Music can provide an important window into the lives of women in world history. Music is best understood as “humanly organized sound” or “the purposeful organization of sound.” Many different types of music can be found in the historical record: music recordings, song lyrics, written music, spontaneous tunes, staged music performances, and music performances in other social settings, such as work situations and domestic life.

When approaching the music of a culture or time period, listen to or look for the rhythm, the melody and harmony, the formal structure of the piece, and the sound quality of the instruments and voices performing the music. Ask several questions: Who composed the music? Who is making the music? If there are lyrics, who composed them? What is the purpose of the music? Is the song sung for a particular purpose? Is the music intended to accompany a certain kind of event? When and where is the music performed? Is music restricted to certain people or transmitted through a master-apprentice system? Who are the “musical experts?”?

Asking a few fundamental questions about a culture’s musical system can open up a unique window into the philosophical, religious, and artistic concepts that shape people’s everyday lives. These questions also can help you determine how societies viewed women’s roles and status.

Within a given society, what types of music are women performing? Where can men provide music and where can women provide it? Do the lyrics comment on the status of women in society?

Griot West Africa

For example, among the Mande people of West Africa, experts in speech and song who transmit historical information are called griots. They are highly valued as advisors to kings and as artists. Griot roles are gender-differentiated. The men give genealogical information, recite historical epics, recount political events, mediate disputes, and transmit news. The women sing praises and convey moralizing entreaties. Traditionally, men have played almost all the instruments, while both men and women spoke and sang. These roles, however, can change over time.