Tag Archives: Ethnomusicololgy

Musical (Nearly) Universals

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Human universals refer to aspects of culture, language, behavior, and psyche found in historically and geographically distributed human populations. These include, but are by no means limited to, tools and tool-making, grammar and syntax, myths and proverbs, social groups and kinship systems, mores and moral codes, facial recognition and psychological defenses, and gestures and emotional displays. Some of these are universals of classification, as opposed to universals of content: they share common patterns and purposes, but not necessarily individual elements.  Myths and languages, for example, take on many different forms and meanings, but their presence in widely varied societies make them universal categories.

Music is universal in this classificational sense. While a universally applicable definition of music seems impossible, no human society, past or present, has been without some type of culturally intelligible musical expression. Anthropologists and aestheticians highlight dissimilarities in styles and sounds, and modern music-makers push barriers beyond what is normatively called “music.” Yet within the overwhelming variety and complexity reside ubiquitous acoustic cues.

Psychological studies have uncovered an array of associations between general musical sounds (i.e., not tied to a specific genre or music-culture) and human responses. Loud music, for instance, tends to increase psychological arousal. Lower pitches are perceived as negative or aggressive, whereas higher pitches are heard as positive or submissive. Vibrato tends to evoke strong emotionality, while sudden or unexpected sounds tend to startle. Auditors synchronize body movements with music’s temporal organization. Cuteness is conveyed through certain resonant cavities (roughly 20 milliliters in volume), such as ocarinas and music boxes, which apparently trigger nurturing behaviors associated with infant vocalizations. Other cues suggest a link between vocal tendencies and musical expression, such as intensified speech (angry, fearful, happy, etc.) with faster tempi.

As this partial list suggests, similar responses to similar characteristics persist across the human experience, even as the music itself can differ dramatically. This seems to go against the “incommensurability thesis,” which posits that because objects, concepts, and behaviors have very specific meanings for the groups that produce them, they must therefore be utterly unique. Without denying music’s irreducible diversity, associations appear to cut through culturally specific signatures. Underlying the wide range of rhythms, tonalities, modalities, and timbres are basic and essentially predicable responses.

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


Different Sounds

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

“The anthropologist has become so familiar with the diversity of ways in which different peoples behave in similar situations that he is not apt to be surprised by even the most exotic customs.” Thus begins Horace Miner’s satirical 1956 essay, “Body Ritual Among the Nacirema,” which details a culture rife with magic, superstitions, and exotic routines. Their foundational belief is that the human body is ugly and prone to disease. Extreme measures are taken to ameliorate this natural state. Bathing and excretory acts are performed in household shrines adorned with hanging chests filled with elixirs and charms. Men scrape and lacerate the surface of their faces with sharp instruments. Teeth are ritualistically cleansed with a bundle of hog hairs lathered with magical powders. Bewitched people hire witch-doctors to exorcise demons from their heads.

At some point, the reader realizes that Nacirema is American spelled backwards. The shrine is a bathroom, the hanging chest is a medicine cabinet, the face-scraping is a shave, the mouth-cleaner is a toothbrush, the witch-doctor is a therapist. Miner’s subtle wit sensitizes us to our own ethnocentricity. “Primitiveness” is less a matter of the practices themselves than our assumptions about them. Outsider interpretations often conflict with insider understandings.

The wider our view of humanity becomes, the more we recognize its sundry shapes and forms. Music was once widely conceived as a “universal language” in the literal sense: the same sounds touch the same emotions and mean the same things the world over. Nineteenth-century Euro-American musicologists perpetuated this assumption, even as fieldwork mounted showing drastic variations between social structures, spoken languages, dress, food, and belief systems of far-flung cultures.

Berthold Seemann, a German botanist, was among the first to criticize this ignorant stance. His remarks, delivered at the 1870 meeting of the Anthropological Society of London, are noteworthy both for their clarity and their honesty. He doubted whether Western European nations, connected by frequent cultural exchange, possessed music that could be interpreted the same way across borders. As his observation extended eastward, conventional associations were turned on their head: songs of joy were sung in modes closely resembling the minor. Looking further east, music became increasingly less intelligible. With considerable self-awareness, he confessed that the songs of “the great Mongolian races,” while surely pleasant for them, were “positively painful” to his ears.

Ethnomusicology, the study of music in cultural context, traces its lineage to Seemann and other late-nineteenth-century mold-breakers. As ethnomusicology has evolved, so has its nomenclature. Distinctions between primitive and advanced, esoteric and exoteric have fallen out of favor. Researchers strive to appreciate music on its own terms, and rely upon insider knowledge. Yet, as much as the scholar tries to step back, the discipline—like all others—requires theory, method, and interpretation. As such, the Nacirema remains a cautionary tale.

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

Schoenberg vs. The People

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Arnold Schoenberg invented his twelve-tone method to replace normative conceptions of melody. In so doing, he discarded or otherwise obscured the most attractive and enduring elements of music: repetition, anticipation, and predictability. Musical satisfaction derives from our ability to identify phrases, discern tensions, predict resolutions, detect climaxes, perceive suspensions, and recognize other structural features. We are pleased when these expectations are fulfilled and surprised when anticipations are foiled or delayed. The relative unpredictability of Schoenberg’s system tosses all of this out.

According to the rules of twelve-tone technique, the chromatic scale must be organized in a tone row wherein no note is sounded more often than another. This eliminates intuitive patterns, annihilates key signatures, and contradicts millennia-old musical tendencies. When the row occurs again, as it does with mathematical regularity, its wide intervals, variation, and turbulent character do little to please the pattern-hungry ears of the average auditor.

Despite its novelty and intellectual intrigue, Schoenberg’s method has been called “senseless,” “unbearable,” “torturous,” and worse. In 1930 the Musical Times of London declared, “The name of Schoenberg is, as far as the British public is concerned, mud.” Two decades later the Boston Herald published this invective: “The case of Arnold Schoenberg vs. the people (or vice versa, as the situation may be) is one of the most singular things in the history of music. For here is a composer . . . who operates on the theory that if you know how to put a bunch of notes on a piece of score paper you are, presto, a composer” (Rudolph Elie, November 11, 1950).

Witty attacks like these are far too numerous to begin listing here. But are charges of misanthropy warranted? According to psychologist David Huron, Schoenberg’s system is less atonal (without a tonal center) than it is contratonal: it deliberately circumvents tonal implications. If the twelve notes were put into a randomizing computer program, they would occasionally occur in sequences resembling melody as we know it. But Schoenberg and his twentieth-century disciples meticulously avoided even hints of such patterns. As such, they expunged from their music precisely that which human ears have evolved to enjoy.

Lest this seem an overstatement, Huron and his colleague Joy Ollen found that roughly ninety-four percent of music contains clear and verbatim repetition within the first few seconds. This figure derives from examples spanning five continents and inclusive of styles ranging from Navajo war songs to Estonian bagpipes to Punjabi pop. It is probable that Schoenberg’s music wouldn’t even be recognized as music in many of these cultures.

This does not, of course, mean that twelve-tone serialism is without its admirers, or that Schoenberg’s name is unanimously considered “mud.” Some of his works even approach accessibility (in their own way), notably Moses und Aron and A Survivor from Warsaw. But general responses echo those of the Boston Herald, which went on to state: “[His music] never touches any emotion save curiosity, never arouses any mood save speculation on how the conductor can conduct it and how the musicians can count the bars.”

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

Creativity Within

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Western music history attempts a straight line connecting the “greats,” whose biographies demarcate the beginnings and endings of musical periods (Medieval, Renaissance, Baroque, Classical, Romantic, Modern, Contemporary). Like any effort to construct a palatable narrative from multitudinous ingredients, this image of music’s march through the ages sweeps over outliers, ignores “lesser lights,” overlooks ambiguities, excludes styles, and defines and focuses on centers rather than peripheries. Sniffing out deficiencies in this approach is nothing new. Ethnomusicologists, for instance, strive for an inclusive and holistic appreciation of “music as culture,” which embraces music of all sorts (and of all sorts of people) as group-specific repositories of information, identification, social cues, symbolism, and so on.

The Western outline of music history also presumes that creativity “progresses” or “improves” with time. For example, it is held that Medieval music was harmonically inferior to the complex techniques of later centuries. But it can just as well be claimed that intricate harmonies simply didn’t work in medieval social and spatial contexts. Similarly, the excessive orchestration and emotionalism of the Romantics are regarded as more evolved than the refinement and gentility of Classical composers. But, again, music that works in one setting typically doesn’t work in another. The same applies to folk and popular musics, which should be recognized as group-centric and purpose-serving cultural containers, rather than artifacts to be placed on an evolutionary continuum.

This revised conception resonates with the work of Ellen Dissanayake, who puts aesthetic creativity in anthropological perspective. In her convincing analysis, presented in Homo Aestheticus: Where Art Comes From and Why, Dissanayake argues that an artistic drive was key to the emergence, survival and adaptation of early humans. Departing from the dominant view of the aesthetic as a tangential feature, Dissanayake illustrates how art grew from an innate impulse to mark certain objects and activities as “special,” thereby ensuring their perpetuation.

It is no coincidence that art—in the form of song, dance, poetry, jewelry, painting, sculpture, engraving, costume, piercing, decoration, etc.—developed around occasions and practices crucial for group survival. These include but are not limited to: birth, rites of passage, marriage, mourning, hunting, food production, warfare, peacemaking, and religious ceremonials. Art can thus be understood as both a behavioral predisposition and a human necessity (like language and lovemaking).

This view puts into question the notion of creative progress. Creativity is an innate human trait, part and parcel of the artistic drive. Cultural conditions, social expectations, and technological advancements steer this tendency into diverse manifestations, all of which satisfy basic human needs. To be sure, some individuals are encouraged and excel in this tendency more than others; but it is present in us all. If artistic displays observable across cultures and throughout history tell us anything, it is this: creativity is a constant.

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

(Not) Defining Music

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

A universally applicable definition of music will never be constructed. As an ever-present and ever-malleable aspect of human life, music, it seems, has taken as many forms, shades and variations as humanity itself. A truly objective view of what music is (or can be) would be so inclusive as to be almost useless. Every aspect of the musical entity is open to challenge and reconfiguration: devices used to produce sounds (instruments, found objects, electronic sampling, vocals, etc.); modes of transmission (oral tradition, written notation, live performance, recordings, etc.); means of reception (speakers, headphones, classroom, concert hall, etc.); the sounds themselves (tones, rhythms, consonances, dissonances, etc.).

Yet, at the same time, sources like the Encyclopædia Britannica remind us that, while no sounds can be described as inherently unmusical, “musicians in each culture have tended to restrict the range of sounds they will admit.” Philosopher Lewis Rowell likewise defers to the role of convention: “let music signify anything that is normally called music.” In both cases, monolithism is discarded in favor of relativism: an awareness that ideas about music depend more on one’s location and exposure than on sonic properties themselves. And now, with the aid of technology and global connectivity, it is possible to cultivate an ever-expanding musical vocabulary that reaches far beyond one’s own cultural milieu.

But, even if we embrace globally diverse musical offerings (or, at minimum, acknowledge that what one culture accepts as music is not the final word), it is still the case that music is a cultural product, and, as such, comes to us through a long and multi-actor process of experimenting, selecting, sculpting, modifying and normalizing. Indeed, while abstract considerations may lead us to abandon hard and fast rules about what constitutes a musical sound, whatever music can be said to be is the result of a cultural process. Music, in other words, is defined for us. (It bears noting that even “rule-breaking” systems like twelve-tone serialism and free jazz draw their raw materials from pre-established tools and conceptions.)

To perhaps state the obvious, we do not begin with the view that music is a loose and inclusive category. Rather, it is the existence of musical variants within and between cultures that forces us to recognize that music is a loose and inclusive category. What we are left with, then, is a formulation that is not entirely satisfactory, but is at least defensible: cultures organize sounds in such a way that they are heard as music.

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

Music as Work

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

A musical “work” is the axiomatic unit of measurement in Western concert music. Like a book, play or painting, a musical work is conceived of as a clearly defined entity with hard edges and a fixed identity. This sense of concreteness stems from the assumption that the music a composer writes is the same thing that performers play, audiences hear and musicologists study. Thus, only that music which is written down (and has the appearance of “art”) is given the status of a work. The history of Western music is paved with these presumably self-contained artifacts, and its periodization relies on their firm borders.

While it would be a mistake to abandon “work” as a taxonomic category, its implied immutability, reliance on written notation, and dominance in conventional hierarchies of music have generated much criticism. British musicologist Michael Talbot brought focus to these objections at a symposium entitled “Musical Work: Reality or Invention?“ (University of Liverpool, 1998). Among other things, participants argued that a musical work is a historically and culturally conditioned construct of relatively recent lineage. Ethnomusicologists and popular music scholars noted that musical works provide only one possible way of understanding music-cultures, and have little analogy in global contexts. Avant-garde and improvisational musicians disputed the fixity implicit in the concept, showing how spontaneous input exists within the fuzzy edges of their music. Technologists pointed out that computers offer new and evolving ways of encoding and producing music that bypass the written page. What these challenges propose is that work is not only a limited concept, but also undeserving of the legitimacy it is typically given vis-á-vis other types of music.

Still, it is possible to retrieve the idea of work and apply it to all music—not just pieces in the classical mold. Such an approach requires looking at the term from the opposite direction, wherein fixity is replaced with action and stability with fluidity. Instead of seeing work as a final product, we can understand it as effort exerted toward a result.

Viewing work as a tightly constructed end product obscures the activeness of music. Musical performance is labor-intensive. Whether scripted or unscripted, premeditated or unplanned, music unfolds in real-time. Musicians actively perform it, listeners actively receive it, and the participation of both parties actively shapes the musical outcome. If there happens to be sheet music, it is a blueprint rather than a culmination of the composer’s vision. In order to become music, the notes must be decoded by musicians, who bring their own experiences to bear, and interpreted by listeners, who bring their experiences to bear as well. The composer sets the musical process in motion, but the music itself is recreated each time it is performed.

Scholars are becoming increasingly aware of music’s global diversity, the artistic value of popular forms, and new avenues of musical thought and practice. These realities, along with an aversion to ethnocentrism, have contributed to growing dissatisfaction with “work” as a high and reliable measurement of music. Its implied changelessness and reliance on written notation make it obsolete in many instances. But if we take work to mean an activity involving efforts and outcomes, then all music is work.

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

From Thin Air

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

The genesis of musical creativity has long been perplexing. As a medium comprised of the invisible properties of silence and sound, music seems to emerge from and return to thin air. Its substance and impact defy pictorial and linguistic descriptions, and the experience of it is beyond the grasp of notated scores and mathematical graphs. Of all the arts, music is both the most mysterious and the most intimate. It is intangible and transient, yet deeply affects the interior of our being.

Because music-making is so difficult to unravel, many cultures have arrived at supernatural explanations. These range from calling musical genius a “gift from heaven” to more involved mythologies. An extreme example is found among the Suyá, a tribe of about three hundred located at the headwaters of the Xingu River in Mato Grosso, Brazil. The Suyá maintain that all new music originates outside of their dwellings. The composer’s spirit is sent to a village of animal spirits, where it listens to and learns different songs. When the spirit returns, the composer transmits the songs to the people.

The Suyá also believe that the spirits of tribespeople are linked with particular animal spirits. This has musical implications, as the spirit of one person may travel to the spirit village of fish, while the spirit of another might go to a community of deer spirits. The former will return with fish songs, the latter with deer songs. According to Anthony Seeger, an anthropologist and author of Why Suyá Sing: A Musical Anthropology of an Amazonian People, about thirty percent of Suyá men and women in a generation claim to have spirits that acquire new songs.

However fantastical this and other beliefs about musical creativity may be, they do illustrate the enigma of the process. Musical inspiration is difficult to pinpoint, as it is often spontaneous and rarely perceptible by sight or other senses. Cultural factors naturally shape the details of the musical stories. A monotheistic group places its deity at the inspirational center, animistic tribes locate music with animals, polytheistic societies assign the role of muse to a god or two, and so on.

Whatever form a myth takes, its impetus is the mysteriousness of musical creation. While a painter begins with paints and a sculptor starts with stone, the composer commences with seemingly nothing but air. Of course, on a technical level, all of the available notes, durations and articulations are already present in nature, and the organization of these sounds can be distilled, mapped and analyzed with precision. But music-making may be as close to creatio ex nihilo as we can approach.

The materials of music differ from materials in the physical sense. Most creative activities involve selecting, arranging and shaping pre-existing external matter, or creatio ex materio. But music, while played on instruments and within mechanical parameters, seems to reside in a spiritual or otherwise inexplicable realm. As a result, musical creativity lends itself to supernatural storytelling.

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