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Anthropology of Music

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.

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