Music is an integral part of culture. Not only is it interesting in itself and an object worth studying as is any other part of culture, but it also sheds light on various cultural processes. Anthropological interest in music, moreover, is not limited to so-called “primitive” or “folk” music any more than anthropology itself is limited to the study of “simple” societies and cultural forms. Just as anthropology studies complex societies, among others, and complex ways of life, so too does it study all types of musical expressions.
Ethnomusicology, which is the specific branch or concentration of anthropology concerned with the understanding of music in culture, studies music within human society and culture. It is concerned in particular with the way in which music symbolizes the way of life of a people. It studies things such as social transformation and power as expressed through music and its role in sociocultural life.
The anthropological study of music is concerned with understanding music as a cultural expression.
Ruth Finnegan argued that understanding music is critical to understanding a culture itself. She wrote,
Any ethnography should obviously include basic information such as relationship, social organization, ways of life, working assignment, economic and political systems, religion, basic language characteristics, historic background, and perhaps some lesser attention to visual and plastic arts, but marginal and specialized aspects of culture such as musical performance or oral literature could be set aside as minor issues.
An anthropology of music looks at the web of relationships in which music finds itself and is used. Music is part of many social relationships. It is often part of children’s games, marriages, parties of all sorts, formal occasions, and many other events— scheduled or not.
Music is certainly part of ritual, both religious and secular. It provides an entrée into understanding these significant aspects of social life. The type of music for these events, the ways in which they are performed, and the manner in which music relates various elements to one another add to the cultural understanding of a society.
However, David Coplan argued that “music shouldn’t be studied within its context but as a context itself.” Coplan called our attention to the study of music comparable to the study of language. Through studying music in context, he maintained that anthropologists will approach a better understanding of culture itself, looking at the manner in which symbols work to represent meaning.
Nevertheless, most anthropologists who look at music do so within social contexts. They are interested in the meaning it has for specific groups of people at particular times and places as well as its general cultural relevance. Allan P. Merriam argued for the necessity to understand the contexts in which people make and use music and promoted a broader anthropological approach to music and its role in culture. Alan Lomax attempted to demonstrate how the structure of a people’s music results from its social and cultural structure and function, an approach that Joseph Nketia criticized as too mechanical. Nketia found that it ignores the complexity of a society’s culture.
Charles Keil is one of the key figures in the development of the anthropology of music. He helped anthropologists to focus on the importance of popular music in understanding culture. Keil studied entertainers, bluesmen, who were popular entertainers and not folk musicians, as they were understood to be during the 1960s. He demonstrated the value to cultural understanding of taking these musicians seriously and understanding their role on their own terms.
Keil took the anthropology of music into urban areas but did not neglect its relationship with music in the forests of Nigeria as well. He also tied music to other aspects of culture, including literary culture. He saw music as related to the literature of a culture, emphasizing the holistic aspect of anthropological understanding. Certainly, the fieldwork that he did in Nigeria reinforced this holistic perspective.
Keil’s study of the music of the Tiv of Nigeria and their unique song culture resulted in the award-winning Tiv Song (1979). The book is a passionate study of the Tiv people and the role of music in their culture. It is a model for the anthropology of music. Keil poured some of that same passion into his study of other kinds of popular music, including Greek music and polka.
Alan Merriam defined ethnomusicology as “the study of music in culture.” He also stated that it was “the study of music as culture.” The anthropology of music has attempted to combine both approaches. Merriam’s work reoriented the field to concentrate on the study of music from the point of view of the people who made it. He encouraged anthropologists to look for the meaning and purpose that music had for the people who created and used it. He pushed people to understand music in culture and music as human behavior. Anthropology is still working out the implications of this model, as Keil’s work demonstrates quite clearly.
- Blacking, J. (1973). How musical is man? Seattle: University of Washington Press.
- Carlin, R. (1987). Man’s earliest music: The world of music. New York: Facts on File. Crafts, S. D., Cavicchi, D., Keil, C., & Music in Daily
- Life Project. (1993). My music. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press.
- Finnegan, R. (1970). Oral literature in Africa. Oxford, UK: Clarendon.
- Keil, C. (1979). Tiv song: The sociology of art in a classless society. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
- Keil, C., & Feld, S. (1994). Music grooves. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
- Keil, C., Keil, A., & Blau, D. (1996). Polka happiness. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.
- Lomax, A. (1968). Folk song style and culture. Washington, DC: American Association for the Advancement of Science.
- Merriam, A. P. (1964). The anthropology of music. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press.
- Nketia, J. H. K. (1981). The juncture of the social and the musical: The methodology of cultural analysis. The World of Music, 23(2), 22-39.