Sustainable Music


Tuesday, April 29, 2008

The real early music

Ethnomusicologists a generation before me discredited evolutionary theories of music's origin, but acoustic ecology gives us new insights into this major question. The evolutionary theories were regarded as too speculative, theory without fact. Besides, the racist odor of cultural evolutionism and social darwinism hung over the project. Finding music's origins, and reconstructing an original musical language (following the spectacular success of linguistics, which had postulated a proto-Indo-European language) was the project that both constructed and doomed comparative musicology. As of the 1950s the successor discipline, ethnomusicology, had a different project: ethnographic studies of music-making among contemporary human groups, from which comparative analysis might proceed on a sounder basis at a later date. Twenty years later, ethnomusicologists in the United States had become more interested in how people experience music, and what music means to people, than in musical transcription and comparative analysis of structure and function. Only a very few ethnomusicologists were asking questions about music's origin in the 1970s and 1980s. Yet by the 1990s cognitive scientists were pursuing these questions, again by means of evolutionary theory, which was making a comeback. Conferencing with one another and publishing scholarly articles, out of which a few popular books have emerged, they have made it possible to be taken seriously when speculating on early music--the real early music. But in light of acoustic ecology, their pursuit appears too narrowly focused on music rather than on sound, too beholden to analogies between music and language, too Eurocentric, too human-centric. In this pursuit I find that it is more helpful to think in terms of the niche that human sounds occupy in the overall soundscape, and the acoustic interdependence of their sounds with the sounds of the natural world. A few ethnomusicologists--notably Steve Feld, Tony Seeger, and Marina Roseman--have pursued acoustic ecology among the Kaluli, Suya, and Temiar peoples. We can learn from them.

Monday, April 28, 2008


Analogous to landscape, soundscape refers to the acoustic environment in a particular place. As a landscape is seen, a soundscape is heard. The soundscape includes all the sounds, music or not. The rattling of a window by the wind, speech broadcast on the radio, the hum of a computer's hard drive, the whoosh of air moved by a fan, the sound of tapping on the keyboard--we are surrounded by sounds. An acoustic ecology embraces the entire soundscape, not just music. We may consider music as soundscape--this is not really new--or we may ask about music within the context of the soundscape. That is, we may think about music as one kind of creature utterance within a soundscape, the utterance of human creatures. Two ecological principles apply to natural (non-human) soundscapes: niche and interdependence. Examining sound spectrograms in places where no human sounds are present, Bernie Krause found patterns showing that the sounds made by various creatures occupy particular aural niches based on frequency, timbre, rhythm, and other structural features. In other words, every species has its particular bioacoustic niche. Further spectrogram examination revealed to Krause that in a healthy, wild habitat creatures vocalize in a symbiotic, or interdependent, relationship, sensitive also to non-creature sounds such as made by wind, water, rain, thunder, and other elements of the acoustic environment. The health and sustainability of a soundscape is revealed by the variety of aural niches and the degree of interdependence of the individual voices. Where is music in the soundscape?

Sunday, April 20, 2008

How to think about music

Attempts to answer the question "what is music" land us in an essentialist swamp, for music is both sound and cultural product, with the notions of what music "is" and "is not" varying from one human and one group to another. Although ethnomusicologists a generation ago discredited evolutionary thinking about music, today scientists, philosophers and aestheticians have returned to the questions of music's origins and meanings with a vengeance. Did musical sound precede language, or vice versa, or did they emerge simultaneously, perhaps from a common ancestor? Is music (without words) a kind of primitive language of the emotions? Is it a language at all? Does musical sound have something like a vocabulary and a grammar; is it rule-governed? How does music communicate? What does music mean? How does music mean? Why assume universal answers to these questions when music is so culture-specific? Ecological thinking leads us in a different direction: how do people experience musical sound within an overarching soundsphere? What is the acoustic ecology of musical sound in various personal and group spaces?

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Music as resource?

Thinking about sustainability usually involves resources. Insofar as sustainability refers to a process that can continue indefinitely, renewable resources help sustain those processes. Sustainable forestry, for example, is based on human interventions that maintain a stable forest ecosystem conducive to harvest and regrowth. Is it useful to think of music as a renewable resource?  

Friday, April 11, 2008


Welcome to "sustainable music." The term "sustainable" has been doing a lot of heavy lifting lately. We hear of sustainable energy, sustainable agriculture, sustainable forestry, even sustainable clothing. Everyone seems to want to live a sustainable life. We are concerned about global warming, aka climate change. Sustainable means so many things these days that some claim that no one knows any longer what it really means. In my view, that is the mark of a powerful idea: that it does mean many things. Here I explore sustainable in relation to music.

When I speak to colleagues in ethnomusicology, I speak in academic language. It is the language of the university world. And so in this research blog I theorize various ways that music can be thought about as a human biocultural resource. In a nutshell, I will critique the currently prevailing sustainability strategies aimed at encouraging musical diversity by embracing economies through commodified products. Instead, I favor community partnerships encouraging collaborative, small-scale, amateur, face-to-face music-making without mediation or display. I believe that insights from applied ecology and from organic gardening will help in thinking about music and sustainability.

I have been thinking about "worlds of music" as music-based cultural ecosystems since 1984 when I introduced the idea in the book, Worlds of Music (New York: Schirmer Books, 1984, p. 9): "Each world [of music] can be regarded as an ecological system, with the forces that combine to make up the music-culture . . . in a dynamic equilibrium." In saying so, I was implicitly drawing on my understanding of ecosystem science as developed by Howard Odum, whose book Fundamentals of Ecology (1953 and subsequent editions) was important to me as an undergraduate in the 1960s. There, Odum developed Arthur Tansley's taxonomic understanding of ecosystems into a dynamic model centered on energy exchanges. Music exchanges are at the center of music-culture ecosystems.

Although much of my activities over the years as a folklorist and ethnomusicologist have involved music and sustainability, I began to try to theorize it more systematically a few years ago, writing and lecturing on the subject beginning with the Nettl Lecture at the University of Illinois in the spring of 2006, and then organizing a panel on music and sustainability for the annual conference of the Society for Ethnomusicology in that same year. I also spoke about musical and cultural sustainability at the American Folklore Society conference that year.

I will be posting to this blog various observations and ideas on music, sound and sustainability, some from past years, others going forward. Readers interested in the subject are invited to post comments and suggestions.