The Anthropology of Music

The Anthropology of Music

by Alan P. Merriam

ISBN: 9780810106079

Publisher Northwestern University Press

Published in Calendars/Music

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Ethnomusicology today is an area of study caught up in a fascination with itself. Although its roots can be traced back some eighty years, and its origin perhaps even earlier, it is only within the past ten or fifteen years that, under the impetus of younger scholars who had brought to it new concepts of theory, method, and application, it has taken a sudden forward surge. The result has been a new awareness of its obligations and an internal probing for a real understanding of what it is and does and the purposes toward which it is directed.

Ethnomusicology carries within itself the seeds of its own division, for it has always been compounded of two distinct parts, the musicological and the ethnological, and perhaps its major problem is the blending of the two in a unique fashion which emphasizes neither but takes into account both. This dual nature of the field is marked by its literature, for where one scholar writes technically upon the structure of music sound as a system in itself, another chooses to treat music as a functioning part of human culture and as an integral part of a wider whole.

The roots of ethnomusicology are usually traced back to the 1880's and 1890's when activity in the field began with studies conducted primarily in Germany and America, and the two aspects of ethnomusicology appeared almost at once. On the one hand was a group of scholars who devoted much of their attention to the study of music sound, and who tended to treat sound as an isolate, that is, as a system which operates according to its own internal laws. To this was added the search for the ultimate origins of music, which arose partially from the theoretical thinking of the time, primarily in connection with the concept of classic social evolution. As social evolutionary thinking changed gradually, and the concept of world wide diffusion began to emerge in the thinking of the British heliolithic school, and later in the Austrian Kulturhistorische Schule, the search for ultimate origins continued, but added to it was an equally intense search for specific origins in geographically defined areas.

At approximately the same time, other scholars, influenced in considerable part by American anthropology, which tended to assume an aura of intense reaction against the evolutionary and diffusionist schools, began to study music in its ethnologic context. Here the emphasis was placed not so much upon the structural components of music sound as upon the part music plays in culture and its functions in the wider social and cultural organization of man.

It has been tentatively suggested by Nettl (1956:26–39) that it is possible to characterize German and American "schools" of ethnomusicology, but the designations do not seem quite apt. The distinction to be made is not so much one of geography as it is one of theory, method, approach, and emphasis, for many provocative studies were made by early German scholars in problems not at all concerned with music structure, while many American studies have been devoted to technical analysis of music sound.

While ethnomusicology has inevitably been affected by the two aspects of its own study, it has also received the impact of historic event. Ethnomusicology and anthropology both began to develop as disciplines at a time when man's knowledge of man was in general restricted to Western and, to some extent, Far Eastern cultures. Anthropology emerged, partly at least, in response to a felt need of Western scholars concerned with human society and behavior to broaden their knowledge by extending the range of data available to assemble comparative information which would give them facts about the world beyond the boundaries of the classic civilizations of Europe and Asia. To anthropology was left almost the entire study of so-called "primitive" men, and the anthropologist was forced to assume responsibility for all aspects of the cultures of these people — the technologic and economic, the social and political, the religious, the artistic, and the linguistic. Early ethnomusicologists, recognizing as well the need for broader comparative materials, assumed responsibility for studying the music of all the hitherto unknown areas of the world, and thus an emphasis came to be placed upon the study of music in the non-Western world.

Partly, at least, because anthropology and ethnomusicology grew up at almost precisely the same time, each influenced the other, although the impact of the former upon the latter was the greater. Ethnomusicology tended to be shaped by the same theoretical currents which shaped anthropology, and indeed there is evidence to indicate that Erich M. von Hornbostel, widely regarded as the outstanding historic figure in the field, considered the two disciplines to be in the closest sort of relationship (1905); other early scholars held the same view.

In view of the dual nature of the content of ethnomusicology, it is not surprising to find that definitions of the field, as well as more general discussions of its proper boundaries, have differed widely and have tended to take polar extremes, depending upon the emphasis desired by the individual scholar.

Early in its history, ethnomusicology, or comparative musicology, or exotic music as it was then called, was most often defined in terms which stressed both the descriptive, structural character of the study and the geographic areas to be covered. Thus Benjamin Gilman, in 1909, put forward the idea that the study of exotic music properly comprised primitive and Oriental forms (1909), while W. V. Bingham added to this the music of Dalmatian peasants (1914). This general point of view has carried forward into contemporary definitions as well, where geographic areas are stressed rather than the kinds of studies to be made. Marius Schneider says that the "primary aim [of ethnomusicology is] the comparative study of all the characteristics, normal or otherwise, of non-European [music]" (1957:1); and Nettl defines ethnomusicology as "the science that deals with the music of peoples outside of Western civilization" (1956:1).

The difficulty with this kind of definition is that it tends to treat ethnomusicology not as a process of study, but rather as a discipline which has importance only because of the implied uniqueness of the area it studies. The emphasis is placed upon where rather than upon how or why, and if this be the aim of ethnomusicology, then it is indeed difficult to see how its contribution differs either from musicology, in the sense that its techniques are implied to be identical, or ethnology, in that a similar area of the world is stressed.

Other definitions of ethnomusicology have tended to broaden its scope and to approach, at least, a processual rather than a static geographic distinctiveness. Willard Rhodes, for example, took a step in this direction, albeit a tentative one, when he added to the music of "the Near East, the Far East, Indonesia, Africa, North American Indians and European folk music," the study of "popular music and dance" (1956:3–4). Later, Kolinski objected to the definition of ethnomusicology as "the science of non-European music" and noted that "it is not so much the difference in the geographical areas under analysis as the difference in the general approach which distinguishes ethnomusicology from ordinary musicology" (1957:1–2).

Jaap Kunst added a further dimension, although qualifying the types of music to be studied, when he wrote:

The study-object of ethnomusicology, or, as it originally was called: comparative musicology, is the traditional music and musical instruments of all cultural strata of mankind, from the so-called primitive peoples to the civilized nations. Our science, therefore, investigates all tribal and folk music and every kind of non-Western art music. Besides, it studies as well the sociological aspects of music, as the phenomena of musical acculturation, i.e. the hybridizing influence of alien musical elements. Western art- and popular (entertainment-) music do not belong to its field. (1959:1)

Mantle Hood took his definition from that proposed by the American Musicological Society, but inserted the prefix "ethno" in suggesting that "[Ethno] musicology is a field of knowledge, having as its object the investigation of the art of music as a physical, psychological, aesthetic, and cultural phenomenon. The [ethno] musicologist is a research scholar, and he aims primarily at knowledge about music" (1957:2). Finally, Gilbert Chase indicated that "the present emphasis ... is on the musical study of contemporary man, to whatever society he may belong, whether primitive or complex, Eastern or Western" (1958:7).

To these various definitions, I have elsewhere added my own, stating that for me ethnomusicology is to be defined as "the study of music in culture" (Merriam, 1960), but it is important that this definition be thoroughly explained if it is to be properly understood. Implicit in it is the assumption that ethnomusicology is made up both of the musicological and the ethnological, and that music sound is the result of human behavioral processes that are shaped by the values, attitudes, and beliefs of the people who comprise a particular culture. Music sound cannot be produced except by people for other people, and although we can separate the two aspects conceptually, one is not really complete without the other. Human behavior produces music, but the process is one of continuity; the behavior itself is shaped to produce music sound, and thus the study of one flows into the other.

The distinction between musicology and ethnomusicology has most often been made in terms of what the former encompasses, though what the latter encompasses is not often made explicit. Gilbert Chase suggests that the "line" between the two be drawn on this basis: "Might not these two allied and complementary disciplines divide the universe of music between them, the one taking the past as its domain, the other the present?" (1958:7). Charles Seeger makes a suggestion along the same lines, while arguing that it is only a divisive one and not to be tolerated: "But prerequisite ... is more general recognition of the fact that continuation of the custom of regarding musicology and ethnomusicology as two separate disciplines, pursued by two distinct types of students with two widely different — even mutually antipathetic — aims is no longer to be tolerated as worthy of Occidental scholarship" (1961b:80).

While in theory Seeger's aim is both admirable and proper, the fact remains that scholarship in the two fields is divided in intent and area of concentration; even more to the point, ethnomusicology itself has seldom come to grips with its own problem of where its interests lie. Whereas the dual nature of the discipline can be, and unfortunately often is, a divisive factor, it is also indubitably a strength, and I venture to suggest that it is perhaps the major strength of ethnomusicology. Music is a product of man and has structure, but its structure cannot have an existence of its own divorced from the behavior which produces it. In order to understand why a music structure exists as it does, we must also understand how and why the behavior which produces it is as it is, and how and why the concepts which underlie that behavior are ordered in such a way as to produce the particularly desired form of organized sound.

Ethnomusicology, then, makes its unique contribution in welding together aspects of the social sciences and aspects of the humanities in such a way that each complements the other and leads to a fuller understanding of both. Neither should be considered as an end in itself; the two must be joined into a wider understanding.

All this is implicit in the definition of ethnomusicology as the study of music in culture. There is no denial of the basic aim, which is to understand music; but neither is there an acceptance of a point of view which has long taken ascendancy in ethnomusicology, that the ultimate aim of our discipline is the understanding of music sound alone.

As in any other field of study, the work of the ethnomusicologist is divided roughly into three stages, given the prior planning and preparation of the project at hand. The first of these lies in the collection of data, and in the case of ethnomusicology this has most often meant work in the field outside Europe and America, though there have been exceptions to this general rule. The collection of field data involves the complex and multiple problems of the relation of theory to method, research design, methodology, and technique, as well as other problems existing in all disciplines which follow patterns of research more rigorous than intuitive.

Second, once the data have been collected, the ethnomusicologist normally subjects them to two kinds of analysis. The first is the collation of ethnographic and ethnologic materials into a coherent body of knowledge about music practice, behavior, and concepts in the society being studied, as these are relevant to the hypotheses and design of the research problem. The second is the technical laboratory analysis of the music sound materials collected, and this requires special techniques and sometimes special equipment for the transcription and structural analysis of music.

Third, the data analyzed and the results obtained are applied to relevant problems, specifically in ethnomusicology and more broadly in the social sciences and the humanities. In this over-all procedure, ethnomusicology does not differ significantly from other disciplines. Rather, it is in the use of its special techniques, and perhaps particularly in the necessity for welding together two kinds of data — the anthropological and the musicological — that ethnomusicology is unique.

Since a discipline can be defined, and since it can also be described in terms of what its practitioners do, then at least by implication it is shown to have specific aims and purposes. This question has not been widely discussed in the ethnomusicological literature, though four kinds of approaches can be discerned.

The first of these is probably the most widespread in the discipline, and it is one which is common in anthropology as well. This is the point of view, basically protective in nature, that the music of other peoples of the world is much abused and maligned; that such music is, in fact, fine and worthy both of study and appreciation; that most Westerners do not give it its due; and that therefore it is up to the ethnomusicologist to protect it from the scorn of others and to explain and champion it wherever possible. In a sense this is the outcome of the historic fact that ethnomusicology, like anthropology, takes the world as its field of study and reacts against more specialized disciplines which concentrate attention only upon phenomena of the West. This point of view has appeared frequently in ethnomusicology either through direct statement or by implication. Jaap Kunst, for example, reacts with some intensity to the Western view that the music of other peoples is "nothing more than either expressions of inferior, more primitive civilizations, or as a kind of musical perversion"(1959:1).

This kind of argument implies that the purpose of ethnomusicology is to disabuse ethnocentrics of the notion that the music of other peoples is inferior or unworthy of study and appreciation, and this must indeed be considered one of the aims of the discipline, for ethnocentrism must be attacked wherever it is found. Yet this is but one of several purposes which can be subsumed under a broader heading.

A second approach to the problem of purpose in ethnomusicology is found in the frequently expressed fear that the music of the "folk" is fast disappearing and that it must be recorded and studied before it is gone. This point of view was taken as early as 1905 by Hornbostel, and perhaps earlier by others; it has been expressed over and over again in the literature. Hugh Tracey, for example, in his first real editorial in the African Music Society Newsletter, commented on the problems of "... working against time in studying the receding natural art forms of [Africa's] people," a theme which he has since consistently stressed (1949:2). Many others have taken this approach. Some have stated specifically that it is the duty of ethnomusicology to preserve materials; thus in writing about tribal, folk, and Oriental music, Curt Sachs comments:

Such music cannot be bought in stores, but comes from faithful tradition or from personal contributions of tribesmen. It is never soulless or thoughtless, never passive, but always vital, organic, and functional; indeed, it is always dignified. This is more than we can say of music in the West.

As an indispensable and precious part of culture, it commands respect. And respect implies the duty to help in preserving it. (1962:3)

Excerpted from "The Anthropology of Music" by Alan P. Merriam. Copyright © 1964 by Alan P. Merriam. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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