Beyond instruments and ingredients: going from the ‘what’ to the ‘how’

On a warm afternoon, I sat in a tuk tuk in Siem Reap, on the way to a Cambodian cooking class, looking forward to trying my hand at one of my favourite cuisines. Fish amok, a local dish I’ve always enjoyed, was on the menu. Despite having ordered this dish a number of times in restaurants, and knowing roughly what the ingredients are, I was surprised at the cooking process — this curry is steamed in a banana leaf parcel, rather than cooked directly in the pot like many other curries. I’ve spoken about how unfamiliar music and unfamiliar food are similar in that there will be accessible entry points of familiarity even if it’s new to someone, but it’s now time to take this discussion further, going beyond what goes into music — or food — to how it’s put together. Cooking methods change the nature of a dish and, in the same way, the way we put musical elements together changes the nature of music.

An instrument can be used in so many different ways. A bass guitar, for example, can play the root of the chord, a walking bass line, an ostinato, or something else entirely depending on the genre of the music. Often, different genres may use the same instruments but in different ways, doing different things — rock, metal, and punk bands often consist of very similar or identical instrumentation, but with a very different resulting sound. The differences can be even more vast — percussion instruments, in some genres and musical traditions, provide a pulse and rhythm, but can be part of the main melody in other genres and traditions. 

What an instrument does, how it’s used, and the role it plays in music, are important aspects of how we understand music. Once we have gained an entry point into an unfamiliar musical genre or tradition by identifying something we understand, we can then begin to explore the relationships between these familiar elements. Organology, the study of the classification of musical instruments, seeks to answer these questions — how do we group instruments? Most students of ‘Western’ classical music theory would learn that orchestras are grouped into stringed instruments, woodwinds, brass, and percussion — but this grouping works effectively only within the context of what is traditionally understood as Western classical music. Can a violin be used percussively? Can an instrument which is struck carry the melody of a piece? 

The Hornbostel-Sachs system of classification helps us to understand instruments by looking at how an instrument produces sound, and how it’s used, rather than its function in any particular ensemble. The system looks at whether the sound is produced by means of air, strings, membranes, or the instrument’s body itself, and the mechanism of action: whether it’s plucked or struck, whether it uses friction, whether it’s shaken, and so on. The system, therefore, is almost agnostic to the way the instrument fits into a piece of music; it doesn’t matter whether the instrument carries the melody, anchors the harmony, or interjects with something entirely different. 

We can see from the Hornbostel-Sachs classification that instruments that usually perform different functions in different genres of music can be grouped very closely to one another simply because musicians produce sound on these instruments in a similar way. This is a useful perspective because it takes us away from the mindset that an instrument can only perform the function that we are used to hearing it perform. It may be the case that the Khmer skor daey is a drum-like instrument, and that is a useful way for someone to begin encountering music from this culture, but is this drum necessarily used the way a drum is used in other musical traditions? The same applies to food — rice is considered a side dish in many cuisines, but is the main dish in others.

This shift in thinking is an essential aspect of ethnomusicology. While it is useful to appeal to familiarity as a starting point when understanding a new type of music, it is important that we very quickly realise it is simply a starting point. The preconceived notions associated with that familiarity need to be left at the door as we enter into something new, and realise that these familiar elements may be doing very unfamiliar things in this new context. 

One could probably cook a curry in a pot with almost the same ingredients that would be used to cook amok. But amok is different when it comes out of the steamer. Its texture, taste, and even the way it smells is affected by the way in which the ingredients came together and how the ingredients were used, making it very different from the curries I’m used to. So while I would begin explaining amok to someone saying that it’s similar to a curry, I would immediately explain that the cooking method makes it very different in many ways. To do otherwise would be doing a great disservice to this culinary tradition. Similarly, when we have entered a new world of music, we need to be open to the idea that things are different in this world. We’ve trusted familiarity to allow us in here, and now we should trust that there is another system at work in this musical tradition, be aware of this, and look forward to uncovering it.

The social context of music is a vital part of going further down this line of reasoning, so it’s necessary to explore that next.