Tag Archives: John Blacking

Musical Consequences

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

French sociologist Émile Durkheim identified two modes of maintaining social order. The first is mechanistic solidarity, wherein cohesion develops among people who play similar roles and whose status is more or less equally valued, save for those in leadership positions. This applies to kinship-based systems (formerly called “primitive”) where the unit of organization is the extended family or clan, and the distinction between the individual and society is minimal. The second is organic solidarity, in which order is achieved through a complex division of labor and role differentiation. This is typical of capitalist societies, which rely on the integration of specialized tasks.

Both systems have their merits and demerits. In the musical realm, the division of labor allows a select group, known as “musicians,” to focus on the craft and make significant cultural contributions. However, such specialization tends to have the opposite effect on the rest of the populace, which is tacitly discouraged from making music, even as an amateur pursuit. This contrasts with the norm in indigenous groups, where an egalitarian ethos encourages music from everyone. Although lacking in notation and recording, and all the artistic expansion they afford, their music can be remarkably intricate and varied.

Ethnomusicologist John Blacking was especially critical of the Western bifurcation of “musician” and “non-musician.” From his experience with the Venda people of South Africa, Blacking concluded that music is a species-specific trait, like language, and thus a natural mode of expression available to all. A passage from his book How Musical is Man? sums up this view: “[If] all members of an African society are able to perform and listen intelligently to their own indigenous music, and if this unwritten music, when analyzed in its social and cultural context, can be shown to have a similar range of effects on people and to be based on intellectual and musical processes that are found in the so-called ‘art’ music of Europe, we must ask why apparently general musical abilities should be restricted to a chosen few in societies supposed to be culturally more advanced.”

Blacking identified division of labor rather than an absence of aptitude as the dampening force on music compulsion. In capitalist societies, where skills become professions, commercial music is a major industry. Yet music sales still depend on our fundamental musicality. The performers may be specialists, but they are no more proficient in discerning musical sounds than the listeners who support them. Thus, the musical consequence of societal evolution is not biological but sociological. The shift from indigenous to industrial societies causes a general redirection of emphasis from collective music-making to individual listening. We remain musical, but our active expression is significantly stifled.

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

Ritual Chickens and Musical Eggs

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

John Blacking, the late British ethnomusicologist, posed an ostensibly innocuous question: “Which came first: music or ritual?” The conventional assumption is that ritual was first, since ceremonies seeking contact with the spirit world arose in the early phases of human evolution. Music and dance, it is thought, were added to ritual as a reliable means of promoting the desired atmosphere. But Blacking postulated that it might have been the other way around. Just as children instinctively dance, sing and gravitate toward instruments well before they begin to walk or talk—let alone engage in structured activities—musical experimentation might have been the primordial spark that ignited ideas of a supernatural realm and eventually led to ceremonial enactments. The absorbing effect of music—mysterious to peoples ancient and modern—sent the mind groping for otherworldly explanations. To ensure that musical-spiritual sensations would be controlled and repeatable, increasingly complex mélanges of words, objects and gestures were devised, and music took on a (seemingly) secondary status. In other words, music was the egg that hatched religion.

This scenario is entirely plausible. Music was discovered long before religious behaviors developed and could have inspired beliefs about contactable spirits. But since we are so distant from that prehistoric moment, a conclusive statement on musico-religious origins remains out of reach. What is uncontestable is that music and ritual have been joined for millennia.

This is important when examining liturgical segments of the Hebrew Bible. Although the book is brimming with prayer-songs—including a daunting assortment of 150 psalms—references to associated rituals are surprisingly sparse. Even if we presume—as we do—that prayers were regularly sung in ceremonial contexts, the Bible itself provides only hints of confirmation. In fact, it is our own experience of music in ritual that best supports a biblical link between music, liturgy and cultus. Were it not for that alliance, we could hardly account for the preservation and transmission of psalms over extended periods prior to their canonization. But again, concrete evidence is lacking.

The place of song within biblical religion is treated extensively in the writings of Sigmund Mowinckel. Taking a “cult functional” approach, Mowinckel maintained that all of the psalms were connected to the cult: they both originated in and were intended for communal ritual. Placing this general claim in a specific setting, Mowinckel attached more than forty psalms to a hypothetical autumnal New Year festival. His grounds for this celebration came from the Babylonian New Year feast, which celebrated the rule of the chief deity Marduk and the corresponding earthly reign of the king of Babylonia. The king played a major role in this dramatic celebration, and was a central figure in cultic activities more generally. Mowinckel proposed that the festival, which had pre-Davidic roots but apparently lingered in the Israelites’ consciousness, was the basis for Israel’s own autumn New Year commemoration (Exod. 23:16; 34:24; Lev. 23:23–24). According to Mowinckel, the event culminated with the procession of the Ark to the Temple, representing God’s enthronement, and the singing of “enthronement psalms” praising God as king (e.g., Pss. 47; 93; 95–99). Following Babylonian practice, the ritual coincided with the reaffirmation of the Israelite king, and was proclaimed in “royal psalms” celebrating his status as the earthly embodiment of God’s heavenly kingship (e.g., Pss. 2; 89; 110).

Although Mowinckel constructed this festival without direct biblical support, the Bible does divulge a few subtle indications of musical-liturgical ritual. For example, there is the priestly benediction with which Aaron and his sons blessed the Israelites (Num. 6:22–26), and the cultic liturgy of the first fruits (Deut. 26:1–11). Solomon’s Temple included “prayer and supplication” (1 Kgs. 8:28), while prophetic books attest to a statutory Temple liturgy (e.g., Isa.1:15; Jer. 33:11; Amos 5:23). Whether the occasion was a local festival, national holiday or regular offering, the singing of psalms and psalm-like prayers seems to have been a regular part of public ritual.

On a practical level, it matters little whether or not we can ascertain details of worship rites in biblical times, or whether music or ritual came first in the development of religion. The bond between music and ceremony is sealed so tightly as to suggest an eternal union. It is an expected element of societies past, present and future.

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