Thoughts on Music and Culture – a discussion

Thoughts on Music and Culture: a discussion with reference to “Music and Culture: Historiographies of Disjuncture” by Philip V. Bohlman and “Music and Social Categories” by John Shepard, both essays from “The Cultural Study of Music – a critical introduction”.

According to Bohlman, the recent historical development of academic musicology has focused almost exclusively on musical structure in itself. This intense theoretical scrutiny of music has resulted in the de-humanising of music and musicology in its evolutionary progress.

In the medieval ages, and up to the 17th century in Europe, religion formed an integral part of the social framework. In fact, religion represented the society at large. Music existed within this prominent central religious context, an indispensable and inextricable part of social and cultural tapestry. For example, the musical structure of the Mass was divided into three parts, corresponding with the idea of a Triune God. Musical elements and structure were determined and intertwined with social and religious ideas, and music was studied within these contexts.

After the 17th century, however, the focus and identity of music began to change. By the 19th century, the focus and direction of musicology had radically altered to centre upon ideas of musical genius (the virtuoso), the form, structure and elements of music themselves. Right up to the present times, musicology is aimed at “music for music’s sake” – the exaltation of music as an entity in itself, removed from any context.

Bohlman refers to this emergent schism as the ‘disjuncture’ between music and culture, suggesting that this disjuncture should be the raison d’etre behind the study of music and culture. This disjuncture, however, appears to be largely a European phenomenon, as music has developed rather differently in other non-European cultures. Chinese music has always served a social purpose, roughly divided into subcultures of folk music, court music and scholarly music. In Indian art music, for example, the religious connotations and rhythmical relationships of the ‘ragas’ are still being taught today as part of the process of musical study. A pertinent question is raised: Why, when music has been accepted for centuries as part of cultural and social life, does modem European musicology resist the recognition of this relationship? Is this exaltation of music above common everyday life and culture, a calculated political move to protect the hallowed position of the musical elite, musical academia, in society, a reflex action of insecurity, or a reflection of the rupture between formal learning and society at large?

Music has intrinsic and extensive power. It is a familiar idiom, existing in all cultures and readily identifiable as a means of communication. Yet. it is a nebulous force. not easily understood or contained.

Since music reaches beyond cultural boundaries as something common to all cultures, it can and has been used as a potent tool for the purpose of exercising supremacy. Sadly, religion was a cogent force for colonization and domination. This can be seen clearly in the colonial histories of South America, India, Africa and Asia. Christian missionaries from Western Europe transcribed and recomposed religious music for the purpose of proselytizing other cultures to Christianity. The state, in turn, used the Christian zeal for proselytizing to colonise the cultures won over to the new religion. In the music of Christianity, one can see the potency of music as a dominating force. Christianity had its roots in Jewish history. Half the Christian bible, called the ‘Old Testament’, was taken from the Judaic Tenach. Yet, the written text itself had no cultural influence upon the evolution of Christianity to what it is today, which essentially is now a Western European religion. The subsequent conversion from a Jewish sub-religion into a Western European one would have been far less significant to the rest of the world and this religion would not have become such a dominant force if not for its musical history and sheer power of its music.

Music also has the power to draw attention to racial differences, incite racism and inspire racial identity and expression. In Nazi Germany, during World War II, music was used to elevate the status of German culture and justify its persecution of people from a ‘lesser’ culture, namely the Jews. The racist views of German musicians were given elevated status and their music used as propaganda for this purpose. Wagner’s anti-semitic views were widely publicised and his music given prominence during Nazi Germany as a means of inculcating ideas of German supremacy.

Another compelling example of musical power in culture is its position in the rise of Nationalism. While in itself not a negative development, music in nationalism can become a dangerous tool for the purposes of imperialism.

Take for example the WWII “German folksong collection” (deutsche Volksleidlandschaften) which Bohlman mentions in his essay. This was a massive exercise in which German folk songs from small pockets of German communities across Europe were collected and published as a whole canon to encourage and bring about sentiments of Germanic racial awareness and unity across Europe.

The seemingly innocuous activity of collecting and bringing together folk songs created a ‘majority out of a minority’, thereby extending Germanic borders. This vehicle accorded lopsided power to what was up till then a relatively small country in Europe, whose language was not widely spoken, resulting in mass destruction and German imperialism.

Another powerful example, not present in either article, is the use of music during the Cultural Revolution in China. Almost all the repertory of Chinese art music gathered through thousands of years of history was banned by the Communist Party and replaced with music exalting Communist Nationalism. The power of this crude propaganda is yet another chilling reminder of the crucial role of music in human history. The far-reaching effects of this is still evident in China today, where a few generations of Chinese have grown up completely ignorant of the vast richness of their musical and cultural heritage.

In the area of eschatology, music retains its power despite the disintegrating effects of globalization upon the doctrines concerning the human soul in relation to the spiritual or mystical ideas of death and the after-life. In countless crises or milestones in human history, music played an ‘omnipresent’ role, standing on both sides of human devastation and edification, and holding its own. While music was used by Nazi Germany to empower and promote fascism, it also served as a channel for expression and a voice for the victims of the Holocaust. One famous work evocative of this suffering is the Quartet for the End of Time, by Olivier Messaien, who was incarcerated in a Nazi concentration camp for his purported pro-Semitic sentiments, although he was not a Jew. In modern globalisation, a ‘world-identity’ has gradually evolved in music, with music lending its power to contemporary forces of commercialism and consumerism. Music today also serves as a voice for radical sub-cultures, giving power to the protestations of the social minorities. Some examples are the rap music of African-Americans in the USA and the ‘Skinhead’ music of the radical right in Europe.

The centrality of music within the core of human culture is even more strongly evident in the history of popular music. It seems to me, then, that musicologists who adhere to the long outdated and erroneous ideal of ‘music for music’s sake’ have completely missed the point of what music is and its intrinsic importance to humanity. A paradigm shift is called for in the study of music, for only then can we acquire a true balanced picture of the significance of music in human life.

Shepherd’s essay highlights the importance of popular music study alongside that of ‘art music’. The role of music in everyday life is more vividly evident in the study of popular music.

Popular music gave the common people a powerful voice, it was the vehicle through which the people could be heard, and a reflection of popular social sentiments. In the USA, some of the most potent music of the 20th century was written as a response to the Vietnam War. Musical icons such as Bob Dylan emerged, the Woodstock Festival was born and the formidable ‘hippie culture’ evolved simultaneously. In Hong Kong, the music of Sam Hui played an important role as the voice of the people for the people, during the economic depression of the 1970s. Written in the colloquial lingua franca of the people, with use of simple rhythms, harmony and catchy melodies, Hui’s songs encouraged, exhorted and gave the man in the street hope, forging a wider ‘working class’ identity among the poor, oppressed and struggling.

The two essays by Bohlman and Shepherd both raise serious problems in the way music is studied inside the walls of institutions of higher learning. Definitely, there is a pressing need for a major paradigm shift. The integral role of music in human history and the potent power of music must be recognized, and more focus should be placed upon investigating how music is framed within the social and cultural context of human existence. Music should now be studied in the light of a new global culture and move away from the archaic Eurocentric methodology. There is a long overdue necessity to correct the erroneous exclusivist and imperialistic idea of Western European art music being superior to popular music, or the musical traditions of other cultures. If the study of music were to avoid regression and subsequent extinction, these are issues which musicologist and ethnomusicologist should not ignore either out of disinterest, insecurity, or for fear of setting off nihilistic tendencies or inspiring destructive ambition as a result of their findings. The urge to conquer and expand boundaries is inherent in our human DNA. Perhaps we should press on for the much needed change, not borne out of fanciful dogma for a ‘new order’ in the world, but out of a driving inner need which humanity intrinsically possesses, to expand our boundaries where these boundaries are no longer physical but mental and ideological.

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