Social Contexts of Music: Traditional and Modern Social Systems and Musics

One of the most profound statements about analyzing music:

“…a musical system should first be analyzed not in comparison with other musics, but rather in relation to other social and symbolic systems within the same society.” John Blacking (1984)

In my new books I have made much of how in modernity consequences occur in our lives mainly through strangers who do not know each other and are not accountable to each other (amongst other social properties).  We still know our families (but not our extended families) but our main consequences/ resources in life no longer involve them.  This has huge ramifications, including (I argue) the rise of the ‘generalized other’ in thinking and the rise of generalized anxiety and generalized depression.

The same ramifications can also be found in music, drawing on John Blacking’s quote but looking at what Jill Stubington (2007) says about more ‘traditional’ Aboriginal music in Australia, with people still living mainly in kin-based communities.  Even in our Western society known as modernity, social relationships determine musical activities, talking and thinking, but in different ways to kin-based communities (hence John Blacking).

“In Aboriginal belief there is often a denial of human agency in the creative process.  The songs most highly valued are the ‘old’ songs considered to have been taught in the very beginning by the ancestral heroes to the people they created.  In some song traditions in Australia the repertoire is regarded by musicians as having been absolutely fixed by the ancestral heroes and not to be modified in any way.   Performances, too, are required to be exactly the same each time they are given.  These traditions are not discussed in this book because they are thought to be too powerful and dangerous to be revealed to people who are not ritually prepared.”

“In contemporary Western culture, composers are recognized, honoured and rewarded for their work.  Composers, it is thought, produce named and eventually numbered pieces of music which are significantly original.  Their source is assumed to be personal inspiration… the value of their work is diminished if it is judged to be derivative.  Originality is a prized element.  Composers own their works and the copyright is theirs.   They are entitled to a payment whenever money changes hands for a performance… Music in Western society is no longer tied to function.  There was once a time when work songs, war songs, love songs, birthing songs, lullabies and music for worship existed in Western culture, and they directly aided the task at hand.  Nowadays these kinds of music are regarded as inferior, and the most prestigious music is that which rises above ‘mere’ functionality in order to become an intellectual and emotional activity…  Separated from its social functions, it refers only to itself and is evaluated according to technical and aesthetic criteria.”

“One day in the mid-1970s I was sitting with an Aboriginal family on a blanket in front of their house at Yirrkala, in north-east Arnhem Land, listening to an old woman singing a mourning song.  A baby had recently died.  In a rich, deep voice, the old woman sang long, highly-ornamented, descending phrases.  Spellbound, I turned to her granddaughter, Mary, and said, ‘Your grandmother sings beautifully.’  Mary looked at me in horror: ‘She’s not singing,’ she said, ‘She’s crying!’”

All from Stubington (2007). Singing the Land: The power of performance in Aboriginal life.


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