Tag Archives: Ethnomusicololgy

The Universal Non-Universal Language

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

A basic premise of ethnomusicological investigation is that music, as a worldwide phenomenon, cannot be subjected to an overarching set of values, standards or expectations. No single conception of what constitutes music is applicable cross-culturally; a definition that satisfies Western principles fails when applied to a non–Western society. Thus, it is argued, each cultural and subcultural manifestation of music should be studied individually and on its own terms. To paraphrase George Herzog, music is a non-universal language that exists in many dialects.

As obvious as this may seem, there was a time, not too long ago, when scholars presumed that music in its varied forms communicated basic emotional information that could be discerned by insiders and outsiders in essentially the same way. But the more they examined the diverse offerings of local music-cultures, the more they came to appreciate the multifariousness of musical expression and the role of social conditioning in shaping musical perception. Like spoken languages, musical languages require a level of fluency to be understood.

Still, a version of the old assumption of universality can be upheld. Our reactions to music may not be uniform, but the types of reactions that music stirs are consistent throughout our species. In other words, while it is unlikely that a song indigenous to one group will evoke the same feelings when played for another, outsiders can at least appreciate the kinds of responses it produces in its native setting. The emotions of a sad or happy song may not resonate beyond a fluency group, but every group has its sad and happy songs.

In this sense, we are all empathetic when it comes to music (except, perhaps, for the roughly four percent who have some form of amusia, which hinders or prevents musical processing). We know emotionally what another experiences in music; we can place ourselves in their musical shoes. Of course, the degree to which music moves us varies from person to person, and shades of response tend to be more sophisticated among musicians. But regardless of how prone we are to emotional outpourings or how developed our musical skills, neurologically intact individuals are born musically sensitive and are predisposed to feeling music as emotion.

We can, then, empathize with another’s musical experience irrespective if we feel the music in the same way or with the same level of interest or intensity. Mark Twain, in his characteristically perceptive autobiography, explained why this is so: “The last quarter century of my life has been pretty constantly and faithfully devoted to the study of the human race—that is to say, the study of myself, for in my individual person I am the entire human race compacted together. I have found that there is no ingredient of the race which I do not possess in either a small way or a large way. When it is small, as compared with the same ingredient in somebody else, there is still enough of it for all the purposes of examination. In my contacts with the species I find no one who possesses a quality which I do not myself possess.”

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

Beauty and Function

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Listening to music for pleasure was an unknown concept in the ancient world. Performances were thoroughly context-bound, and music had little value outside of the undertaking for which it was used. This functional essence is captured in the Bible, which depicts singing and instrument playing as activity-supporting efforts, and refrains from affixing adjectives to the music itself. Though the authors freely reported that music was made, we are left to guess whether it was heard as soaring, jarring, quieting, rousing or something else. Music was present and appreciated in biblical society, but was it aesthetically appealing?

The closest the Bible comes to answering this question is when it calls King David the “sweet singer of Israel” (2 Sam. 23:1). This designation suggests that David’s voice was regarded for its sweetness, and points to a broader appreciation of pleasant sonorities. Yet this is the only time the Bible states a preference for pleasing tones. Elsewhere we read of singers specially selected for public rituals. We find music accompanying joyous celebrations. We encounter instruments marking grand occasions. But outside of this verse, music is not given aesthetic attention.

Still, we should not presume that beauty and function were mutually exclusive in the music of biblical times. Were it not for an attraction to music, Israel would have never employed it in support of non-musical activities. Qualitative labels are absent, but there was an awareness of music’s ability to satisfy the human need for artistic stimulation. It is, then, best to view music of the Bible as a utilitarian art form: utilitarian in purpose, artistic in design. This is analogous to items of modern-day life that combine utility and allure, such as clothing, silverware, packaging, appliances and automobiles.

By definition, music is artistic in all its permutations. There are at least nine reasons for this, drawn from the philosophy of art. Music is a product of human creativity. It is made for human consumption. It is comprised of sensuous material (sound). It is perceived through the senses to which it is addressed. It is created in response to a guiding idea or vision of the whole. It conveys unity and completeness. It cannot be replicated in precisely the same way. It can be judged in terms of excellence. And it is perceived as separate from ordinary things.

These rules apply to all music, whether aesthetics is a primary or tangential concern. Concert music, for instance, is supposed to be appreciated on its artistic merits, while a lullaby is a means to an end. But even the simplest lullaby can be assessed on the basis of beauty, both in terms of composition and presentation. The principle was true in the ancient world as it is today: whatever music’s reason for being, aesthetics plays a role in our experience of it.

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

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.