Music Cultures of the World

Musical Cultures of the World

1. Introduction

By “music” or more precisely “musical practices” this work means the human activities related to sound that are commonly understood as music in a given society. Examples are many and include the singing of a lullaby to a child, the playing of a hymn or military march by a band, the dancing of a jig or ballet, the composing and performance of an opera or symphony, and the listening to a rock song on the radio. They also span a wide range of formality and technical complexity. Some peoples’ music consists of improvising simple songs or melodies at everyday tasks. Others have highly skilled musical specialists who have undergone long periods of apprenticeship or formal training and engage in complex and virtuosic kinds of musical activity. Still, others may have a tradition of listening to performances of music that has been composed by people in a different society and era. All of these are covered here. So long as musical activities involve ways of using sound to produce form and expression, they can be analyzed as music and related to other kinds of human activity.

1.1. Overview of Musical Cultures

Music, from the perspective of the earth as a whole, is an indispensable element of all human societies. It has been discovered up to the present on every continent and in every culture known to the modern world. Music is created or performed in a great variety of social settings ranging from the sacred to the secular, and it serves a wide diversity of functions. A comprehensive view of music—its forms and genres, its uses, its relationships to the institutions and social organization of human groups, and above all its contributions to the lives of individual human beings—requires taking into account the music of many different societies. In an era of unprecedented worldwide communication and interaction, the task of understanding music in global perspective is particularly urgent and challenging. This work is intended as a contribution to that task.

1.1. Overview of Musical Cultures

Western music is considered to be all music originating from the countries with a predominantly white population. This is an overly simplistic categorisation as there are vast differences between different western musics and many musics considered to be ‘western’ were strongly influenced by Non-Western music. In addition to this, many of these countries have large immigrant populations with their own musical cultures. Immigrant communities are an example of a society which is multicultural, that is a community containing more than one culture. Multiculturalism can also occur on a larger scale. Although western countries are often seen to be promoters of globalisation and a common global culture, western and westernised societies can also have a high level of cultural diversity. An example of this is the presence of large numbers of Non-Western immigrants in these countries.

One way of defining music is by considering art music vs. folk music, where art music is music from a written tradition often with similar patterns in different cultures and folk music is music from a spoken tradition often with an unknown history. These are very broad terms and there are often blurred boundaries between the two, however they provide a useful way of categorising music. Although an equal amount of time could be spent studying both, this work tends to focus on art music because of its higher profile and the wealth of information available, perhaps a reflection on the way in which the western orientated world has come to view music, as will be discussed later.

This section provides a brief glimpse at the various musical cultures that exist around the world. I differentiate between Western and Non-Western music and then take a closer look at music within specific communities and cultures. I talk about the vast diversity found in musical cultures and how there is no one ‘global’ music. It is important to understand the nature of musical diversity and the factors that influence it, in order to find out how and why music is organised in different ways and how and why it can be meaningful in different ways to different people.

1.2. Importance of Studying Musical Cultures

Now, like “music” and “musicology”, “ethnomusicology” has no clear definition, nor are its domain and aims agreed upon by all workers in the field. Given the scope of the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, one might assume that ethnomusicology is the study of non-Western music by Westerners, but that assumption would be incorrect, though not far from the truth in some ethnographic work. Georg Herzogenrath sees ethnomusicology in 1999 as written largely by the victors of globalization as a search by the others of their own lost identities, hailed by the political economy of anti-orientalism prevalent since Edward Said’s analysis of the Western construction of the East as the cultural other. Though these definitions are sharply contrasted, they share two commonalities: a notion of the West versus the other and an assumption that non-Western music is a preserve of tradition. A third commonality to be inferred is the assumption that ethnomusicology is about someone else in a bygone or static setting, music being used as the means to research an outside culture. This is the traditional cross-cultural musicology that has been used to compare studies of linguistics in the culture of the colonizer with linguistic documentation of the colonized.

The contemporary study of music in different cultural settings has extended across the past four decades, coinciding with the moment musicology itself was undergoing the same transformation. This period can be viewed as a natural experiment of sorts, given that the previous decade marked the entering of a wider methodological space for the disciplines that concern themselves with human affairs. It is not altogether surprising, then, that work in what has been called “ethnomusicology” has been as diverse in its approaches and results as musicology itself.

1.3. Scope and Objectives of the Work

The primary objective is to present a comparative and systematic survey of the peoples of the world in the light of their musical behavior; to set forth, as clearly as possible, the nature of man’s musicking and to demonstrate the ways in which the various musics of the world can be understood as manifestations of that musicking. A full understanding of the ways in which music making is integrated with all human activities and with the total existence of the individuals within a society can be obtained only through comparative studies. In the field of ethnomusicology, such comparative studies have gone forward to a considerable extent.

There exist excellent detailed discussions of the musical practices of a number of selected associations. Yet, with very few exceptions, the authors of regional or national surveys have been primarily concerned with recording the history, musical literatures, and stylistic evolutions of their individual countries and have done very little in the way of producing general conceptualizations of the music of their peoples in terms readily applicable to the musical behavior of the peoples of other areas. The ethnologist seeking to learn something of the music of a people will come across it randomly in a variety of sources on that particular people, but he will largely be forgotten by the ethnomusicologist who wrote them, if in fact he was ever remembered. From all the random sources, the ethnologist will learn something of great interest and value. But it will have a scattered and poorly coordinated character, and valuable details will be frequently lost to him through the dispersal of information in obscure or unavailable publications.


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