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Your school’s marching band is gathered on the football field, ready to play. Each note they perform, every rule, custom, and procedure they follow—from watching the conductor’s baton to having their uniforms pressed—is a part of what ethnomusicologists refer to as a musical system.

 

When you approach a new kind of music, find out what vocabulary is used to describe it. Much music can be said to contain the following elements:

 

  • rhythm, the purposeful organization of sounds in time
  • melody and harmony, the organization of notes
  • form or formal structure of a musical piece; and
  • timbre, or the sound quality and texture of instruments and voices performing the music.

 

These can provide a working vocabulary for discussing and analyzing any kind of music.

 

Start by listening to a piece of music several times through and make some observations about at least one or two of these musical elements. In this example from a Tuvan throat song, the issue of timbre comes to the fore. Timbre is not just a formal element of this music, but a key to the worldview of those who sing. Singers from Tuva point out that the different textures of their singing correspond to how they see and experience their rugged landscape: “mountain,” “nose,” and “chest,” and other textures related to the visual effect created by the sun setting on the steppe.

 

 

 

Listen to this selection by the Huun-Huur-Tu Tuvan throat singers:

 

 

Asking a few fundamental questions about a culture’s musical system can open up a unique window into the fundamental philosophical, religious, and artistic concepts that shape people’s everyday lives. For example, drums and rhythm have always been a central part of music throughout the Indian subcontinent. Drums exist in a variety of shapes, styles, and sizes. They are played with sticks, hands, or fingers and they accompany dancing and singing.

 

One of the manifestations of the Hindu god Shiva is Natarja who represents the movement of the universe. The small drum in Shiva’s hand symbolizes the audible space that fills the universe, the sound of creative energy. So rhythm, drum, and music are manifestations of fundamental Hindu beliefs. At concerts of Indian music, audiences listen to drummers raptly and follow their complex rhythms in cycles. Western audiences, used to rhythmic patterns of two, three, or four beats, get “lost” while Indian listeners can follow these cycles (some more than half an hour long) with the greatest of ease, using hand gestures (a wave of the hand, a count of the finger) to track the divisions of metric cycles. These cycles reflect cultural ideas about time that are documented in writings on music from Vedic times (1500-1600 BCE). These writings express time through circular imagery, such as the wheel of a chariot, the sun, the eye, or the human life cycle.

 

As you ask questions about the musical system, find out how people learn music and how they acquire knowledge of their tradition. Is music restricted to certain people or transmitted through a master-apprentice system? Rarely is music open to “just anyone” who cares to play it. Professional musicians have a vested interest in setting standards and limiting their competition!

 

In India, musicians who want to play professionally must align themselves with well-respected family-based “schools” known as gharanas. Indeed, observing changes in this tradition, such as accepting nonhereditary students out of financial necessity, offers a unique angle on the fragility of family lineage in the modern world as well as the “revival” of Hindu culture among middle-class Indians in the post-Independence period.

 

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