Music, Anthropology of

Thomas Turino. New Dictionary of the History of Ideas. Editor: Maryanne Cline Horowitz. Volume 4. Detroit: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2005.

The phrase anthropology of music is most closely associated with Alan P. Merriam’s 1964 landmark book bearing this title. In this prescriptive text, influential through the 1980s, Merriam defines ethnomusicology as the study of music in culture in relation to the mutual interactions of sound, behavior, and concepts. In consonance with many ethnomusicologists to this day, Mieczyslaw Kolinski (1967) responded that anthropological considerations should not dwarf an emphasis on the study of musical sound, per se, and he took Merriam to task for being too dogmatically anthropological. Kolinski argued that ethnomusicology is, in fact, a field at the juncture of two distinct disciplines: comparative musicology, which is the study of musical styles and systems from different societies, an integral part of general musicology; and musical anthropology, the study of the role music plays in human societies, an integral part of general anthropology. In 1987 Anthony Seeger described his book Why Suyá Sing as “a kind of musical anthropology as distinct from an anthropology of music—a study of society from the perspective of musical performance, rather than simply the application of anthropological methods and concerns to music” (p. xiii).

From these statements three general orientations emerge: (a) an emphasis on musical sound, styles, and performance in non-Western societies described in their cultural context; (b) an emphasis on analyzing musical sound and style in dialectic with social processes through the application of anthropological methods and concerns; and (c) an emphasis on social life and processes as studied through musical styles and performance (“musical anthropology”). Ethnomusicology emerged as an independent discipline in the 1950s, and the first two orientations characterize the majority of ethnomusicological work. The third orientation, that which uses musical data to understand social processes, might be identified with the disciplines of ethnomusicology and/or anthropology, often depending on the disciplinary identity of the scholar.

Anthropologists who focus on music represent a small minority within the discipline and, Bruno Nettl writes, “the practitioners of the types of study labeled as the ‘anthropology of music’ … have accounted, I reckon, for less than one-fifth of all ethnomusicologists, but among them have been many of the field’s great leaders” (p. 62). Since the 1980s, the anthropology of music approach probably represents a larger portion of ethnomusicological work, and anthropological methods and theories have provided an important basis for the discipline as a whole throughout its development.

Musical Anthropology

Ethnomusicologists have documented the fact that many societies in the world do not have a single word or concept akin to the English term music. Nonetheless, scholars engaged with musical anthropology and the anthropology of music typically use the Western concept to define the boundaries of their study. Anthropologists have approached music in two basic ways: first, as a type of data to further general social theories or models, and second as a basic component of social life that deserves ethnographic description along with other cultural domains. An example of the first type is the Kulturkreis, or German diffusionist school in the decades around the turn of the twentieth century. Musical instruments and measurable musical traits, especially pitch organization, proved attractive data for determining the historical development of cultures and hypothetical contact between distant regions through mapping the distribution of cultural trait and artifact clusters. Anthropologists sought out help from their musicological colleagues such as Curt Sachs in this endeavor. Melville Herskovits used musical data prominently in his work on “Africanisms” in the Americas and in his theories about cultural continuity and acculturation. His study of musical styles and linguistic patterns led him to hypothesize that cultural practices that remain low in focal awareness tend to be more stable in situations of contact.

The defensive tone at the beginning of Robert Plant Armstrong’s The Affecting Presence: An Essay in Humanistic Anthropology (1971) suggests that aesthetic systems and emotional experience were not well-accepted concerns in anthropology before this time, but an interest in such topics as The Anthropology of Experience (Victor Turner and Edward M. Bruner, eds., 1986), The Anthropology of the Body (John Blacking, 1977), and the anthropology of emotion has grown. These topics provide a natural point of intersection for anthropology and music scholarship. David P. McAllester, anthropologist and a founding father of American ethnomusicology, conducted groundbreaking research on Navajo social and aesthetic values through a study of music associated with the Enemy Way ceremony. Steven Feld’s Sound and Sentiment (1982), a study of Kaluli myth, song performance, and emotional experience (a classic in the ethnomusicological literature), was widely read by anthropologists and has been particularly influential.

Recently, in relation to globalization, musical data has again appeared as significant to anthropologists for addressing broader theoretical issues. In discussing the cultural homogeneity-heterogeneity dialectic within late-twentieth-century processes of globalization, Arjun Appadurai, for example, writes:

We have a growing series of studies of cultural production worldwide, especially in the areas of music, film, and advertising, which let us look into the sites and institutions through which global commodities are locally interpreted by producers as well as consumers. The study of “world music” by ethnomusicologists is perhaps the best developed of these subfields. In general, these studies have produced a broad consensus that cultural differentiation tends to outpace homogenization, even in this most interactive of economic epochs. (p. 6,269)

The second type of anthropological engagement with music saw music simply as one component of culture that deserved ethnographic description along with other aspects. Merriam notes that “While anthropologists in the earlier history of the discipline almost always included music in their ethnographies, the tradition has become steadily less practiced, particularly over the past decade or two” (p. 18). Bruno Nettl likewise sees a decline in the description of music in anthropology textbooks and monographs generally after the mid-twentieth century. It may be that anthropologists who did not feel technically competent to deal with music simply decided to leave the topic to their ethnomusicological colleagues once this became a viable option. The perceived decline may also be partially a matter of disciplinary definition in that, increasingly after ethnomusicology became established in the late 1950s, anthropologists and specific works that predominantly focused on music simply came to be considered ethnomusicological.

It remains unclear, however, if the generalization about a former prominence and later decline in descriptive musical anthropology really holds. Franz Boas and his followers took a holistic view of culture and often discussed or at least mentioned music, as did Bronislaw Malinowski. George Herzog was an anthropologist so deeply concerned with music that he comfortably fits within comparative musicology. Nettl also cites Melville Herskovits, Robert Lowie on the Crow (1935), and Clark Wissler on the Blackfoot, among others, for including music in their ethnographies. He specifically highlights Margaret Mead’s Coming of Age in Samoa (1928) as including a “short but insightful ethnography of music” (p. 63). The level of detail about music in this work, however, is easily matched and exceeded by anthropologists who published studies during the suggested period of decline—including Norman Whitten’s work on currulao (an African-derived music-dance tradition from the Pacific coast of Colombia and Ecuador) in Black Frontiersmen (1974), Hans Buechler’s study of Aymara panpipe performance in Bolivia as a window to social organization, William Mangin’s work on migrant regional associations in Lima, Bruce Mannheim’s work on Quechua songs, Jose María Arguedas’s work on mestizo-indigenous relations in Peru, Ellen Basso’s study of Kalapalo performance, Richard Price and Sally Price’s work in Suriname, Fremont E. Besmer’s study of the Hausa Bori cult, Colin Turnbull’s discussion of Molimo music among the Mbuti, and Peter Fry’s study of nationalism and spirit mediums in Zimbabwe, just to name a few examples. Morton H. Fried’s general Readings in Anthropology, vol. 2, Cultural Anthropology (1968), includes two chapters on music and ethnomusicology—generous if one considers the number of facets of social life that needed to be covered. Conversely, founding father Edward Burnett Tylor’s Religion in Primitive Culture ([1871] 1958), which considers a realm of life saturated with musical performance, barely mentions music at all. From the Boas camp, Ruth Benedict’s Patterns of Culture (1934) does not mention music.

Comparative Musicology and Ethnomusicology

The emergence of contemporary ethnomusicology is typically traced to the 1880s. Thomas Edison invented the phonograph in 1887—ethnologist Jesse Walter Fewkes was the first to use the cylinder machine in his fieldwork (with Native Americans in 1890 and 1891). During the 1880s, British physicist and phonetician Alexander J. Ellis developed the cents system that divided the octave into 1,200 equal units and allowed for the measurement and comparison of scales from different societies. Ellis concluded that musical scales were not grounded on natural laws but “capriciously” differed from one society to the next. Thus he introduced the need for a culturally relativistic approach to musical analysis and understanding that became a fundamental cornerstone of ethnomusicological thinking, and that predated Boas’s first direct statement about cultural relativism.

In 1885, Guido Adler published an article outlining the field of musicology. Adler divided the study of music into two subfields, historical and systematic musicology, and part of the latter was Musikologie—”comparative study [of non-Western music] for ethnographic purposes” (quoted in Nettl, p. 20)—a field that became known as comparative musicology, that grew into contemporary ethnomusicology, and that, along with historical musicology, has become one of the two main branches of musicology. As it has developed, historical musicology is devoted to the study of European and European-derived elite music repertories and composers with an emphasis on style development as well as studies that describe European elite music in its cultural context. By default, the remainder of the world’s musics, including European and American “vernacular” musics, became the defining subject of comparative musicology and later ethnomusicology (e.g., see Kunst, p. 9).

Comparative musicology is most strongly associated with the “Berlin School” (originally based at the Psychological Institute of Berlin), and Carl Stumpf, Erich M. von Hornbostel, and Otto Abraham, and their students and associates including Curt Sachs, Kolinski, George Herzog, and Klaus Wachsmann. In his synthetic discussion, “The Problems of Comparative Musicology” (1905 [1975]), Hornbostel emphasizes the need to compare scales, intervals, and rhythmic organization of the world’s peoples; his primary emphasis is on issues of musical sound, with theorizing about psychological and anthropological issues being secondary—a position maintained by Kolinski and many others.

Drawn generally from anthropological tradition, by the 1950s fieldwork became a basic prerequisite for professional standing in ethnomusicology. The early comparative musicologists, however, had little fieldwork experience and often based their research on recordings made by others—a style of work that became known as armchair ethnomusicology. The lack of in-depth fieldwork precluded the type of detailed social-musical analytical integration that began to emerge in the 1970s under the banner the anthropology of music.

The Anthropology of Music

Many musicologists maintain a Western aesthetic ideology of autonomous art. Against this backdrop, scholars with an anthropology of music orientation were faced with the challenge of finding theoretical approaches that would help them explain, or at least link, musical style with broader patterns of cultural and social processes. Ethnomusicologists frequently turned to the prominent anthropological theories and problems of any given period for this purpose. Social evolutionism, diffusionism, mapping culture areas, functionalism, problems of acculturation and culture change, structuralism, semiotics, “ethnoscience,” feminist theory, theories of social power, practice theory, and problems of nationalism and globalization, prominently form the historical strata of ideas guiding work in the anthropology of music. Some scholars explicitly combined a variety of theoretical approaches in single publications. While it sometimes appears as if the newest problem or body of theory negates earlier approaches as faulty or outmoded, it is more accurate to view each as a theoretical layer that continues to inform later thinking.

Hornbostel, Curt Sachs, and the widely dispersed scholars influenced by this group (e.g., Carlos Vega in Argentina), are often associated with a social-evolutionist anthropological orientation. This is an oversimplification in that Hornbostel and Sachs, to cite but two examples, contributed to a variety of theoretical discussions and problems, for example, cultural diffusion, music perception, approaches to musical analysis, and the classification of musical instruments, among others. It is probably fairer to say that evolutionist ideas were part of common sense for this generation of scholars. Thus as a reason to study “foreign [contemporary] music” Hornbostel states that “we would like to uncover the remotest, darkest past and unveil, in the wealth of the present, the ageless universal in music; in other words: we want to understand the evolution and common aesthetic foundation of the art of music” (p. 269). In The Wellsprings of Music, Sachs views contemporary tribal peoples as “archaic” and as “the surviving tribes of palaeolithic culture” that provide a window to “early music,” yet he also questions evolutionist ideas: “People do not stick to shallow secondal patterns because they stand on the lowest rung of the cultural ladder … Often a person’s sex appears to be the shaping power; women seem to prefer a smaller step [melodic interval], just as they do in dancing, while men proceed in larger strides and leaps” (p. 62). While social-evolutionism and such broad generalizing became largely discredited after the first part of the twentieth century, it might be argued that the evolutionist “primitive–civilized” contrast served as the paradigmatic background for the “traditional–modern” dichotomy that remains in currency, with many of the same problems.

Several ethnomusicologists followed the American anthropological trend of grouping different societies into culture areas. Bruno Nettl created a map of Native North American musical styles following the cultural mapping of anthropologists such as A. L. Kroeber; and Alan P. Merriam created a map of African musical culture areas following Herskovits. Later Alan Lomax attempted to map the world’s musical areas. The musical areas that form the basis of Lomax’s canto-metrics project, especially, have been questioned for creating an overly homogenized view of constituent musical cultures based on rather thin data. Nonetheless, in practice the culture area idea, writ large, forms a fundamental basis for organizing courses in ethnomusicology, for defining scholars’ specializations, and in the writing of textbooks and reference works—all typically organized according to geographical units.

During the 1950s and 1960s, practitioners of the anthropology of music embraced functionalism as a way to link music-making to social life. More akin to Malinowski’s approach than A. R. Radcliffe-Brown’s “structural-functionalism,” ethnomusicologists began to emphasize what certain types of music contributed to certain realms of activity—healing, labor, political structure, family life, social cohesion. In The Anthropology of Music, Merriam states, “The uses and functions of music represent one of the most important problems in ethnomusicology” (p. 209). In contrast to Kantian ideas that the “aesthetic” and “functional” realms preclude each other, McAllester’s Enemy Way study demonstrated that for many Navajo, the musically “good” or “beautiful” was defined according to its effectiveness for healing, that is, a performance was judged importantly in terms of how well it fulfilled its function. Although few ethnomusicologists after the 1960s would consider themselves functionalists, describing the deeper purposes that music serves remains a basic part of music ethnographies.

During this same time period and through the late twentieth century, an interest in musical change and acculturation echoed anthropological interests. One of the most widely accepted theories of musical acculturation, advocated by Merriam, Richard Waterman, and derived directly from Herskovits, held that musical cultures were more likely to blend together or influence each other if they shared a number of similar traits. Nettl and Margaret J. Kartomi created typologies for the different effects of culture contact. John Blacking published an influential article advocating the search for a unified theory of musical change emphasizing a distinction between change within a musical system and change of the system. Robert Kauffman argued that culture change or acculturation could not be read off surface forms, such as the adaptation of a foreign musical instrument, but rather, that modes of musical practice, organization, and aesthetics were the key variables for assessing culture change.

Practitioners of the anthropology of music loosely adapted Lévi-Straussian structuralism as a key approach in the 1970s and 1980s. Typically, ethnomusicologists were not concerned with Claude Lévi-Strauss’s starting point, the common structure of the human mind. Rather, working on a culture-specific basis, they assumed that there would be deep structural patterns that would shape (surface) cultural practices and forms, creating homologies across different domains of social life. Thus, Charles Keil identified patterns involving circles and angles, in roof designs, visual arts, and in music, and Adrienne Kaeppler found homologies across different realms of Tongan art and society. Combining the earlier interest in homologies with the Peircian concept of iconicity, Judith Becker and Anton Becker found similar structures in Indonesian calendrical concepts and gamelan music; Steven Feld documented the iconicity of aesthetics, practices, and style across a number of domains of Kaluli social life; and Thomas Turino observed a series of symmetrical structures organized around a centerline in Aymara panpipe and flute ensembles, in Andean weaving, in the conceptualization of agricultural niches, and in the organization of space during festival celebrations.

During the same period, some ethnomusicologists took an interest in the premises and methods of structural linguistics for musical analysis; this represents a different trajectory than Lévi-Straussian structuralism, and the scholars involved tended to hail from the musicological rather than the anthropological side of the discipline. Other ethnomusicological approaches related (sometimes through opposition) to structuralism and linguistics involved “the ethnography of performance,” following sociolinguistics and the “ethnography of speaking,” and the “ethnoscience” approach.

Frequently, the early discussions of “culture contact” and acculturation did not take power relations between the groups into account as a primary variable. Beginning in the 1980s, younger scholars influenced by Marxian ideas, and especially the work of Antonio Gramsci, began to study the effects of asymmetrical power relations and identity politics on musical values and practices. During the 1990s, the study of music in relation to identity politics became a central topic in the anthropology of music. Since social identities are fundamental to political life, and public expressive cultural practices such as music and dance are key to formulating and representing social identities, ethnomusicologists have made major contributions to understanding the dynamics involved—often from a valuable grassroots perspective.

Jane Sugarman’s work documents the fundamental ways musical performance functions in processes of socialization shaping conceptions of gendered identities and roles, and Christopher Ballantine provides an insightful essay on gendered power dynamics in South African popular music. Many others have studied the intersection of ethnicity, race, and class in relation to popular music practices and aesthetics. State intervention in indigenous and popular music has received significant attention. Another prominent ethnomusicological topic has been the effects of political nationalism on music. Finally, the study of transnational or “global” economic processes in relation to the production and reception of music—especially popular musics and styles within the “world music” rubric—has become a central focus in the anthropology of music.

Whereas European classical music was once deemed the primary type worthy of study, over the last three decades of the twentieth century “world music” classes and textbooks proliferated in response to several intersecting trends. The discourse of multiculturalism has certainly supported the growth of the interest in “non-Western” music. Multiculturalism itself may be seen as a liberal trend that is partially the result of anthropologists and ethnomusicologists advocating cultural relativism for over a century. It is also partially the result of the women’s and civil rights movements’ demand that artistic canons be expanded to include a variety of groups. Simultaneously, multiculturalism also functions as a new type of state strategy (e.g., in contrast to the “melting pot”) to incorporate the variety of immigrant groups into nation-states and to mitigate challenges to the image of national unity.

Commercial music trends have intersected with the work of ethnomusicologists to expand the interest in, and familiarity with, a variety of musics from around the world. A fascination with the “exotic” has long been part of American and cosmopolitan popular culture—examples include nineteenth-century minstrelsy, “Latin” dance crazes and stars like Carmen Miranda throughout the twentieth century, and hippie (and the Beatles’) interest in “Eastern” religion and sitar music. Following the international commercial success of Bob Marley and reggae, new marketing rubrics—”world beat” and “world music”—were adopted in the 1980s to sell a variety of musics from around the world. The more enterprising “world music” fans have turned to the work of ethnomusicologists to expand their knowledge of different styles, and ethnomusicologists have sometimes collaborated in commercial “world music” projects.

Finally, the contemporary discourse of globalism—which might be interpreted as ideologically supporting the expansion and control of trans-state capitalist interests and institutions in the post-Soviet era—has brought new recognition to the work of ethnomusicologists. The discipline has had a global perspective since its inception, but ethnomusicologists’ detailed studies of the wealth of human creativity as well as the profound musical and aesthetic differences among social groups do not support views of an emerging “global culture,” or its likelihood in the near future.