Few things get music scholars more nervous than cross-cultural comparisons. The field of ethnomusicology, which was invented to inquire into this very subject, has grown increasingly uneasy with this part of its mission. The ethnomusicologist, in the words of Bruno Nettl, does not seek out such comparisons, but rather serves as “the debunker of generalizations.” Anthony Seeger has offered a similar perspective, expressing his resistance to “the privileging of similarities over differences.” In other words, if human beings from different cultures share certain musical proclivities and practices, academics in the field would rather not hear about it.
The prevalence of this resistant attitude is so extreme that researchers Steven Brown and Joseph Jordania, in their recent consideration of the subject, were forced to conclude that “many decades of skepticism have prevented the field of musicology from embracing the importance of musical universals.” When the subject is addressed, they add, it is almost always in the form of “meta-critiques about the concept of universals,” rather than actual consideration of empirical evidence. This would be peculiar under any circumstances, but is especially so given the growing amount of evidence that runs counter to the isolationist assumptions of the academic music community.
Yet music scholars are hardly alone in their preference for differences over similarities. Their views reflect a prevailing paradigm embedded in a wide range of cultural studies during the middle decades of the 20th century. Individual cultures, in the influential words of anthropologist Ruth Benedict, “are traveling along different roads in pursuit of different ends, and these ends and these means in one society cannot be judged in terms of those of another society, because essentially they are incommensuarable.” Let physicists seek out unified theories — in the human sciences the motto has long been vive la différence.
In truth, any field of comparative study, including musicology, cannot dispense with comparisons and generalizations. And even amidst a scholarly field that is suspicious of universal rules, the quest to identify them recurs with each generation. It was a dominant theme in the 19th century, when cross-cultural studies were pursued by ambitious systematizers who hoped to encompass all human behavior and practices in their grand schemas. In the 20th century, this approach often came under attack, but still reappeared in strange, new guises, under names such as structuralism, Jungian archetypes, or cantometrics, among others. Musicology has not been entirely immune to these approaches, but for most of its recent history it has tended more toward the “incommensurability” camp, preferring to assess individual trees rather than describe the forest.
I would argue that the time has come to question this allegiance to the particular and reconsider the explanatory value of musical universals. Important recent findings in related fields, for example Harvard professor E.J. Michael Witzel’s paradigm-changing exploration of the origins of human mythology, present a serious challenge of the incommensurability model and should not be ignored by music scholars. In linguistics, increasing focus on language macrofamilies, for example in the work of Joseph Greenbesrg or the Russian Nostratic linguists, is having a similar impact; the same is true of the genetic research into the so-called “African Eve.” At the same time, the expanding claims of neuroscience increasingly encompass the field of music, and though many of the assertions of scientists in these fields are reductionist and clumsy, the more incisive biological research tends to support the universalist approach. In a peculiar turnabout, the systematizers have returned, but they are now publishing peer-reviewed clinical studies in scientific journals instead of constructing the fanciful taxonomies of the past.
And how do music scholars respond to this body of research? For the most part, they act as if it doesn’t exist. Ethnomusicologists and neuroscientists teach at the same universities, but apparently they don’t talk to each other. The music experts insist that every local performance tradition is unique and incommensurable, while across campus the scientists are demonstrating that all song traditions converge on the basis of universal human characteristics. Perhaps someone should bring these folks together for lunch and have them work out their differences?
Over the last two decades, I have found myself gradually forced to abandon the incommensurability doctrine and accept — at first begrudgingly, but over time with a growing confidence and certainty — the existence of a whole host of musical universals, ones that are typically ignored or downplayed in world music studies.
So the time has come for the pendulum to shift once again. In the 21st century, researchers into musical cultures may do rightly to question rigorously the privileging of particularities over similarities and be bolder in opening their purview to the commonalities of human music-making. As practitioners of a cross-cultural discipline, this has always been an obligation — but today, more than ever, it also represents best practices and sound methodology.
Yet what a pleasant state of affairs! The idea that ethnomusicology serves some higher purpose by stressing how little we have in common is a peculiar tenet. This view is deeply ingrained in the field but would deserve questioning even if we didn’t have so much evidence that it promotes a flawed methodology. Wouldn’t scholars rather devote their energies to showing how much our interests and practices converge, rather than emphasize our differences and incompatibilities? Isn’t that part of the higher mission of the arts and humanities and perhaps more timely today than at any juncture in the past? So those who love music shouldn’t feel threatened by the contributions of the sciences and social sciences to the study of human music-making. Rather than representing outside influences, they may serve as invaluable reminders of music’s power to break down boundaries and geographical divides. Perhaps reaffirming our respect of this remarkable capacity of music might even help us overcome these divisions in other spheres of social life.
As someone persuaded by experimentation that the boundaries between sonatas and ragtime and between 18th century contrapuntal approaches and blues riffs are all, ultimately, permeable, I'm inclined to agree. To piggyback a bit on Ethan Iverson's blogging earlier this year ...
If you can take, say, guitar works by the early 19th century masters of the instrument and demonstrate thematic/melodic connections to a song performed by Johnny Cash, you'd think this would be a case that we should not think of musical styles as locked down.
Did that a week ago
If the people at Yale don't want to teach jazz as part of the Western musical tradition (at all) that's too bad, and mistaken. We're reaching the point that blues is more than a century old, easily. As in 12-bar.
Something Charles Rosen pointed out in The Classical Style, if memory serves, was that what Haydn and Mozart and Beethoven managed to do was synthesize the academic and popular music idioms of their time and place. Something Leonard B Meyer pointed out decades ago that I don't just so happen to agree with is that what in the 18th century musical language was a thought process was misunderstood and misapplied by 19th century theorists and pedagogues as plug-in forms and formulas. Not a big shock there if the 19th century theorists began to feel as though fugues and sonatas were dead rituals if they misunderstood sonata and fugue because they took a reductionist approach to begin with. Bach might use a tonal answer where Handel might use a real answer. If the "textbook" sonata form had two contrasting themes in two contrasting keys what about all those Haydn sonatas (or some by Clementi, too) where there was just one core idea?
Thanks to generations considering Mozart more "deep" than Haydn, I think Haydn's wonderful capacity to synthesize folk and scholastic elements can be overlooked. His music isn't for everyone, sure, but if Richard Taruskin is genuinely concerned that art music has become arid and isolated from ordinary people on the one hand, and popular styles cultivate blunt bodily reactions on the other I think a shortfall, much though I enjoy a lot of what he has to say, is that an academic approach to music that brackets off musical styles as having impermeable boundaries will reinforce the problem.
And we may have to settle for exploring musical commonalities at a more lay level or a practical musician's level. If I doubt that someone will want to listen to a Haydn string quartet that doesn't mean I can't introduce them to the idea of a rondo. Stevie Wonder's "Contusion" can be heard as a five-part rondo. If anything what I would suggest pop music over the last century has championed that classical music has often flubbed is the beautiful simplicity and elegance of its forms.
I understand why people are worried that symphonies play the same old repertoire and big musical institutions devoted to classical music are having a rough go of it. As someone who's never been a career musician inside that track it's too bad to watch those institutions falter but guitarists are already considered functionally outside the mainstream of classical music. Matanya Ophee's "Repertoire Issues" may be stirring the pot decades later but it seems on point. When music critics at The Guardian can, decade after decade, talk about how innately and inherently limited classical guitar literature is they may just keep proving they don't know it that well. They might not like Angelo Gilardino's guitar sonatas if they heard them but they're out there to be heard.
Meanwhile, well, there's other points that could be made about Gioia's proposal that we actually look for musical universals but I don't feel like writing those on a weekend, or at least not this weekend. Or at least not right now.