Monday, May 14, 2007

2. The Importance of Music

Is music truly important? Or is it just another aspect of culture, like, say, pottery making, bead stringing, cave painting, hunting, fishing, farming, etc.? To answer my own question: YES, music really is all that important. But you'd never know it from the work of the great majority of ethnomusicologists over the last, say, 25 years. Which may have something to do with their neglect by anthropology -- or every other field, for that matter -- over roughly the same period. I could write a book on how the field for which I had so much enthusiasm in my youth has become so ingrown, so parochial and, very frankly (and with some important exceptions) so irrelevant -- but for now just want to emphasize my main point here, which I suppose could be phrased thusly: music is too important to be entrusted to (most) ethnomusicologists.

To understand why, let's compare music with language. And for the sake of argument, let's assume that linguistics hasn't yet been invented, so anthropologists have no methodology for dealing with the languages of the peoples they study. Thus, every language encountered would have to be treated on an ad hoc basis, with little or no possibility of comparing it with any other language, no way of determining what language family it might belong to, nor any generally agreed upon method for assessing what elements are essential, or what its formal structures, including its "deep structures" might be. Our hypothetical Anthropologists would take note of certain more or less obvious facts: language is found everywhere, among all people; language is an important aspect of day to day life, reflecting many significant aspects of the value system of any given society; language is an important factor in the "construction of identity" and plays a significant role in the "negotiation of gender." The Anthropologists might therefore do things like interview informants to elicit their thoughts on the importance of language in their life, get them to reminisce about their first encounters with language, and through this and similar methods attempt to place language and the use of language in context, arguing that we cannot really understand any language unless we understand the context in which that language takes place. They might also agree that one cannot separate language from the rest of culture, that to do this would be to "reify" it, thus ruling out ahead of time any possible attempt to develop a science of linguistics in the future.What they might also agree on is that it would be a good idea to actually learn the language of whatever group one is studying, so maybe they'd find a "master speaker" to apprentice themselves to and, after a year or so, learn (more or less) to speak that language. They'd then return to their college or university, get a teaching job (hopefully) and teach that language to their students.

While clearly no Anthropologist or Linguist works this way, I think the above is a more or less fair description of the current state of Ethnomusicology. In other words, ethno without the musicology. Or, more accurately, ethno, with some sort of ad hoc musicology, that works differently in each case. This would be roughly equivalent to a situation where, for each language studied, each individual researcher would need to define for him/her-self a unique version of phonology, morphology, syntagmatics, etc. or simply ignore such problems altogether. A situation, also, where little or no attention was paid to whether or not a particular musical practice in a particular place was part of some "musical family," by analogy with the language families that are now (however controversial) so basic a tool of both historical linguistics and anthropology.

There is a history here, that I won't go into much, except to say that once upon a time there was a field known as "Comparative Musicology" that did concern itself with such issues, but is now regarded as hopelessly outdated, ethnocentric, reductive and whatever other fashionably "post-modern" dismissals you can call to mind. Just think of the consequences for anthropology if comparative linguistics were deemed ethnocentric and reductive, and it was no longer considered morally acceptable to place languages into large-scale categories, distinguishing between, say, Bantu and Nilotic or Austronesian and Papuan, Indo-European and Altaic, etc.

What I'm getting at here is that in my view music is NOT, as so many of today's ethnomusicologists seem to think, just one of many cultural practices worth studying, such as fishing, hunting, tool making, basket weaving, pottery making, etc., but, like language, a far more fundamental, if not elemental, cultural FORCE. That shouldn't be so difficult to see, given the fact that, in our own society, the music industry has for many years been among the most profitable on the planet. You won't make anywhere near as much money investing in the pottery, basket, cloth, meat, or even automobile, industry. But even in the most remote tribal societies, music usually would seem to play a necessary role in a host of absolutely central areas, such as religion, ritual, courtship, work, war, the establishment of group identity, sense of community, etc.

Also, music and language would seem to have a great deal in common and may well have developed in tandem. Music operates in many ways like a language, especially if we put the issue of semantics aside and concentrate on structural issues, such as musical "phonology" and syntax. As linguist Roman Jakobson once pointed out, musical notes are very close in function to phonemes -- Charles Seeger called them tonemes and rhythmemes.

Anyone who's ever taken one of those ubiquitous "World Music" classes comes away with some very rough, but real, sense that musical families exist. You may be surprised to learn, however, that musical families are not recognized among todays ethnomusicologists and any attempt to think in such terms is actively discouraged as overly speculative and, again, reductive. In my view, musical families most certainly do exist, and might well be of great use to those ethnographers, archaeologists, geneticists, cognitive scientists, etc., who pay so much attention to linguistics but show so little interest in musicology, ethno- or otherwise. Actually cognitive scientists have, of late, shown a great deal of interest in music and have speculated rather widely (and wildly) regarding the origins of music and its relation to language. In so doing, they have rarely, if ever, made use of ethnomusicological research -- especially since the ethnomusicologists themselves are assuring them that such research would be of no use to them, since, according to the current dogma, we cannot, must not, read any aspect of the distant past into the current musical activities of any peoples alive today. For historical linguists, and the anthropologists who draw on their work, such a practice is routinely accepted. Archaeologists draw on so-called "ethnographic analogy" probably far more often than they'd like to admit. It's a controversial, but nonetheless generally accepted aspect of this field. But for (most) ethnomusicologists it is forbidden territory.


Anonymous said...

Again, let me preface my comments by saying I am young in my studies of ethnomusicology:

I don't understand why comparative musicology would be such a bad thing. With the weight that we currently (and I believe rightly) give to contextualizing music (and it's immediately surrounding behaviors, motivations, etc.), I don't see how it could be reductive, or at leat in a negative sense. Would this not help in creating a more coherent larger picture? Or at least larger pieces of the puzzle?

After reading "Comparative Musicology and Anthropology of Music," I assumed that a significant portion of the field saw this as important. ( Is this issue that divisive?

Just looking for more info on this. Thanks for your time!


DocG said...

Hi Jeremy. Thanks for another excellent question. You'll find part of the answer in my latest post, on music as a neutral marker, where I briefly rehash some of the history. I agree, it's hard to understand why comparative musicology would be "such a bad thing" per se, but it comes with a history that has to be considered and which I try to explain in the above post. Much of what we find today in ethno is the result of the very strong reaction against comparative musicology that took place in the 50's and 60's and basically took over from the 80's on. Don't forget: the field was originally called Comparative Musicology and the name was changed to Ethnomusicology. We went from very broad based (and often very wrong) comparisons, speculating about the meaning and origins of music generally to a much more narrow preoccupation with the ethnography of music, which is now accepted as the "correct" way of doing it.

In my opinion, and perhaps you will agree, we need both approaches.

Anonymous said...

Thanks again for your comments, Victor! I apologize for the space between comments - I've been traveling a lot lately, and unable to read recent posts (which I will do shortly - I have a lot to catch up on!).

I completely agree with your assertions about the necessity of both approaches, but as I like to say, I'm not anybody of note.

DocG said...

Hello again, Jeremy, and thanks again for posting. Also for agreeing with me! :-)

I hope you'll continue to ask questions - and also question anything I say that bothers you or seems unclear.

With some notable exceptions, I get the impression the mainstream figures in ethno either disagree strongly with my approach or, more likely, as I fear, don't know what to make of it. For the great majority it might seem totally irrelevant. Which may be why they're not posting here. Probably not even reading here.

Perhaps, from their point of view my work is irrelevant. But the times they are a changin', as the songster sed -- the whole field of cultural studies and cultural evolution is about to be turned upside down as a result of all the truly remarkable and completely unexpected genetic discoveries.

It may be too late for your professors to make the adjustment, but for the younger generation I do think there is hope, which is why I'm so pleased to see you posting here.

Anonymous said...

Good post.