The science journal Nature has been working its way through a nine-part series of essays on Science and Music. Not all are online or free yet, but you can currently read Phillip Ball’s and David Huron’s contributions on the site.

Huron provides provides an important — though to many of us not very surprising — reminder that the worldwide musical landscape is nearing the completion of “The Great Flattening”; soon, there won’t be anyone making anything that doesn’t have the Western musical tradition either at its heart, or as its wrapper:

Last year I joined an expedition of biologists to the remote Javari region of the Amazon. The biologists were censusing the wildlife. I was interested in the people. We encountered subsistence hunter-farmers with transistor radios. Even in the western Amazon, people listen to Funk Carioca and Christina Aguilera.

Linguists know how fast languages disappear. Musical cultures may be an order of magnitude more fragile. It will be many centuries before the whole world speaks Mandarin. Meanwhile Western music has swept the globe faster than aspirin. Robust musical cultures remain in China, India, Indonesia and the Arab world, but even in these regions, most people are thoroughly acquainted with Western music through film and television. Less robust musical cultures are disappearing rapidly or are showing deep infiltration by Western musical foundations. Many have already disappeared. There remain only a few isolated pockets, such as the highlands of Papua New Guinea and Irian Jaya.

Regrettably, most cognitive scientists are ill-equipped to do remote field work, and few ethnomusicologists know how to do an experiment. This situation must change rapidly if we are to have much hope of glimpsing the range of possible musical minds. We have perhaps just a decade or so before everyone on the planet has been brought up with Western music or its derivatives.

Of course the plea for keeping all this diversity alive and thriving is right, good, noble… but it’s just not going to happen. There’s always something in the call to “preserve your culture” (whoever the “you” may be), that has its own tinge of a kind of reverse-imperialism. On the one hand, the old-school thought was “here, ditch all that silly crap you’ve been doing for generations, and we’ll teach you the only true civilization”; while the other asks people to not join up, stay fat and happy (or skinny and miserable, as the case may be) and and just keep doing what you’ve always been doing over there in your own little world. And through all of this noble theoretical bickering, the people just do what they think they want to do… I’m not making any plea myself, just saying “get ready”. Sure, there’ll always be different styles of music, but only one foundation: that of the West. Everything else will just be interior decoration.

7 Responses to “We Win! (?)”
  1. Daniel Wolf says:

    Two points: First, the assumption that ethnomusicologists do not know how to do experiments is completely false; participant interaction is, necessarily, experimentation, and ethnomusicology, with its roots in systematic musicology, has long paid close attention to formal experimental study in psychoacoustics, music cognition, and, more recently, the neuroscience of music. Second, the assumption that “the west” is a universal foundation is also false, as the primary imperialistic musical force is not a form of western music, but rather music in the Arabic/Turkish/Persian continuum, Indian film music, or, more recently, Chinese Pop music, each of which is immediately and strikingly different from western music in terms of texture, tonal practice, metric and rhythmic practice. Among these, Indian film music, for example, has a breadth of popularity reaching from immigrant communities in Northern Europe to Southern Africa, in Asian from Central Asia down to Indonesia, and throughout the insular Pacific.

  2. Chris Sahar says:

    What I find odd is their assumption is that all takes to destroy culture is a significant cataclysm or series thereof and viola whatever seemed to be everywhere is nowhere. Think of the 18th century earthquake in Lisbon, Think of what has been lost from the past two World Wars. With our potentcy for annihilation only greater what music would remain? Also, many people do not listen to all the music out there, Even those with a wide range of tastes will have certain styles they gravitate to.

    I do agree with the prior post that each culture rather takes from Western music what it wants and omits alot. I live in an extremely diverse neighborhood – Bahai and pop music where I hear from Brasil, Indian and Bangladesh pop/classical music, Middle Eastern pop. It seems one of the strongest music styles to influence other culture’s music seems not to be so very Western – rap.

    But if this what the scientists mean by “the Great Flattening” then they do not mean the Westernization of musics but rather the cross pollination of various musics into less diversity which implies Western music is not as Western as we think. Just compare a pop ballad of Bing Crosby from the 40′s to a Jackson 5 hit of the 70′s and you will hear how much other world musics have influenced “Western” music. So thanks for the info, brings about some interesting ideas.

  3. This struck a chord as we’ve been listening to that old Folkways recording of Pygmy music a lot since we moved to the tropics. I always wonder if there’s anybody there who could play that snog again like that. No matter though, after what those Pygmies did to contemporary music I think a little revenge is at hand! ;)

    Funny thing, while listening to it Elsie goes, yeah you really are a minimalist sometimes. And I’m like, heh… I always thought it was Pygmy music I was ripping off, not Reich or Glass! Hahah…

    I just don’t see how you can ‘preserve’ culture. Our tendency to want to preserve everything in museums, giving scholarships to native musicians to learn the old ways is as much an obsession as this feeling we have that the West is becoming dominant. What’s to be gained? It’ll just end up as some eco-paradise mondo-Hawaiian musical cultural musical experience in a restaurant overlooking something that used to be wild. It’s a temporary employment scheme for people whose parents are the waiters at the same eco-paradisical restaurant. And they don’t have to wear the grass skirts to do their jobs! :)

  4. Steve Layton says:

    Daniel wrote: the primary imperialistic musical force is not a form of western music, but rather music in the Arabic/Turkish/Persian continuum, Indian film music, or, more recently, Chinese Pop music, each of which is immediately and strikingly different from western music in terms of texture, tonal practice, metric and rhythmic practice. …and Chris wrote: I do agree with the prior post that each culture rather takes from Western music what it wants and omits alot. I live in an extremely diverse neighborhood – Bahai and pop music where I hear from Brasil, Indian and Bangladesh pop/classical music, Middle Eastern pop. It seems one of the strongest music styles to influence other culture’s music seems not to be so very Western – rap.

    All of these are now thoroughly soaked in Western tradition song-form, harmonic progression, orchestration & production. Some indigenous local elements (a few instruments, melodic inflections, etc.) are kept, but like I said, those are becoming interior decoration. Even some of what would seem to be essential elements in that culture’s identity have fallen remarkably quickly to Western norms — e.g., The tonal inflections crucial to meaning & language in languages like Chinese and Thai have gradually all but disappeared from their pop songs, the melody becoming indistinguisable from one typically Western.

    Of course most of this whole discussion is couched in terms relating to popular or vernacular culture. There are a number of different forms of art-music that are practiced and kept relativly intact; but almost every one is a marginal specialty played or appreciated by only very few even in their original homeland (much the way “classical” has become).

  5. I have a few concerns, most of which have already been brought up. Most significant is the unstated premise that there’s some “pure” form of each musical culture and that any changes imported from other traditions constitute a corruption or a death. In reality, every musical culture is a mongrel, having incorporated elements from other cultures many times over the course of millennia. While it’s true that in the near future almost all musical cultures will have incorporated some “western” elements, it’s equally true that almost all musical cultures will have incorporated “eastern” elements. The flattening is real, but the concern about the deaths of musical cultures and the need to preserve them in their current “uncorrupted” state stems from a quasi-colonial impulse to differentiate between “native” culture and that of the imperial motherland. I’m reminded by Jeff’s comment about preservation in museums of Benedict Anderson’s last chapter in his book _Immagined Communities_. The chapter is called “Museum, Map, and Census” and deals with the ways in which colonial powers use those three tools as a way of dominating and controling the people and the cultures they are colonizing. Declaring that this particular moment in some culture is the “true” form which needs to be preserved, delineated in protection against outside influences, and measured, while making no such demands on our own musical culture (how often do we hear complaints that incorporating “non-western” elements in pop music endangers its authenticity?) is in fact demeaning to those cultures and attempts to deprive them of the right to evolve to meet the society’s contemporary cultural needs.

  6. J.C. Combs says:

    It would be nice as Galen suggests, if everything equally fell into a sort of melting pot musically. But is it not similar to religion? Which one has the most missionaries spreading “the word” to other areas of the globe and then overtaking (a quality?). The question is who is “spreading” out most musically and what is the motivation? That question begs another question: What is the role of the corporation in western music and what is the ultimate goal of the corporation?

  7. Chris Sahar says:

    Daniel –

    Your comment about the tonal inflections in Chinese and Thai melodies having almost disappeared from pop music and replaced by Western ones (eg American/Brit formulas) was something I never thought of. Taking this into consideration along with alternate views, looks like much more study in the area of ethnomusicology (or musical biological systems) is needed.

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