The ‘why’ of music: music in its social and cultural context

What does an ethnomusicologist do, really? Do we travel somewhere distant and live among people very different from ourselves, immersing ourselves in their cultures, traditions, and music? If those are the criteria, then I can safely call myself an ethnomusicologist not just by merit of my research and qualifications but by the fact that I moved from the country where I grew up, to a different country, and have since made it home. Like any ethnomusicologist, I am often called on to explain elements of this ‘new’ culture to people back home. Given that this ‘new’ culture is Singapore, food, as I’ve mentioned already, is one of the highlights of any conversation about my life here. How would I explain roti prata, for example, to my parents in the UK? Would I say it’s like a pancake, but flaky, and traditionally savoury instead of sweet, although sweet versions exist? Would I say it’s a flatbread? Such descriptions are often criticised for being reductionist or, in a recent case where the roti prata was described as an ‘Asian flat croissant’, offensively Eurocentric. The comparisons between music and food are interesting because both are such integral expressions of culture and lifestyle. Yet, many people are more adventurous with food than music and it’s not a stretch to say that most people in globalised cities would regularly experience cuisine from many cultures other than their own, but that when it comes to musical preferences, it is less common that we seek out new ones.

One of the reasons for this is context. The context of food is familiar and social. I could have dinner with my family at a Japanese restaurant serving very traditional Japanese dishes, and it would still be a family dinner, with all the interpersonal, emotional, and social elements that constitute family time. Would I be able to experience traditional Japanese music with my family as ‘family time’? Let’s think about the context — a recital studio or any other performance space in which we would sit for an hour or so, watching a traditional Japanese musical ensemble. It would probably be much more of a challenge to sell this idea to my family than it would be to sell the idea of sake and sashimi, because, for many, the context of traditional Japanese music is less accessible than the context of traditional Japanese food, especially since the latter can be made accessible in a restaurant as a social event.

What an ethnomusicologist often does is to examine this social context. This could be the immediate context — the setting, colour, or costume, or whether the performance involves dance or movement or other elements. Many people may not want to  listen to a film score for a couple of hours but will gladly watch the film itself, where the music is part of a context that also includes dialogue, action, visuals, narrative, and movement that work in tandem with the music to create meaning. In the case of a Khmer musical ensemble I saw recently in the Angkor Archaeological Park, context was provided by a sign next to the stage, informing audiences that the musicians were survivors of landmine accidents who were performing to raise money to support their families. This context, very particular to regions affected by landmines, gives meaning to the performance. When one is standing on a trail leading to an ancient temple, watching survivors of accidents caused by landmines from a regime that existed not even fifty years ago, play music that’s been part of this region’s culture for centuries, context provides vital links between the present and the past, between the spectator and the performer, and between a human and music.

Understanding context is the vital key to making music meaningful to people. We need to think about the role of music in a social group — what function does it provide, why was it created, how is it performed, and how do people participate in it? What is its role in important milestones such as marriage, birth, or death? How does it add meaning to sports, political event, or war? And what does it do for intimate social contexts such as birthday parties in which it would be almost unheard of in many of our lives to skip the tradition where we crowd around a cake and sing? 

Perhaps it is not that many of us aren’t as adventurous with new music as we are with new food, but simply that we’re more familiar with the context of trying new food than new music. As educators, researchers, performers, and practitioners, we are required to do the hard work of identifying important elements of context, helping our audiences to experience these contexts more meaningfully, and facilitating their personal and social experiences of music within these contexts. 

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