by Vida Chenoweth
The missions community is becoming increasingly aware of music as a means to understand peoples and communicate the gospel to them in culturally relevant forms. Undergirding this growing emphasis is the conviction that music must be understood and communicated in its local variations.
The missions community is becoming increasingly aware of music as a means to understand peoples and communicate the gospel to them in culturally relevant forms. Undergirding this growing emphasis is the conviction that music must be understood and communicated in its local variations. But is it also possible that music, a common expression of humanity worldwide, has universal principles applicable to all cultures? Here I will offer two possibilities which result from the investigation of 76 music systems from around the world. Of course, without an understanding of a culture’s music, suggestions from a foreigner may be a disservice to that culture’s composers.
We want to hear all peoples praise God in their own unique music, but if one is not a trained ethnomusicologist, the most important contribution toward this goal is to encourage creativity within a people’s own music and language.
What in the human psyche compels us to sing and to invent musical instruments? While we cannot search for the world’s first music, we can learn why people are incurably musical via historical records such as the Old Testament and through anthropological studies of isolated, preliterate tribal groups hidden in the forests, deserts, and jungles of the earth. The philosopher Cassirer speaks of their music as an imitation of life; he notes that art in general is an intensification of reality through created symbols. He intimates that our striving for transcendence is derived from one spiritual root as mankind searches for God, and that before there was any doctrine or knowledge, human consciousness contained within it a relation to God. Langer, noted for her writings on aesthetics and symbolic logic, speaks of music as a “semblance of time” and an illusion of life through a commanding form.
Some early forms of music copy nature but eventually transcend it. As Cassirer would have it, the copy becomes the prototype. A musical genre, originally meant to empower people or objects through certain rites, chants, and ceremonies may later actually become the power. In other words, the music itself begins to mean what it originally was supposed to confer. This has deep implications for understanding musical styles.
In some cultures, musical creativity seems to progress from mimicry of the natural to magic and efficacy. At another stage, it assumes independence and a spiritual dimension all its own. It becomes itself. However, this does not mean that music has a fixed meaning. Hearers experience music emotionally and spiritually within a wide range of response. This range of response can differ radically, even within a particular culture.
Do universals in music exist? Obtaining sufficient data to reach a decision requires years of recording, transcribing, and analyzing music systems from around the world. After devoting 35 years of my life to analyzing and contemplating different music systems, I want to peer through the other end of the telescope and discover how the human mind produces these music systems, spheres we cannot enter fully. As strangers, we can approach them by one of two paths—with vicarious affirmation or with resistant denial.
Of course, we can dig deeper. This means we must understand the music’s structure. For those of us not born to the culture, we must approach the task through empirical observation and logical analysis at first, always understanding that this work is mere prelude. For a conclusive understanding, an ethnomusicologist must come face to face with the culture’s music makers.
This may require years of living in the community, and later, submitting one’s analysis to their assessment, not so much by discussion as by participation. Bypassing this learning period is like trying to understand French politics by reading a French grammar text.
Most cultures are oral traditionalists, with most of these homogeneous to an extent that there is no need to theorize about music. In many cases, musical terms are known only by cultural absorption; they elude the foreignercompletely. The responsible scholar must scrutinize a culture’s musical parameters along with its continuum of sound and structure, from the most minute tone-to-tone relationship to the lengthiest describable segment, until the whole is perceived as a logical discourse. The aesthetics and anthropological significance of a culture’s music must be learned from within the culture. Then, with this information in hand, we can compare different music systems.
What features are common to all music? A continuum of pitches and their organization in time, melody, and rhythm occur in all music. Whether the number of pitches is one or myriad is irrelevant. And every melody has an intrinsic organization of timing (melodic rhythm). The ethnomusicologist knows, however, that cultural selections of pitches and rhythm block musical understanding between cultures. Thus, there is no universal music. The presence of melodic and rhythmic elements merely defines music. These cannot be considered universals in themselves because they differ so greatly.
All melodies have a tonal plan whose gravitational point is a tonal center (or, dual tonal centers as found in regions such as North Solomons Province of Papua New Guinea, and among some Pueblo Indians of New Mexico). The way the other tones relate to tonal center varies with each culture’s set of music elements. Nevertheless, the fact that there is a tonal plan operative in melody and governed by a tonal center suggests that the presence of tonal center is a universal.
One last proposal for a universal in music is rhythm, because of its relation to the rhythms of the human body. Even tempo has physiological connection. A fast tempo usually means excitement and not a downcast spirit, lightheartedness rather than solemnity. As with most generalizations, there are exceptions. Among the Mbulu of Cameroon, all tempos are quick, led by elaborate drum patterns. But when commemorating a death, the drums are omitted. Meanwhile, African-Americans in New Orleans have traditionally played lively music in funeral processions, the most famous example being “When the Saints Go Marching In.” In both cases, the mood of sorrow is negated by an overlay of joyful rhythm.
I propose that rhythms in music can transfer the same mood cross-culturally by identifying with biological rhythms. Exceptions come from mood denial, our misinterpretation of the musical text, or disregard for stylistic options whose formal characteristics identify a historical period, a regional style, an activity, or a personal style within the culture. If any feature of music comes close to a cross-cultural meaning, it is rhythm.
Cassirer, Ernst. An Essay on Man. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1944.
The Myth of the State. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1946.
The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1955.
Chenoweth, Vida. Melodic Perception and Analysis. Papua New Guinea: Summer Institute of Linguistics, 1972.
The Usarufas and their Music. Dallas: SIL Museum of Anthropology, 1979.
Langer, Susanne K. Philosophy in a New Key. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1942. Feeling and Form. New York: Charles Saibner’s Sons, 1953.
Sachs, Curt. The Wellsprings of Music. The Hague: Martinus NIjhoff, 1961.
Vida Chenoweth is international consultant in ethnomusicology with the Summer Institute of Linguistics and is also professor emerita from Wheaton College Graduate School and Conservatory of Music. She is a major contributor to the Encyclopedia of World Music and the Library of Congress Archive on Folk Cultures.
EMQ, Vol. 35, No. 2, pp. 161-165. Copyright © 1999 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.