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?