Monday, May 21, 2007

10. Is Music a Neutral Marker, continued

A genetic marker is considered neutral if it is not affected by natural selection, i.e., not affected by changes in the environment or any other outside influence, but continues unaltered until, suddenly, a mutation occurs. Then, after the mutation, the altered marker continues, generation after generation, unchanged, until the next sudden mutation. In my view there is good evidence that music, or more accurately, musical style, could also be considered a neutral marker in roughly the same sense. (The same conclusion might apply to dance as well, but that very important question will have to be tabled for now, as I lack sufficient knowledge to adequately consider it.)

Why do I feel so sure this must be so? Because there are certain musical style families whose distribution suggests that they have, indeed, remained essentially unchanged over extremely long periods of time, large geographical areas, and very different types of environment. The most dramatic case, as I have already explained, is Pygmy/Bushmen style. But there are several others, such as the "mainstream" style of most African Bantu peoples, characterized by overlapping "call and response," harmonized vocalizing, the importance of drumming, use of polyrhythms, etc., a style that not only pervades subsaharan Africa but, due to the effects of slavery, has gone on to have a profound influence on the music of the Americas. As the "Bantu expansion" is thought to have occurred anywhere from two to four thousand years ago, this style could therefore be at least two thousand years old. Another good example would be the very different, remarkably homogenous "mainstream" style of the great majority of native North American tribal groups, characterized by unison singing, "one-beat" percussion accompaniment, nonsense vocables, wide intervals, moderately tense, raspy voices, and a highly idiosyncratic manner of forming melodies, where most notes tend to be on the beat and the iteration of the same note over different vocables is common, especially at phrase endings. Since these peoples are thought to have entered the Americas at least 10,000 years ago (very likely much longer), we can conservatively estimate that this style must be at least 10,000 years old.

The existence of such broad ranging, clearly identifiable style families is, in my opinion, strong evidence that musical style can indeed be considered a neutral marker. (This is a conclusion, by the way, that goes very much against the grain of most current thinking in Ethnomusicology, where the very notion that one could take music "out of context," to consider it independently from the environment and its functions in the immediate society in which it is performed would be considered not only meaningless, but ethnocentric.)

If music (and possibly dance as well) is indeed a neutral marker, does this make it unique among all other aspects of culture? Certain genetic anthropologists, such as Luca Cavalli-Sforza, have looked to language as, roughly, the cultural equivalent of a genetic marker and have consequently paid a great deal of attention to the distribution of language families worldwide. Comparing language with music, however, we find some rather important and instructive differences. For one thing, language is much more complex than music, with a more rigidly defined syntax, and an extremely important dimension either lacking or undeveloped in music: explicit reference, the semantic dimension, the realm of words, which music completely lacks. It is also far more important than music as the basis for all sorts of everyday interactions, musings, self-expressions, introductions, announcements, flattery, gossip, swearing, taunting, courting, education, instruction, interaction with other groups, etc., and is consequently, unlike music, a totally indispensible, ubiquitous and "visible" aspect of ordinary life. All these factors make language 1. much more difficult to study, as many more elements and aspects must be taken into consideration; 2. much more susceptible to change, as there are so many more elements subject to change and so many more possibilties for changes to occur.

Music, on the other hand, seems to exist in a realm of its own, a highly ritualized realm, filled far more with redundancies than explicit messages. Unlike language, in which original utterances are continually being produced, music tends to repeat the same utterances over and over, in the form of set pieces that have names and in many cases composers. The primary function of language would seem to be communication, in the form of a long series of continually fresh and original utterances. The primary function of music, on the other hand, would seem to be the affirmation of group identity, based in tradition, operating in and through repetition, which pervades the world of music on a great many different levels, from notes to phrases to the continual reiteration of individual songs and repertoires. Language may be seen, in fact, as a force for change, while music seems to operate as a conservative force, continually linking a society to its ancestors and its origins.

When we look at the relationships between musical styles and languages in various parts of the world, we see many instances where a language has changed, but a musical style persists, suggesting that music may well be more highly valued, and consequently more conservative, than language. The African Pygmies seem to have lost their original language, usually speaking the language of their Bantu neighbors. They will often use Western articles of clothing, Western tools, utensils, ornaments, etc. But all the evidence points to their retaining their original musical style more or less unchanged, as it may have been sung tens of thousands of years ago. A similar pattern is evident in a great many cases where social forces have caused certain societies to change a great many aspects of their culture, from language to lifestyle to religion, yet their basic musical style, or at least significant aspects of it, will persist. An obvious case in point is the persistence of African elements in the music (and dance) of so many African Americans today.

It looks very much to me as though musical style (and possibly dance style as well) is in fact by far the most conservative cultural force in human society, persisting both as a "neutral marker," largely unaffected by environmental and social forces surrounding it (with important exceptions, of course), and, what is more, an actively conservative force, working to preserve the most precious and timeworn traditions of the society that treasures it.

We must remember, however, that I am speaking of music in a very general sense, in the sense that Lomax intended when he conceived Cantometrics as a tool for analysing music on the fundamental level of style. Even when, as is so often the case in the modern world, more patently "musical," surface elements, such as notes, scales, tunings, instruments, melody types, etc., change due to certain social forces and economic pressures, the very basic stylistic aspects I've been emphasizing here will, as often as not, persist.

No comments: