion in Alan P. Merriam’s influential tome, The Anthropology of Music (1964). Merriam was a founder of ethnomusicology, which he defined as “the study of music in culture.” While recognizing music as a universal human activity (one of the cornerstones of the discipline), he felt that the particularistic forms comprising the universal were better represented in the plural.

Since the 1960s, musics has become the signature term of ethnomusicology. Although it clashes with the general rules of grammar, it is widely used to convey the rich diversity of global musical customs, textures, and sounds.

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

Song to Speech

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

The acquisition of language in human infants usually begins with song. Mothers and other caregivers address infants in a singsong version of the native tongue, known variously as infant-directed speech, musical speech, and motherese. Pitch contours are exaggerated, phrasings are overemphasized, and stress patterns are overstated. Sounds are repeated, vocal pitch is high, vowels are exaggerated, tones range widely, and tempo is relaxed. More than the vocabulary itself, these extra-linguistic qualities set the foundation for language development.

The central ingredients of infant-directed speech, pitch and rhythmic structure, are also the essential elements of song. It is thus no coincidence that the singing of lullabies and playsongs is also a human universal. Such songs are a natural outgrowth or twin sibling of motherese, and, like musical-speech, their impact is more emotive than linguistic. Long before the child understands the meaning of words, she detects and imitates these vocal patterns of expression. Singing comes before speech.

These observations are familiar to anyone with child-rearing experience. They are about as revelatory as a step-by-step description of diaper changing. However, new research suggests that the connection between song and speech development runs deeper than previously intuited.

A massive study involving over a hundred international researchers, nine supercomputers, and the genomes of forty-eight species of birds recently culminated in the publication of twenty-eight articles. Among the findings are genetic signatures in the brains of songbirds that correspond to the genetics of human speech.

Humans and songbirds undergo a similar progression from “baby talk” to complex vocalizations, and both learn vocal content from their elders. This is something shared with only a few other species (“vocal learners,” like dolphins, sea lions, bats, and elephants), and makes us unique among the primates (the grunts of old and young chimps sound basically identical). What the new research shows is that humans and songbirds share fifty-five genes in the vocal-learning regions of the brain. Thus, even as the ability to vocalize developed independently in these species, it has similar molecular underpinnings.

Scientists hope to use this data to better understand and treat human speech disorders. (People cannot be subjected to the same experiments as birds.) There are also implications in the realm of music. Ethnomusicologists often claim that music is as important to humans as speech—a view drawn from the cross-cultural use of musical sounds in asserting individual and collective identity, conveying and retaining information, expressing and receiving emotional signals, and a host of other functions. “We need music to be human” is the discipline’s unofficial slogan. The fact that a child is first exposed to musical speech and first takes to musical babbling supports the notion of music as a human fundamental. New discoveries connecting bird songs and human speech could bolster that position. On a genetic level, it seems, singing and speaking are essentially variants of the same thing.

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

The Perils of Transcription

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

In 1963 the Society for Ethnomusicology sponsored an experiment testing the reliability of transporting musical sounds onto the written page. Four prominent scholars, Willard Rhodes, Mieczyslaw Kolinski, Robert Garfias, and George List, were asked to notate a recording of a Hukwe Bushman song performed with a musical bow. Given the difficulty of translating an African oral tradition into European notation, the results were predictably varied. For instance, the musical bow produces two simultaneous pitches: a fundamental and an overtone. Kolisnki and Rhodes accounted for both pitches, while List and Garfias just transcribed the overtone. List included two forms of the vocal line, one attentive to the voice itself and the other correlating the vocal melody with that of the musical bow.

In the decades since the experiment, ethnomusicology has shifted focus away from transcriptions. While musicological analysis is still valued, comparative studies—which emphasize notes on the page—have been pushed aside in favor of inclusive, in-depth studies of music and culture. The transition owed partly to problems inherent to musical transcription. In addition to the inadequacy of applying Western tools to non-Western music, the act of writing often clashes with the essence of the song being notated. Oral transmission, an active process that values spontaneity, is confined to a written document, a fixed object that is set in ink. This is particularly problematic in a culture such as ours, which views published sheet music as “correct” and “definitive.” The printed page is habitually mistaken for the music itself.

This is not just an inter-cultural issue. Much of the music in our own society is created and transmitted independent of notation. Some of our most celebrated songwriters cannot read music, and it is a jazz imperative to journey away from the score. During the recent plagiarism case involving the hit song “Blurred Lines,” producer-songwriter Pharrell Williams was exposed as a non-music reader, despite his claims to the contrary. This is not to suggest that music readers have special advantages over non-readers. Anyone who makes this claim should note that Irving Berlin, Jimi Hendrix, and the Beatles are among the illiterati. What it does reveal is the clumsiness of committing experientially constructed songs to writing.

This is apparent when reviewing song transcriptions in fake books and similar anthologies. Very rarely does a song appear with identical notation in two or more books. The transcribers, usually working from audio recordings, do their best to capture the durations, phrasing, vocal inflections, and other peculiarities. However, in the process, they adjust syncopations, imprecisions, and rough executions to fit the song within rigid bar lines. Thus, Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire” is printed without the (unintended?) meter switches, and pop ballads appear without hard-to-render melismas. Because there are many ways of handling such peculiarities, the finished products tend to be diverse—a phenomenon comparable to the Bushman experiment.

Still, musical transcription does play important roles. There are cases in which transcriptions of folk songs, imperfect though they may be, are all that remains of a music-culture. Abraham Idelsohn’s monumental Thesaurus of Hebrew-Oriental Melodies (1914-32) is a prime example, both for its imperfections and for its preservation of melodies from extinct communities. More generally, sheet music aids musicians other than the original performers in playing the songs. It is, then, appropriate to treat transcriptions as useful approximations, just not as authoritative monuments.

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