Tag Archives: Oral Tradition

Gestalt Music

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

The division of labor between composer and performer, while central to Western art music, is foreign to much of the world. This does not owe to a lack of performers. Every human society, ancient and modern, has its musicians. What tends to be absent is the separate role of creator. Not only is it common for music to arise from an anonymous or semi-anonymous folk process, but musicians are also given to improvisation. Melodic lines and tonal archetypes (modes) are treated as canvases for spontaneously conjured embellishments and departures—or what pianist David Dolan calls “walking freely on firm ground.” It is only with the proliferation of notation that the composer and performer become truly distinct entities. The composer sets ideas on paper, and the performer meticulously renders those ideas into sound. The goal of “correct” performance replaces real-time interpretation.

Part of what differentiates improvisational and semi-improvisational folk music from Western art music is its gestalt approach, wherein a musical motive is conceived as a whole, rather than as a sum of individual notes. Thinking nothing of notes, the musician permits different tones and tone sequences to replace each other, so long as the motive retains its basic character. It is similar to an artist setting pieces of glass or stone within a framework, and is sometimes called the “mosaic technique.” This contrasts with Western notated music, which, by its very nature, is built from individual notes that are unalterably fixed on staff paper.

This distinction is best illustrated by example. Musicologist Michal Smoira-Cohn recalls when a Bedouin musician visited a class at the Jerusalem Rubin Academy of Music and Dance. The musician played a “marvelously concentrated and highly inspired piece” on a one-stringed bowed instrument. When he finished, the professor explained some details of the performance and asked the musician to play the same piece again. Bewildered, the Bedouin proceeded to play a new improvisation, which resembled the first but was not identical. Smoira-Cohn relates: “The experience illuminated for me the true significance of the art of performance. I realized that the supposedly primitive Bedouin knew better than all of us the real value of music.”

This “real value” is part and parcel of oral societies, where improvisation is a fixture of story, dance, song, and instrument playing. Each performance is a re-creation involving identifiable elements that are manipulated, arranged, and supplemented in new and unreplicable ways. Compare this with the non-spontaneity expected of classical musicians, who work tirelessly to actualize a composer’s vision. Their performance may add a subtle interpretation, but the fear of wrong notes results in general sterility, and solidifies the separation of composer and performer.

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.

Tradition refers to the transmission of customs or beliefs from one generation to the next, or the fact of something being passed on in that manner. There are family traditions, cultural traditions, national traditions, religious traditions, and so on. Precisely why some things are treated in this way and other things are not is a topic too broad and varied to be reduced to a simple formula. But, underlying almost everything regarded as traditional is the term’s Latin root, traditio, meaning “surrender.” In no small part, the act of surrendering to and accepting what has been passed down is what makes something traditional.

Even when tradition is used as a noun, the term has an active connotation. An object, practice, or conviction does not burst into existence with the authoritative label. Rather, it gradually assumes that status through a process involving usage plus time. A recipe, for instance, becomes traditional through continued preparation and consumption. Likewise, the Western classical tradition is an assortment of Greco-Roman ideas, institutions, designs, rituals, and artifacts that have been received and integrated into later cultures. By definition, those things that have a lifespan extending beyond their originating time and place are, in some sense, traditional. Everything else is not.

This has relevance for music. Songbooks are filled with selections printed under the heading of traditional. Most of these are orally transmitted songs of anonymous authorship. However, it is not unusual to find songs with known composers listed as traditional. Strictly speaking, such ascriptions are errors: the songs did not emerge organically through an oral tradition, as the attribution suggests, but from the creative minds of individuals. The editors of such books can be faulted for a lack of careful research. Yet, if we understand traditional as an active adjective rather than a static noun, then it is an accurate depscription.

More often than not, so-called traditional melodies are so familiar as to have lost ties to any person or moment. This phenomenon, call it “traditionalization,” has at least four interrelated features: (1) The composer’s identity is forgotten and/or becomes irrelevant; (2) The music becomes the “property” of the masses; (3) The melody achieves a sense of timelessness; (4) The song is felt to be universal, no matter how closely linked to a specific situation, population, or storyline.

From this perspective, a song can be simultaneously traditional and written by a known person. Moreover, any melody—or, really, anything—can become traditional by way of its passage from generation to generation, and the power that such passage yields.

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. Kolinski 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.

Oral Tradition in Ancient Israel (Book Review)

Oral Tradition in Ancient Israel, by Robert D. Miller II, Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2011. 154 pp.

Reviewed by Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

The concept of oral tradition has long captivated scholars and lay readers of the Hebrew Bible. Many find comfort in the notion that behind the written text is a sturdy and unfailing oral tradition, able to preserve accurate memories across generations. This hypothesis gained support when Hermann Gunkel (1862-1932), the founder of form criticism (which attempts to trace scriptural units to oral transmission), encountered the writings of Wilhelm Wundt. Wundt posited that human societies advance in predictable stages parallel to the development of the complexity of language—that is, from oral/illiterate to written/literate. Gunkel applied Wundt’s theory to the Bible, concluding that oral folklore was at the root of Israel’s stories. His position picked up steam with the oral-formulaic theory of Milman Parry and Albert Lord, whose study of epic poems led them to conclude that illiterate poets employed groups of repeated words (formulas) to retain and transmit their poetry. A certain percentage of formulas present in a written text was considered evidence of oral composition.

The oral-formulaic theory remains entrenched in biblical scholarship, with Lord’s The Singer of Tales (1960) occupying a particularly hallowed space. However, numerous holes have been poked in the theory since the late 1980s. Folklorists, classicists, anthropologists, and ethnomusicologists have exposed its limited applicability, and the absence of any one touchstone of oral tradition. For example, some oral folklore contains no formulas (e.g., Old Norse-Icelandic Skaldic poetry), some cultures value word-for-word memorization (e.g., Maori and Somali), and many societies produce oral and written literature simultaneously.

Robert D. Miller explores the latter observation in his slim but informative book, Oral Tradition in Ancient Israel. Miller, an associate professor of Old Testament at the Catholic University of America, advocates abandoning the outdated and simplistic linear model, in which oral stories circulate among bards and storytellers, are eventually written down, and are then recited or chanted to illiterate audiences. In its place, Miller proposes a fluid oral-written model for biblical literature, wherein “written texts circulated in spoken form by recitation long after they were committed to writing. And those recited forms begat oral forms that were not in writing, or were not put in writing for some time afterwards. Oral texts that circulated from bard to audience or bard to bard could be recorded in writing, could be consulted by writers, could be consulted by bards of other stories” (p. 54).

Miller appropriates Anthony Campbell’s “User Theory,” which sees the biblical narrative neither as a record of oral lore nor as a literary composition, but as “written outlines for oral elaboration (or for omission in performance)” (p. 55). This could explain why the ancient editors allowed alternative accounts and conflicting details into the text. Such kernels were, perhaps, optional rubrics to be chosen from for oral performance. This could also account for anachronistic accretions and other anomalies sprinkled throughout the stories. As the outlines were used and re-used in various contexts, they picked up ingredients from the local geography, social conditions, prevailing attitudes, regional folktales, and the like—some of which were recorded in writing.

These possibilities lie at the heart of Miller’s performance-centered analysis. In his reading, the Hebrew Bible is partially made up of “gobbets”: intentionally crafted memory aids that function as generic markers for narrative construction. They include story patterns, structural pathways, character sketches, images of situations, and traditional phraseology. These basic elements, swimming together in “tradition pools,” were selected and activated in performance or for a written text (pp. 37-38). The storyteller would assemble selected gobbets in a semi-rigid order, varying the details and style of delivery according to the needs of the moment, and modifying them to suit the setting. This improvisatory picture is enhanced by the likelihood that the performers told their stories with some sort of chant: a flexible spectrum of vocal utterance that includes plain speech, sung speech, spoken song, syllabic song, melismatic song, and adventurous vocalizations (p. 104).

The most tentative portion of Miller’s book deals with identifying orally derived bits in the Hebrew Bible. Although he confidently argues for the Bible as an accumulation of oral and written material, he hesitates to make definite statements regarding specific scriptural sections. That being said, his oral performance approach does shed light on the perplexing “bare gobbets,” such as empty references to Nimrod (Gen. 10:9) and the “giants” Sheshai, Ahiman, and Talmai (Num. 13:22), which were likely allusions to other stories and possibly served as starting points for individual storytellers. Miller also points out evidently oral elements in Genesis 49:9-12, 22-25 (Jacob’s final blessing), Numbers 24:17-19 (Balaam’s fourth oracle), and elsewhere, such as parallelism, ambiguous syntax, repetitions, obvious gaps, and broken connections.

With Oral Tradition in Ancient Israel, Miller offers a rich analysis of the interplay between literacy and orality in the Hebrew Bible. He paints a convincing portrait of bards and storytellers in antiquity composing from both oral and written sources, inserting their own contributions, and performing their tales. This lively picture stands in contrast to the fixed text as we have it today, and highlights the functional aspect of scripture.

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