[…] Norman was doing his doctorate at Columbia in Cultural Musicology, a newly defined academic field that boiled down to historical social analysis from the vantage point of music. It is possible that Norman was the only cultural musicologist in the country, the area per se being definitely an intellectual frontier, formally speaking, although certainly there had been forerunners, musicologists of the old school and music historians who here and there blundered unsystematically into the insights Norman was attempting to organize single-handedly into arrestingly original world view with real conceptual muscle, capable of yielding fresh and if necessary lethally incisive slants on immediate problems. For example, what precisely had been the repercussions, if any, of the Wagner-Nietzsche dialogue? What statements might be made about Soviet society on the basis of its effect on Shostakovich’s symphonies? Did contemporary music instrumentalized from cards shuffled and selected at random incorporate a philosophy of chance as a controlled element, or was it more properly viewed as an outgrowth of the jazz riff? Why did a girl with legs like hers carry a flute? (Kelly Cherry, Augusta Played, Dzanc Books, Westland, 1979)

Cultural Musicology, Cultural Studies and Cultural Analysis

The author wistfully remarks “Norman’s questions frequently veered into sexual ones”. Possibly this is why we haven’t seen any important publications. Or perhaps it’s because he is fictional and fictional characters aren’t very good at publishing real stuff. But “Norman didn’t just think about sex; he thought with sex. It was one of his tools for dissecting culture” and that runs parallel with his conception of cultural musicology. I guess Kelly Cherry might have been familiar with the work of Gilbert Chase, who thought he coined “cultural musicology” in 1972. As I have discussed elsewhere the idea is considerably older, a beautiful exposition of it is proposed by Fidelis Smith in 1959. Chase suggested it was a better designation for ethnomusicology much in the same way as Jaap Kunst had proposed to replace comparative musicology by ethnomusicology. Decades later, Lawrence Kramer thought cultural musicology would be a better term for new musicology because of the transitory nature of ‘new’. But if anything, for me cultural musicology is not a new name for an old thing. Not for ethnomusicology (and that term should indeed be banned), because ethnomusicology is a social science whereas cultural musicology belongs in the humanities, more in particular in cultural studies or even more particularly in cultural analysis.

Mieke Bal remarks:

Cultural studies has evolved out of a polemic against the arbitrariness of disciplinary boundaries, the often exclusionary assumptions involved in the aesthetics on which much work by humanists is based, and the separations, first between aesthetics and ethics and then between art and social issues, which were relegated to the social sciences. (1999, p. 6)

But she also is critical of the achievements of cultural studies:

… it has not been successful (enough) in developing a methodology to counter the exclusionary methods of the separate disciplines (2003, p.30)

… has involuntarily ‘helped’ its opponents to deepen rather than to overcome the destructive divide between les anciens and les modernes (2003, 31)

… the interdisciplinarity inherent to cultural studies has given university administrators a tool with which to enforce mergings and cancellations of departments (2003, 31)

In the light of these problems she founded the Amsterdam School of Cultural Analysis which has been very successful both in academic output and attracting students. I created a section on musicology within ASCA, in which cultural musicology is indeed considered the cultural analysis of music and not the cultural study of music. The two editions of the book The Cultural Study of Music make disastrously clear why the editors refrain from speaking of a cultural musicology: the whole book is a medley of a mostly superficial diversity that makes no sense at all. That is why I insist on referring to cultural musicology as the cultural analysis of music. In a separate webpage/chapter I discuss in more detail the field of cultural analysis and its relevance for music.

In this sense cultural musicology is closer to the ageing new musicology, but that branch of enquiry is again very limited to the music of Ludwig, Gustav and ‘the rest of the guys in the band’ (the designation Lewis’ assistant Hathaway used for the romantic poets in Lewis S2E1, And the Moonbeams Kiss the Sea).

My cultural musicology is a musicology of Charles Seeger’s brand, the study of all music: music from anywhere, anytime. And my musicology is cultural because I want to know how culture forms and transforms music and what music tells us about culture. In short, cultural musicology is the cultural analysis of music and the musical analysis of culture. One may well ask if cultural here isn’t moot: isn’t music always culture? Possibly, but I would like to distinguish it from historical musicology and systematic or cognitive musicology. From my perspective the historians look at sequences, at developments, at timelines. And systematic musicology studies the workings of music, its building blocks and how we experience them. These three dimensions of musicology don’t live apart, they need each other symbiotically. Whatever they do they don’t do apartheid. Being concerned with any music doesn’t mean all music. That has been taken care of by the comparative musicologists of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It was very neat of Kunst to polish off comparative musicology in 1950, exactly halfway the twentieth century. Don’t be surprised if in the course of my deliberations on cultural musicology I occasionally find fault with Kunst’s “ethno-musicology”.

Cosmopolitanism and Music

One of the central issues in cultural musicology has to do with the cosmopolitization of music. The musicologies of the world are born of the musics of that world, and the musics of the world are born of their musicologies. Some believe musicology is secondary to music, that music is first and that musicology follows and studies it. But that is incorrect. Music couldn’t exist and evolve without some form of musicology. The notes, the scales, the beats, the rhythms, the whole rigmarole had to be defined for music to get anywhere. Of course, the musicologists that invented all these things were probably musicians: a chicken-and-egg story. It makes it so much easier to do both. Alexander Ellis was tone deaf and he needed to hire an assistant to do the hearing for him. This intimate bond between music and music theorising explains why Indic musicologists were busy with ragas and talas while German musicologists analysed symphonies and harmonies.

And then the Europeans travelled and colonised and heard strange musics that greatly disturbed them. As Momus said: “Hell is other people’s music” (pace Sartre). This confrontation, or should we say encounter, led to an enormous tsunami of hybrid products. European composers appropriated non-European sounds and musical principles, musicologists tried to come to terms with the workings of foreign musics, in the process misinterpreting and deforming concepts. Musical evangelism was an inroad into civilising the barbarians. In short, we need to decolonise musicology. A cultural musicologist will attempt to unravel, to lay bare the disarray. These processes of transcultural exchange, of hybridisation, are not unique to colonialism and neocolonialism. Cultures are not isolated, even if constructions of ethnic identity may suggest the contrary. In India this has led to a refutation of musical influences from the Islamic world, in Pakistan those influences are cherished, while the music is essentially the same (i.e. Northern India and Pakistan, Southern India has a different musical tradition).

Music of the South Asian Subcontinent

While the many cultural traditions of the South Asian subcontinent have interacted since probably some 100.000 years it would be a mistake to think in terms of a single South Asian musical culture. The variety is so bewildering that it is impossible to isolate characteristics they would all have in common. There are two major “classical” traditions, Hindustani in the North and Karnatak in the South. But there are also some “smaller” classical traditions, for instance in Kashmir (Sufiana Qalam)), Odissa (Odissi) and Kerala (Sopanam). There is popular music, in particular the deeply hybrid film music, with a large bandwidth depending on the region. That is also true for the hundreds of regional “folk” musics. And then there are the “scheduled tribes”, still some 700 of them with amazingly different musics. The brass bands originating in the English military have acquired a distinct Indian touch and are indispensable for weddings. Let’s not talk about religious musics for all the different denominations: Shaiva, Vaishnava, Jain, Buddhist, Christian and even among Muslims, for whom music is officially not allowed.

The Musical Analysis of Culture

So if we talk about the musical analysis of culture, what does that mean? We are used to the visual repertory of understanding culture. We have viewpoints and perspectives, we focus, we have a lens, we frame and we even say “I see” when we understand something. Hearing plays a more modest role. Some politicians listen to the people, but we don’t use the funnel to hear culture, and there is no auditory equivalent of a viewpoint or a worldview. I’ll call it the audicon, in which ‘con’ stands for knowledge: old English cunnian, to know, Dutch “kennen”, proto-Indo-European root gno- “to know.” The audicon is the imaginary tool of musicologica, the knowledge of the world through hearing, in particular hearing music. Jaap Kunst used the term musico-logica but he doesn’t really explain what he means. I therefore consider Rafael de Menezes Bastos as the founder of the concept. The book in which this is developed is entitled A musicológica Kamayurá, literally The Kamayurá Music-Logic. Bastos informs that the Kamayurá people—a very small linguistic group in the Amazon—interpret their reality through musical principles rather than language and visual thinking. He gives an interesting background to this approach: in the dense forest one hardly can see more than a few feet whereas one can hear a multitude of sounds. To be deaf is a much greater handicap than to be blind (1999, p. 106-7). The auditory world (anup, hearing) therefore is vastly more relevant than the visual (cak). For the Kamayurá anup means much more than hearing, it stands for world-hearing, their answer to our world-view.

We do many different things with the brain. An important (but dangerous) one is thinking. We think words, images, sounds and perhaps some more specialised domains like chess or math. Judging by the number of book titles with that subject the thinking in images (e.g. Arnheim 1969, Reed 2010) is much more common than thinking in sound. And thinking chess and math may be based on image thinking (Giaquinto 2007, Pandolfini 1995). Visual thinking has an entry in Wikipedia, auditory thinking not. I also don’t know of any relevant book or article titles. As far as I know I do not think sounds (my thinking of images is also quite vague, I don’t know for sure if there is colour for instance) but I do have music playing in my head. Sometime annoyingly so, which is called an earworm. And for that matter there are quite a few books about thinking music (Nettl 1994, Wade 2004, Wilke 2011, Mahrenholz 1998). Nettl and Wade are ethnomusicologists and, as Kerman put it, they roam “the tone-deaf conclaves and enclaves of anthropology” (1985). Kerman should know because he is completely deaf for all music except the Ludwig-Gustav variety. I don’t mind that people specialise in the study of a particular genre, region, period or whatever, but the belligerence with which traditional musicologists proclaim they don’t know—and don’t want to know—anything of ‘other’ music is just racist.

Decolonisation and Terminology

The decolonisation and cosmopolitization of musicology is wrought with terminological confusion. What a person like Kerman is specialised in is what people call western art music: WAM. Some call it classical music, although that is a bit narrower in time. But what do we mean by ‘art’? And what is ‘western’? Some speak of the European tradition, which includes the colonies in which the majority of the population is of European stock. But in Japan, Korea and China that music is also practised. The music we are referring to is as variegated as ‘South Asian’ music. And it is impossible to draw clear boundaries. It interacts and amalgamates with folk and popular, it takes many forms of which some are easy to digest while others are impenetrable or even repulsive. As I mentioned before the early European musicologists primarily studied the music they were familiar with—mainly German elite music. But in the middle of the nineteenth century something very funny happened: they claimed musicology was founded by them, musicology only started then and there. And a hundred years later Jaap Kunst suggested that the study of ‘other’ music started with Adler and Ellis in the 1880s. And then, in the 1950s the most sad thing happened, ethnomusicologists branched off from the musicological mainstream leaving the field of musicology to restrict itself to the study of WAM. Charles Seeger fulminated against this madness when the generic term musicology is restricted to a small section of the musical universe while the general world of music is studied by a discipline that bears a name with prefix indicating a sub-category. That would be like biologists studying only amoebae and microbiologists studying all life.

Musicology and Ethnomusicology

Let’s be simple and clear: musicology is the study of music. Any music. From anywhere, from any time. In any way. Ethnomusicology became the garbage bin of music, the stuff a civilised person (like Kerman) would quickly switch off. When Kunst invented it, ethnomusicology was the study of other music, non-western music so to speak. Most of it was ethnic music of folks and tribes. It came to include jazz and pop-music, which was ‘western’ but not ‘classical’. Those who call themselves ‘musicologists’ have always rejected the idea that jazz and pop could be of any interest at all. Adorno found a justification for this: pop and jazz were products of capitalism, they destroyed true art. Interestingly, but rarely spoken of aloud, jazz and pop are in essence a hybrid form with African and European folk roots. So perhaps my use of the adjective racist is less hyperbolic than it seems. Surely music of the first nations (indigenous American people) was as western as it gets, but it was not Western of course. Primitive really. Alain Danielou was very uncomfortable with the ethno- as he felt the classical (art) music of India was of a different category.

Ethno-musicology is the study of primitive music, and the classical musical art of a developed culture is not a play-ground for Ethnologists and anthropologists (33).

It could not be considered ethnic at all as there are many ethnicities in India, perhaps more than in Europe. But contemporary ethnomusicologists like Henri Stobart define the field as the “ethnography of music”. Bruno Nettl had attempted an ethnomusicological approach to Mozart (1989), but the earlier mentioned Kerman didn’t find it of any interest. What is known as New musicology however is certainly inspired by the ethnography of music. Or, if you like, the anthropology of music (Merriam, Seeger Jr.). I think that the definition “ethnography of music” could be vastly preferred over the “study of ethnic music”, but apart from the point that cultural musicology is not another word for ethnomusicology, I generally am ill at ease with the whole ‘ethno-’ thing. In the school of cultural anthropology where I was trained it was really a nono, we were anthropologists, not ethnologists. The Yale University curriculum says:

Anthropologists are engaged in both ethnographic and ethnological study. Ethnography is the in depth study of a particular cultural group, while ethnology is the comparative study of ethnographic data, society and culture. (https://hraf.yale.edu/teach-ehraf/ethnology-and-ethnography-in-anthropology/ retrieved 2023-03-09).

The reference to “a particular cultural group” is exactly where the shoe pinches. The very idea of a particular cultural group is both limiting and hopeless. Limiting because cultures are by nature hybrid, fluid and osmotic, hopeless because cultural groups do not really exist at all. Note the etymology: ethnos “band of people living together, nation, people, tribe, caste,” and ethne “[…] gentile nation, foreign nation not worshipping the true God” (https://www.etymonline.com/search?q=ethnic, retrieved 2023-03-09).

Anyway, ethnomusicology, ethnography of music, anthropology of music, musical anthropology, Musikethnologie are social sciences, while cultural musicology—as I stated above—belongs to the humanities, as indeed musicology does. Ethnomusicology became big in the USA and the UK but originally Jaap Kunst considered it to be the study of extra-European music. His research was in the Dutch Indies, what is now known as Indonesia. He was a violin player and his interest was more in the structure and workings of the music than in the social functions of it. His disciple Mantle Hood, who took ethnomusicology to the USA continued in that line but gradually ethnomusicology shifted to the ethnographical and anthropological. Jazz and pop studies, in beginning incorporated in ethnomusicology, branched off and conquered a space of their own. Whereas jazz studies occasionally do pay attention to music, pop studies are by and large focus on sociological questions, with the underliying assumption that as music it is not worthy of investigation. Needless to say that the elitist eurocentric enclaves of traditional musicology prefer to keep all this outside with rare exceptions.

The Cultural Analysis of South Asian Music

Coming back to the cultural analysis of music and the musical analysis of culture it should be clear that they are not two separate activities, they go hand in hand, we could even say, to quote Pooh, “It’s the same thing” (Milne 1926, 160). A cultural musicology of South Asia is no different from a cultural musicology anywhere else, apart from the place where it happens. And even that is not quite correct because South Asian music has been travelling a lot. That started long ago when the Roma went westward. My path into Indian music began in the Netherlands, when I heard Anant Lal playing the raga Multani on the shehnai. My aunt had bought a new radio and gave me her old one. I was fiddling with the short wave, heard this music and switched on the tape recorder. Tricky business, but those days I was very fast. On the recording I could distinguish the broadcaster say “This is All India Radio”, and that was just enough to start my quest.

It was 1965 and the years after probably saw the greatest wave of Indian music in the west. In 1966 Stones and Beatles got interested in Indian music, Brian Jones introduced a sitar in My Sweet Lady Jane and the Beatles went to India. Whereas I could only find 2 LPs of Indian music in 1965 at Charles’ music store, by 1967 I could buy some 50 records in different shops. Moreover I met other fanatics who possessed many recordings. Somehow I found out that the instrument I had recorded was a shehnai and the oriental store in the Leidsestraat had one for sale. I couldn’t afford the 130 Dfl but my mother helped. It was a wonderful time, many famous Indian musicians came to the Netherlands. I even went to an event with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, but could not imagine that people would be taken in by that balderdash. In 1968, during the summer holidays, I went overland to India with my elder brother Philip. We had met Vilayat Khan in Amsterdam and he invited us to his residential school in Simla. It was a somewhat desolate place, not very homey. In Delhi we went to All India Radio and it was there that I came to know Anant Lal, the musician of my first encounter with Indian music. He provided me with a real shehnai to replace the tourist toy I had obtained in Amsterdam. In 1970 I went back to India and studied Indian music for many years to follow, travelling back and forth. I had started out on the shehnai but soon became a disciple of Dilip Chandra Vedi, the famous vocalist of Agra gharana, and switched to singing. I didn’t do fieldwork, cultural musicologists don’t do fieldwork. They study music, they practice music, they think music, they may even dream music. Vediji (1901-1992) had been a student of Uttam Singh dhrupadiya of Tilwandi gharana, Bhaskar Rao Bakhle and Faiyaz Khan of Agra gharana and Allayida Khan of Atrauli-Jaipur gharana. Not only was Vediji an extraordinary musician, he also possessed a very deep knowledge thanks to his sharp and inquisitive mind. It is difficult for me to imagine how people can acquire any insight into this music by doing fieldwork. In my beginning years in India I was also enrolled at the Delhi School of Economics where André Béteille guided my research. I came to understand the very fundamental difference between doing research in social anthropology through fieldwork and understanding music as and through a cultural practice. Already in Amsterdam, studying cultural anthropology, it seemed that culture was really was very far away. We learned about marriage and hierarchy among the Anavil brahmins, we learned about exchange theory and networks, we learned about kinship, groups and moieties, but where was culture? At the time I was in Delhi Daniel Neuman was also being guided by André Béteille. His research, which resulted in his PhD later published as The Life of Music in North India (1980), is a typical example of the anthropological approach. It seemed to me that this type of research could just as well have tailors and the life of dress making as its subject. In the end, the anthropological perspective on culture is different from the one we have in the humanities. On the other hand in the musicology of the European tradition music was not seen as culture but at least as Culture, or better High Culture. Nothing to do with social life or communication. “Works” as fully independent objects in the imaginary museum of music (Lydia Goehr, 1992). Hanslick (1854) added a nice touch by purging music from anything so base as emotion and instead extolling the sublimity of absolute music. The pathological obsession with greatness led to a predatory capitalism in art, reflected in outrageous prices at auctions and brokerage for the visual arts and stardom status for performers, actors, directors and conductors in the performing arts.

Encountering Music

Musicologist in the European old tradition studied music by itself, perusing scores with a microscope, oblivious of performance, of sound, of the culture and society they (the scores) lived in, never referring to wars, inquisitions or colonisation. The Works, with capital, were like diamonds in the rock. However, a cultural musicologist has to learn one thing from them, which is to study the subject in detail. In her conception of cultural analysis Mieke Bal often refers to “detailed” account, “detailed” analysis. One of the differences between ethnomusicology and cultural musicology is that ethnomusicology looks at society and culture as a pattern in which music is an element whereas cultural musicology starts from music, taking a manifestation thereof as its primary object of study. But a marginal note is in place here: not only can we study music from anywhere or anytime, we can also study any music, whether it be a lullaby, a raga, a song, an instrument, a composer, an orchestra, or even a single note. In this sense this differs from many studies in the humanities that still remain very focussed on Art and Culture with capitals. Even though many people in the humanities are leftist, progressive, anti-elitist, woke and open minded they focus on the european high art tradition. Even when they study work by artists with a ‘non-western’ background they are artists who work in the european tradition like Husain in painting or Tan Dun in music. The study of the Chinese or Indian tradition is relegated to the departments of Sinology or Indology. In fact, I did my PhD in Indology, with the specialist of Vedi language and literature Jan Gonda as my supervisor. But perhaps the picture I am drawing is becoming outdated. The presence of migrants has caused conservatoires and music schools to start giving courses in different musics of the world. In an interview the famous conductor Jaap van Zweden confessed his children preferred pop music and among students of musicology the demand for courses in that field is very strong. Yet, teachers of classical guitar in the music schools cannot and will not become teachers of ‘ud. And traditional musicologists don’t find any interest in looking at harmony in pop. Their training doesn’t allow them to hear what makes that music work, they can only hear what is relevant to the music they have always been busy with. Fortunately, there are musicologists with an open mind for music, like Nicholas Cook (see e.g. his analysis of Madonna). Similarly in the field of the visual arts we have a scholar like Kitty Zijlmans who is opening the way to world art studies.

Primitive Evolutionism

Comparative musicologists studied “primitive” music with the objective of constructing a unilinear model of music evolution, where the music of those primitive peoples was thought to have been static since the beginnings of mankind. After the music of the primitive tribes comes the folk music of peasant societies and at the end of the line is the classical music of Europe, especially Beethoven, although some people believe the final point is already reached with Bach. This line of reasoning is completely oblivious of evolutionary theory. Homo sapiens has not evolved from amoebae, worms or chimpanzees. They are our contemporaries and we share common ancestors. Similarly the music of even the smallest tribes is contemporary, it is not the music of our common ancestors that left Ethiopia some hundred thousand years ago. And it would be a fallacy to call that music primitive, it has surely evolved over those millennia and there is sufficient evidence that both the music and the thinking about music is very complex (for instance Bastos 1999). In short, the unilinear evolutionism of the comparive musicologists is primitive, not the music they were examening.

Again, ethnomusicological studies rarely start from music, they study the function of music, its role in society and culture, the thinking about music. Some proto-ethnomusicologists, like Jean de Lery in the sixteenth century, made staff notations of indigenous music from Brazil and from the time sound recording emerged comparative musicologists started transcribing those recordings in an effort to reconstruct their own musical origins. In the process a hierarchy was established implicitly or explicitly and the superiority of European colonisers thereby confirmed. Rousseau made a critical observation about transcriptions, he pointed out they should be understood as reflections of the perception of the transcribers, nothing more, nothing less, and certainly not a reflection of the music they transcribed. As we say “in the eye of the beholder” so we can say “in the ear of the listener”. If you play the transcriptions of de Lery you certainly won’t recognise anything you may know from the Amazon. In a separate chapter/webpage I discuss transcription and analysis in ethnomusicology.


In progress