FACE THE MUSIC

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ID_GIOIA_MUSICUN_FI_001


Few things get music scholars more nervous than cross-cultural comparisons. The field of ethnomusicology, which was invented to inquire into this very subject, has grown increasingly uneasy with this part of its mission. The ethnomusicologist, in the words of Bruno Nettl, does not seek out such comparisons, but rather serves as “the debunker of generalizations.” Anthony Seeger has offered a similar perspective, expressing his resistance to “the privileging of similarities over differences.” In other words, if human beings from different cultures share certain musical proclivities and practices, academics in the field would rather not hear about it.

The prevalence of this resistant attitude is so extreme that researchers Steven Brown and Joseph Jordania, in their recent consideration of the subject, were forced to conclude that “many decades of skepticism have prevented the field of musicology from embracing the importance of musical universals.” When the subject is addressed, they add, it is almost always in the form of “meta-critiques about the concept of universals,” rather than actual consideration of empirical evidence. This would be peculiar under any circumstances, but is especially so given the growing amount of evidence that runs counter to the isolationist assumptions of the academic music community.
Yet music scholars are hardly alone in their preference for differences over similarities. Their views reflect a prevailing paradigm embedded in a wide range of cultural studies during the middle decades of the 20th century. Individual cultures, in the influential words of anthropologist Ruth Benedict, “are traveling along different roads in pursuit of different ends, and these ends and these means in one society cannot be judged in terms of those of another society, because essentially they are incommensuarable.” Let physicists seek out unified theories — in the human sciences the motto has long been vive la différence.
In truth, any field of comparative study, including musicology, cannot dispense with comparisons and generalizations. And even amidst a scholarly field that is suspicious of universal rules, the quest to identify them recurs with each generation. It was a dominant theme in the 19th century, when cross-cultural studies were pursued by ambitious systematizers who hoped to encompass all human behavior and practices in their grand schemas. In the 20th century, this approach often came under attack, but still reappeared in strange, new guises, under names such as structuralism, Jungian archetypes, or cantometrics, among others. Musicology has not been entirely immune to these approaches, but for most of its recent history it has tended more toward the “incommensurability” camp, preferring to assess individual trees rather than describe the forest.
I would argue that the time has come to question this allegiance to the particular and reconsider the explanatory value of musical universals. Important recent findings in related fields, for example Harvard professor E.J. Michael Witzel’s paradigm-changing exploration of the origins of human mythology, present a serious challenge of the incommensurability model and should not be ignored by music scholars. In linguistics, increasing focus on language macrofamilies, for example in the work of Joseph Greenbesrg or the Russian Nostratic linguists, is having a similar impact; the same is true of the genetic research into the so-called “African Eve.” At the same time, the expanding claims of neuroscience increasingly encompass the field of music, and though many of the assertions of scientists in these fields are reductionist and clumsy, the more incisive biological research tends to support the universalist approach. In a peculiar turnabout, the systematizers have returned, but they are now publishing peer-reviewed clinical studies in scientific journals instead of constructing the fanciful taxonomies of the past.

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