Anthropology and the Arts

Anthropology and the Arts

With Special Attention to Music


  1. N. Anderson


“[T]o take an immediate interest in the beauty of nature…is always a mark of a good soul…it at least indicates a frame of mind favorable to the moral feeling…He who by himself…regards the beautiful figure of a wild flower, a bird, an insect, etc., with admiration and love…who still less wants any advantage from it—he takes an immediate and also an intellectual interest in the beauty of nature” (Kant 1951:141).




These stray and very preliminary notes are intended to get anthropologists more interested in the arts, and to lay down a bit of a framework for cross-cultural study thereof.  A great deal of work has been done, over the decades, on the ethnography and ethnology of music, dance (Anawalt 2007), visual art (R. Anderson 1989, 1990; Armstrong 1971, 1981), traditional literature (Hymes 1981, 2003), vernacular architecture (Moholy-Nagy 1957, 1968; Rapoport 1969; Rudofsky 1965), and even food and scent (Anderson 2014).  I have no intention of reviewing this enormous body of frequently excellent work.  Two things stand out, however.  First, the vast majority of it concerns arts in one culture, often with the claim that the music/art/food of the So-and-so is completely unique, distinctive, and special.  This is never the case; their arts always look a lot like their neighbors’.  Second, when comparative studies are done—and there are many very fine ones—they rarely dig deeply or widely into the deep origins of arts in biology and psychology.  Thus, what follows is devoted largely to general questions of the biology, psychology, and comparative sociology of the arts.  I am staying at a strictly introductory level, except perhaps on the relationship of bird song to music.  I provide references for further exploration.  I am hopeful that comparative ethnology of arts will emerge.  Arts are far more important than social scientists have generally realized.


Part I.  Arts in Anthropology


Anthropologists Discover Art


Many people, worldwide, are uncomfortable putting their emotions into ordinary words.  Emotion is often highly disruptive socially, and can be pure dynamite.  People in small communities and face-to-face societies are very chary about expressing it openly, especially to relative strangers such as visiting ethnographers.

In such societies, people “mount the rider of their thought on the horse of song,” as the Arabs say.  To understand these communities’ emotionalities, one must look to their arts rather than to what individuals may say in ordinary everyday speech.  All societies thus use music, literature, visual arts, dance, and other art forms to communicate social messages.  Typically, especially in traditional societies, arts become “collective representations of community,” like religion (Durkheim 1995/1912).

Rationalist social scientists often write as if emotion did not exist, then go home and listen to blues or Beethoven like the rest of us.  This lack of attention to expression of emotion through art has been remarked on in anthropology (Rosaldo 1989) and the best ethnographies are often those that go directly against this grain (e.g. Abu-Lughod 1989; Feld 1982).

Arts often communicate the deepest and most important parts of a culture, just as they communicate the deepest and most important feelings of an individual.  For instance, most traditional cultures express their environmental philosophies and attitudes through myth, poetry, song, visual arts, dance, and ceremony more than through ordinary language.  Of course, arts can also communicate any other feelings and values, up to the most transient and evanescent.  They can serve evil as easily as good, as Nazi artists like Leni Riefenstahl knew all too well.  One cannot assume that arts ennoble or improve.  They do whatever their creators and consumers want them to do.  The point is that they do it very effectively indeed.  Anyone concerned with cultures and environments cannot neglect either arts or the emotions they communicate.

Early anthropology was deeply concerned with the arts.  This was especially true during the peak period of neo-Kantian anthropology (Patterson 2001), the era of Franz Boas and his students and colleagues.  Neo-Kantianism, especially through the work of Wilhelm Dilthey (1985), was concerned above all with interpersonal interaction, and thus with communication.  Hence Boas focused on language (Boas 1917), but not only on that; he was deeply concerned with all the ways people communicate, especially the symbolic and aesthetic forms by which they communicate emotion.  Most of his work in this area was on folktales, but his most famous work on aesthetics was on visual art (Boas 1908, 1955 [1927], 1995).

As Boas saw, folk and traditional arts are the ones that most directly communicate cultural norms and are most clearly culturally structured.  Elite and popular arts are more narrow; they communicate the feelings of the elites or of the professional entertainers.  Inevitably they communicate more widely shared cultural matters, but they are specialized to varying degrees, reaching an extreme in some contemporary art forms that appeal to audiences of only a few people.  Folk and traditional arts usually (but not always) speak more directly for their communities.  Boas was influenced by volksgeist views that exaggerated this point, and tended to see folk arts as the authentic voice of the Folk, but he later learned better as studies of diffusion and creation convinced him that people more agency and independent creativity than that, and that one way they show it is by borrowing far beyond their cultures’ limits.

Boas was also profoundly influenced by the writings of Johann Gottfried Herder (1744-1803; see Herder 1993, 2002, 2004).  Herder, a Kant student, was the first person to theorize at length and explicitly about the role of arts in different cultures.  He introduced the idea that the arts of a given volk—a “people” or “nation”—develop naturally from that people’s experience and life.  Taking from Kant the idea of perception developing through interaction, Herder theorized that a given people would have artistic and emotional expressive forms that followed from their unique and distinctive experience of interacting with each other and with their surroundings.

Thus every poetic and artistic tradition was unique and valuable, a new and valid expression of human experience and creativity.  As he said of poetry:  “Poetry…changes its form in accordance with a people’s language, morals, habits, temperament, climate, and even with their accent.  Nations migrate; languages mix with other languages and change; human beings come into contact with new things; their tendencies assume different directions, their strivings take on different purposes…even that tiny part of the body, the tongue, moves differently, and the ear becomes accustomed to new sounds” (Herder 1993:141).

Herder was the first to argue explicitly and in detail that we should experience, value, and appreciate the cultural productions of all humanity.  He argued against both intolerance of others’ productions and shame about one’s own.  He also argued that studying a culture’s arts and ethics shows it at its best, whereas normal history—the story of wars and intrigues—shows it at its worst.  This obviously influenced anthropology; we of the trade like to show our subjects of study in the best possible light, and we follow Herder.

Herder was also an uncompromising monogenist, convinced that all humans were one, rather than being separately evolved races.  Culture, not heredity, was responsible for the important differences between nations.  This view too was adopted by Boas, who became the leader in the struggle against racism in the early 20th century.  Yet another view eventually adopted by anthropology was that each culture is the end of a long process of evolution, rather than being something to classify on a scale from “primitive” to “we moderns.”  The latter—the unilineal position—still has its followers, but was so devastated by the critical research of Boas and his students that it is practically extinct.  Herder still held a form of it, and Boas in his very earliest writings shows some of it, but he rapidly came to realize that no surviving culture is primitive in any meaningful sense.  Obviously, civilizations evolved from smaller-scale societies, and this is an interesting process, but we now realize that today’s small-scale societies are as far from the “primitive” condition as the civilizations are.  They have specialized in their way, just as larger-scale societies have.  They have changed along with—and often through the direct

influence of—the civilizations.  They bear some key resemblances to humans of 100,000 years ago, but so do modern industrial folk.

This thinking (and similar, if less elaborated, thinking by others) led to the rise of “folklore” studies and eventually to cultural anthropology with its emphasis on communication, national character, and expressive forms.

Herder’s theory of arts, and of appreciation for each culture’s unique contributions, was to be Boas’ guiding principle.  Boas devoted his life to saving what seemed to be (and often were) disappearing languages, arts, myths, and other cultural forms.  For him, each one was supremely valuable as an expression of the human spirit.

Herder’s ideas influenced his friend Goethe, and later was influential across the political spectrum from Marx to the exteme nationalists.  Herder literally invented nationalism—the word and the concept (Herder 2004).  The Marxian interpretation exalted “the folk” above commercial bourgeois culture, eventually leading to the radical but romantic idealization of folklore by reformers in the 20th century.  In the United States, this led via the Lomax and Seeger families of ethnomusicologists (see e.g. Lomax and Seeger 1975) to the folklore movement and the “folk song revivial” of the 1950s and 1960s.  This in turn produced a great deal of modern music culture.  It was also the virtually universal ideology of folklore studies in academia.

However, the extreme right could play this game as well.  By the early 19th century, hypernationalism was exploiting the idea of a folk spirit (volksgeist).  This eventually climaxed in the mad Aryanism and Germanism of the Nazis.  Nothing could have been farther from Herder’s tolerant mind (see Herder 2004).


Not only the Boasians, but other anthropologists of the time, diligently recorded myths and tales, obtained art objects for study and curation, and described dances and ceremonies.  In studying music, technology was a limit at first, but Jesse Walter Fewkes was recording Algonkian and Hopi music on Edison’s cylinders as early as 1890.  Major ethnomusicological recording began as soon as really portable cylinder-recording equipment was invented.

Anthropologists of the time have recently been attacked for “stealing” artifacts, or at best taking them out of cultural context.  Boas and most other serious scholars paid fair prices to willing sellers, and virtually all the items they bought would otherwise have been destroyed by time or by overzealous missionaries.  The only early record we have of most ethnic arts in the world is from these collections. Many unscrupulous persons, some with legitimate scholarly posts, did indeed steal artifacts and rob graves, giving this field a bad name, but that should not blind moderns to the incredible value of responsible collecting.


Arts fell from grace as anthropology turned toward more “scientific,” or at least scientistic, descriptions of culture.  By the mid-century most anthropologists were interested in narrow social dynamics (especially kinship systems) or in even more narrowly materialist studies of culture.  However, some kept the focus on art, especially Claude Lévi-Strauss (1964-1971), a Kantian inspired by Boas.  Lévi-Strauss differed from Boas in being a traditional Kantian, concerned with knowledge and its structure, rather than a neo-Kantian concerned with interaction and communication.  Thus Lévi-Strauss was more concerned with the ways myth and art reflected cultural structuring of knowledge than with emotional communication.  He joined with linguists and literary critics in the movement known as structuralism.

Again the wheel turned, and structuralism fell from favor, to be replaced by interpretivism.  This view, most explicitly and famously advocated by Clifford Geertz (1972), put the burden of interpretation on the anthropologist, rather than making the anthropologist seek out “native” understandings and leave analysis to them.  Unfortunately, this doomed the interpretivist paradigm to being mere opinion.  Very often (if not always), that opinion was promptly challenged by the “natives” when they got their turn (as in the devastatingly revealing material buried in footnotes in Geertz 1980).  Especially prominent in challenging outsider anthropologists’ interpretations was the Lakota writer Vine Deloria (1969), who had a formidable knowledge of anthropology, partly because his aunt Ella Deloria was an anthropologist who studied with Boas (she was one of many Native American anthropologists that Boas and Powell trained).

One is reminded of the countless times that authors have rounded on literary critics who “interpreted” their works.  Interpretation is valuable, even a necessary part of a good ethnographer’s job, and it can and often should go beyond the data.  But it is of no anthropological value unless it is supported in at least some way by the testimony of the actual producers and local users of the material in question.

Fortunately, vocal “natives” like Vine Deloria had the effect of forcing anthropology back on track.  Recent works on indigenous art, ethnomusicology, and other interactive communication forms do not shirk the task of providing ethnographers’ insights, but pay proper attention to “native” interpretations (see e.g. Feld 1982 for music; Hymes 1981, 2003 for myths and texts; Myers 2002 for visual art; Ness 1992, 2003 for dance and performance).  Some recent studies have returned not only to the Boas agenda but to Boas himself, as in the work of Aldona Jonaitis (1988, and see also her edited collection of Boas’ work, 1995).

What matters here is the fact that arts are major forms of communication in every culture known to anthropology, and that they usually have the role of communicating emotions and feelings, though they very often communicate specific cognitive meanings as well.  Unfortunately, far too many social scientists neglect them or to relegate them to “mere ornament” status.  Most social scientists are post-Enlightenment academics, trained to idealize Reason and distrust emotion.  Even scholars of emotion are loath to look deeply at its expression and communication in artistic forms.  The otherwise authoritative and definitive Handbook of the Sociology of Emotions  (Stets and Turner 2006) has nothing on the arts.



Origins of Art


The origins of the arts remain obscure.  Arts were once supposed to be confined to Homo sapiens, but now a mussel shell engraved with a whole pattern of hatch marks has turned up in a Homo erectus deposit half a million years old, at Trinil, Java (Joordens et al. 2015).  Painted and perforated shells and pigment containers 50,000 years old have turned up on the Iberian Peninsula when only Neanderthals were there (Branan 2010).  Some Neanderthal burials include red ochre, and one famous one at Shanidar had flower pollen, though the flowers seem to have been weeds and possibly medicines rather than beautiful blooms.  Homo sapiens groups in Africa were beads and other minor ornaments 80,000 years ago.  Art may be much older; the beauty and symmetry of early hand axes and other tools seems beyond mere utility.  (For a quick review of the latest finds of earliest art, see Balter 2009).

Rock art in Australia dates to perhaps 50,000 years ago.  The great cave paintings of Europe date back to 35,000 years ago and earlier.  The earliest of the spectacular and brilliant cave art of Europe is that old (Clottes 2008).  A 35,000-year-old sculpture of a woman with exaggerated sexual characteristics has recently been found in Germany (Conard 2009).  These various forms show that visual art was already developed.  The paintings in Chauvet Cave in France, for instance, are often as good as any animal paintings since (see e.g. Clottes 2008, perhaps especially pp. 38-39.)  Music and literature leave no archaeological traces except the bone flutes that turn up in sites a few tens of thousands of years old.  Over ¾ of the hand prints associated with these sites, in many caves all over western Europe and over the whole Upper Paleolithic period, are of the hands of women (Snow 2013)—raising some critical questions about who created this art, and why.


Representational art is often said to derive from magic.  The early cave paintings are deep in the darkest holes of the earth, and represent game animals and large predators.  Their association with religion or magic seems impossible to deny, but we have no idea what the actual cults were like.  Countless grave authorities have developed conflicting scenarios, but no one has any way of determining which ones are right.

Visual art, unlike technology, does not seem to progress much. Lascaux and Chauvet caves have art as beautiful as any created recently.  Yet they seem to be at the very beginning of art; we have little that is older.  Musical complexity has progressed with technology, but beauty is another matter; folk songs can be as lovely as symphonies, and probably go back to the dawn of modern humanity.  Written literature can be more elaborate and diverse than oral, but in sheer literary power no one has surpassed Homer or the great Native American and Australian myth cycles.

Changes in arts track major changes in culture.  Arts express emotional qualities of life.  They catch the mood of the age.

Oral poetry and epic would seem naturally to follow from this as well.  Traditional nonliterate peoples sing or chant their verbal art.  Non-sung poetry is surely a modern invention, probably a result of writing and literacy.



Evolution and Art


There is no question that the aesthetic senses are biologically grounded, and thus must have evolved through natural selection over thousands or millions of years.  In part, they developed as part of the evolution of communication.  Music in particular is inseparable from language, as pointed out by the ancient Greeks.  However, the aesthetic senses are grounded in deeper and more basic psychological processes.  The arts have biological primes—inborn tendencies that prime us to like certain things.

This is most obvious in the universal appeal of healthy young members of the (usually) opposite sex, and representations thereof.  The nude is a stock theme, and paintings of nudes rarely show aged or unhealthy specimens of Homo sapiens.  One does not have to be a Darwinian to understand, though the Darwinians have naturally had a field day with these data.  David Buss (2003) points out that cross-culturally, people desire youith and symmetry in possible mates.  In particular, one notes the striking gender difference:  straight men find nothing more beautiful than a nubile, well-proportioned young woman, while finding good-looking men totally boring and uninteresting.  Straight women and gay men usually have the reverse assessment.  This certainly proves that beauty is not just a purely idiosyncratic thing.  “There’s no accounting for tastes” is not an opinion that gets any traction with Darwinians considering sexual attraction.

More subtle and interesting biological primes exist.  As pointed out by E. H. Gombrich (1960, 1979), visual art has everything to do with the pleasure of rhythm and pattern.  (The same is true of music.)  Visual art seems to get much of its appeal from the need to recognize pattern in nature, so that we can spot the fruit in the trees and the snake in the grass.  We take great pleasure in recognizing patterns; even the snake is beautiful, however frightening.  Humans get a tremendous pleasure out of simply engaging with patterns—geometical art, rhythmic music and dance, regular prosody.  No one seems to have studied this, or even decided whether it is an “emotion,” a “mood,” a “feeling,” or what.  Yet it is one of the most pervasive, evident, and important human tastes.  Apes also show it, and indeed most higher mammals seem to fall into rhythm when communicating.  Rhythms of walking, chewing, breathing, sex, and other normal activities are clearly involved somehow, but no one seems to have determined exactly how.

The enormous importance of pattern in all this has rarely been appreciated except in the case of music (see below), but E. H. Gombrich (1979) discusses it for art, and Bakhtin (esp. 1984) for literature.  The structuralists (notably Lévi-Strauss 1964-71) analyzed structure in all the arts, but somewhat skipped over the lower-level phenomena described by Gombrich and the very high-level ones best evoked by Bakhtin.

An innate attraction to proper environment is a necessary bit of mental equipment for any animal.  A red-winged blackbird has to seek out cattail marshes.  A porcupine has to look for dense forests.  It is always striking to watch a migrating bird turn sharply aside and downward when it sees the right kind of tree or lake for its species.  Humans show a cross-cultural attraction to waterways, mountains, and scattered groves of trees, among other things.  Gordon Orians and Judith Heerwagen (1992) speculated that humans evolved to recognize and seek out landscapes like the savannahs on which we presumably evolved in east Africa.  Evidence includes the way we create such landscapes—scattered trees in open grasslands, with small streams here and there— in farms, gardens, parks, cemeteries, and other spaces where we can do what we want.  Lndscape paintings typically show landscapes of this kind, when they do not trade on fear and awe by showing dramatic mountains.  Even when arguing against inborn tastes, psychologists admit this (Gardner 2011:42-43).  Proof is, in the nature of things, impossible, but the idea is almost certainly correct as far as it goes.

Other inborn tendencies in visual art are harder to pin down, but most higher animals are attentive to motion, bright colors, flashing lights, and other visual cues that could be important.  Higher primates are more attentive to colors than most other mammals, because of the need to pick out ripe fruit.  They can see more colors than most mammals (though fewer than many birds).  Clearly, we have evolved with a strong color sense.  The sheer pleasure of playing with color and form is biologically grounded, as we know from watching human children and young monkeys and apes play with paints.  Young chimps, especially, produce paintings very pleasing to the human eye.  They work quite hard at it—they do not merely make random daubs (Morris 1962).

The anti-evolutionary arguments that rely on the admittedly wide cultural and social judgments of art (e.g. Gardner 2011) are flawed by confusing judgments of beauty with judgments of cultural familiarity and appropriateness.  People like what they are used to—another clearly evolved biological tendency—and judge art accordingly.

Thus, for instance, Howard Gardner and other relativists greatly exaggerate the initial rejection of Impressionism and use it to “prove” that good art can be hated.  In fact, many art-lovers liked Impressionism from the start.  The attackers were largely older critics who opposed “the new” rather than “the ugly”—however they may have phrased it.  Gardner’s main problem is that he thinks art is mainly about beauty; he neglects the fact that it is a general communications medium, which can just as easily be about the ugly as about the beautiful.  Antiwar posters, the “ash can school” of socially conscious art in the United States, and many other art forms deliberately portray the ugly.  Art is also used for social solidarity, snobbism (see below), motivating workers, advertising cars, scaring people, or any other social purpose.  Gardner is surprised to find that most contemporary art is more about being “with it” than about being beautiful; no one familiar with the history of art is very surprised.

In fact, what culture and individuality show is not that art is not biologically grounded, but that we are biologically flexible.  We can satisfy love of beauty in an infinite number of ways, though there are some constraints and some tendencies.  This is clearer in food:  we absolutely must have protein, carbohydrates, fats, and certain vitamins and minerals, but we can devise an infinite number of superb and subtle dishes that provide them.  The clearest case in visual beauty is the female form: cultures differ widely in what they idealize, but they all wind up idealizing symmetrical young adults (whatever their skin color, fat level, and so forth may be).  Other taste areas are less constrained.

As with music—but in fewer cases—birds provide a fascinating case of convergent evolution.  Male bowerbirds of Australia and New Guinea construct complex, elaborate, beautiful structures to lure females.  Those of the satin bowerbirds of Australia are painted with little brushlike wads of material, and decorated with blue objects that set off the birds’ blue-highlighted plumage (Johnsgard 1994).  Blue plastic clothespins are a favorite.  Males compete to produce better bowers, and it takes years of experience to create one that lures females really successfully.  This allows females to pick a smart, experienced, survival-type male, a good genetic bet.  Such a male lures many females into his bower, and thus leaves many genes, so building better bowers is strongly selected for.  Note that this is selection for better creating of a new and different bower, not just an instinctive, never-changing one.  These birds both learn and innovate.  The various motions are based on nest-building, but the result is very different from a nest, and is largely a male activity, whereas females do the nestbuilding in this as in many bird species.

Evolutionarily, bower-building results from the higher genetic success of better builders, and is thus tightly linked with polygamy.  Humans are not usually polygamous, however.  (Most human societies allow polygamy, but few in those societies actually practice it.)  Some other reason must explain our use of arts.  In fact, almost all art is directed at large social groups, not at a prospective mate.  Paintings of nudes are for public display, not seduction.  Love songs may be all over the radio, but few actually sing them to loved ones; they are mass entertainment.  Most listeners seem to relate to the singer’s experience as a lover, not to the lovee.



Taste: How Universal?


In humans, local social and cultural standards for the arts tend to dominate, making the inborn preferences in form, pattern, color, rhythm, harmony, melody, and so on recede into a background.  However, the panhuman nature of basic aesthetic taste is shown by the general worldwide agreement on the greatness of at least some paintings, literary works, and musical compositions.  Great art is hard to define, but usually recognized by thoughtful people.  There is surprising agreement across cultures about the greatness of Shakespeare and Tu Fu, Mozart and Beethoven, Rembrandt and Ni Zan.  Their work is extremely well-done technically, extremely deep emotionally, and often significant on many levels.  Great poetry and art often use small things to show great truths: Robert Frost’s snowy woods, Rainer Maria Rilke’s panther, Edward Thomas’ fields.  Great art is often a complex but organized development of a simple theme, like the many variations on the story of Dr. Faustus, or a very simple form with extreme complexity, subtlety and evocation packed into it, as in haiku.

Thus, some sort of panhuman mechanism seems to be operating.  Some artistic creations, including Beethoven’s music, Shakespeare’s plays, and Chinese black-ink art seem to succeed everywhere.  Chinese food and Andean popular music have astonishingly universal appeal.  Other arts do not travel:  Chinese popular music and Andean food, for instance.  The exact dynamics of this remain profoundly mysterious, but the phenomenon proves that some fraction of “taste” is universal, though much or most is culture-centric.

Significantly, great art can be created for fun, or money, or personal glory as easily as for passionate self-expression.  Rembrandt and Rubens were businessmen running large studios.  We like to think of Van Gogh’s lonely and unappreciated passion, but at the same time Monet was driving hard bargains—downright skinflint deals in many cases—for his art.  Art was a commercial proposition, however emotional the artists may have been.

Worldwide evidence proves conclusively that people everywhere gravitate toward similar, and fairly high, standards of art, music, literature (or oral “literature”), and performance.  Quality is real, though easily subverted or directed into cultural channels.  Individual taste is real, but often takes the form of idiosyncratic limitations.  I love Monet and Van Gogh but have a blind spot for Renoir and Degas; almost everyone who likes painting finds this problematic, which convinces me that this is something lacking in my personal eye, not a proof that taste is purely an individual matter.  Probably everyone has similar blind spots in appreciating art, music and literature.  Individual taste matters more with second-rate (or tenth-rate) painters and musicians, but even there the existence of consensus is usually strong enough to show that there is something going on here beyond pure arbitrary individuality.  There is, for instance, certainly a universal agreement that genuinely bad drawing and awkwardly proportioned space is unattractive.  No one would ever confuse the typical Sunday painter’s efforts, or my drawings for my childrren, with passable (let alone good) art.

On the other hand, it is equally clear that people do differ, and that no two people have exactly the same preference patterns.  Evolutionarily, this might have allowed everyone to find a mate, back when personal beauty and accomplishment mattered more than they do now (that is, back before religion, wealth and political views became so important).  The point is that there is variation around a vague, general, but real central tendency or template—a very vague humanity-wide one, and a set of much more specific ones associated with each culture and subculture.

Within broad limits, artistic taste is socially conditioned.  People overwhelmingly like what their peers like.  This is notably true when it is very different from what their parents like (Harris 1998).  Good art prevails when an elite or an artistically sophisticated group dominates tastemaking and is regarded as worthy of emulation.  This group can as easily be a set of tribal shamans or folk craftspeople as a museum curatorship or university department—in fact, the shamans and folk craftspeople generally have better taste, in my experience.  The point is that somebody who knows and cares about the art needs to have a voice.

Otherwise, a “lowest common denominator” effect prevails, with the most mass-appeal material adulated and regarded as “best” and standard.   These sociocultural truths lead to a widespread feeling that all artistic taste is mere snobbism.  This belief reached serious sociology, as in Pierre Bourdieu’s book Distinction (1984).  This book was devastatingly reviewed for its reductionism by Jon Elster [1981] and others.  Bourdieu, presumably at least partially in consequence, massively revised his position in The Rules of Art (1996.)

Societies, or more usually their elites, find ways of manipulating taste.  George Orwell, in 1984 and many essays, wrote the definitive material on how fascism, Stalinism, and top-down bossist capitalism systematically force the worst, vilest, most soul-hurting art on the public, specifically to deaden their souls and corrupt their minds.  At the other extreme, no major religion has missed the use of the greatest art, music, dance, ritual, and even food and scent to hook people emotionally.  This is as true of Australian Aboriginal and Native American religions as of the world faiths.


Artists in many cultures are considered rather wild and deviant.  This is not true in most small-scale societies and folk communities, where anyone may create and perform.  It is most true in complex civilizations.  Among these, it is actually a rather widespread stereotype, though far from universal.  In the west, it received a major boost in the Renaissance, when artists were supposed to be real “characters”—a stereotype that owes much to the artist-writer Giorgio Vasari, whose Lives of the Artists (1991, orig. 16th century) gleefully protrayed the great Italian artists—many of whom were his personal friends—as larger and wilder than life.  It received another huge boost in the Romantic period, when the idea of the “artistic temperament” became firmly established in the public mind.

Musicians, in particular, are so regularly considered deviant that music is assigned to despised or feared minorities in much of the world.  Popular music in particular was a task for Roma in Europe, blacks in the American South, and similarly outcasted groups in old China and Japan.  In fact, throughout the world, the stereotype of the “inferior race” includes the line “they are very musical.”  Americans have heard this all too often about Blacks, and I heard the same about the fishermen I worked with in Hong Kong.  I have heard or seen this stereotype applied to Roma, Irish, burakumin (in Japan), and so on—everywhere I go, the racists assure me that the people they most fear and abhor are the most musical.  Today in America, with racism somewhat less overt, “rock musicians” and “rap musicians” have become a despised class of their own.  This intolerance of musicians always seems strange to me.  It sometimes extends even to elite performers; in parts of the old Near East and Africa, even eminent and well-to-do musicians were considered low.  Similar ideas were once held by some individuals in Europe and the United States.


Most art communicates emotion by using pattern and structure to carry it.  At best, the artist creates the desired mood in the hearer or viewer.  At worst, the artist at least says what she feels in a way evocative enough to give the audience some idea of it.

As Gombrich noted (see above), many art forms are really nothing but pattern:  Islamic tiling, Elizabethan lute and keyboard music, some Russian romantic poetry, and so on.  The pleasure of experiencing them comes purely from unfolding delight at the more and more complex and intricate patterns created.  At best, this is quite capable of putting the prepared viewer into a mystic state.  This is explicitly intended in Islamic mosque decoration, for instance.  In music, the mystical dances of the Sufis and the more intense ragas of India are explicitly intended to produce mystical states.  Elizabethan musicians seem to have planned similarly; John Dowland and William Byrd can certainly send the sensitive listener into an abstracted state, and Byrd’s religious music is intended to do that.  Pattern sense is an emotional ground, or mood-state, and a very underappreciated and understudied one.

At a higher level of structuring, Greek tragedy mastered the technique of so perfectly designing a work that the inexorable logic of the system drives the audience deeper and deeper into the tragic action.  Every word of Sophocles’ plays is calculated to drive the structure, and the structure drives the message.  Even a long episodic novel like Cao Xueqin’s Story of the Stone (18th century) can do this.

Notable is the cross-cultural appeal of a particular kind of art:  that which operates by persuading the reader to construct her own work, prompted by the artist.  This is best studied for visual art.  E. H. Gombrich (1960) documented how artists found out by trial and error how to use brushstrokes to make the human eye and brain fill in the painting, rather than to make a “realistic” picture.  The Dutch landscapists brought this to a high pitch, Constable followed and improved on them, and Turner went on beyond him.  Finally, the Impressionists could benefit from actual visual psychology—a new science at the time—to manipulate points (Seurat), brush strokes (Monet), color fields (Gauguin), and so on, to make the viewer construct her own scene from rich-textured foundations.  This makes the paintings more real and vibrant.

The same thing operates in poetry, most obviously in Japanese haiku.  Consider Issa’s great poem on his mother, who died giving birth to him:

“Mother I never knew:

Every time I see the ocean,

Every time….”

This makes the reader fill in all the associations and emotions, which then are necessarily the reader’s own real emotions.  By contrast, the trite, cliché-ridden grief poetry all of us know so well leaves nothing to the imagination, and is, in consequence, poetic garbage.

Equivalents in music and dance will easily occur to mind.  Even food has its subtle and suggestive flavors as opposed to the crude, basic flavors of fast food.


From these and related observations we may conclude that great art may be either an extremely complex but organized run-up of a simple theme (as in the Iliad), or an extremely simple form that evokes extreme complexity, subtlety and emotion, as in haiku.


Another universal tendency in art is complex, multilayered symbolism (on symbols in anthropology, see Turner 1967).  Few widespread, long-lasting creations have only one meaning.  Consider the number of meanings attached to the rose in the western world.  Medieval and Renaissance artists in Europe systematized this, such that a serious painting would frequently have four levels of meaning:  literal, symbolic, metaphoric, and allegorical. One common realization of this was to have a literal motif, which serves as a symbol of a Christian moral value, a metaphor for perfecting one’s life with a view toward its end, and an allegory of God and His works or message (Schneider 1992:17).  Another possible mix was seen in medieval accounts of Jerusalem as a historic city, an allegory of heavenly urbanity, an anagogical diagram of what such a city could be and how to get there, and a tropological metaphor for the soul.  We see this fourfold symbolism in more recent times, including some blues lyrics.  John Hurt in his stunning performances of “Slidin’ Delta Blues” made the Slidin’ Delta—a train—into a symbol of parting, a metaphor of death, and an allegory of mystic absorption in God.  (This is clearest on the record “Worried Blues,” Piedmont Records 1963.)  All these were standard symbolic uses of railroads in American folksong, and are quite transparent to a listener used to that genre.



Art in Society


Arts, and religion, at their best, privilege individuals and make them seem important.  Human beings are infinitely important, at least to other humans, as Emmanuel Levinas (1969, 1998) pointed out.  We create each other and maintain each other; the importance of the “other” to each person is literally boundless.  Real art notes this, and real religion is founded partly on the perception.  Mass culture does the opposite, reducing individuals to stereotypes or caricatures.  Religion that does not privilege the individual, as divinely created and thus deserving of respect and honor, should be suspect.

Art once brought people face to face with the natural world.  People could see the wild through the eyes of great artists, from Lascaux Cave to modern Northwest Coast Native creators.


Arts today are dismissed as “frills” and “luxuries,” and banished from schools, economic stimulus and development packages, and other “serious” venues.  Many arts have declined sadly.  This is sometimes blamed on European rationalism, but Europe at the peak of the rational Enlightenment movement was obsessed with art.

The failure of arts in the contemporary world has much to do with the fractionation of society.  If arts typically represent the community, and often (not always!) represent its deepest moral and spiritual principles, then breakup of community naturally breaks up the arts.  Also, the world today is going through a cyclic decline in society, comparable to the Hellenistic period, the late Roman Empire (both east and west), the Near East after the devastation of the Mongols and the bubonic plague, and China in the late Ming Dynasty.  These were periods of sterile repetition or mindless innovation—change for change’s sake—rather than of creativity put to the purpose of transmitting human messages.  We see something of the same today, especially in elite music and visual arts.  Literature, more broadly based, continues to flourish, as do the less elite visual arts, including film and photography.

Globalization and dominance by giant multinational firms, including ones that promote the lowest sort of arts, is the most obvious reason for the general decline.  The equivalent of the Roman and Mongol Empires is the empire of Fox News, ExxonMobil, Hollywood, and the World Bank.  One cannot expect greatness to flow from giant corporations motivated solely by cost-cutting and market-share-expanding imperatives.  They will create on the cheap and appeal to the “lowest common denominator.”

One reason they cannot appeal beyond that is that they cannot afford to do much development of individuality or character.  Persons, being different and distinctive, have the value that such uniqueness can give.  The old tragic vision, from Greek plays to Scottish ballads, recognized this; the protagonist of a tragedy became a unique individual, and the most important person in the world as long as the drama lasted.  Today, movies treat humans in the mass. Hollywood thrillers kill legions of people every few seconds.  These persons have no individuality, no importance–no humanity.  Even the hero is a cardboard figure with no character or individuality.

Such movies teach indifference to human life, and thus deaden us to the horrors of the news.  They are ideal for pushing totalitarian agendas.  Fusion of Hollywood and Washington has been a major part of the corruption and decline of American politics.  Ronald Reagan, the quintessential cardboard hero, began it, and Arnold Schwartzenegger continued the tradition.  George W. Bush appeared to be desperately attempting to imitate John Wayne. Both Democrats and Republicans appeal to stars and try to get their public support.

This has moved into wider realms.  Decline in concern about the resource base and about endangered species may well be merely a reflection of declining concern about the human species.

Thus, arts can often debase people and ruin their humanity.  Again, this is not new: it characterized some other periods of world-system decline, including the dying days of the Roman Empire.

This raises the wider question of whether arts can improve people.  I was taught by my parents and other elders that appreciating the arts was a moral necessity, since it widened and deepened one’s awareness and emotionality and thus one’s sympathy and caring.  Well, yes, and I still believe this to some extent, but often it does not work that way.  There is what we may call Terry Gross’ Paradox.  Terry Gross, the delightful host of National Public Radio’s “Fresh Air” show, was once interviewing a biographer of Joseph Stalin.  The biographer reported that Stalin had good taste in music, loving the classic Russian composers among others.  The inimitable Terry commented: “So much for the ennobling power of art!”

Artists themselves, especially musicians, are famously tortured souls, so we need not expect conventionally virtuous behavior of them, but what of art lovers?  Alas, knowing college professors of literature and arts does not help one believe my parents’ teachings.  Humanities professors may not be Stalin, but they are certainly no better than the rest of us.  One can take comfort from knowing that ethics professors are not particularly ethical—not just in my experience, but according to a study done by my colleague Eric Schwitzgebel (pers. comm.).  I think I understand:  the ones who are less than ennobled by art and philosophy are those for whom these are very much a “snob fields.”  They go with the most “in” views, generally the pontifications of incomprehensible writers at the French academies, or, failing that, the elite private universities of England and America.  Literary criticism in particular is a field driven by fads started in these institutions.

Arts can improve people if the people in question meditate deeply on what they are reading or watching or hearing, think deeply about it, and let it widen and deepen their emotional and intellectual experience.  This tends to produce sympathy and caring.  On the other hand, evil arts (think of the Nazi artists and the whole BDSM industry), or any arts attended to for shallow or snobbish reasons, simply debase people.


Arts, at best, allow a person to break through the barriers of hate, dullness, and everyday culture, and come to direct unbarriered experience of nature, love, and basic humanity—the beautiful human mind and body uncluttered by our usual blindnesses.  Vermeer can make you see a peasant girl’s intense humanity so perfectly that a sensitive viewer is moved to tears, as in his painting “The Milkmaid” (ca. 1658).  His use of color and shading was so perfect at bringing out the girl’s humanity that it is almost impossible to reproduce; I had seen countless book-illustrations, but was totally unprepared for the shattering impact of seeing the actual painting.

Michelangelo’s religious art makes one see the vast power and unity inherent in all things—the hand of God directly touching us.  Monet’s landscapes have a literally shamanic power.  As noted above, Gombrich showed how good painters trick us, the viewers, into constructing the scene ourselves rather than seeing it literally copied in the painting.  Monet’s genius was to see how to strip a scene of all but the most intense, powerful, and direct elements, making us construct not just a scene but an incredibly powerful emotional effect of the scene.  If I went to the gorge of the Creuse, I would probably see it in dull midday light with all sorts of distractions.  If I look at Monet’s paintings of it, however, my eye turns the subtle brushstrokes into a scene that is not only savagely beautiful but that seems to come right inside me and tear my heart.  No other landscape painter accomplishes this for me, though some come close.  We know enough about Monet to know that this is not some weird quirk of mine; Monet was quite deliberately trying for this, by portraying only what will make the viewer construct the scene in the most compelling way possible. In fact, in his paintings of the gorge of the Creuse, he trimmed the tree that usually centered those paintings, to prevent it leafing out in spring and to maintain it stark and bare.  Similar careful work lies behind Vermeer’s and Rembrandt’s humans, Michelangelo’s and Luca Signorelli’s religious art, and the great Chinese mountains-and-water paintings; artists learned how to create intense effects by very complex and subtle means.

Great music drives deeper and deeper into our emotions till it wrings out the entire mind and soul—everything we have becomes concentrated in the experience of Beethoven’s Ninth or John Hurt’s blues.  Again, an incredible amount of effort and understanding, both conscious and intuitive, goes into this.

By contrast, a poor artist gives us at best a stale, flat view, and at worst merely heightens and thickens the barriers that prevent our seeing.  Bad music in particular does this.  It is the art of those who seek for wealth, power, and status—the opposites of nature, humanity, and love.  Wealth means treating the world as “resources,” not wonders to revere and respect.  Power means treating humans as enemies.  Status means treating humans as means to self-gratification, not ends, and status-seeking is thus incompatible with love, though people often manage to have both by compartmentalizing.  If one wants those, one will naturally produce either the cheapest, dullest music possible, or the most bombastic and overdone.



Authentic Tradition?


Two red herrings in talking about ethnic art are “authentic” and “traditional.”  “Authentic” can be an invidious label, used to put down contemporary artists.  “Traditional” can imply “rigid” or “stagnant.”  It is best to unpack these and see what we are really talking about.  Being no philosopher, I can do that most easily through examples.  I will draw on Northwest Coast Native American art, a highly distinctive and easily recognizable style much analyzed by Franz Boas.

One confusion is about the authenticity of the artist as a Northwest Coast native and the authenticity of the art as an example of the style.  The wonderful art historian and ethnographer Bill Holm worked out the rules of the traditional arts, and made exquisite pieces in impeccable classic Northwest Coast style—yet he was entirely European by background.  Conversely, some Native people have done fine European-style artworks; they are Northwest Coast Native artists but are not creating Northwest Coast art.

There are, inevitably, some people who are part Northwest Coast and part White.  They often become perfectly good Northwest Coast artists, and can create Northwest Coast art, but they merge into truly borderline cases.

Because of problems like this, I generally avoid the word “authentic.”  There is a large literature on the matter, but it seems somewhat extraneous to my charge in the present work.

As far as tradition goes, modern Northwest Coast Native people who create art following the rules of the grand style—the classic style of the period from around 500 AD to 2000 AD—are obviously traditional.  Then there are artists like Preston Singletary or Susan Point, who are Northwest Coast Native people creating art in brilliant and original modern transformations of classic themes and motifs.  They are traditional, but less so in some ways.  Yet, perhaps in other ways they are more traditional, since it was praiseworthy in the old days to innovate and freely vary interpretations and executions of the themes.  Innovation is traditional.

Turning to folk music, we find Scottish folk music and American country music being composed today; the rules and styling are traditional.  The “sound” is more or less what it has been for at least two centuries.  Anyone can compose a tune, following those traditions, and though new it will be a traditional-style tune.  It may become a “traditional tune” in due course.  It appears to take about three generations to make something fully traditional in the eyes of its usual audience.  If Grandpa did it when he was young, amd we’ve done it since, it’s traditional now. Many traditions are even younger, especially if they are only small variants of older theme (Hobsbawm and Ranger 1983).

Traditions change, develop, and add or subtract stylistic elements all the time.  English is English though it is not Chaucer’s or Shakespeare’s English.  Tradition has disappeared only when there is nothing left of the canonical forms and styles.





In sum, arts communicate emotions and moods.  Arts are intensely social, yet intensely individual.  They are, at best, about an individual sharing his or her full, unbarriered, unchecked selfhood with the wide world.  At their greatest, arts communicate the most intense, powerful, and dramatic emotional states.  But they must do this in a tightly controlled, stylistically guided way.  The more perfect the artist’s control of his or her medium, the more intensely the emotion can be communicated.  Most of us wrote awful poems or sang awful songs in our teenage years, getting our raw emotions out for our friends.  Maturity brought either silence or much better control and much more effective communication.  The brilliance of John Hurt’s “Slidin’ Delta” depends on his matchless control of blues guitar; he could thoughtlessly and effortlessly make perfect music, using all his conscious mind to drive the intensity of the message.  In poetry, Creide’s lament for Cael at his death seems all the more intense, spontaneous, and heartrending because it is written in the most elaborately complex and stylized medieval Irish Gaelic; somehow we forget the improbability of such high style under such circumstances.  Shakespeare’s love sonnets seem spontaneous and personal, not least because Shakespeare was such a master of English poetry that his exquisitely crafted poems flow without apparent difficulties.

Of course, such control and stylistic overlearning has its dangers.  If form becomes an end in itself, technical brilliance can, and very often does, smother the message under layers of mannerism. It can even replace the message entirely with mere style.  Some traditions, like the blues, Renaissance masses, early Gaelic poetry, and Baroque Spanish religious painting, try to avoid this by deliberately seeking to drive emotion as intensely as possible, and design the whole art form to communicate it as intensely as possible.  Other traditions, however, follow an all too familiar path downward into sterility.  This has notoriously been the bane of poetic forms, from sonnets to haiku.  Even more extreme is the decline of impressionist painting from Monet to the “plein air” painters and on down to today’s Sunday artists painting-by-the-numbers.



Part II:  Music as Example


Music:  Biology and Evolution


Of all the neglected realms of social science, the most neglected may be music.  A major problem is the lack of interest in music in the puritanical Protestant culture that gave rise to so much modern science, especially social science.  Music is at best a frill, at worst a sin, to many or most traditional Protestants.  Any familiarity with almost any culture outside northwest Europe and its colonial offshoots destroys the idea that music is a frill.  A few other cultures seem indifferent, but the vast majority see music as an essential part of life and communication.

Music is not only universal, but is highly developed in all cultures.  Many of the world’s cultures have rather rudimentary visual art, but none lacks a highly developed musical tradition.  Moreover, music is important in almost every human life.  People love it.  In this electronic age, few are out of earshot of it for very long.  Even in traditional societies not blessed with ever-present noisemakers, people sing frequently.  Work songs, dance songs, love songs, lullabyes, and play songs seem not only universal in all cultures, but important in virtually everyone’s life.  Humans have considerable brain wiring for music, and by some accounts reading and playing music is the most complex mental act we perform.

It appears that people playing music together synchronize their brain waves (Sänger et al. 2014; the study involved guitar players, but surely applies to all musicians).  They seem almost telepathic; deep brain structures as well as (presumably) mirror cells are involved.  The ability seems wired in, though developed by practice.

This implies that music is exceedingly important to humans.  The Greek theorist Polybius was already well aware of this, maintaining that the people of his native Arcady—an impoverished montane region in Greece—centered their institutions around music, to soften and (literally) harmonize the minds of the people there (Glacken 1967:95).  He proved his point by noting that one area within Arcady did not take to music.  They did little except fight and cause trouble, and Polybius drew his conclusions. If he was right, this seems to be the first known case in history of a group consciously changing its culture to improve its adaptation.  Even if he was wrong, it is an interesting point, because he would have been the first to discuss the possibility with such self-conscious interest.

Durkheim’s ideas of religion building solidarity within community were anticipated by the early Chinese, and they gave music a prime place in this. Xunzi wrote:  “Music unites that which is the same; rites distinguish that which is different; and through the combination rites and music the human heart is governed” (Tr. Burton Watson 1963:117).  In other words, music unites everyone involved in the worship rites and ceremonies; rites distinguish the different groups that participate, keeping them separate and reminding them of their different tasks.  This was criticially necessary in Xunzi’s society, where bureaucratic systems were part of ritual.  From a different world but a similar psychology, the Spanish proverb tells us donde musica hubiere, cosa mala no existiere (“where music is, nothing bad can exist”).

Yet, until recently, music received very little attention from psychological and social theorists (though see Feld 1982; Rouget 1985; and a tradition of ethnomusicology going back to Curt Sachs).  “Primitive” music was thought to be miserable, which drew a recent blast from the great archaeologist Martin Carver:  “…why does every attempt to represent Paleolithic music have to resemble a dying duck in a thunderstorm?…  Paleolithic persons had an ear for nature’s noises, a good sense of pitch and rhythm, flutes with pentatonic notes, rattles with pebbles.  There is no evidence that they were permanently trapped in the seventh level of hell, gnawed by angry aardvarks.  Why is it so improbable that they might express a sense of harmony, excitement and joy—like their paintings in fact?”  (Carver 2011:329.)  Of course he is correct, and we can safely assume that good (if simple) music existed tens of thousands of years ago—indeed, song may well have preceded speech (Mithen 2006; Vico 1999).

Recently, however, some good work on the social science of music has appeared (Jourdain 1997; Levitin 2007; Patel 2008; Raffman 1993; Sacks 2007; Seeger 2004).  Ethnomusicology and music history are small fields, largely devoted to description.  Evolutionary studies of music have been largely confined to bird song (reviewed in Marler and Slabbekoorn 2004).  Darwinian essays on human music have been rather tentative and preliminary (see e.g. Wallin et al 2000, in which the best articles are on nonhumans).  This is changing fast, with the work of scholars such as Aniruddh Patel (2008).  Darwin himself suggested that music might have evolved partly for courting, and indeed we all know that successful musicians can succeed notably well in finding mates (for long or short time periods).  Music may indeed have evolved partly as a mechanism for mate choice.

Animal song is useful as a source of simple models, or at least simple ideas.  Crickets sing to attract females, and, other things being equal, the one who sings most gets the females and actually leaves more descendents.  Thus a small cricket with a good steady song can leave more offspring than a big tough bruiser who doesn’t sing much (Rodríguez-Muñoz et al. 2010).  Song in crickets is generally thought to show superior health, and the females judge that a constantly singing male is probably a good bet, reproductively.  Successful human musicians may not be such a good health bet, but they are probably drawing on an ancient ploy.

Bird song is strikingly similar to human music, except that it is much simpler (Marler and Slabbekoorn 2004; Patel 2008; Slater 2000).  Biologists, however, underestimate its complexity.  Patel, who as a sociobiologist should know better, even says it is used only for “territorial warning and sexual advertisement” (2008:244).  Even his own book mentions other uses:  individual and descent-group recognition, local-population recognition, and physical state.  Many species recognize their close neighbors’ songs, and also the song-dialects of their geographical areas.

Bird song is known to signal health, reproductive state, energy level, seasonality, and quite a few other things.  Better singers are, other things being equal, healthier and more “fit,” and members of the opposite sex preferentially seek them out (Zuk 2002).  Whether the bird is “conscious” of all this or not is another question, one that cannot be answered with present experimental protocols.)  Simple calls work fine for announcing territory and for mating; song would not have evolved if that had been the only game.  Incidentally, birds often share human tastes, flocking to the opposite-sex individual that we humans would call the “best singer.”  There are spectacular exceptions—the male Yellow-headed Blackbird charms his mate with a sound reminiscent of the screech of a rusted gate, and the more awful it sounds to humans, the more the females seem to be attracted.

Bird song is always at least partly learned, in the advanced songbirds.  It is concentrated in the left brain, as is human speech, but human music is largely a right-brain activity.  This might imply that bird song is more about communication, less about emotion, than human music, or it might be mere chance.

Many birds sing different types of songs for different occasions, often a simple song for general social note (and possibly amusement?) and a more complex one for territorial display or courting (Slater 2000).  As long ago as 1963, Edward Armstrong showed that simplistic accounts of bird song (as mere “instinct” or for simple reasons like courting and territoriality) were hopelessly inadequate.  Birds improvise, and clearly sing for pleasure (in the sense of self-reinforcing activity).

Parrots, moreover, actually can understand and use human language semantically, to a very limited but very real degree (Pepperberg 1999; there has been much further work, but no easily available synthesis, since that book).

Why do they learn rather than merely giving instinctive calls?  Flycatchers, woodpeckers, and other highly evolved and intelligent birds do perfectly well with the latter.  Several possibilities exist and some are proved.  Recognizing one’s neighbors is the best-studied (see Marler and Slabbekoorn 2004, and other sources above).  If one knows one’s neighbors and is in one’s proper community, one is safe, and can avoid major fights.  Territories are already worked out within the ‘hood, and a stranger who needs to be fought can be recognized.  Also well demonstrated is the preference of females for better singers; a good singer is generally more experienced, more clever, and more good at social matters, as well as healthier.  Another possible benefit is confusing predators, but this seems dubious.  Every birdwatcher with good hearing soon learns to recognize a Bewick wren’s song by its tonal quality, in spite of the notorious extreme variation of pattern from wren to wren.  Even the dumbest predator should be able to do as much.

There are certainly more reasons than the above.  Bird societies are much more complex than we thought even 10 years ago, and song must be used to negotiate much of the complexity.

One thus wonders whether mockingbirds are really just wasting their time and energy with their endless and brilliantly original songs.  They can sing for 12 hours at a stretch, as every sleepless southern Californian knows.  They not only imitate; they modify imitated sounds to weave them into their own songs, and then improvise highly original phrases.  If this were mere “biologically mediated reproductive behavior” (Patel 2008:356) they could get away with a few squeaks, as most bird species do.  Obviously something more is afoot.  It would be truer to say that my singing when I was courting my wife was mere “biologically mediated reproductive behavior”; I didn’t write my own songs, and I most certainly didn’t sing as well as a mockingbird.  Patel seems to think that birds only sing in mating time, but of course mockingbirds sing all year.  So do many other good singers among birds.  Mockingbirds are monogamous and apparently mate for life, so their singing is not usually to lure a mate.  It does, however, keep longterm mates in touch.  Among nightingales, and thus very possibly among mockingbirds too, constant original song keeps females duly impressed with their mates and less prone to stray into “extrapair copulation” (Birkhead 2008).  Song lets adults keep track of their young as well.  Thus it can happen any time.  Mockingbirds sing partly to hold territory, against not only other mockingbirds but also other invaders of the turf, and this coupled with their fearlessness gives them an incentive to sing a lot.  But it does not explain the improvisation.

Mockingbirds that are healthy, safe, and secure sing more, louder, and more creatively.  Probably, much else is communicated: perhaps level of sexual arousal, level of fondness for mate, level of excitement at life in general, level of peace with the world.  Mockingbirds sing ardently on moonlit nights, a fact which must have a reason—especially since their arch-enemies, the cats, are out, and can see better in the dark than the mockers do.

A major study by Carlos Botero et al. (2009) of mockingbirds and their relatives (the family Mimidae) shows that there is a strong correlation between song diversity and climate—the more drastic the variation from summer to winter, the more song types.  The range is from the Caribbean islands’ pearly-eyed thrasher, singing rather monotonously in an idyllic climate, to eastern North America’s brown thrasher, which ranges far north and must deal with terrific cold even in freaky summer weather.  The extremely good singers are all highly migratory, a pattern found also in related families like the thrushes.  It turns out, on analysis, that the higher the need for intelligent, adaptive behavior, the more varied the song.  Females apparently pick the best singer, having evolved to assume he is the smartest adapter.

This does not explain the imitation, however; it does not correlate.  Californian gardeners know how mockingbirds deliberately scare other birds by imitating hawks, jays, and cats—apparently purely for fun, though sometimes they seem to be scaring nest-predators off.  Is there more going on?  Is this the only time they actually refer to the things they imitate?  Mockers frequently imitate killdeers and roosters.  Do they think of those birds as they imitate them?  Do they really enjoy this, as they seem to do?  Does a good imitation make the singer’s mate think of killdeers or roosters?  Does he feel pride in his ability?  We just don’t know.


One thing we do know is that birds, even mockingbirds, appear to have nothing beyond a simple “phrase structure grammar” (in the linguistic sense; Chomsky 1957).  They do not seem to plan utterances beyond the short-phrase level, and phrases seem pretty stereotyped and simple, even in mockingbird song.  The only indication that there is a “more” is that mockers and other good imitators often work at a given imitation to make it fit better with their overall song pattern.

Productive, creative song is confined to one group of birds, the advanced Oscines branch of the Passeriformes.  Otherwise, real song is limited to two other groups:  Many hummingbirds have simple songs, and some learn a bit of their songs.  Parrots, closely related to Passeriformes, have evolved their own form of productivity, more transferable to verbal learning.  Apparently song evolved to give the smaller passeriforms a better way of communicating fairly complex messages over long distances.

Simpler singers are instinctively wired to sing in a particular way, but may need some learning or practice.  Zebra finches raised in isolation sing formless, disorganized songs, but their descendents, if raised together, gradually move back to the normal song—they have a genetic template somewhere in their brains (Fehér et al. 2009).  By contrast, flycatchers, even raised in isolation, sing pretty much the same old song; they are instinct-driven and do not learn their songs.  Mockingbirds, on the other hand, might never work out the right sound.

Significantly, the birds with extremely elaborate songs, like mockers and nightingales, are often dull-colored inhabitants of dense brush.  They also tend to be either aggressive, or fast, elusive flyers, or—like mockingbirds—both.  They have to be, since their songs are a neon billboard as far as hawks and cats are concerned!  Birds often get so caught up in their songs that they seem almost in a trance state.  I once sneaked to within three feet of a singing nightingale, and I have been almost as close to many a mockingbird.  A romantic legend has it that the nightingale presses his breast against a thorn to make himself sing more plaintively.  Nightingales do indeed hide in thorn bushes to sing, but the reason is sheer self-protection.

The California towhee shares the mockingbird’s suburban habitat and is aggressive and successful, but has a feeble song given only at the height of the breeding season.  The difference is that towhees spend their lives on the ground, where they are susceptible to cats and other ground predators; thus they have evolved to avoid attracting attention to their whereabouts.  Significantly, the only time they get far above ground is to sing from a high perch.

Bird communication, especially its functions, remains understudied.  It is a sure bet that birds are not even reaching the lowly level of “I’m here!”—birds have nothing like the incredibly complicated human concepts of “I,” “am,” and “here.”  But it is an equally sure bet that the birds are doing more than merely marking territory and calling mates.  One point often missed is that “calling mates” includes both finding mates and maintaining pair-bonds with one’s long-term mate.

Many birds, especially migrants, sing only in the breeding season because the song center of the brain actually shrinks after that time, and regrows only the following spring.  This is apparently to lighten the bird’s wing loading.  Birds, like humans, are highly encephalized.  The song center is a large part of that relatively big brain.  The song center weighs only one or two grams, but that is significant to a bird weighing at most a few ounces that has to fly hundreds of miles.

Social mammals and birds have many different sounds for different purposes.  Coyotes (another animal with which I have a great deal of field experience) howl to maintain pack contact, bark to attract attention, whine on a level pitch to show pain, whine on a descending scale to beg, growl to show fear and vigilance, snarl to show outright aggression, and also yap, yowl, make purring sounds, and so on; the young have their own sounds.  Coyote families sing extremely complex, long-lasting choruses, with each individual contributing a different type of note; the father may howl while his mate yodels and the pups bark, whine and yap.

Wolves are probably even more complicated.  Coyotes and wolves will communicate with humans.  They answer if I howl.  Once when I was singing and playing my guitar on my balcony, the local coyotes joined me, in the same key.  Movie buffs will recall the film Never Cry Wolf, in which the hero plays his bassoon to the wolves and they howl back.  I was once camped out in a remote part of Canada.  At the next campsite was a saxophonist—clearly a professional; he was a superb player—who had obviously seen the film.  He spent half the night playing riffs for the local wolves.  They howled back, in key, with a similar riff, every time.  Human and canine alternated every five minutes or so, and kept it up for hours.

There is a You-tube video of a woman, “Krissy,” playing a saw and getting coyotes to answer it, in the Angeles National Forest near my home (“Duet for Saw and Coyotes,” circulating on the Internet, 2014).  Of course coyotes routinely answer dogs, and join in with ambulances and fire trucks.  More interesting is my dog Kangal’s fondness for playing his squeaky-toys along with my records.  He once accompanied Andres Segovia in a marvelous duet, Kangal on the squeaky-toy perfectly matching Segovia’s pitch and timing for quite a while.  Segovia is probably turning in his grave, but the sheer ability of Kangal to follow recorded music is impressive.  I had not known or heard of a dog doing this, but my wolf and coyote experiences alerted me to the possibility.


Among primates, music seems unique to humans.  Most other primates’ calls are instinctive—hybrids even give hybrid calls (Wallin 2000).  Chimpanzees dance and whoop, but their sound repertoire is instinctive and simple, whereas music is largely learned and is very complex.  Rhesus monkeys have no musical taste; they prefer silence to any music, and dislike harmonious music as much as dissonant (Holden 2007).  Presumably, however, they enjoy their own calls, which sound horribly raucous and uncouth to human ears; they spend a great deal of time calling.  Some primates apparently learn some of their calls, and all can learn when to call and when not, but at best the nonhuman primates are far behind songbirds.

Music evidently evolved in the human lineage, like language.  Music probably evolved along with language as part of one communication system.  In modern humans, music communicates primarily emotion, while language communicates specific cognitive information (as well as a good deal of emotion).  The neglect of music by scientists is presumably related to the role of music as primarily a mood-communicator; science has tended to shy away from emotion (Damasio 1994).  Some grave souls have even denied that music has an important role, even claiming it is a sort of accidental by-product of evolution (Schrock 2009).  Oliver Sacks (2007) and Robin Dunbar (2010) refute this view.  Darwinian theory renders impossible the view that such an enormously important, universal human trait, involving more of the brain than any other activity, could be a mere trivial accident.  Darwin himself noted this, writing of it as an important evolved capability of humans.



Music in Humans:  Society and Communication


The enormous importance and appeal of music was well stated around 400 A.D. by St. John Chrysostom (a nickname, “golden mouth,” in recognition of his ability with words):  “By nature we take such delight in song that even infants clinging at the breast, if they are crying and perturbed, can be put to sleep by singing….  So too journeymen, driving their yoked oxen in the nonday, often sing as they go…wine-growers, treading the winepress, or gathering grapes, or dressing the vines, or doing any other piece of work, often do it to a song.  And the sailors likewise, as they pull the oars.  Again, women who are weaving…often sing…” (quoted Dronke 1969:14).

In the 18th century, Giambattista Vico (2000) speculated that people originally sang to communicate; music and speech diverged late in human history.  The idea that music and speech slowly diverging from a common source deserves, and has received, further consideration (see e.g. Mithen 2006; Patel 2008; Sacks 2007).  Music and language share hierarchic planning; just as phonemes combine into morphemes, which combine into sentences, which combine into texts, so notes combine into lines which become tunes which can be parts of much larger rituals or masses or concerts.

Many good theories of music origin have been proposed (Schrock 2009), but none seems adequate to me.  The commonest one has been noted above: music evolved for sexual display and selection—basically, for courting.  Indeed, men and sometimes women court by singing, and many songs are about love, but the vast majority of human song is in the service of dance, work, religion, and children’s activities.  Even love songs are more often produced for group entertainment, often including group dance, than for actual courtship.  Music for courtship seems rather rare except in societies where actual talking would be considered risqué or worse.  Moreover, among humans, both sexes sing.  In striking contrast to almost all songbirds, humans do not have a male bias in their singing activity.  Dunbar (2010:72) thinks music may simply be a general social communication device, later adapted to more specific messages like courting.

Ellen Dissanayake has argued that music arises from mother-infant interactions (that should have been parent-infant).  This certainly explains some of the action.  But it is, again, inadequate to explain the use of music in so many venues.

However, all these theories seem to me to be too specific.  Recall that higher mammals all have different noises for different purposes.  It is effectively certain that the immediate ancestors of humans had separate classes of noises for baby-care, mating, coordinating co-work, coordinating dances, inspiring warriors to fight, lamenting tragedies, and all the other purposes to which music is routinely put.  In fact, we still have nonmusical, and at least partly instinctive, noises for baby-care (lulling, soothing sounds), war (angry yells and screams), lamenting (weeping, sobbing), and so on.

As human communication became more and more a matter of learning, less and less instinctive, the sounds all came to be  incorporated into the new media.  They inspired or developed into songs.  These culturally-learned descendents of instinctive noises merged into one vast cultural soundscape.

If Vico and his modern followers are right, as seems increasingly likely, music and language developed from one original system—a chantlike or murmuring sound (as Vico described it), rather like the babbling of babies when they are at the threshold of talking.  If you slow down and computer-analyze a baby’s babbling at that time—around 7 or 8 months old—you will find that she is trying to say actual words.  Cleaning up the tape reveals “mama,” “papa,” and other deep thoughts, expressed as well as practice permits.  I suspect that songlike babbling is expressive of emotion, as adult song is.

As communication became more and more complex, more a matter of cultural learning, language and music forked off—language to communicate cognitive data, music to communicate emotion.  Language always nested in the left brain (in most people), but music is distributed over the whole brain.  Language differs from bird song in that it can communicate nested ideas:  “He said that she thought that I said that the President acted stupidly.”  Humans can easily handle up to five levels of this (Dunbar 2010) and, if necessary, even more.  Music is similarly “recursive”:  tunes and themes nest in longer compositions, with up to five levels of recursion in ordinary music and many more in Brahms or Beethoven.  Bird song is recursive only up to one or two levels, so far as we can determine.


Music obviously evolved from biological primes.  Simplest of all is rhythm:  it builds on heartbeat, breathing, walking, working, sex, and other body rhythms.  Humans are a rhythmic animal.  Very often, music is explicitly used to coordinate work or enhance sex, and of course it is virtually inseparable from dance.

People everywhere chant to coordinate dancing and working, and grieve in a characteristic high-falling cadence.  They speak in characteristic, language-specific rhythms and tonalities.  Many local musics correspond well to the local language (Huron 2006:188).

One rarely-mentioned proof that music is basic and important to humans is the worldwide phenomenon of the “earworm”—getting a song stuck in one’s head, particularly a song one is learning.  Mark Twain wrote a famous story about being driven nearly mad because he could not get the popular song “Punch, Brothers” out of his mind—till he taught it to someone else, and passed on the obsession!  Somehow, many or most of us are driven, almost or quite instinctively, to repeat a new song till we have it down.  Birds seem to share this; a mockingbird or nightingale will practice a newly-learned imitation for hours, all too often just outside the window of a human trying to sleep.  I recently heard a local thrasher work for hours on perfecting his imitation of a Bell’s vireo song, not an easy song to copy.  This cannot be explained except by assuming that songs are fundamentally important to the life of the singer, and that an attraction, or even compulsion, to learn them has been built into the brain.

In fact, learning to perform music, in childhood, leads to brain growth in several areas, including the connections between right and left brain.  Maximal effects require learning by the age of seven.  Children trained extremely early by the Suzuki method turn out to have more developed brains than controls (Healy 2010). Children with early musical-instrument training have more cortical thickness in regions associated with executive function (Barnes 2015a).  Working memory, attention, self-control, and organizational abilities are involved.  Music training also has the enormous value of teaching children that competence in an area comes slowly, from hard work, rather than being inborn or coming easily.

Biology also gives a wider range of patterned sounds:  speech rhythms, work sounds, natural sounds.  Our ancestors presumably responded to sound patterns in nature because they needed to tell a game animal’s noises from the wind in the trees, a lion’s roar from thunder, a mate’s call from a random bird noise.

Humans have built on this to create far more complex layers of patterning.  Biology gives us the basics, but only human ingenuity can build it into blues cross-rhythms or Balkan dance beats.  Some musics, notably in West Africa as well as the Balkans, specialize in rhythmic complexity.  By contrast, Laurel Trainor, one of the people who has found that children’s brains benefit from music, points out that western classical music is astonishingly simple rhymically compared to many folk forms.  The west has specialized on complex harmonic systems instead (Trainor 2008).  It is hard to do both.  Jazz manages to do it, but is a specialized, sophisticated form.

The emotional moods of music apparently have biological roots also.  Sad songs convey benefits by stimulating peacefulness, nostalgia, tenderness, and wonder, and may stimulate release of prolactin, the hormone associated with breastfeeding and other pleasuarable physical representations of tenderness (Sciencealert Staff 2014).  Happy songs more obviously connect with plesaant emotions.  Military music, lullabyes, and mourning chants all sound appropriate to their occasions, stimulating the mind accordingly.

It would seem, then, that music exists to allow emotion and mood to be socially shared, through being patterned in such a way that a large group can coordinate their musical performance and thus make easier the sharing.  More:  Music exists to allow a social group to coordinate action—work and dance in particular—and at the same time to get them in the proper mood for that action.  Music and dance bring people together and allow them to share culturally appropriate moods.  We in the modern west think of dance as “fun,” but other cultures have dances for ritual, for mourning, for communication of important messages, for war, and for almost every other conceivable purpose.

An occasional claim that music evolved for courtship is based on analogy to the old, discredited belief about  bird song.  In fact, courtship is one of the important functions of music in humans, but is much less important than are several other functions.  Music is far more important in large-group settings, from Australian Aboriginal rituals and Inuit shaman sessions to New York concert halls and Los Angeles dance floors.  Even in intimate contexts, courtship is surpassed in frequency by lulling babies, singing to and with children, and playing tranquil music to relax.


In short, music is to mood what language is to concrete meaning.  Music gives a hierarchical and recursive patterning to the communication of mood, just as language gives it (through phonemics and grammar) to communication of cognitive and specific messages.



Psychological Functionality and Music


Music has been widely used in psychotherapy.  Music therapy is not especially popular now, but was a hugely important part of treatment, especially for the mentally ill but also for the physically ill, in the medieval and early-modern Near East (Dols 1992:166-173).  Hospitals had live music, designed to cure the mad and soothe those in pain.  Apparently it worked well, because it remained popular and had the weight of medical authority behind it.  (It had the opposite effect on one French traveler in the 17th century, though; he described the music as “wretched” [Dols 1992:172].  Possibly it was as bad as modern medical-office music, which so often elicits the same opinion.)

We are now a long way from medieval Islam in this regard, but music therapy is still done.  A recent review of music therapy by William Thompson and Gottfried Schlaug (2015) picks out an amazing range of ways music is now used.  One notable way is in retraining people who have had left-brain strokes.  Science has known for decades that people who have lost the use of ordinary language, due to strokes to the left temporal lobes where language is processed, often retain the ability to sing.  Often, they can even sing what they want to say, even though they cannot say it in ordinary speech.  Building on this by mental bootstrapping allows stroke victims to develop linguistic ability in the right half of the brain.  The brain is perfectly capable of retraining in this way, but it has to have something to build on, and song is the foundation.

Music also coordinates and entrains body rhythms, and thus is used in helping disabled people to learn or regain abilities, and in helping ordinary people to coordinate better and exercise more effectively.  Use of music to set the rhythm for exercising is almost universal.  Music also engages people socially, entraining emotions, as Durkheim said ritual does; it was the music and dancing in the rituals that really did the work.  Of course, secular sociability builds on this too.  Music has helped people with Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s cope with deteriorating functionality.  It is also extremely valuable in helping people on the autism spectrum (as I can attest; I have some Asperger’s condition, and music has made an enormous difference for me).  Autistic persons can be calmed, socially integrated, and socially coordinated with the help of music.  Music identifiably changes the brain—physically.

Training in playing a musical instrument helps language learning and overall ability to learn, partly by providing discipline.  One extremely valuable side of musical-instrument learning is not related to the music, however: musical instrument training inevitably starts from scratch and is a slow, incremental process, but one in which every week brings material improvement (if the learner does what he or she is told).  This has saved many a child who was expected to perfect at first try, or at least very soon, by overly driving parents and peers, and who thus developed a huge fear of trying (since nothing worth doing is easy at first attempt).  It has also saved many who were put down savagely and told they could do nothing.

Finally, singing during childbirth makes labor more bearable.  It appears that many women sing at this time.  They may start only to prevent themselves crying out in pain, but, from accounts, they find the singing actually helps the whole process.  (This from personal communications, largely from my midwife spouse Barbara Anderson.)

Given the enormous benefits of music, it is tragic that Americans have so greatly reduced their singing and playing in recent decades.  Most Americans now say they “can’t sing” or “can’t learn an instrument” or “don’t have time,” and thus miss it.  Things were very different when I was young.  We were always singing: in school (all schools had music then), in church, on camping trips, on the road, during parties, during drunken get-togethers (when I got old enough for that), and just around the house and around the town.  All that is gone.  Our loss is incalculable.  Even the sheer physical loss in brain development is profound; the social losses are much greater.



Structure in Music:  Some Psychological Considerations


Music creates a world of steady rhythms, pure tones, neat and simple harmonies, and exciting micro-variations.  (Elite music in the 20th century often violated all these rules, but almost no other music ever has.)  People are remarkably sensitive to the building blocks of each other’s musics, in spite of cultural differences that often make them insensitive to the total package (see below).

Patel (2008) emphasizes the differences of music and speech.  Speech rhythms are very different from the carefully counted, more or less equal and regular beats usual in music.  Speech contours, including the tones of tonal languages, are not set to absolute pitches, and differ a lot even in the same utterance, let alone between different speakers.  On the other hand, Patel and others have found that people do process grammar and musical sequences in similar ways; there is commonality in the overall processes that allow us to construct and interpret sentences, on the one hand, and long musical pieces on the other.

Sentences differ from phrases (as in bird song) in that sentences are more complex, and can be transformed grammatically.  “The boy hit the ball” is already beyond a bird’s (known) ability, but the grammatical sense necessary to turn it into “the ball was hit by the boy” and “did the boy hit the ball?” are truly beyond any animal’s comprehension (Chomsky 1957—confirmed by every bit of evidence since).  Similarly, birds may string phrases together indefinitely, but they cannot create a even a simple song that integrates several phrases into a composition.  Some can make up a simple, consistent song of four or five phrases strung together, but this is as good as it gets.  Still less can they parallel a blues song or a concerto or anything else requiring overall planning.

Many scholars strongly suspect that this is simply one aspect of a wider human ability to do hierarchic planning.  Animals cannot seem to do any sort of multilevel, hierarchic, recursive planning.  Humans do it not only in language and music, but also in hunting and gathering, farming, war, and indeed every activity we take on.  We are born to plan.

Patel gives enormous technical detail about the small-scale building blocks that we process subconsciously and usually do not think about.  Most people do not even realize they are doing all these complex things until linguists point it out.  This was brought home to me by his comment that “there are tone languages with stress (e.g. Mandarin) and without it (e.g. Cantonese)” (Patel 2008:119).  I speak both, or used to, and had indeed been properly using stress in the one and not in the other, but I never realized it.  I learned it and processed it preattentively.  (Actually, Cantonese has slight stress patterns, but not enough to make the contrast invalid.)  He finds plenty of similarities and differences between language and music.

John Sloboda reports that “a fifth of adults believe they are ‘tone deaf,’ so they don’t see music as something they do; rather, they experience music as something that is done to them” (Sloboda 2008:32).  He suspects that this part of a “disconnection” that arose “in the past 50 years” because we consume music rather than producing it.

Certainly, as noted above, there has been a profound change in American life in my time.  When I was a child, everybody sang, most people played musical instruments, music was taught in schools, and folk music was a living tradition rather than a record genre.  Today, few make music any more, and music is out of the schools.  However, most teenagers do at least something (be it church choir or rock band), and more people sing than admit it.  Watch individuals alone in cars at any stoplight; you will soon see several who are obviously singing.  Most would probably never do it in public.  Sloboda, and Patel (2008), suspect that few people are really tone-deaf.  Most are simply too ashamed of their purely imaginary lack of ability to let themselves develop their musicality.

Group bonding is certainly involved in the uses of music (Dunbar 2004; Patel 2008:370).  It cannot be the only factor; primates bond into big groups without it, while humans perform music alone for their own amusement, as well as in or for groups (Patel 2008:370-371).  Still, the universal use of music and chant as group phenomena tells us a very clear story.

Chris Loersch and Nathan Arbuckle, in an excellent study that is the first actual test of theories, proved conclusively that music engages and entrains social linking.  They quote Darwin on the mysterious nature of music. They found that music is “intimately tied to the other core social phenomena that bind us together into groups” (Loesch and Arbuckle 2013:777).  Those phenomena included general sociability as well as language, personal traits like extraversion, and group activities.

Music does not display many of the features that prove we have evolved for language (Patel 2008:379f.).  Patel rather surprisingly concludes that music was invented rather than evolved (Patel 2008:400-401), though building blocks such as rhythm sense might be genetic.

I find this unsatisfactory.  I can live with a theory in which only the building blocks—rhythm, pure tone, harmony, recursive tune compostion—are evolved, but only if a need to express emotion and mood state through composed song is also involved.  Music is universal.  It grades into speech via chant, word-music, tonal languages, rhythmic speech, and the like.  Thus it is clearly a part of the evolved human communication system.  Recent findings disprove the old idea that speech is located in the left brain, music in the right; in fact they are both distributed widely, music in particular being a total-brain activity, though some key components are right-brain-processed (see e.g. Deutsch 2010).  Babies respond to their parents’ voices and speech rhythms, and even young infants’ crying is in those rhythms; people (especially women) with more “musical” speech tend to be more socially adept (Deutsch 2010).

Individuals create music alone to put themselves in particular moods, or get themselves out of same.  I find I have to play and sing music to settle and harmonize myself during exciting moments, and to wake myself up during dull ones.  Almost all children sing for sheer pleasure; they seem to have an almost physical need of it during joyful times.  So both manipulation and communication of mood states is involved.  This gives us the beginning of a theory, but only the beginning.



Music:  Some New Findings and Speculations


A recent study of music by several psychologists (Bonneville-Roussy et al. 2013) deserves to be quoted in extenso.  They found that people in the modern world—their study was in the United States and the UK—are intensely engaged with music.  This varies with age.  The peak was among teenagers; 18-year-olds topped the list with 25 hours a week of listening.  The low point was 58; people that age averaged 12 hours.  The range, over all ages, was dramatic—from zero to 96 hours a week!

Once retired, past 65, people renewed musicality, typically considering it more important than at any previous time.  Adults often did much of their music listening while working around the house (Bonneville-Roussy et al. 2013:706).

No one will be surprised to learn that teens were much more prone than others to listen to music as a part of active socializing.  It is well known that teenagers are especially influenced by music; that tastes picked up from teenage peers tend to be permanent; and that teenagers’ and early twenty-somethings’ favorite songs tend to be beloved throughout their whole lives.  Even songs that one did not much like at the time often remain deeply embedded in consciousness, not displaced by other far better songs learned later.  It appears that the growing brain reaches a point at this time when music gets deeply encoded in the neurons (Stern 2014), apparently as part of the formation of a stable self.  It is also a part of the rapid expansion of the social circle that takes place at that age; after all, the self is defined socially (G.H. Mead 1964).  It is also relevant that we reminisce about childhood and teen years more than about other times (Stern 2014).  (For the record, my most deeply felt songs were largely learned or heard from 18 to 24, but many date from my 6-to-14 years, and many from 35-45.  This fits the social-universe theory: the 35-45 period was the time of the breakup of my first marriage and my slow re-forming of a new social universe.)

The study follows recent literature in dividing music into mellow, unpretentious, sophisticated, intense, and contemporary.  There was some stereotypy according to music preferred: lovers of heavy metal and punk were supposedly bad dudes, listeners to classical were supposedly affluent and educated.  This reminds us of the African-American psychologist Claude Steele and his use of whistling Vivaldi to disarm fears of him as a “black male.”  I suppose that would work only among people who could tell Vivaldi from Snoop Doggy Dogg.  Most of the people who might attack a black psychologist probably cannot do that.  Still, Dr. Steele felt safer when whistling the former (Steele 2010).

Tastes changed across the life track.  Mellow music was popular with teens and older people.  Sophisticated music (classical music, modern jazz, and the like) grew steadily over time.  So did unpretentious music (folk, country, conventional religious).  Intense (heavy metal, punk) and contemporary (other current forms) declined steadily.  The investigators did not find a cohort effect.  This proves they were not going far enough back; the change in taste from unpretentious or sophisticated in the cohorts born before 1940 to intense and contemporary in later cohorts would have stood out clearly.  Personality somewhat influenced preference, with lovers of intense music being a bit low on conscientiousness, and openness to experience being associated with liking for most musical styles.  No surprises there.


Music can be described in terms of schemas (basic structures of knowledge).  One can speak of a very simple schema for 2/4 rhythm, or a very complex one representing a whole symphony.  Arturo Toscanini, the legendary conductor, must have had a set of schemas not only for all Beethoven’s works, but for all the ways to play them—every note (microvariations and all) of the first violin, every bang of the cymbals, every sort and level of performance.

Patel (2008; see esp. p. 290) compares these patterns with syntax in language, finding, as usual, similarities and differences.  Both are created by generative grammars, but of course music does not have nouns, verbs and so on; it has notes, themes, ornamentation, and the like.  The point is that generative rules work for both, organizing an infinite range of possible sentences and compositions.



Findings on Musical Taste


Patterns are basic; suddenly varying the pattern, therefore, keeps the music interesting.

One poorly explored musical type is the theme-and-variations pattern found worldwide, especially in cultures with sophisticated stringed and keyboard instruments.  Middle Eastern ‘ud and santur music, Indian ragas, Chinese qin and zheng performances, Elizabethan lute music, Baroque harpsichord music, and West African kora and bania music (and its descendent, American country blues) follow a general pattern:  they take a theme and subject it to more and more complex variations over a period ranging from a few minutes to several hours.  Often, the intensity of the music builds up, as in Indian ragas, but equally often it remains at a calm, cool, crystalline level, as in Chinese qin playing.  (Chinese performers have told me there are over a hundred ways to strike a single note on the qin.)  No one seems to have analyzed the reasons why this generally cool, low-volume music is so universally popular.  It looks very much as if the theme-and-variations piece is a larger, more consciously processed equivalent of the patterned microvariations discussed below.

David Huron (2006) and Philip Ball (2008, 2010) have dealt with the role of predictability and surprise in music.  Much of this is related to such pattern variations.  Huron points out that major surprise provokes a fight-flight-freeze response in an animal.  In humans, mild surprise provokes a kind of relievedly unserious shadow of these.  Mild fight response, provoked by scary music, is frisson—the prickling you feel at horror-movie music.  Mild flight becomes laughter, and musicians (notably Peter Schickele, whose music Huron analyzes) provoke it by sudden outrageous violations of musical norms.  Mild freeze-response becomes awe, and is evoked by the more bombastic romantic composers.  Surprise may be based on subconsciously processed or consciously known factors.  Huron distinguishes several kinds of surprise, based on what sorts of expectation we have:  for rhythm, tone, sequence, melody, and so on.  A sudden fortissimo at an odd spot in a quiet passage, as in Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto, is the most basic level of surprise.  Even an infant gets that.  At the most complex level, we have wild jazz variations on well-known themes, and even on well-known previous variations of the themes.  To get the surprise, you have to know the themes and their usual variations.  Huron, who knows his ethnomusicology thoroughly, sees this throughout the world.  He discusses the total assault of the high modernists, Schoenberg and Stravinsky in particular; they lived to devastate people’s expectations.  Huron laments the disappearance of the world’s small musical traditions—those of indigenous and local communities—not only because we lose their wonderful music, but because we have no comparative material left to study (Huron 2008.)

This being said, musical surprise—to the point of frisson, laughter, and awe—is actually quite rare in actual performances.  Ball’s contribution is to point out that we want expectations that are played with, not devastated.  We build expectations about particular genres, composers, tune types, and so on.  Then variations are most striking when just subtle enough to take some attention.

Especially important is microvariation:  tiny, almost imperceptible variations in pitch, timing, attack, dynamics, rhythm, and everything else.  These are controlled with exquisite perfection by a great performer.  A naïve audience is usually quite unaware of them at a conscious level, but still shows subconscious awareness by responding dramatically to good performance in this area.  Even sophisticated listeners may be aware to only varying degrees.  I had long realized the importance of these tiny details, but did not realize how self-consciously they are cultivated until, many years ago, I heard Mischa Schneider of the Budapest String Quartet working with a young string quartet whose cellist was a close friend of mine.  My friend played the cello marvelously, but Schneider showed him some tricks that made a real qualitative difference—the performance went from excellent to sublime.  Yet the tricks were incredibly subtle—tiny differences in sharpness of attack, slur in pitch, dynamics, and motion of the fingers on the strings.

Ordinary unsophisticated listeners who have no intellectual knowledge of these fine points can most certainly appreciate them in practice.  A few years later, at a folk festival, I listened to fiddle music by some of the famous names in fiddling—some of the best fiddlers I have heard.  The crowd applauded politely.  Then an unknown teenage kid named Alison Krauss took the stage and blew them all away.  The crowd simply went wild—screaming, jumping up, dancing.  As many readers will know, Alison Krauss has gone on to fulfill the promise of that long-ago summer day.  The point here, however, is the audience response.  This listeners were local residents out for a day in the park.  Most had little or no musical training, and could not have picked out the extremely subtle microvariations that Krauss so exquisitely controlled.  They most certainly could hear them, though; they were picking up on them subconsciously.  They could fully react to what they heard.

A fascinating study shows this is true of rhythm too.  Many of us know all too well the mindless bump, bump, bump of the drum machine, driving any sensitive listener crazy by its utter sameness.  Some programs try to save it by injecting small random variations.  Now a study by Holger Hennig et al. (2011) shows that people find these meaningless variations unsatisfying, but respond to, and enjoy, the patterned, systematic variations that good human drummers inject into their drumming.  Of course, the better the drummer, the more control he or she has over this, and the better the result.

Singing is similarly variable in ways easy to hear but almost impossible to describe.  Tango singer Carlos Gardel rose from the slums of Buenos Aires’ port to world fame on the strength of a voice so heavenly that women who had never seen him committed suicide when he died.  The Egyptian singer Umm Kulthum had men literally swooning when she was in her 70s.  People across cultural and musical boundaries responded more or less the same to these singers; their vocal appeal was not culture-bound.  People everywhere respond more or less the same to awful singers, too (trust me…I speak from experience).  Cultural differences in singing style are dramatic, but have not prevented Tuvan throat singers and Peruvian mountaineers from hitting world best-seller charts, simply by doing a stellar job with their distinctive cultural traditions.  One pair of Bulgarian singers simply happened to be picked up in a rather random collection of local folklore; they were just a couple of village teenagers.  But they were good enough to get on the world music circuit on the basis of a cut on an obscure folklore record.

Culture is real, and as an anthropologist I am hardly about to underplay it, but some things cross cultural lines with ease and grace.

One wide implication of all this is that knowledge and culture are improvisational, not stereotypic.  People learn from each other.  They do not mindlessly absorb; they learn what they expect, want, and need to learn.  Then each person adapts, transforms, personalizes, and applies that knowledge.

This stands in extreme contrast to the views of learning and culture as mindless absorption, from Leslie White’s “culturology” to Dawkins’ “memes” (the latter concept vies with racism for the title of most ridiculous thing to pass for science in the 20th century).

The examples of Alison Krauss and Carlos Gardel, among many others, show that listeners, including those with no musical background to speak of, do discriminate musical quality when they listen to it.  When they are not carefully attending, though, they may miss it very widely indeed.  The Washington Post recently placed a famous violinist, Joshua Bell, in the subway to play for pennies.  He performed great classical violin pieces in the Washington metro for a morning.  “Only 27 out of 1,097 (2.5 percent) put money into Bell’s open Stradivarius violin case and only 7 (0.5 percent) stopped to listen for more than a minute” (Ariely 2009:218), and, of these 7, one recognized him and another was a professional violinist.  Most passers-by stopped and interviewed by the Post had not even noticed Bell.  I must say that this is not usually my experience of street musicians; many people do listen.  I certainly do, and, if they are better than I am, I give them money.  Since I am no musician, this means that almost all of them get their buck.  Even in the Washington Metro I would probably pick out a Krauss or a Bell.  But I might not; those subways have awful acoustics.


Types of Music and What Is Communicated


Music has rather consistent functions and structures across cultures.

Lullabyes are, for obvious reasons, usually the simplest kind of music.  Humans everywhere lull babies to sleep with soft crooning noises, and so do at least some primates.  Lullabye songs are simple cultural constructions from this shushing noise.

Culture makes little difference at this level.  Lullabyes are pretty much the same everywhere, but symphonies aren’t.

Lullabyes construct up to the bland, syrupy music infamously infesting elevators and stores today.  Dentists routinely use such music to soothe their clients.  Music psychologist Laurel Trainor discusses the lullabye issue, and adds that a more active, playful music for the young is also widely similar:  “Across cultures, songs sung while playing with babies are fast, high and contain exaggerated rhythmic accents;…  Talking to people of all ages, we use falling pitches [notes going down the scale, not falling cadences] to express comfort; relatively flat, high pitches to express fear; and large bell-shaped pitch contours to express joy and surprise” (Trainor 2008:598).  She believes these basics of music are hardwired into the brain.  This explains our persistent failure to like atonal music much.

Funeral laments everywhere are very similar to weeping from intense grief, and are obviously culturally constructed from that.  This is quite explicit in many cultures, from the Kaluli of Papua-New Guinea (Feld 1982) to the Hupa and their neighbors in California (Keeling 1992).  It is also obvious in the great requiem masses of Victoria, Duarte Lobo, and Mozart.

Sad music from blues to rembetika also builds on laments, with high falling cadences, drawn-out notes, minor-third intervals, and so on.

Work songs drive the rhythm of the task.  They may have been among the earliest songs in the world.  They tend to be simple, for obvious reasons.  Humorous songs, welcoming songs, farewell songs, birthday songs, and similar minor-occasion songs also tend to be rather simple.  Narrative songs such as ballads may be simple, or they may be elaborated extensively.

An interesting worldwide finding is that the bass instrument of an ensemble, or the bass strings on a single instrument, almost invariably give the rhythm; this is because the human brain is better at detecting timing and rhythm at low pitches than at high ones (Hove et al. 2014).

Romantic music related to love—probably the most universal and common of the categories—is naturally soft, with swooping glissandos and simple but mellifluous harmonies.  It may sound happy or sad, depending on whether it celebrates true love or laments loss and loneliness.  It can be a vehicle for the most deep and complex musicality, but usually is less ambitious, and thus it provides most of the ear-candy all too familiar as auditory tranquilizers in supermarkets and dental offices.

Popular music—the music of mass entertainment—is normally simple and uncomplicated, not so much because it has to appeal to the unsophisticated as because it has to be fairly cheap to produce and because it naturally expresses the relatively shallow, simple interactive relationships of public places.  As specialized audiences build up for particular forms of popular music, the music quickly grows more complex, sophisticated, and elaborate.  This is an evolution visible very widely.  Some scattered examples include this progression in Neapolitan songs of the 19th and 20th centuries, in Chinese popular songs of the middle ages, in dance music from Argentine tango to American rock, and in medieval French popular tunes from early times to the complex dances recorded by Thoinot Arbeau in the 16th century.

War music often builds on defiant cries or on coordinated march rhythms.  Throughout the world, especially in the old and warlike civilizations, it evolved into a great deal of court music, outdoor music, entertainment music, and popular music.  Chinese opera, Indian street music, Near Eastern public music, and European brass band music all have roots in martial music, and all have a loud, strident, far-carrying sound and a driving heavy beat.  (Some of these forms have been rather sourly compared to the sounds of a man trying to get rid of squalling cats by yelling and throwing kitchen pans at them.)  Martial music may also lie somewhere behind contemporary world pop.   No one can miss the extreme anger of much rap music and other modern pop forms.  Many of the lyrics glorify random and criminal violence in the same way that old-time war songs glorified the structured military equivalent.

In short, public music tends to be loud, strident, simple, monotonous, and raucous.  The shawms and nackers of old Europe and the modern Near East and India, the music of Chinese operas and street fairs, the brasses of the military, and the dramatic drumming of Africa find a natural descendent, and apotheosis, in the popular music of the world today.  It outdoes them all in strident, obtrusive noisiness.  It forces the public will on everyone.  We should remember that it does have an ancestry, and is not really a solely modern phenomenon—let alone a plot to corrupt the morals of the young, as it is often alleged to be.

Even so, modern corporate callousness has taken pop music to new lows.  The music is marketed at the least sophisticated audiences—typically, young teenagers.  The corporations have found that simplicity sells and that certain tune and rhythm combinations sell particularly well, so they produce these same things over and over (Barnes 2015b).  Virtually identical songs sung by virtually identical singers are the result.  As corporations get more entrenched, this only gets worse (Barnes 2015b).  Niche markets preserve some originality, but with the pop material setting the bar, standards cannot be very high anywhere.  Thus, a combination of public noise, giant corporations, and angry moods among today’s young people produce a music of simple tunes and harmonies but highly expressive of loud, angry emotions.

By contrast, folk and classical music are for narrower but more sophisticated audiences and for more enclosed spaces, so they are usually softer and more subtle—unless they are going for a broad-scope audience.  Literature, a more private art form by nature, shows similar contrasts; public declamations are usually sorry stuff.  Great literature and folk literature are both for small and special audiences.

Biology also gives us emotions, and apparently a great deal of the music-emotion correspondence, but culture does the real work.  For example, the old idea that driving rhythm automatically led to trance is incorrect; culture has to teach what rhythms lead to what mental states (Rouget 1985).  Even more arbitrary is the identification of minor key with sadness (most of the authors discuss this, including Patel 2008).  This well-known association is found in western European music of the last couple of centuries, but not in Asian music, or even in early European music.  I remember having to learn it, as a child.  It is certainly cultural, not a natural linkage.

Sometimes, the links with specific meaning are quite clear if one has any cultural knowledge at all.  Evocations of cuckoo calls and nightingale song are common throughout western musical history.  Even more evocative, and well-known from the Middle Ages until today, are musical versions of hunting. Often these involve barking dogs, running horses, blowing horns, and shouting men—all imitated by a choir, or even a harmonica.  They are often hilariously funny, partly because they gently satirize a frequently silly pastime.  More common today are train imitations.  Usually these too are playful.  On the other hand, the use of the train as a stock blues image of parting, grief, and death makes some of them extremely serious indeed.

Readers raised in American suburbs in the 1950s will recall the imbecilic “program music” considered suitable for “the kiddies” in that benighted age, and the even more imbecilic explanations that teachers provided:  “Now, children, in this passage you can hear how the squirrel runs up the tree….”  Apart from giving us a lifelong hatred of that kind of music, this proved to us young people that music’s “meanings” are learned, not innate in the sound.  The composers had done their damnedest to make the music transparent to people supposed to have exceedingly limited intelligence, but explanation was still necessary.

This must all be sorted out from the actual effects of the music by itself.  A Japanese or Australian Aboriginal listener to, say, a cuckoo imitation might enjoy the sound, and might even know it was a cuckoo, but would be unable to place the cuckoo in western culture, and unable to get any sense of the connotations of the bird.  Anyone ignorant of blues traditions and American cultural symbols would fail to pick up the powerful significance of the imitations of railroad sounds.

Patel points out that all these cultural emotionalities prove a general point shows that music cannot have precise “meaning” the way a normal, declarative sentence does.  Culture has to give it specific meaning, and even then the meaning is rarely as specific as a sentence’s.  Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony is a musical equivalent of Theocritus’ Idylls, but does not fill quite the same cognitive niche.

Patel wisely notes that many musical feelings are not among the “emotions” we normally list, and indeed may be specific to music.  In my experience, and I think in others’, the theme-and-variations music described above sets up a unique feeling.  This is particularly true of pieces that do nothing but work out more and more elaborate patterns, on a single instrument, from a very simple theme, like William Byrd’s variations on “John Come Kiss Me” or Giles Farnaby’s on “Woodycock” or Ustad Ali Akbar Khan’s ragas.  I get a sense of increasing involvement in the pattern, until the pattern becomes my whole life, and every cell of my body seems to depend on it.  The resolution can be shattering.

This is a pure pattern sense.  It is an intellectual passion; it does not arouse any fear, awe, anger, love, or joy.  It is pure delight in pattern.  I get something similar, though weaker, from looking at Islamic decorative art.  I have never seen this feeling described, but the universal appeal of such music (it is often used, in many cultures, to heighten sex) seems to indicate that I am far from alone.  Also, I can get it equally easily from closely equivalent pieces in Chinese classical music, Andean folk music, and West African kora music.  So it is certainly not a culture-bound or culturally learned feeling, at least in my case.

From this and many other examples—dance music, laments, lullabyes, and so on—we may conclude that human vocal communication has a built-in ability to stimulate mood.  On the other hand, specific meanings have to be culturally assigned.  If a person is screaming “Help!” a hearer ignorant of English will probably get the message.  But a quiet, matter-of-fact statement, “I’m afraid it’s terminal, Ms. Rogers,” will cause overwhelming fear and grief only if hearer knows English.


In most (perhaps all) premodern musical cultures, including early classical European music, ritual and religious music is the most complex and involved, from Australian corroborees to Baroque masses.  Love music is usually second in importance and complexity, and devotes itself to celebrating the beloved or lamenting his or her departure.  Complicated “mood music” has, of course, been cultivated deliberately since the Romantic period.  Beethoven, Wagner, and later composers developed all manner of musical tropes that came to be associated with specific emotions.  Today, movies and television build on this; we know what music is supposed to accompany scary situations, romantic situations, and so forth, and can almost work out the whole plot of a movie from hearing the music track.  Most, if not all, of this is culturally learned; little of it transferred across cultures until Hollywood became the world.

Indian ragas are coupled with mystical meditation—one gets deeper and more intensely into the meditative mood as the raga develops.  On a perhaps baser level, ragas—like similar musical forms around the world—are often used to enhance sex.  The slow increase of intensity and complexity in a rhythmic performance is of obvious use in this regard.  Whole genres of music are sometimes identified with such; “jazz” is an old term for semen, and “jazz music” was originally the music of the “jazz houses” of old New Orleans.  Nor was New Orleans the only place in which houses of prostitution had their own musical traditions.  It is interesting that grave authors like Huron and Patel never mention the universally-known use of music in sexual encounters.

The cooler, sharper musics of the Elizabethans or Chinese or of Arab ‘ud playing seem less adapted to such roles.  One must fall back, once again, on personal experience:  these pieces arouse a general good feeling of being in harmony with the world, and then deepen it, till one loses oneself in a generic sense of goodness, rightness, and moral value.  One comes out a significantly better person, at least for a few minutes.  This is presumably why music (or some music) has often been considered a moral enterprise.  Both Plato and Confucius recommended slow, restrained music as moral, and condemned as immoral certain other forms—probably fast dances associated with erotic agendas.

Another area that needs exploration is why much European religious music has the effect it has.  Is it only learned association that makes many of us feel spiritual when Mozart’s Requiem or Sweelinck’s organ pieces are played?  Why do Palestrina’s and Victoria’s masses have the effect they do?  Why does Black gospel music have its quite different but equally passionate spiritual impact?  There is evidently more than culturally learned response here.  Just-any-religious-music has, if anything, the opposite effect.  When Rimbaud wrote of the “vingt gueules gueulant les hymnes pieux” (“twenty snouts snouting the pious hymns”) he was clearly moved away from, not toward, spirituality by that particular church choir.

The rich, complex variation within the tightly constrained structure of a Baroque mass is important.  The great range of pitch and volume must also matter.  At least in my case, when a Victoria passage climaxes in a full-throated open chord, I feel that every cell in my body shatters and reassembles in a better way.  (And I am not a Catholic like Victoria—though his involvement in the liberal-humanist movement of his time makes us perhaps closer than dogma would suggest.)  I have never felt the same after discovering Victoria more than half a century ago.  Music is life-changing.

Individuals everywhere love to make music alone, often to soothe themselves or ease work, but music is essentially a communicative activity.  It communicates and usually synchronizes mood, feeling, motion, bodily state, and effort.  It is inseparably linked with social practice.  Frequently, a given culture’s most elaborate music is part of an even more elaborate performance:  religious ceremony, social dance, festive party, grieving funeral, court ritual.  Music is almost always involved in dance and ritual, and these hold societies together (Durkheim 1995).  It is also invariably a part of religion.  Frequently, it is used to help the faithful achieve intense emotional and mystical states.  Mystic ecstasy over music is not confined to religion; concert-goers know it well (Jourdain 1997).


Sometimes people like new and different traditions.  Recently, Celtic, Andean, North Indian, and even Australian aboriginal music have gone global, performed by street musicians or concert professionals from Vienna to Singapore.  Not only have they survived; they have “swum upstream” against the vast outpourings of American pop. One hears them in the very streets and shopping malls of Hollywood itself.

However, people are not necessarily fond of each other’s music.  A Jewish traveler in the 10th century described German singing:  “There is no uglier song than the groans that come out of their throats.  It is like the baying of hounds, only worse” (Ibrāhim ibn Ya‘qub, in Ibn Fadlān 2012:163; in another translation, a“’quite horrible sound, resembling the barking of dogs but more beast-like’”; Lewis 2001:136).  Evidently he had been hearing the ancestors of Wagner’s music, which, as Ambrose Bierce tactfully noted, “is better than it sounds” (Bierce 2000:305).  One could find many similar quotes by Europeans about Chinese music, by Chinese about European music, and indeed by almost everyone about strangers’ musics.  Even familiar music can be cordially hated.  I have friends today who abhor country music, others who abhor rap, and others who abhor “easy listening.”  This can get socially constructed in striking ways (see below, “Music History”).

Recall (from above) that musical tastes are apparently most significantly shaped by the peer group in teenage or immediate preteen years (Harris 1998, confirmed by my own wide experiences with children, students, and fieldwork).  We like what our teen peers liked, and often hate music associated with bad experiences at that time.  Parents and teachers can have a major role too.  Musical abilities and tastes probably have a genetic component, but this remains little known (cf. Patel 2008:358).

This makes Patel (2008:301) a bit more unusual than he thinks, in his ability to appreciate music from different cultures.  For a trained, widely-experienced listener like Patel, it is very much easier to understand another culture’s music than its language.  But our Arab friend must also have been highly sophisticated in music.  It was part of any literate Spanish Arab’s training at the time.  Yet German music was as incomprehensible to him as the German language.  I have talked with many ethnomusicologists about this issue (the general one, not the Arab case); some agreed with Patel, others thought music is hard to reach across cultures.

A rather unfortunate problem for anyone interested in the biology of music is the narrowness of some of the writers; this is why I rely on Patel so much.  Jourdain seems not to know much besides late Classical and pop, and Levitin (2007, 2008) little beyond pop.  Without serious comparison of other radically different traditions, such as Patel makes, little understanding is really possible.  Many of Jourdain’s statements are invalidated by common folk traditions of his own culture!  Even Patel seems unaware of how extremely different music is in certain remote parts of Indonesia, Aboriginal Australia, and highland Southeast Asia.  However, the many ethnomusicologists I know who are familiar with this entire range are understandably unwilling to generalize.

In general, however, Patel seems broadly correct.  Music is, if not a “universal language” (as it used to be called), at least easier for most people than actual languages are.  People everywhere can relate to pure sounds, harmonies, and rhythms.  This seems wired in the human animal.  In many years of teaching survey courses in ethnomusicology, I found—and colleagues also found—that students with reasonably open minds soon learned to relate to almost any music we would play.  Only very rigid students failed in this.  Some musics, however, seem much more accessible than others, as witness the globalization of those mentioned above.

Patel reviews several brief studies testing how cross-cultural music understanding and appreciation are, but they are limited.  They are usually carried out with Western late-classical music, which is to some extent familiar to almost everyone worldwide, thanks to Hollywood film music.  The studies remain inconclusive.



Music and Culture


One reason music delights us, even across cultural borders, is that it is a simple model of life.  Life is often a matter of improvising endlessly on a few themes.  Often, the themes are very simple, the improvisations extremely original and complex, as in blues or jazz or Baroque pieces.  The degree to which improvisation follows rules then becomes important.  Jazz riffs are infinitely variable, but they follow certain broad rules, and standard riffs are well known.  Jazz musicians know what Bix Biederbecke, Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk did with a tune.  Any decent jazz musician has a vast mental library of well-known variations for every note in every theme in every tune in the standard repertoire.  The musician will be able to build from those to create new variations.

This is how we ordinary mortals deal with culture.  Culture gives us general rules.  Some, like the more ordinary grammatical rules, are quite cut-and-dried and generally known.  Others, like the rules for courtship, are more complex and variable, and call forth more original riffs.

Music, in fact, is a very good model for culture in general.  The various elements of music build on biological groundings, and go on to more and more complex realms (see e.g. Jourdain 1997).



Music History


Music seems to have evolved from very simple rhythmic crooning to melody, harmony, themes and variations, and finally full symphonic complexities with many layers of meaning.  All societies on earth have basic rhythms and simple songs.  Only civilizations have complex harmony and multi-theme composed pieces.  Only the more recent civilizations (possibly starting in China or in India) came up with such spectacular bits of complexity as operatic performances with multiple themes played by full orchestras.  (Jourdain argues that Wagner is some sort of high point because he went the farthest in this direction.  If so, never was more effort expended to less worth; see Bierce above).

Music clearly tracks public emotional needs.  American popular music was cheerful and assertive in the early 20th century.  This gave way to lullabye music (crooners and big bands) when the Depression and World War II traumatized the west.  Peace and prosperity led to youth preferring simple and driving music in the ambitious 1960s.  The break when the rising post-World War II generation rejected crooners for rock’n’roll, around 1955, was extremely dramatic, and led to real generational tensions; many venues banned the new, disruptive music entirely.  Some Americans blamed it on Communism, at the same time the USSR was banning it as capitalist!  Rock’n’roll in turn gave way to savagely angry rap in the greedy, selfish 1990s, and again society was convulsed by controversy.  Many middle-class Blacks (and others) held that rap was a deliberate ploy by white racists to keep African-Americans down by steering them into anger and crime.

Music also has the advantage of showing clearly how different individuals can be in the same culture.  Almost all members of standard American culture know about major and minor scales; they can tell the difference even if they don’t know the names.  Most Americans know “The Star-Spangled Banner” and a few children’s tunes.  Virtually all know something about the latest popular music.  Here consensus ends.  Individuals select differently from the vast smorgasbord of musics available.  Some are musical, some not.  Some are expert in their favorite line of music, some barely know the major names.  Some play instruments or sing at virtuoso level, some fool around with an instrument, some only listen.  Blues, jazz, rock’n’roll, campfire songs, Charles Ives, John Cage, rap, and Sacred Harp hymn-singing are all part of American musical culture, and all in some sense equally typical of it, but one would be hard put to find anyone knowledgeable about all of them—or even able to stand all of them.

Thus, observing the vicissitudes of music in human society can tell us a great deal about human mentality.

In the Renaissance and Baroque, musicians delighted in exploring the possibilities of ever more complicated and elaborate patterns of rhythm, melody, and harmony.  The last developed from unison singing to melody over ground bass, chordal harmony, and finally the complex polyphonic music of Palestrina and Victoria.  Cross-rhythms made a brief but spectacular appearance in Elizabethan music; they may have been introduced by lute players from the Mediterranean world (notably Alfonso Ferrabosco, from Italy via Spain).  The rhythms would have come ultimately from the Near East and Africa.  Intensity in the music of the time derived from piling more and more subtle, complex, and dynamic variations on relatively simple themes.  The excitement lay in this development of patterns.  This was the extreme opposite of later “mood music,” which evokes gross audience emotions and images rather than pure musical intensity.

Much of modern folk culture perserves elements of Medieval and Renaissance European culture.  Folk music, for instance, continues those forms in the few places where it survives.  The typical folk dance piece, in the more conservative parts of the European world and as far afield as Afghanistan, is a four-line, sixteen-bar tune with two somewhat differing melodies.  These are usually “major key” (Ionian mode in Medieval terminology, referring to the places where half-notes occur in the scale), sometimes “melodic minor” (basically, the old Aeolian mode), rarely Dorian or some other mode.  These are alternated:  one is played and repeated, then the other is played and repeated, then the first is played and repeated again, and so on.  This very characteristic way of making music has been constant since the late Middle Ages at the latest.  It usually goes with a lyric, a poem rhyming the second and fourth lines.  This form appears rather suddenly in Europe, in the hymns of Venantius Fortunatus in the 6th century.  I assume an ancestor of the two-part folk tune must have gone with this poetic form.  The form is surely not native to Europe, and may come from East Asia, where such poems were universal and had been for centuries.

Other folk dance music of a newer form flourishes and grows in Latin America and elsewhere, but retains much of the same spirit:  complex, rhymically sophisticated, musically rather simple but carefully constructed.  It speaks to a self-reliant, hard-living rural world.  In Latin America and elsewhere, African influences have long been known.  The first cumbia (or “cumba”) piece to be written down was recorded in the mid-18th century by a Spanish composer, Sebastián de Murcia, who was fascinated by the amazing new musics he met in Mexico when he traveled there(he also recorded Native American-derived pieces).  Cumbia is a West African dance form, fused in the Caribbean with 18th-century Spanish music.  It survives very robustly today.

Somewhat less archaic is the folk choral music now surviving in shape-note hymnal singing and a few other choral traditions that hang on today, many of them on the Mediterranean islands.  These reflect Renaissance and Baroque norms, as well as later innovations.  The open chords and wildly stark harmonies of Victoria, and the fuguing of Bach, survive there, though long abandoned in concert music.  Some shape-note singing groups have faithfully copied their forebears since the early 19th century, and their music was archaic even then, so we have a rare insight into older musics.  One thing such relictive musics show is that open, unornamented singing was essentially universal in early times.  The constriction, operatic style, downslurring, and weird variations that modern singers feel called upon to add to Medieval and even Renaissance music are purely modern.

Perhaps this goes with a continuation of the Renaissance world in isolated folk circles.  Clearly, the world has changed greatly since then, and folk societies are far from conservative; they have picked up modern technology and many modern art forms and themes.  Where they preserve old forms, they must have an ongoing, functional reason.  They do not preserve anything out of mindless conservatism.  It seems more likely that the music reflects a world of sober, rational, hopeful, self-sufficient people who have to know a wide range of things to get along in the world.  Non-affluent rural people still have to be “Renaissance” men and women—able to play music, fix cars, raise food, manage without gas and electricity, and keep hoping for better times through it all.

Folk music, by definition, is performed by musicians who are not professionally trained or licensed.  Normally, however, their local audiences demand that they be highly skilled.  The best are at least as skilled at what they do as the finest concert musicians.  Their audiences, consisting (again by definition) of family and neighbors, are highly knowledgeable about the traditions involved, and are exceedingly demanding.  Standards in good folk music are high.

This is often true when the audience breaks out of purely “folk” bounds and becomes wider and more anonymous.  The golden age of blues was not in its folk days but in its early urban period in the 1920s through 1940s.  The golden age of country music in the United States and Canada was the 1920s and 1930s, with records and radio driving the phenomenon.  Celtic folk music had a slightly later golden age, from the 1930s onward.  (I will not dare to set an ending date, since many would say the golden age is still with us.)  Folk music tends to evolve eventually into popular music, defined as folk-like music performed by full professionals for anonymous mass audiences.  Old-time country music was folk; bluegrass was popular, not only in the sense that millions liked it, but also in the sense that it was performed by professionals for huge anonymous audiences rather than by neighbors for neighbors.  Old-time blues were folk; after the early years, urban “Chicago”-style blues were for wider audiences.  Rock’n’roll began as a black folk form, but went popular very fast.

Folk music also drifts off into elite music.  Elite composers (from medieval choristers to Beethoven to Aaron Copeland) constantly adopt folk tunes and styles.  The music is radically transformed—regularized, complexly harmonized, and so on—in the process.  And elite music trickles down to the folk, changing as it goes to fit folk forms.  It may happen that a tune starts as a folksong, becomes a pop tune, gets elite treatment, and sinks down to folk level again.  This happened to “Greensleeves,” which has been a widely-known tune for almost 500 years now.  Thus, folk, popular, and elite musics never actually separate.  They are best thought of as corners of a triangle.  The folk corner would be represented by an old farmer of a century ago, fiddling for his neighbors; the elite corner by Mozart; the pop by modern radio music.  Most music is somewhere in the space within the triangle.

None of this is a new phenomenon; it is not confined to modern times.  All was anticipated by the evolution of lute and guitar music in the 16th through 17th centuries, harp music in 18th-century Spain, and many other musics in history.  More recently, not only did Copeland use folk songs in classical-style compositions, but the neo-“folk” music of Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, and other songwriters is a continuation of the process; these singers extracted some styles from folk music and injected them into the pop-music world.

The slow development from Renaissance and Baroque music to Romantic has been equated by some historians with the rise of the “bourgeoisie”—the urban class divorced from actual production, living by trade, commerce, management, and intellectual endeavors.  As it get farther from primary production and independent living, it came to need more shallow but violent emotional stimulus.  Also, music got farther and farther from a small, highly trained circle of performers and sophsticated audiences, and became more and more a mass phenomenon, attempting to rouse at least some emotion (however shallow) from the sleepers and bored husbands in a concert hall.  The bored bourgeois, especially the women (living empty, confined lives in the 19th century), needed Wagner and Tchaikovsky to keep from emotional freeze-up.

Admittedly, this brief picture of 19th-century music history has become such a cliché that revisionists have duly taken it apart, but there is surely something to the idea. Obviously there is much more to it, but further exploration of the issue is outside our concerns here.  What matters is watching the evolution of music from something performed for a tiny sophsticated audience to something performed for a huge but unsophisticated one.  The consequent progression from subtle skill to “lowest common denominator” is hard to miss.

In any case, in the early 20th century, late romantic music forked off in two directions.  Among the musical elite, it gave way in self-consciously “modern” circles to the clean, cool, rationally calculated, sometimes arcane music of Bartok, Berg, Schoenberg, and Webern.  Among the ordinary listeners, it gave rise to film music, which is derived from late romantic music.  At the same time, popular music, also highly romantic, was suddenly and dramatically confronted by African-derived forms:  blues, jazz, Caribbean music.  This led to an incredible musical ferment in the 1920s and 1930s.  Depression and World War II, however, not only ruined many small recording companies, but made people seek a calm, simple music.  By the late 1940s, the most popular music was extremely simple (three chords maximum!), almost always major key, slow-paced, dynamically limited, and, in short, exactly the type of music used as lullabyes in all times and places.  Then, as noted above, rock’n’roll broke the mold, and popular music followed changing culture into the 21st century.



Music Grades into Speech


Patel explicitly exempts poetry and chant from consideration, thus ruling boundary phenomena off the turf.  This is wise for his purposes, but impossible for mine.  I have to look at the boundary.

His contrast of music and speech slurs over a vast range of intermediate forms.  We have chant, prayer, ritual incantation, and above all sound-poetry and word-music, in which poets deliberately “problematize” the boundary.  One reason he can do this is that English-language poetry is rather indifferent to word-music.  Russian and Welsh, among many other languages, do far more with it.

Dylan Thomas imported Welsh word-music styles into English poetry, influencing a whole generation.  His readings were legendary, and deservedly so.  I dare say that listeners completely ignorant of English would have appreciated them thoroughly.  I find the word-music of Russian poetry shatteringly beautiful, though I know very little Russian, and thus have no idea what the meaning is.  Following a translation actually detracts from the experience.  Reading translations of lyrics by Afanasy Foeth or Fyodor Tyuchev or even Pushkin, you may wonder what anyone ever saw in such efforts.  Then you hear a native speaker read them in the original…and when you have picked yourself up off the floor, all you can say is “Oh.”  English simply has nothing comparable to the Russian sacrifice of meaning to sound.  Some Russian poems are almost literally meaningless; the whole game is the word-music.

Middle English poetry paid much attention to sound; lyrics like “Lenten is come with love to toune…” (Luria and Hoffman 1974:6) are as pyrotechnic in their displays of internal rhyme, alliteration, vowel harmony, assonance, and so on as is Celtic literature.  The Great Vowel Shift and the roughly concurrent fashion for continental literature, often in translation, combined to dilute this in the 16th century.  Of course sound never went out entirely.  Swinburne tried to reintroduce it, partly at least from ancient Greek, but did not succeed.  Readers will, of course, point also to obvious passages of Keats, Eliot, Stevens, and many other poets.  The point is that even they never got off anything like “Lenten…” or like Foeth’s other-worldly lyrics.

Of course, early modernists pushed the boundary as far as they could.  The Dadaist Kurt Schwitters wrote a “poem” consisting of the letter W, pronounced “v” in Schwitters’ native German; the poem consisted of his making a v sound for 15 minutes, playing with pitch and dynamics, ending with a shriek (Moholy-Nagy 1956:325).  He has not been widely imitated.

There is also the question of lyrics and melodies.  It is rare to find a happy theme set to a slow, monotonous melody, or vice versa.  Good songwriters try to fit text with tune, according to whatever cultural rules apply.  A songwriter has to know the rules for her culture, genre, and audience.

Both linguists like Chomsky and Hauser and musicologists like Patel and Jourdain ignore these intermediate formations.  This costs them far more than they realize.  The most important intermediate form—chant and chant-like song—is absolutely basic to almost every religious tradition of every one of the 6800-odd cultures of the world.  Relevant religious forms range from African-American sermons to Gregorian chants, and from Temiar dream songs of Malaysia to Yuma creation-myth chants of Native California.  Praying and chanting in unison is at the core of religious services from the Church of England to the deserts of Australia and the stone temples of Polynesia.

Exceptions are largely confined to rare hyper-puritanical sects that ban all music, and they usually have some kind of rhythmic speech.  (There are, of course, those legendary tribes in the Amazon that “lack music,” the way they “lack numbers” and “lack religion” and “lack color terms” and “lack general nouns,” but we await serious studies of them.  They appear to be as real as the Yeti, the Loch Ness monster, and the Madagascar man-eating tree.)

Even greeting rituals can be musical chants.  Formal greetings in the Wolof language of Senegal can go on for many minutes.  The words are purely formulaic; the art is in the deliverery, which follows Wolof musical style (my observation, based on tapes collected by Dr. Sabina Perrino, heard Mar. 2, 2015).  Speeches, sermons, and other language forms around the world often dissolve into rhythmic speech and then sometimes into actual song.  This is true, for instance, of African-American sermons, which are partly based on Wolof forms.

Obviously, someone should be studying these neglected vocal forms.  There is clearly something about chanting together that creates social solidarity in a way nothing else quite accomplishes.  Add the sharing of food—be it a sacrificial bull or only a wafer and a sip of grape juice—and you have communitas.



Music into Words:  Song Lyrics and Their Diffusion


Ideally, lyrics are fitted to the music.  Tunes may go down or up in pitch along with the speech rhythms one would hear if the texts were spoken (Patel 2008:342-343).  Usually, the fit is looser.  The same lyrics may be sung to different tunes, and the same tunes used for wildly different sets of words—as will appear.

The best-studied case of diffusion is the spread of folktales and folksongs.

Probably the best-studied of the folksongs that got around are the great tragic and romantic ballads collected by Francis James Child (Bronson 1976; Child 1882-1898) and a host of later workers.  These include some of the deepest and most intense statements of the human condition in all world literature.  Yet many of them spread throughout Europe and often beyond, and were appreciated everywhere.  Several things emerge from this research.  (The following account draws on hundreds of records, plus field work, singing experience, and scattered published sources, but most of the essential information is in Bronson and Child.)

Child found 305 ballads that had entered oral tradition and been collected from folk sources.  “Folk” in this case meant relatively unlettered working-class people who sang these songs because their parents and elders had.  No one knew who wrote them or where they came from.  Further collection has disclosed countless more folk ballads, including many written since Child’s time.  Rarely is an author’s name known.

Beyond the 305 ballads, there are thousands of English folksongs, and every other culture on earth has countless songs.  Singing is the most universal of arts, being highly developed, complex, self-conscious, and diverse in every single cultural group on earth, even those that almost totally lack visual art, instrumental music, or crafts.

To the anonymous folk songs may be added a large number of songs of known authorship that have entered folk tradition so completely that they are passed on orally and without general knowledge of whence they came.  I was surprised, on reaching adulthood, to learn that many songs I had “always known”—some of them from my father’s singing—traced back to well-known poets like Robert Burns and Thomas Moore.

Most European songs are made up of four-line stanzas, with four beats per line, and with the second and fourth lines rhyming.  Most often, the last words in these two lines are dragged out over two beats:

“Fair Margaret sat at her high chamber,

Combing out her long brown hair,

When who should she see but her own true love

Ride by with a lady fair.”  (From a version of the Ballad of Margaret and William, Childe 74.)

The general rhythm patterns go back to the Roman Empire; the first example of the pattern seen in the first two lines above is in a chant for Caesar (Waddell 1955:16).  The four-line stanza emerged by the 4th or 5th century A.D., and became popular for hymns.  The same pattern existed earlier in China—it is typical of the rhymes in the Book of Songs, ca 500 BC—and almost certainly is earlier in southeast Asia as well.  I find no evidence that it spread from east to west, and it seems to come naturally from Roman prosody, but one wonders.  In China, Malaysia, and Europe, in lyric folksongs, the first two lines often provide a natural image used in the next two as symbol for a social one, often erotic:

“The higher up the cherry tree,

The riper grow the cherries;

The more you hug and kiss the girls

The sooner they get married.”  (From the folksong “Shady Grove”)


“Brown-pepper plant fruits

Spread far, grow large;

The gentleman over there,

He is great without peer.”  (Book of Songs, Song 116, my translation.)

Most readers will know the symbolism of “cherry” in folk English, but will not know that the Chinese pepper plant’s fruits look exactly like tiny male genitalia, inspiring a euphemistic image that was used for centuries.

Among European traditional songs, the ballads are most interesting, because they tell actual circumstantial stories.  (That is the definition of a “ballad”:  A song that tells a coherent story.  A “lyric,” by contrast, simply poses a scene or tells a brief, generalized tale—usually of love successful or love unsuccessful.)  Thousands of ballads have appeared over the last few centuries.  Many survive in chapbook and handbill collections.  Any event of interest could be memorialized.  Some survived, some did not.  Sheer chance must have something to do with this, but most of the songs are clearly more memorable than the average throwaway handbill.

Since the memory research of F. Bartlett, considerable effort has gone into the characteristics that make them so (Dundes 1965).  The stories are memorable in themselves, but especially so because they follow canonical plots of endless fascination to ordinary audiences.  Often they incorporate permanently fascinating themes such as love, sex, violence, ghosts, unexpected meetings (often with failure of recognition), deception, betrayal.

Particularly important is that most of them highlight, clearly and dramatically, major tension points in society.  Many of them turn on the age-old plot of the marriage forbidden by parents.  In the tragic ballads, this leads to suicide, fighting, or other violence.  In the happy ones, it is resolved by the lovers’ persistence or cleverness or luck.  This brings out and highlights the broader conflict between agnates and affines—to use the classic anthropological jargon for blood kin and marital kin.  In “The Douglas Tragedy” (Child 7; ballads in Child’s collection are always referred to by their numbers in that work), the hero abducts the girl, is pursued by her father and seven brothers, kills the brothers and wounds the father, and subsequently dies of his own wounds—leaving his lady to die of grief.   In one version, roses grow from their graves and twine in a “true lover’s knot,” but her father—the sole survivor—tears up the one growing from the hero’s grave, and throws it in St. Mary’s Loch, a huge, dark, brooding, cold lake in Scotland.

Other ballads turn on forbidden love, which raises the same tension:  follow parents’ will or heart’s desire?  In one of the most popular ballads, “Lord Thomas and Fair Eleanor” (Child 73), Lord Thomas’ mother orders him to marry “the brown girl” instead of his love Fair Eleanor; the lord, his love Eleanor, and his unloved bride all end up dead.  “Fair Margaret and Sweet William” (Child 74) has an even more sinister ending:  Fair Margaret kills herself so that her ghost will haunt and kill Sweet William, who has married another, though it is not stated that his parents made him take her.  I encountered this same belief in the avenging ghost of a wronged woman in China; it seems nearly worldwide.

This theme in turn is part of a wider concern with conflicting loyalties.  In feudal and folk societies, personal loyalty is life and death.  Thus, when a person is caught between two irreconcilable and unshakable loyalties, death is the expected result.  Loyalty to love versus loyalty to parents is the most immediate, comprehensible, and telling.  It involves sex and desire as well as simply loyalty.

Loyalty by itself, though, produces epic conflicts.  Other ballads deal with these.  Possibly the most dramatically powerful ballad in English, the very old Ballad of Sir Patrick Spens (Child 58), is a simple story of a ship captain and his noble passengers sent out in winter on the north sea in a storm.  This meant certain death, given the frail sailing craft of the Scottish Middle Ages.  Tradition tells that the king wanted to get rid of Sir Patrick and the others, and had figured out this underhanded way to do it.  Sir Patrick could have rebelled, or fled, but he stayed loyal and went unflinchingly to his fate.

Interesting is that these ballads were effective enough at evoking timeless themes to carry on in oral tradition not only in their native Scotland but in the United States, where immigrants (presumably Scottish) brought them.  They, and all the more popular Child ballads, have been collected from Appalachian-region singers.  Some of these were far removed from Scottish medieval life.  Thus, singers converted “I have six galleons a-sailing on the sea” to “I have six gallons a-sailing on a ship” (in “The House Carpenter” [Child 243, under the name “The Daemon Lover”—comparing the Child versions with Appalachian versions as sung by Jean Ritchie among others).  But the basic plots were preserved faithfully except in very fragmentary versions.  Ballad singing is far from extinct even today in the Appalachians, though since the early 20th century it has benefited from books, records, and radio, and is no longer a strictly oral, person-to-person matter.

The long-lasting ballads songs have much more going for them than good stories, however.  To summarize a large literature, they are more tightly organized and structured than the average throwaway song.  Language is simple and direct.  They have few superfluous words.  When they do have duplication or repeating, it is in contexts that are particularly helpful to memory, but also such repeats usually occur at transition points in the song.  The first statement introduces a theme; the repetition introduces a sharp change, a new development in the plot.  Thus helping memory and marking transition combine usefully in one rhetorical device.

The ballads are tightly structured, with clear rhythm and rhyme, but enough variation to avoid monotony.  They build to a climax instead of wandering over the rhetorical map (as the nonmemorable ballads almost invariably do).  The only problem with basing too much on this is that we have the original, or nearly original, forms of some of the ballads, and they were wordy and poorly organized at first (“The House Carpenter” is a case in point); folk transmission has cleaned them up and streamlined them.  This throws us back on plot issues as basic to their initial popularity.  Even so, clear, tightly structured, spare songs do better and get into oral tradition more easily.

Many ballads treat of themes that were not polite subjects for ordinary speech:  sex, treachery, conflicts with parents.  This is a universal subject for song; everywhere in the world, people sing what they do not dare say (see e.g. Abu-Lughod 1989 for Egypt; Anderson 2006 for China).  They also sing out themes so passionate that speech is inadequate (Anderson 2006; Feld 1982; Seeger 2004).  Usually love and death are the themes of such songs, which are very often laments (Anderson 2006; Feld 1982).  Steven Feld’s classic study of Kaluli singing in Papua-New Guinea, which is the best study of traditional song known to me, turns on this theme; Kaluli song reaches its highest point in the agonizingly beautiful laments for the dead.  Feld’s recordings of these are heartbreaking even to Anglo-American listeners (Feld n.d.).

Not only the themes, but many of the symbols and images, are the sort that Carl Jung called “archetypes” (Jung 1964) and Mary Douglas called “natural symbols” (Douglas 1966).  One need not share Jung’s mystical approach or Douglas’ social-functional one to realize that birds, trees, flowers, rivers, sea, and the sun and moon are going to crop up in folk poetry, and that British Isles rural society will add horses, grain, and weaponry to the mix.  The songs make the most evocative and effective use of this, often making one symbol stand as metaphor for two or three meanings.  Some of them, possibly influenced at some remove by medieval religious poetry, use its four-layered symbolism (image, symbol, metaphor, allegory—in one scholastic formulation).

Like ballads, folksongs, and epics everywhere, stock phrases and repetitions make stories and songs more memorable.  The classic studies of this phenomenon were done by Milman Parry (1930) and Albert Lord (1960) on Homer and on Slavic folk epics, but the same has been found for ballads and songs everywhere.  Stock phrases, lines, and images carry over.  Countless Child ballads have their “milk-white steed,” the maiden “sewing her silken seam” (note the alliteration—a standard memory aid), and the rose growing from the grave of the lover.  These images and lines, however, have to be selectively deployed, or they overwhelm the song, and ruin rather than aid memory.  The monotonous repetition of the same religious clichés in hymns makes them almost impossible to remember; one never recalls which set is found in Hymn 103 as opposed to 104.

It has been noted many times that catchy tunes make good ballads.  Child commented, and almost everyone agrees with him, that “Lord Lovel” owes its existence to a very simple, hard-to-forget tune; the words are not anyone’s idea of excitement.  Some tunes have jumped around rather freely from song to song.  I found one Appalachian ballad tune used by a Kwakwala-speaking Native American in British Columbia for a Kwakwala hymn!  Presumably he had learned the tune from a missionary, likely one from Appalachia.  (Thanks to his granddaughter, Mabel James, for making the tune and story available.)   A tune picked up by a missionary in India became (with some changes) the old religious song “There Is a Happy Land Far, Far Away,” and that tune was then “liberated” to serve for the riotously obscene drinking song “Poor Bugger Jagger.”  Martin Luther is said to have set his hymns to current dance tunes “so that the devil would not have all the good tunes.”  Certainly, hymns, ballads, and lyric songs have been swapping tunes since, and some popular tunes become vehicles for several different unrelated songs in folk usage.

Stories can go on and on as well.  Many children still sing “The Fox” (“The fox went out on a starry night, And he prayed for the moon for to give him light…”).  This children’s song is attested in two 15th-century versions (Luria and Hoffman 1974:125-127).  These are already divergent enough, and sophisticated enough, to prove a fairly long history even then.  Some of the classic tragic ballads, including “Margaret and William,” have versions all over Europe.  Indeed, some of the stock phrases and poetic devices go back to Proto-Indo-European.  Calvert Watkins finds many formulas, taglines, and stock themes distributed over Indo-European languages at very early dates, and hypothesizes that most, if not all, of them go back to Proto-Indo-European (Watkins 1995).  This may not always be the case, since some are found in non-IE languages too, but at any rate they diffused very widely and very early.

On the other hand, Child’s belief that all ballads had to be old, and that none was being written now, was wildly wrong.  Collectors soon found that ballad-making was as common as groundhogs in the Appalachians, and was common also in isolated, traditional parts of Europe.  Even the radio did not end it; dozens of new ballads were written for the new medium.  Only TV, which privileges visual impact over long narrative, ended the ballad worldwide.

Folktales have a similar fate: some stories are good enough to spread worldwide, some stay local, some die at birth.  Variants of the Orpheus and Swan Maiden stories, far too similar to be independent of each other, have been recorded all over the Northern Hemisphere.  Flood myth stories are worldwide, but in this case the stories are different enough that no one can tell whether they come from one source or were independently devised.  In any case, retelling prunes excess words, but the constraints of folktales are much looser than those of classic ballads and lyrics; rhyme is not needed, for instance.  Folktales thus turn on good, adaptable plots, and on dramatic, evocative, easily-understood symbolism.

Beyond these simple literary criteria, there is the question of what gets accepted where.  The Child ballads died out in North America everywhere except Appalachia.  (A few lasted into the early 20th century in New England and neighboring Canada.)  Folktales are not told often any more, except for very brief or very unprintable ones.  Mass media have usurped the role of ballads and folktales in entertainment.

The rural world of these forms—a world of lords and ladies, horses and swords, barren moors, peasants tilling tiny miserable plots—is simply too far from modern experience.  Rap and rock’n’roll replace the old songs.  Even the aforementioned literary songs of Robert Burns and Thomas Moore have died out of ordinary life (except in Scotland and Ireland respectively!).

So the songs and tales spread far and last long, and the best of them can get very far from their social and cultural origins (“Sir Patrick Spens” in Tennessee, for instance), but they cannot escape change forever.  Sooner or later, the world is so different that they cannot survive.

Yet a very few literary pieces that started in oral transmission go on forever.  Homer, the first known bit of European literature, is more popular than ever.  So is the Spanish poem of the Cid.  Beowulf keeps getting retranslated and retold.  To be sure, they have been book-learning for centuries, having long died out in oral transmission, but the point here is that they are so dramatic, so deathless in theme, and so compellingly told that they simply never die.  The Orpheus story—having shown up as ballad, myth, folktale, and Native American religious legend—continues to inspire.  Rainer Maria Rilke’s incomparable telling of it in the poem “Orpheus. Eurydice. Hermes” is strikingly close to the Nez Perce traditional version from the mountains of Oregon (Ramsey 1981).  Its tale of love, loss, and yearning is so powerful and so universally human that the sophisticated imagist poet and the remote horse nomads of the Wallowa Mountains not only loved it, they developed it thematically and emotionally in the same ways.

In short, some things spread more easily than others.  Those that spread speak to universal human social and psychological tension points, and use universally appealing symbols to talk about those.  They tell their stories in spare, direct, clear, but beautifully structured language.  They hold up a bright mirror to our deepest concerns.

Many good stories do not spread far; they are narrowly tied to one lifestyle or culture, or they are not tense and dramatic enough.  Many poor, sorry stories and songs spread, for various reasons.  In all cases, some historical analysis will find both general and contingent reasons why fate has been so.  (For one contingent reason, it certainly helps to have one’s tales written down early; Homer would have been forgotten if the Greeks hadn’t done that.   The tales picked up by the brothers Grimm have lasted longer than other German stories, in their rather bowdlerized and cleaned-up Grimm forms.)

One could go on to discuss the appeal of literary productions—the plays, novels, and poems that never were in oral transmission but have spread anyway.  Shakespeare, Tolstoi, and Goethe are part of every educated person’s knowledge, worldwide, and the great Chinese philosophers and poets are rapidly becoming so.  Cultural gaps have not proved barriers to their spread.  Some cultures have been almost overwhelmed by borrowings, and, of course, countless cultures have succumbed to others and have disappeared, as Gaulish civilization melted away under Roman and German impacts.  (A few Celtic influences survived in France, but mostly through the Bretons, not because the Gauls kept the flame.)

In short, people borrow some literary productions all over the world, because they speak to common human concerns in a compelling way.  They state the concerns clearly, use evocative symbols, and come out with clear, sharp ideas on the matter.

Productions are appealing in proportion to how well they fit with—or can be fitted to—local society and culture.  Epics and ballads were products of feudal society.  Symphonies and operas were notoriously associated with the concert-going bourgeoisie, who wished to be impressed by vast assemblages of musicians and by spectacular effects.  Chinese solo stringed-instrumental music has been associated for almost three millennia with the scholar, alone or with close company, playing for meditation.  Rock music spreads with the rise and dominance of the machine, because it involves fancy electronics and the associated machine noises.

In general, feudal cultures and early agrarian civilizations valued individual skill highly, because it was rare and tended to be economically limited.  The rulers thus loved to show off the amount of skilled workpersons they could control, by having the finest quality of ornaments, music, and food around them.  The bourgeois and socialist cultures that followed depended on mechanical mass production, and thus their status consumption has always been sheer mass.  Clothes were works of art in the Renaissance; they now are made by children in Third World sweatshops. to be sold worldwide, and are worn a very few times before being thrown away.  (Anyone who thinks I am unfairly comparing early elites with modern masses is invited to visit the Benaki Museum in Athens, examine the exquisite clothing of even quite poor people in the old-time Balkans, and compare that with what rich Americans wear today.  Or one can listen to old folk recordings and compare them with modern pop music.)

Here and elsewhere, it should be noted that almost no songs, tales, or other fairly complex knowledges, are universally distributed in a culture.  Almost all Americans share knowledge of two or three songs (“Happy Birthday…”), but few share many more than that.  The view of culture as knowledge universally shared in a culture is quite inadequate.  Most cultural knowledge is distributed, not universally known.  Assessment of cultural consensus (Romney et al. 1986) is very valuable, but precisely because consensus is the unusual case.


Knowledge diffuses rapidly.  Not only useful knowledge, but folktales and even children’s songs (Dundes 1965; Opie and Opie 1961), can diffuse around the world in a matter of weeks.  This was true even before mass media appeared.  Lewis and Clark ran into French folktales among Native Americans previously uncontacted by whites.  Folktales, like diseases, ran well ahead of settlers.

Significantly, the very first sustained participant-observation fieldwork ever done, Frank Cushing’s research in Zuni Pueblo, established the fact that folktales change to suit local needs.  Cushing found that the Zuni had drastically reconfigured Spanish folktales to reflect Zuni rather than Spanish society and morals (Cushing 1931).


High aesthetic levels emerge in most societies that have leisure and enough material wealth to give them a settled life with some comforts.  Aboriginal northeastern North America, the nomadic societies of eastern and southern Africa, and many hunting-gathering societies in really harsh environments produce relatively few large and complex works of visual art; they simply don’t have the spare material and time.  But societies with onliy a little more wealth in northwestern America, west and central Africa, and northern Australia have produced a great deal of the world’s finest art. Some areas are anomalously thin.  Aboriginal southeastern North America left us very few items of art, but this may be because most of the art was done in wood and other perishable materials.  The late Roman Empire had little beyond dully repetitive statuary and columns.  The modern United States reveals its puritanical tradition through low level of spending on arts.  There is, today, an incredible contrast between the stale and emotionally thin pop and elite mainstream art and the genuinely great and superb art of contemporary Native peoples, Chicano artists of the American Southwest, and other minorities kept out of the artistic mainstream.







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