Face the Music

There’s growing evidence for musical universality. So why are music scholars ignoring it?



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?

And how do music scholars respond to this body of research?
For the most part, they act as if it doesn’t exist.

Music scholars have sometimes had good reasons for resisting the path of cross-cultural systemization. In the past, such approaches have frequently been linked to generalizations on race and normative assumptions about the characteristics of “primitive” and “civilized” cultures. The definition of universal categories often involved assumptions about purity or authenticity or progress that did not hold up under close scrutiny and distorted the interpretation of empirical data. In the face of this long, ugly history, so deeply embedded in the early roots of cross-cultural studies, ethnomusicologists properly resisted such biases. Generalizations were treated with caution, and close attention to the particularities of musical cultures was justifiably preferred, practiced, and taught.

Yet the new cultural universals are different from those of the past. Instead of coming pre-packaged with biased and normative assumptions about the stages of human progress, they now often arrive in tandem with powerful methodological tools, drawn from the sciences, statistics, and mathematics. In many cases, these methodologies are less susceptible to bias and misuse than the traditional approaches of empirical ethnography.

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. My initial reasons for doing so had nothing to do with neuroscience or findings in related disciplines. All that came later. At first, I was simply trying to solve some intractable problems raised in the course of my research into music history. These problems could not be solved under the existing paradigm and forced me to look for answers elsewhere.

I have published three book-length studies devoted to cross-cultural study of the role music in day-to-day life: Work Songs (2006), Healing Songs (2006), and the most recent Love Songs (2015). My goal in undertaking this research was not to identify musical universals — if anything, my expectations when I embarked on these projects back in the early 1990s was that they would celebrate the diversity rather than the singularity of these categories of human music-making. But the more deeply I delved into song categories such as the work song and love song, the more I found inexplicable patterns of congruity and similarity, even at a granular level of detail, that required some kind of explanation — and an explanation beyond the standard diffusion or functional models of the social sciences.

For example, in my study of early accounts of music in healing rituals, I could not ignore the unexplained patterns that emerge in far distant parts of the globe. Perhaps a diffusion model could explain why Siberian shamanism has so many shared characteristics with Native American practices, but how does one address this same congruence of shamanistic rituals and belief systems among the aboriginal population of Australia or the San people of Southern Africa? Did Siberian shamanism really travel to South Africa, or vice versa? This could hardly be the case, yet assigning these similarities to pure coincidence seemed even less persuasive.

These same rituals and belief systems, almost always accompanied by specific musical practices, are also echoed in the Western myth of Orpheus. When Vittorio Macchioro first proposed, back in a series of lectures given at Columbia University in 1929, that Orpheus might be considered a shaman, similar to those documented in the anthropological literature, this view was shocking to classicists, yet even more surprising discoveries were soon made. Back at the same time Benedict was publishing her incommensurability thesis, A.H. Gayton was also sharing her finding that 50 different Native American tribes possessed an Orpheus myth — although, in a revealing example of cultural blindness, no scholar had apparently noted this in the 250 years since Jesuit missionary Jean de Brébeuf first encountered this story among the Huron. Later researchers have added to Gayton’s findings, identifying more examples in Native American myths as well as in other cultures. Once the blind spot was removed by Macchioro and Gayton, new horizons were opened.

Orpheus and the Beasts (1595). Sebastian Vrancx

Such blind spots still exist — I’ve encountered a number in my cross-cultural studies of musical practices — and are obstacles to the advancement of our understanding of human music-making. In my more recent research on the history of love songs, I’ve identified a number of surprising and inexplicable patterns that haven’t been addressed in the existing scholarly literature. These involve the mirroring of the musical traditions of European love lyrics in locations where geographical diffusion seems impossible — for example, an inexplicable congruence between historical aspects of the love songs of Sappho in ancient Greece and the Confucian tradition of folk songs in China. I’ve found similar enigmas in studying the origins of the lullaby, the lament, the fight song, and other music categories. As noted below, there are methodological tools for probing into these matters, but many of these tools — for example, multivariate statistical analysis — are not always found in the toolkits of musicologists.

The study of mythology faces this same question of universals, and scholars in the field have long been faced with enigmas of the sort outlined above. Why are myths of a great flood found in so many cultures, even those established in locations where no such flooding could have taken place? Why does the figure of the trickster appear in the myths of so many societies? Why do creation and destruction myths reveal such pan-global similarities? The two most commonly proposed solutions — diffusion and Jungian archetypes — remain unsatisfying. Functional solutions connecting myths, for example, to comparable ecological or economic necessities hold some explanatory power, but are not sufficient to encompass the full scope of the apparent universality of these myths. E.J. Michael Witzel, in his recent work into the origins of mythologies, has gathered a substantial amount of evidence to support a new solution to this old problem. He proposes a common origin of many myth patterns in the Paleolithic period, reaching back toward the time of the African Eve, our shared genetic ancestor. Under this interpretation, some myths have survived a descent of around 3,000 generations — an extraordinary but perhaps not impossible lineage, and one that overcomes the limitations associated with standard diffusion and archetypal explanations.

If myths could remain stable over such long periods of descent and migration, might not musical practices reveal similar resiliency? If so, this could resolve some of the enigmas I’ve encountered in my own research and also establish hypotheses for future studies in a number of fields, especially musicology. And Witzel’s approach, for all its virtues, is just one of several models for pursuing the study of musical universals.

If myths could remain stable over such long periods of descent and migration, might not musical practices reveal similar resiliency?

In the current day, discussions of universals in music and other spheres of human culture must inevitably lead to a consideration of the expanding claims of neuroscience. Even casual music fans who pay little attention to trends in research have noticed this new state of affairs — as testified by huge sales of books such as Daniel Levitin’s This Is Your Brain on Music or Oliver Sacks’ Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain. In truth, this is hardly a new field of study. Even the ancients understood the connection between rhythmic phenomena and mental states, but the modern age of research into the brainwaves and music can be dated back to the early 1960s, when Andrew Neher published his oft-cited study “Auditory Driving Observed with Scalp Electrodes in Normal Subjects.” It is revealing that, only a year later, Neher published another paper that attempted to explain “ceremonies involving drums” by means of his brainwave research. Even at that early stage, neuroscience began its advance — or perhaps intrusion, depending upon your perspective — into an area previously the domain of musicologists. By the time the Danube Symposium of Neurology met in Vienna a decade later to discuss the “neurology of music,” this field of inquiry was in full bloom, with medical researchers now offering their views on music education, composition, performance — even the nature of musical genius.

I am troubled by many aspects of this movement that sometimes offers powerful insights to scholars involved in the study of musical cultures but also frequently serves up unconvincing or facile generalizations — for example Steven Pinker’s reduction of music to a kind of “auditory cheesecake” for the brain, not much different from junk food or cocaine. It “could vanish from our species,” Pinker asserts, “and the rest of our lifestyle would be virtually unchanged.” I doubt that many scholars who have studied at close hand the ways musical practices are embedded into social structures would support such a view. Yet in other instances I have applied the learnings of neuroscience to particular problems in historical research with beneficial results. Neher’s research into brainwaves mentioned above is invaluable in understanding the musical practices found in shamanistic rituals. In any event, interest in this area of research shows no signs of abating; indeed the enthusiasm for “grounding” the arts in neuroscience is probably greater today than at any time in the past. Music scholars need to enter actively into a dialogue with those conducting this research, both to offer guidance and receive it.

To some degree, this attempt to find cultural universals in the brain is a restating of the solution offered by Jungian psychology. The clinicians and researchers who embrace the theory of archetypes tend to speak of the human “mind” rather than the “brain,” but the overarching view that our biological organisms come pre-loaded with cultural predispositions is shared by both camps and promises to serve as a bridge between psychology and neuroscience. In my research, I have found little value in Jungian concepts as explanatory constructs. For example, Jung’s explanation of improbable coincidences as a demonstration of his theory of synchronicity ultimately explains nothing — it merely offers a new name to an old enigma. Now, instead of asking why coincidences happen, we ask why synchronicity happens; the substitution brings us no closer to an understanding of why musical practices in different parts of the world share so many characteristics. Yet the increasingly feasible marriage of archetypal thinking with neuroscience research has the potential to revitalize Jungian methodology and increase its value for those studying embedded musical practices. Once again, music scholars need to play an active part in guiding this process.

Just as neuroscience has given a fresh impetus to the attempt to ground universals in the structure of the mind, so has the greater precision of modern environmental studies provided us with better tools for explaining similar musical practices in locations where diffusion models fall short. In my research into the musical culture of hunter-gatherer, farming-based, and herding societies, I found that the day-to-day demands of survival in these settings lead to congruent musical practices even in instances where diffusion seemed unlikely or impossible. But when I asked a prominent ethnomusicologist about the prevalence of flutes, panpipes, and plucked string instruments in herding communities in different parts of the world, he seemed taken aback that I would want to make generalizations about such matters. The very idea struck him as presumptuous. Yet my question was hardly a matter of imposing external value judgments on these cultures. The pattern here was almost certainly a result of the preferences of the herded animals, not of the researcher. Have you ever tried to insert a drumming circle in the midst of grazing animals? Trust me, it’s not a wise idea. In short, there is a simple environmental explanation for this preference for soothing music in such settings — a preference that is reflected even today in our use of the term pastoral to refer both to herding occupations and a specific style of music.

Have you ever tried to insert a drumming circle in the midst of grazing animals? Trust me, it’s not a wise idea.

If we hold on to the dominant isolationist musicology, how do we explain the eerie resemblance between the love song sentiments of the French troubadours and the 12th century Georgian epic The Knight in the Panther’s Skin? “This could not be due to Western influence — it is scarcely conceivable that Provence should have traveled into the Caucasus,” declares the baffled medievalist Peter Dronke. “Georgia makes her own Provence freshly and unaided.” Or how do we explain the similarities between the songs of the geji, the singing courtesans of China, with the music of prostitutes from medieval Europe? Or the way Rumi’s spiritualization of the Persian love lyric is matched by a comparable effort by St. Francis and Dante half a world away? In these instances, as in others I could cite, very different local conditions have created quasi-universal musical responses.

Before concluding, let me summarize the explanatory models that are behind the resurgence of universal models of music-making. The six options listed below represent tools at our disposal and each of them may help in our comparative studies. In most instances, these models are more robust and powerful than they were a few decades ago and deserve reconsideration from researchers who, until now, have believed that musicology should be suspicious of “the privileging of similarities over differences.”

As these categories make clear, we have come a long way since the systematizers of the 19th century attempted to impose their schemas on the human sciences. None of the explanatory models listed above imply an imposition of Western values or other normative categories on empirical data. Indeed, they offer powerful tools for resisting the distortions of traditional methodologies — even those of the incommensurability doctrine, which, despite its apparently benign goal of celebrating the particularities of each culture, also contains within it a biased, normative stance.

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. •

Ted Gioia writes about music, literature and popular culture. He is the author of ten books, most recently How to Listen to Jazz

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13 Comments on "Face the Music"

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Robert B
11 months 26 days ago

The rich development of Western art music from the Medieval period to today has no parallel.
This is one reason that this music is the dominant one in the world.

Matias Jordan
11 months 26 days ago

Its unbelievable that Mr Gioia never heard about the high cultures of Meso and South America.

C.S. Day
11 months 29 days ago

Yes! Enough of the incommensurability of cultures, enough of the protectionist strategy to declare that human behaviors are free-floating social facts which cannot cannot be grounded in anything more predictable than human whimsy and chance. This is not only bad science, it’s also bad ethics. When we refuse to acknowledge that human cultures are comparable according to objective criteria, we miss out on a lot of what we can teach each other and end up rehearsing the same mistakes.

1 year 5 hours ago

“Wouldn’t scholars rather devote their energies to showing how much our interests and practices converge, rather than emphasize our differences and incompatibilities?”

I’d say their task is first and foremost to determine what is the case, letting the chips fall where they may…

Regarding the six categories of explanatory accounts, the fourth one, “Shared archetypes” (shared unconscious psychological attributes), can safely be eliminated, because the only possible sources of such shared attributes are exhaustively covered by the remaining five categories.

1 year 9 hours ago

Music a universal? Of course, isn’t it obvious? Like evolution it’s a wonder why it took so long to “discover.” Perhaps one day we shall also see that there is but one culture, human culture, and but one art, the art of living.

But alas! You’ve made a mistake! There are no enigmas to be resolved but only one vast unfathomable enigma. There will always be a unicorn among the beasts charmed not by the lyre.