Tuesday, May 15, 2007

4. Alan Lomax and Cantometrics

I don't want to get too far into this blog without making it clear that the work I'm doing now has its source in the insights and achievements of certain predecessors, notably some of the early pioneers of Comparative Musicology, such as, for example, E. T. von Hornbostel, Curt Sachs, Jaap Kunst -- also Gilbert Rouget and Walter Wiora -- but primarily my mentor and teacher Alan Lomax. So that there should be no misunderstanding regarding Lomax's importance, or the nature of the Cantometric system he pioneered, I have asked the editor of The World of Music to include the following statement in the next issue:

Since certain aspects of the treatment of Cantometrics in my article, “Echoes of Our Forgotten Ancestors,” could be misleading, especially for younger readers not familiar with the history of that project, I would like to take this opportunity to clarify. As I indicated in the article, Cantometrics was from the start Alan Lomax’s project, based on ideas stemming from years of insight and research on his part. I was hired in the summer of 1961 to work as his musicological assistant, and continued to work under his direction as Research Associate from early in 1963 to the end of 1966. While we collaborated on the creation of the Cantometric system and a portion of the research based on it, Lomax was the senior and I the junior, member of that team. While I would describe myself as an active participant who contributed significantly to the project, the overall tenor of Cantometrics, the fundamental nature of the system, its purpose, and goals, were determined by Lomax, who continued work on the project until 1995.

Several others who also participated in a significant manner to this effort should be recognized. The noted anthropologist, Conrad Arensberg, served as Co-Principal Investigator from 1963 on. Among others who contributed importantly to various aspects of the research during the period of my participation were: statistician Norman Berkowitz; musicologist and composer Roswell Rudd; anthropologists Edwin Erickson, Barbara Ayres and Monica Vizedom; linguists Edith Trager Johnson and Norman Markel, and dance notation specialists Irmgard Bartenieff and Forrestine Paulay, who collaborated with Lomax on the creation of the Choreometrics system.

While I credited Alan Lomax as a major influence and included several references to him and his writings throughout my essay, the exact nature of his influence was not always made clear, and as a result the reader may have been left with the impression that certain key ideas originated with me. Alan’s interest in comparative studies probably began very early, with his involvement in African American music, both in itself, and in relation to its African roots, a subject that interested him deeply throughout his career. Already by 1956, he presented a preliminary classification of world folk song style, proposing some of the same style areas that were to be so convincingly supported by Cantometric testing years later. Here we find a description of a musical family labeled “Pygmoid,” in which he already puts his finger on the most salient characteristics of the same “Pygmy/Bushmen style” that plays so important a role in “Echoes” (Lomax 1956:49). In the same paragraph, moreover, Lomax refers to groups “possibly also in India, Formosa, etc.” that share some of the same, very distinctive, characteristics. Clearly he already had an awareness of the potential significance of P/B style far beyond the confines of the African continent, an awareness that deepened and broadened in subsequent years as more and more instances came to light. My understanding of, and interest in, P/B style, the very special nature of its distribution worldwide, and the possible historical implications of that distribution, was based on what I learned from Lomax during the years I worked with him. Many other observations appearing in “Echoes” regarding the patterned distribution of style traits and their possible meaning similarly stem from this period of “tutelage” with Lomax, along with concurrent research carried out under his supervision.

In 1959, Lomax produced a much more extensive essay, containing a wealth of important and indeed prophetic, insights, paving the way for the Cantometrics project to come (Lomax1959). While I collaborated with him on the creation of the Cantometric system per se, and much (though certainly not all) of the research that followed over the next few years, the foundations of Cantometrics had thus already been established by Lomax at least two years prior to my involvement -- and considerably more was accomplished by him and his team after I left.

Another possible source of misunderstanding centers on two statements appearing toward the end of the “Prologue”: first, the assertion that “I treat Cantometrics as an essentially heuristic methodology”; and second, the subsequent declaration that, in my view, it is “… not capable in itself of producing totally objective results of the sort required by strict scientific method.” I hope this did not give the impression that I do not regard Cantometrics as a legitimate scientific methodology, because that was certainly not my intention. On the contrary, I consider it a particularly powerful scientific tool. The purpose of these statements was to address, as succinctly as possible, a prevailing tendency on the part of a great many to demand too much of this methodology, rejecting it out of hand for not meeting what are in fact unreasonable expectations. This attitude may have been encouraged by Lomax himself, who sometimes gave the impression that certain of his results had been proven beyond the need for additional investigation.

Heuristics is an important aspect of scientific research, so to describe a methodology as “essentially heuristic” is by no means to declare it “unscientific.” More fundamentally, research in the social sciences generally can never approach the objectivity and precision characteristic of “hard” sciences, such as physics, chemistry, biology, etc. For what it sets out to accomplish, Cantometrics would seem to work remarkably well. It is, in fact, not easy to imagine how encoding over so diverse a range of parameters and styles could have been achieved in a significantly more objective manner.[i] Nevertheless, because of certain inherent limitations necessarily built in to any methodology of this sort -- sampling issues, subjectivity, the possibility of unconscious rater bias, certain ambiguities that will inevitably arise due to the difficulty of anticipating all possibilities, etc. -- cantometric findings should, wherever possible, be supplemented with additional research and testing. There is no hard and fast rule here. In some cases, as with, for example, the factor analysis reported in Lomax 1980, the cantometrically derived categories are so clearly correlated with well known and widely accepted cultural and geographic boundaries, that the result is, for me at least, especially convincing. In other cases, however, where the meaning of the results may not be so clear, additional research may be necessary before any hard and fast conclusions can be reached. What makes Cantometrics stand out from so many other methodologies in the social sciences, is the fact that it lends itself so well to re-examination of this sort, being, at least in principle, fully open to independent testing and review.

With such considerations in mind, I am pleased to add that, thanks to the efforts of Alan’s daughter, Dr. Anna Lomax Wood, the staff of the Association of Cultural Equity (ACE), which she now heads, and especially computer gurus John Tam and Michael Del Rio, the Cantometrics dataset has been updated, to the point that it is now compatible with currently available database software. Dr. Wood’s intention to ultimately make available the database, along with the original teaching materials, will hopefully encourage renewed interest in this extremely useful, but too often misunderstood and undervalued, methodology. Thanks to the generous support of ACE, I have been able, over the last few months, to access the revived database as part of a new research project, in collaboration with Dr. Sarah Tishkoff of the University of Maryland, one of the leading figures in Genetic Anthropology, and her associate, Dr. Floyd Reed. It is my hope that this and similar efforts in future will prove effective in vindicating and carrying forward Lomax’s extraordinarily valuable legacy.


Grauer, Victor and Fred McCormick
2005 “Cantometrics: Song and Social Structure – A Response.” Music Traditions 159. http://www.mustrad.org.uk/articles/cantome2.htm, last accessed 27 January, 2005.

Lomax, Alan
1956 “Folk Song Style: Notes on a Systematic Approach to the Study of Folk Song.” International Folk Music Journal 48-50.
1959 “Folk Song Style.” The American Anthropologist 61-6:927-953.
1980 “Factors of Musical Style,” in Stanley Diamond, ed., Theory and Practice: Essays Presented to Gene Weltfish, 29-58. The Hague: Mouton.

[i] The nature of the scientific problems entailed in any such project are treated in some detail in Grauer and McCormick 2005, wherein I analyze some of the “hidden pitfalls inherent in almost all attempts to be objective when evaluating style.”


Anonymous said...

I can't find where you referred to the "Bantu expansion" happening 2000 - 4000 years ago. However, my understanding is that when the Dutch set up their "watering hole" at the now Capetown in 1652, the dominant people were "Bush people". Very soon indigenous Africans and Europeans drove the Bushpeople to the Khalahari. Any way, so much for hair splitting. Wonderful to read this stuff when the idea of "World Music" is just so much Metalic Rock from hip kids in Outer Mongolia.

DocG said...

Hi Dave, glad you could make it over here. :-)

As I understand it, the Bantu expansion took the form of two waves starting in West Africa, one directly to the south, the other to the east and then the southeast. At the time to which you refer, 1652, the two waves would certainly have spread throughout most of subsaharan Africa. However, I do believe you are correct about the Capetown area, along with large portions of southern Africa generally which may well have still been dominated by both Bushmen hunters and the closely related Khoi ("Hottentot") pastoralists. It's generally assumed, by the way, that prior to the Bantu expansion and the associated spread of agriculture, most of Africa was populated by the ancestors of the Pygmies and Bushmen. Many if not most of these peoples eventually fell back into marginal areas, such as the forests or the desert, where farming would not have been practical.

And yes "world music" has taken on a very different meaning of late and in fact co-opted into the mainstream of Western "rock" culture, very sadly. What's even sadder is the fact that "Metalic Rock from hip kids in Outer Mongolia" is now being taken seriously as an object of study by ethnomusicologists! It apparently has something to do with the "construction of identity."