Monday, May 21, 2007

9. Is Music a Neutral Marker?

Or, more accurately: can we regard certain musical styles or characteristics as neutral markers? Before trying to answer that question, let me explain what a neutral marker is and why it's important. For anthropological geneticists, certain types of DNA, such as mitochondrial DNA or Y chromosome DNA, are especially useful because 1. they don't recombine in each new organism, as does most DNA, so the information contained in them remains essentially intact from one generation to the next; 2. the only way they can change is through random mutation, a rare event that can be used as a marker to identify different lines of inheritance, or lineages; 3. they are not, apparently, affected by natural selection, i.e., they are not thought to be associated with any diseases or other inherited traits that could provide an advantage or disadvantage of the sort that would cause certain types to survive while others die out, due to environmental, biological or social conditions. It is due to point 3, above, that the term "neutral marker" has been applied to them. In other words, because these types of DNA seem neutral with respect to any evolutionaly process other than random mutation, they can be used to trace ancestry with considerable accuracy. There are those, by the way, who dispute this, claiming they can indeed, under certain circumstances, be affected by selection, but that controversy need not concern us at the moment.

The question of the changeability of music over time has an interesting history in the field of Ethnomusicology. Initially, many of the pioneers seem to have uncritically assumed that all "primitive" peoples could be regarded as stone-age "relics" or, indeed, "living fossils," whose cultural practices, including music, could automatically be regarded as survivals, if not from the beginning, then certainly the very distant past. Various theories of musical evolution arose that focused on certain kinds of music from such groups, especially melodies that appeared especially "primitive," e.g., one or two note chants, sung solo or in unison, or else "pathogenic" outcries based on "tumbling strains," expressing primal emotional states. It was assumed that music must have begun with something more or less that "primitive," among the ancestors of "primitive" peoples and then developed over time, to add more notes to the scale, more sophisticated types of melodic structure and, ultimately, with the advent of Western Civilization, harmony and counterpoint.


As it became increasingly clear that little or no evidence existed to support such claims, that, indeed, both harmony and counterpoint could be found among so-called "primitive" peoples in many parts of the world, and especially when ethnomusicologists began thinking more critically about the whole process of tradition and change in music generally, there was a strong reaction against such thinking, to the point that the entire field of musical evolution, and much of comparative musicology, became highly suspect. When Alan Lomax presented Cantometrics during the mid-Sixties, he already had two strikes against him, because of the many years of pent-up resentment against an earlier generation that had become so focused on what looked like a hopeless task. I won't go into the history of Cantometrics here, but its rejection was at least in part due to a general movement away from comparative studies of any kind, in favor of so-called "contextual studies," where the primary focus was on the function of music and musicians, both traditional and non-traditional, within an individual, currently active, social group. From this viewpoint, music would not have been regarded as a neutral marker, because it was now assumed that musical practices would "naturally" change as living conditions changed, due to environmental factors, contact with other groups, the innovations of especially creative individuals, etc.

As I see it, this "new" (actually, no longer new) movement in Ethnomusicology, while valid in many respects, represented a serious over-reaction to what had come before, to the extent that the field seems to have lost much of its relevance for anthropology and social science generally. The contributions of ethnomusicologists have been all but completely ignored, not only by anthropologists and geneticists but cognitive scientists interested in the nature of music and its origins. As now seems evident, both the "old school" of comparative musicology and the "new school" of contextual studies suffered from more or less the same problem: unwarranted assumptions, based largely on intuition with little recourse to either evidence or logical inference.

To be continued . . .

4 comments:

gaul armstrong said...

Are you familiar with the nature of musical scales? Here are the most important notes in a scale:

First Tier:

1/1 -- The Tonic: Songs are usually centered on a tonic, and each voice (human or not) references itself against that tonic.

2/1, 4/1, 8/1, etc -- The Octaves: Octave Equivalence is an animal trait, wherein each note is perceived as equal to its octaves. (The Indonesian gamelan uses instruments that lack the octave, so octave equivalence is rightly not observed in their tradition.)

Second Tier:
3/2 -- The Perfect Fifth: The midpoint of the octave. Because of a funny Log2 conversion our ears perform (caused by octave equivalence), the midpoint is shifted to the 7/12 note of the scale. This shift creates a difference between 3/2 up from the tonic and 3/2 down from the tonic. The 3/2 down is called a Perfect Fourth: 4/3.

Third Tier:
5/4 -- The Major Third: The quarter-point of the octave. Also shifted by octave equivalence.

6/5 -- The Minor Third: The distance between the Major Third and the Perfect Fifth.

7/4 -- The Perfect Seventh: The three-quarter-point of the octave. Not used in Western music due to our limiting 12-tone equal tempered scale, which does not contain a 7/4 ratio.

Fourth Tier:
9/8, 8/7, 7/6, 6/5, 6/3, 7/4, 7/5, 256/438, etc.
...actually, there are as many pure notes as there are combination of numerators and denominators.


My analysis of the !Kung The Eland.mp3 is this: 9/8, 3/2, 9/8, 5/4, 1/1, 3/2.

The !Kung GiraffeMedicine Song is 5/4, 2/1, 5/4, 2/1, 9/8, 1/1, 5/4, 1/1, 9/8, 1/1, with the women doing a 2/1 -> 3/2 slide along with the men's notes.

The Bosavi Workgroup song is mostly a pattern of 5/4, 1/1, 3/2, with some 9/8's.

The Mbuti ElephantHuntingSong is 5/4, 9/8, 1/1, 3/2.

I'm having trouble resolving the The Pygmy Divinging Song; it seems to be in a kind of Pentatonic scale.

The Guadalcanal Women's song is unusual in it's 1/1, 5/3, 4/3.


The notes used in a tradition should be significant. Also, these songs all seem to be in one key, in that the key doesn't modulate to another tonal center like Beethoven or Debussy or Elvis Costello do.

Victor said...

Hi Gaul. I'm a little puzzled by some of your comments, as I'm not sure if you're referring to a particular theory or your own personal observations. I've never heard the "tonic" referred to by the symbol 1/1 -- do you mean "unison"? Actually in the latter part of this post you seem to be referring to individual notes by symbols that suggest intervals, rather than specific pitches.

I'm also not sure I agree that all traditional melodies automatically can be said to have a tonic. For me, the tonic is established by a tonic function, which is usually manifested at cadence points -- in the musical examples I provided I don't hear any cadence points, hence I don't hear the establishment of a tonic function. That doesn't make this music atonal, necessarily, but it does make the existence of a "tonic" rather problematic, as I see it.

What is the point of the lecture on the musical scale and its intervals? Sorry, I'm not sure why you felt this necessary.

Also, what you call an "analysis" is simply a very simple notation (using your own odd symbols) for the pitch classes of the initial notes of each song.

And no, they don't modulate. Modulation is something we very rarely if ever find in the traditional music of just about any people.

gaul armstrong said...

Since there are patterns in the particular notes/scales used in a community, it should be important to record exactly what those notes are. Just Intonation serves to give an exact label to each note. If you were to say, "the minor third", it would be ambiguous which minor third you intended. But if you say "7/6" or "6/5", the specified note cannot be misunderstood. These are not my "odd symbols" but rather were first used by Pythagoras, and have been in continuous use.

I'm using the notation of Just Intonation. If you want to learn the language, pick up David Doty's "Just Intonation Primer". (I don't get any profit from the sale of his text.) Everything I wrote/write was already published maybe 200 years ago; none is original thought.

Why is it important to focus on the notes of the scale(s) used by a group? The notes used or avoided should give insight to the community's relation to other communities. For example, Chinese tradition includes using 5-tone and 7-tone scales. Ancient Greek tradition was to use scales based around the Perfect Fourth (with two movable notes between the U1 and the P4). European tradition has always ignored the 7/4, which we recognize now as the sub-minor 7th (blues 7th). I suppose the 7/4 came from Africa with the slaves, but have no evidence of that. Modern Western tradition of using the 12-tone equal tempered scale began very recently, in the 1600's.

I am pointing you to a useful notation system. It would benefit your research if you adopted it. But you know what they say about leading a horse to water.

If you found this helpful instead of harmful, let me say something critical. Privately, I do feel as though you were condescending to me. If you prefer people not post comments about things you haven't yet studied, you will only have an echo chamber.

Victor said...

Hello again, Gaul. I'm sorry if you felt I was condescending, and I apologize. That was not my intention. But I WAS very much confused by some of what you wrote and found it difficult to respond for that reason. I am grateful that you have now provided some clarification.

The Pythagorean notation you used is unfamiliar to me, which is why I expressed puzzlement over your use of it. I'm familiar with the ratios, but not their use to designate pitches. Your explanation is helpful. But it's still not clear to me why you chose this method of indicating the notes.

You seem to be taking for granted that I'm unfamiliar with certain basics of scale formation and tuning, which is not the case. I know very well what just intontation is and have used it in some of my own compositions. Are you saying that you hear just intonation in most of the examples I've provided? Is that why you called it an "analysis"? My ear isn't sensitive enough to hear the intervals that precisely but perhaps yours is. If so, that's interesting and I'd like to learn more about what you are hearing in these pieces.

The study of scales, tunings and the melodic structures based on them used to be a major part of comparative musicology and a great deal has already been done on that level. There are a great many sources on that in the literature. Some very interesting studies of melodic structure were done some years ago by a man named Mieczyslaw Kolinski, whose work might interest you. And Charles Seeger wrote a piece some time ago called "Moods of A Music Logic," also dealing with certain fundamentals of note by note relationships in melody.

Unfortunately, after a long period during which just about every study of the music of every group was accompanied by lists of scales and analyses of tunings, and a long period where people like Kolinski and Seeger researched many aspects of melody and scale structure, this approach apparently reached a dead end and went out of favor. Comparative musicologists seemed to be hoping that the study of such basic elements would enable them to make meaningful generalizations about musical families, but that never panned out.

That's one of the reasons Alan Lomax decided to base his Cantometrics project on more general parameters of musical style rather than the sort of precisely defined melodic and harmonic relationships to which you refer. I am following his lead in the research I'm doing now, because I'm convinced that the more loosely defined variables of the Cantometric system are far more diagnostic, i.e., that they enable us to generalize meaningfully about the various musical families and style areas of the world in ways that the old approach could not.

If you take a group of notated songs from various parts of the world and play them on the piano you'll see what I mean. The notes themselves are often not of much help in identifying the culture from which the music stems. For example, an African melody that makes use of the pentatonic scale might sound Chinese. An English ballad might also use the same scale -- and also sound African or Chinese. And I don't think retuning the piano would be much help.

On the other hand, if you play a recording of African music, Chinese music and English music, you can instantly tell them apart. It's that sort of difference, the difference in performance style, that Cantometrics looks for.

I hope you understand my position and are not offended by my remarks. You may of course be right and there may be a way to meaningfully sort musical style families on the basis of the elements you suggest. I'd be very interested in learning of any ideas you might have along such lines. Thanks.