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.

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