How to Respect Music

In response to my contention last week that “there is much to be gained by giving [any] music the same respect we accord classical music by listening to it with the same level of attentiveness,” Joe Ornstein, an old friend and one-time bandmate in a bluegrass-inspired band, posited several comments on Facebook:

Just curious: Should one listen to dance music or dance to it? If you’re going to be respectful of the music, shouldn’t you participate? … To paraphrase Francis Bacon: Some forms of music are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested.

Bar Sur

When I visited Buenos Aires’s famous Bar Sur, I somewhat reluctantly agreed to get onto the dance floor to learn a few tango steps. But that wasn’t the reason I went there.

This raises tons of additional issues, which need to be addressed. On Facebook, I immediately responded to his initial observation, perhaps all too briefly: “In the case of ‘dance music,’ why can’t you do either (dance or just listen to it), and still be respectful to the music?” But with the hindsight that comes from deeper processing (something difficult to do when communicating via social media), perhaps my remark was somewhat disingenuous.

Before I began pursuing graduate studies in ethnomusicology at Columbia University in the late 1980s, I was hoping that in so doing I would gain a deeper knowledge of the musical traditions of various world cultures. I was eager to broaden the melodic, harmonic, rhythmic, and timbral vocabulary in my own music, going beyond superficial borrowings toward something that I thought would be more syncretic. As an undergrad I had already taken courses in the music of India, Indonesia, and the Middle East, and in the years I was away from academia, I collected tons of recordings from all over Africa and East Asia. I also immersed myself in salsa and other Latin American music. One of the reasons I was thrilled to enter the graduate program was that I’d be studying with Dieter Christensen. I knew that he had done field work in Kurdistan as well as in Bosnia-Hercegovina; I had not yet been able to find any recordings from these places and I wanted to hear that music.

But at the welcoming reception, upon asking Professor Christensen about these recordings, my bubble was quickly burst. Nearly 25 years later, I still remember the gist of his comments although the passage of time and the fact that I wasn’t carrying a tape recorder probably make this more of a paraphrase than a direct quote.

You don’t yet understand what ethnomusicology is. Ethnomusicology is the study of music in its cultural context. Why would you possibly want those recordings? What could you possibly get from them? This is music that you will never understand. I don’t listen to these recordings. When I’m at home I listen to Schubert.

I was crestfallen, and the first semester hadn’t even begun. I didn’t have a Schubert to go home to listen to. For me growing up in New York City in the 1970s, there was no music that I felt belonged to me more than any other. There was mainstream pop radio which I couldn’t avoid despite trying to, LPs of various latter-day crooners that my mother would occasionally listen to, and Broadway musicals which I discovered largely on my own through scouring sheet music bins back when there were such things (and eventually getting to see some of the shows since they were still affordable at that time). The standard repertoire of Western classical music was as much an alien “other” tradition as were those traditions of raga, maqam, and gamelan that soon became equally important to me once I had learned more about them.

My return to academia went mostly downhill after my initial encounter. Professor Christensen bragged that for several years he had not played any music during his Proseminar in Ethnomusicology, one of the required courses. I found it somewhat tedious. There was a class I really did enjoy, however, which was Transcription and Analysis, the only one that explored actual music in any depth. But I was soon warned that I liked that class a little bit too much, again with the mantra, “You don’t yet understand what ethnomusicology is. Ethnomusicology is the study of music in its cultural context.” Although I was enrolled for a Ph.D. with a full tuition fellowship, I quit the program after only completing one year of coursework. (Luckily I had taken enough courses to obtain a master’s and, thanks to the advice of another one of the faculty members, I wrote up a thesis the following year and so was able to walk away from the experience with a degree.)

This was a formative experience for me, perhaps as much as the story I related last week about how I came to focused listening. It was the first time I ever quit anything I had set out to do, and it still hits a nerve whenever I think about it. But I started thinking about it again in relation to Joe’s comments about purposes for music other than focused listening. Indeed, there are many: dance, worship, military formations, political campaigns, etc.

One of the great anecdotes in classical music lore is the story of Felix Mendelssohn finding the score of J.S. Bach’s St. Matthew Passion in a waste bin and reviving it. It’s a story that has particular resonance this week as it will be performed countless times all over the world during the Christian Holy Week. It’s a piece of music that I came to love even though I am not a religious person. Am I being disrespectful to Bach and his music by not practicing the faith that his music was written to uphold? In the Middle East, some strict interpretations of Islam forbid the performance of music. Yet in all of the places that forbid music, muezzins still chant the Call to Prayer. It is culturally not considered music even though it follows the same basic parameters (melodic shapes, rhythms, etc.) as other things that would be considered music in that part of the world. I have several recordings of these chants and I find them extremely beautiful even though, once again, I don’t listen to them the way they were intended. When we get into the realm of music used for military formations and political campaigns, it becomes clear that purposes to which music can be put are not always purposes we might endorse—depending on where our allegiances lie. And as some of the commenters in response to my claims about listening suggest, Hitler and Stalin were both great music lovers and untold atrocities occurred under their reigns with the seaming seal of approval of the “classics” they used as part of their propaganda machines.

But these other purposes for music, to my ears at least, have nothing to do with the focused listening to music, any music—whether string quartets or death metal. Although Christopher Small—in the final pages of his book Musicking—seems to clearly implicate all of classical music as being an inseparable byproduct of the culture from which it emanated (a chauvinistic, colonialist society filled with class disparity), I believe it is possible to listen to it and not be adversely tainted. I believe that the same holds true for any other musical tradition. In fact, I would argue that listening to anything on its own terms, divorced from whatever additional context might be placed on it either by the society that has engendered it or some megalomaniac who attempts to repurpose it for nefarious ends, is one of the best ways to train oneself against groupthink. I’ve found focused listening to someone else to be the most effective way to learn another viewpoint. That doesn’t mean that you have to agree with that viewpoint, but it’s hard to know that you don’t agree with it unless you’ve paid enough attention to know what that viewpoint is.

At the end of the day I will never be an “ethnomusicologist,” at least by the definitions I was given once upon a time. I probably will also never dance, even though there’s a ton of dance music that is extremely dear to me. But, by all means, if you want to dance, pray, or cheerlead, let the music sweep you away—although when it comes to some of the less laudatory usages that regimes have attached to music, realize that the music itself is ultimately abstract and follows its own logic which, no matter what role you might assign to it, can have a completely different one for someone else that is no less valid. And therein is perhaps a way to respect music.

10 thoughts on “How to Respect Music

  1. Chaz

    I find it difficult to believe that music is just sound, as Mr. Cage might have posited. Music always indexes cultural aspects from whence it came. It is easy for a trained musician to listen to some quantifiable aspect of any music, but to detach it from its place and time of conception is a mistake. For instance, I often hear people (often people with degrees from institutions or what have you) bemoaning the awfulness of pop (or alternatively country, rap, metal, you fill in the blank) music. They claim that the music itself has no value, but in fact it is not the music that is being criticized but the cultural symbols being indexed. Music points to something else, and more often it is the “something else” that a listener finds contention with, not the quantifiable aspects of the music itself.

  2. ictus75

    “Ethnomusicology is the study of music in its cultural context.”

    Yes & No. In an ideal world, everyone would be able to move to a different country and be immersed in the culture for a few months/years in order to get the “context” of the music. And I do believe that the “context” is important. But there is also just the music itself and the possibility of people listening to it and getting something personal out of it, even perhaps experiencing it in their own “context”.

    As a percussionist, I have hundreds of recordings of ethnic percussion from places I’ll probably never have the chance to visit. Is my listening to it invalid because I will never have the “cultural context”? I don’t think so. My understanding & experience may be different from a “native,” but I still find a lot of value from listening.

    Chaz stated, “I find it difficult to believe that music is just sound, as Mr. Cage might have posited.” Well, it IS all just sound, and we, each one of us, give it some sort of context.

    As for, “Should one listen to dance music or dance to it? If you’re going to be respectful of the music, shouldn’t you participate?” It’s difficult to “listen” if one is doing another activity (participating). There are times you can choose to participate, and times you can choose to just listen, study, and try to understand.

    1. Chaz

      Ethnomusicology is in fact exactly as defined earlier. The study of cultural context for the better understanding of music is what musicology is, and the study of cultural context for the better understanding of the music of an “outside” culture is what ethnomusicology is. The recontextualization of other people’s music (i.e. non-Western) is in fact hegemonic neo-colonialism in which the dominated group is essentially cast aside as their music is plundered for scales and polyrhythms and interesting new instruments all for your enjoyment. This false reification is the antithesis of current ethnomusicology. This is the reason that actual ethnomusicologists do field work and believe that their role is in the discovery of cultural context: the protection of the music of powerless groups. While many Westerners have come to the conclusion that any music may be de- and recontextualized for whatever purposes they may have (enjoyment, I guess), that music belonged once to a group that usually has limited social and legal power. To them it is a sacred call to prayer or some ritual. Without understanding this, it can be used for some electronica group’s looping to sell records, or a drummers warm-up routine. Either way, “your” “context” of other people’s music is exactly what real ethnomusicologists try to avoid. That is Professor Christensen kept his recordings out of the reach of unaware students. It’s not about listening it’s about understanding.

      1. Frank J. Oteri Post author

        The recontextualization of other people’s music (i.e. non-Western) is in fact hegemonic neo-colonialism in which the dominated group is essentially cast aside as their music is plundered for scales and polyrhythms and interesting new instruments all for your enjoyment.

        We clearly don’t share the same world view, Chaz. To me calling any people’s music “other” is setting up a false and anachronistic binary of “us and them” which is far more “neo-colonial.” I’m well aware that there are powerful groups and powerless groups in the world, but to identify them through their musical culture and demand that only certain music be listened to a certain way helps to perpetuate the power disparity.

        Someone growing up in New York City in the 1970s, as I did, claiming that Western classical music is “my music” is no more or less appropriative than doing the same with Indian music or gamelan–two musical traditions that fundamentally affected how I compose and think about music. African music later became perhaps an even greater watershed to my musical thinking. Truth be told, I listened to hundreds of hours of African music before I ever made it through Schubert’s Ninth Symphony, and that piece of music took a lot longer for me to warm up to than most of the African music I discovered through scouring record bins, and eventually traveling to Zimbabwe and South Africa shortly after Nelson Mandela was elected President.

        For the United States, a nation of many peoples from all over the world, to consider itself part of the West rather than part of the whole world, ultimately seems myopic and, at its most pernicious, somewhat racist. And the history of American music plays out this multiple narrative–from the evolution of jazz from both African and European musical aesthetics to the so-called experimental tradition. Lou Harrison once famously claimed that he heard Chinese opera long before he heard Italian opera. So for him or any of us to consider Chinese opera “other” and Italian opera “not other” seems absurd.

        That definition of ethnomusicology is ultimately why I dropped out of grad school and it is a decision I have (mostly) never regretted.

        P.S.: I love your flute piece, For Ira. Although the influence might not be there for you, it actually reminds me of a flute ensemble on one of the only field recordings I have from São Tomé and Príncipe.

        1. Chaz

          The notion of “otherness” that I seem to be projecting really has more to do with the idea that there are marginalized groups whose music is taken without due credit. By indicating difference, hopefully the group has the opportunity for empowerment that it would otherwise not have . For instance, by calling Native American music “American,” their power is diminished as their autonomy is taken away (much in the way that “Native American” which actually refers to a collection of groups).

          Anyway, I should make clear that the article initially caught my eye because quite honestly I am knee deep in an Ethnomusicology class that is dealing with these kinds of topics. Seeing composers talking about these issues excites me, probably because I have a fresh two cents to put in, but also because it is quite a bit on the front-burner for me as a composer (and by absolutely no means as an ethnomusicologist). The definition of the field as I have stated has led me to the belief that no music should be experienced without an attempt toward contextualization, mostly because all music has context. The music composers write has a context and should be given due attention.

          Anyway thanks for listening and the kind words. I’d like to hear what it is I appropriated on accident ;)

          1. Frank J. Oteri Post author

            [T]here are marginalized groups whose music is taken without due credit.

            This is sadly all too true and I completely concur that it is a moral wrong. However, I would argue that the moral wrong stems from an “us and them” binary. Long after the discipline of ethnomusicology began promulgating the idea that the discipline was about finding cultural context and not about finding music, field recordings continued to be made which might have even further marginalized the musicians being recorded. It’s been many years since I spent much time listening to all those recordings I accumulated during that era of my life. (I mostly now only have time to listen to things that have come into my life recently since the amount of stuff is so immense.) But after meeting Ghanaian music entrepreneur Kofi Amoakohene earlier this year at MIDEM and reading Christopher Small’s Musicking, which has inspired all these recent essays, I’ve been actively pulling out many of my once favorite traditional African LPs and giving them a spin once again. An unaccompanied solo vocal titled “Marilli” on a Nonesuch Explorer LP from Ghana particularly blew my mind all over again when I listened to it a few days ago, but I was horrified when I looked at the sleeve note and the name of the young woman who sang it was not listed. Now that I know someone in the music industry in Ghana, I was hoping I could track her down and hear more. This goes way beyond context here. (I don’t listen to Bach in the “right context” either and I don’t intend to and I believe that is my prerogative.) No one should have the prerogative to disrespect someone’s music to the point of making it anonymous.

            Without understanding this, it can be used for some electronica group’s looping to sell records

            Although I suppose that is what those electronica groups do when they sample tracks, whether of Bach or of some unidentified Ghanaian singer, I would argue that that act of appropriation results in a new artistic statement which is often extremely worth paying attention to in its own right. And it can also lead to new listeners discovering the original material. Besides, much “world music” (now there’s a term that’s even more ridiculous than “classical music”; isn’t anything made on this planet world music?) is based on many layers of appropriation; it is a fundamental component of many musical traditions including Europe (Machaut or Josquin’s repurposing of Gregorian chant to Bach’s re-arrangements of Vivaldi) to the USA (from Thelonious Monk covering Jerome Kern or Gershwin show songs to hip-hop groups sampling old R&B singles). The only problem is when folks sell this stuff and don’t remunerate everyone who is entitled to a fair share of the proceeds. Of course, it’s hard to fight for your intellectual property rights when you are anonymous.

            I’d like to hear what it is I appropriated on accident ;)

            I imagine you’ve never heard that recording, it’s long out of print, so you shouldn’t be too worried about it ;) Although after hearing your piece I think you would find it aesthetically simpatico. But what was clear to me was that your wonderful music did not emerge ex nihilo or exclusively from “Western” sources. In the 21st century, there are no clear lineages and hurray for that. Sharing ideas with one another enables us to co-exist peacefully and hopefully will help us grow in ways that the insularity of other eras were not able to. Besides, one could argue that everything we do as humans is in some ways appropriative; after all, when we speak to one another we are using a common language. If we create music on or for a piano, a guitar, an mbira, a sitar, what have you, we are sowing seeds that others have planted. Even Harry Partch’s fascinating 43-tone just intonation instruments have antecedents.

            As I mentioned at the onset of all of this, these recent essays I have written here were largely a response to the claims that Christopher Small wrote about “Western classical music” that I found so unsettling. Small would have made a much huger impression on me when I was in my 20s and was kicking and screaming away from what I perceived to be the “Western classical tradition” only a few years after I started immersing myself in it. There was a period where I stopped listening to almost all standard repertoire (although I couldn’t tear myself away from J.S. Bach, however “incorrectly” I listened to his music) and only listened to various field recordings (also “incorrectly”). But luckily the hero I would up discovering was John Blacking (actually thanks to my ethnomusicology studies at Columbia) and not Christopher Small.

            Enjoy the class.

      2. Frank J. Oteri Post author

        P.S. re: “[Y]our” “context” of other people’s music is exactly what real ethnomusicologists try to avoid. That is [why] Professor Christensen kept his recordings out of the reach of unaware students. It’s not about listening [;] it’s about understanding.To them it is a sacred call to prayer or some ritual.

        Listening leads to understanding. Admittedly as a non-practitioner of Islam, I cannot feel what the Muezzin wants to instill when he chants a Call to Prayer and, truth be told, I don’t want to. However, living in the part of the world where we both do in the first part of the 21st century comes with a great deal of negative stereotyping about the part of the world where this music is from and because I have spent a lot of time listening to this music, and in so doing have grown to have a deep respect for it, I have some empathies that I otherwise might not have had. Perhaps that is the real meaning of music being a universal language in that it can actually help break down barriers that creeds, fiefdoms, economic classes, etc. set up. The fact that Dieter Christensen claimed that “I could never understand this music” sent me the message that there was no reason to pay attention to it. I know that this is NOT true.

  3. Daniel Wolf

    One of the confusions we musicians sometimes get into is a confusion between our affection, indeed love, for (one, some, many, any) music and our obligations act respectfully, as well as what or who the object of our respect should be. Do, or should, we respect music and/or do, or should, we respect people who happen to make music?

    This came home for me a few years ago when the issue of the (ab)use of music in torture became a hot topic in the musical-academic community. My initial impulse was to assert my agreement that music should not be instrumentalized in the torture of any human being. At a minimum, as musicians — whatever we thought about the underlying controversies —, we ought to be able to agree that this was disrespectful of music, and music was something we supposedly held as a common value. This impulse was not wrong, but it was, ultimately, a distraction from the larger issue which was simply that we should not torture. Yes, its use in torture debases and devalues music, but I have little doubt that music can survive that abuse. Above and beyond the fact that torture does not reliably work, the more immediate and critical concern is that human beings are debased and devalued by torture, including the torturer him- or herself and every person who actively or tacitly supports that violence. I have far more concern for the survival of human dignity under torture than I do for the survival of music.

    I happened to have gone to an institution (Wesleyan) with an ethnomusicology program probably more committed to physically engaging with the substance of music than with its context than was Frank J. Oteri’s Columbia, but context is often unavoidable even for those of us most committed to and engaged with “the music itself.” One of my colleagues did field work in a very conservative belief community in a very conservative region, singing with a pentecostal church choir. Between rehearsals and services, my friend’s social and political values were frequently and severely tested by the encounter with opinions and sometimes actions that strongly deviated from the friend’s own values. Although ethnomusicologists (like other ethnographers) are bound to the principle of a Star Trek-like non-interference with local and traditional cultures, their very presence is inevitably a form of interference and it becomes essential to negotiate that interference sensitively and positively. At the very best, this can mean that sharing music can create an opportunity for the exchange of values above and beyond those found in “the music itself.”

  4. Phil Fried

    A nuanced approach to the understanding any art can of course be taken to extremes. At that point art, or arts descriptions, can become a private language understood only by those whose careers depend on it. Sadly many music teachers not directly involved with music creation, either in performance or composition even as amateurs, think they are better off.

    I am also reminded of those who chose an academic field not because of interest but because of opportunity.

    The fact is that a brilliant alternative fingering for any composition’s difficult passages will never have the Cachet of a comment like “you will never understand…”

  5. Michael

    Great article! The word “ethnomusicology” is unfortunate, derived, in part, from the ancient Hebrew meaning “other than Jewish.” In our time, it has come to denote, essentially, music other than the classical German-Austrian and European tradition, which is understood to be the pinnacle of world music history, and a standard from which all other traditions are judged. However, people in India, Korea, Indonesia, Turkey and elsewhere will rightfully dispute this belief. In addition, given the Hindu concept of reincarnation, which is easy for atheists, Christians and Jews to scoff at, it’s likely there are persons in America and elsewhere who possess a native understanding of “foreign” music that defies their birthplace. Personally, I feel that “world musicology” is an improvement over “ethnomusicology” because it moves freely from any particular country where such study is based.


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