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  • AutorenbildJolanda Giardiello

Bruno Nettl: "Music"

This is the summary of Bruno Nettl's very interesting article about the definition of music in the european and extra european cultures.

(New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musician; ed. by Stanley Sadie, London 2001, Vol. 17, pp. 108-109), summary by Jolanda Giardiello

I. The word: etymology and formal definitions

Selecting from a number of alternative viewpoints, this article addresses issues and approaches to perspectives that exhibit the great variety of the world’s music and of the diversity of cultural attitudes and conceptions of music. Different societies, subcultures, historical periods and individual musicians may have sharply differing ideas on what constitutes music and about its characteristics and essentials, its significance, function and meaning. Providing a universally acceptable definition and characterization of both word and concept is beyond the capacity of a single statement by one author...

1. Etymology

The English word, “music”, was adapted from the French “musique”, in turn an adaptation of the Latin “musica” which was taken from the classical Greek “mousiké”. Referring originally to works or products of all or any of the nine Muses, it began gradually to be restricted to the arts generally covered by the modern term. The word “music” is almost used on Indo-European languages spoken in Europe, even if it’s not a part of early Indo-European vocabulary: German “Musik”, Norvegian “musikk”, Polish “muzyka”, Russian “muzïka”, Dutch “musiek”, Latin “musica”, Spanish “música”, French “musique”. Some Indo-European language, however, maintained older words for the concept of music: Czech “hudba” and Croatian “glazba”. The latter is related to the word sound. Both languages also use the alternative “muzika”. The Arabic “musiqi” was borrowed from Greek and further introduced to Persian, Hebrew and Swahili. Modern Indonesian “musik” and Shona “musakazo” are examples of languages in which the word was recently introduced.

At least three approaches are helpful in determining a society’s definitions of components of its culture:

1. Consulting the formal statements of authorities like dictionaries or reference books and perhaps sacred texts or in smaller societies wise elders;

2. Asking average members of a society;

3. Constructing formulations of the system of ideas about a concept and even a word by observing relevant behaviour.

2. Language dictionaries

Here there are some dictionaries definitions of the word “music”:

OED: “That one of the fine arts which is concerned with the combination of sounds with a view to beauty of form and the experience of emotion; also, the science of the laws or principles (of melody, harmony, rhythm, etc.) by which this art is regulated.”

Webster Third International Dictionary (New York, 1981): “The science or art of incorporating pleasing, expressive, or intelligible combinations of vocal or instrumental tones into a composition having definite structure and continuity”.

Brockhaus –Wallring deutsches Wörterbuch (Wiesbaden, 1982): "Die Kunst, Töne in ästhetisch befriedigender Form nacheinander (Melodie) und nebeneinander (Harmonie) zu ordnen, rhythmisch zu gliedern, und zu einem geschlossenen Werk zusammenzufügen.”

Grande dizionario della lingua italiana (ed. S. Battaglia,Turin, 1981): “Arte di combinare e coordinare variamente nel tempo e nello spazio i suoni, prodotti per mezzo della voce o di strumenti e organizzati in strutture quantificate secondo l’altezza, la durata, l’intensità e il timbro; scienza dei suoni considerati sotto il profilo della melodia, dell’armonia e del ritmo.”

Dictionnaire de la langue française (ed. E. Littré, Paris 1873): “Science ou emploi des sons qu’on nomme rationnels, c’est-à-dire qui entrent dans une échelle dite gamme.”

To the literate population of Western Europe the word “music” refers in the first instance to composing. Music is art and science, it involves the satisfactory combination of constituent materials and it is intended to be beautiful, expressive or intelligible. The dictionary definitions suggest that music serves both aesthetic and communicative functions.

3. General encyclopedias

In contrast to language dictionary the task of general encyclopedias is providing an overview of human and natural facts from a particular cultural perspective. Here there are some definitions form encyclopedias:

La grande encyclopédie Larousse (Paris 1975): “Language des sons qui permet au musicien de s’exprimer.”

Brockhaus Enzyklopädie: “[Musik ist] die Tonkunst.”

Grote Winkler Prins enyclopedie (Amsterdam, 1971): „Kunsvorm die berust op het ordenen van klankfenomenen“ („art form based on the ordering of sound phenomena“).

The New Encyclopedia Britannica (Chicago, 1974) offers in its „Micropedia“, an article „Art of Music“: „Expression in musical form, from the most simple to the most sophisticated, in any musical medium“. The article titled “Art of Music” in it s “Macropedia”, begins: “Both the simple folk song and the complex electronic composition belong the same activity, music.”

Great Soviet Encyclopedia (translated from the third edition, New York, 1974): “An art form that reflects reality and affects man through sensible and specially organized sound sequences consisting chiefly of tones (sounds of definite pitch). Music is a specific variant of the sound made by people.”

There may be disagreement on the need for explicit definition, but all these works maintain that music involves sounds and their combination, that it is both art and science involving both talent and creativity as well as knowledge – and that its principal manifestation is composing music, rather than other activities and events that belong to the domain of music.

4. European musical authorities of the past

In Western culture theorists and composers have frequently been motivated to define music.

Johann Mattheson (1739): “Musik ist eine Wissenschaft und Kunst, geschickte und angenehme Klänge klüglich zu stellen, richtig aneinander zu fügen und lieblich herauszubringen, damit durch ihren Wohllaut Gottes Ehre und alle Tugenden befördert werden.”

F. W. Marpurg (1750): „Das Wort Musik bezeichnet die Wissenschaft oder die Kunst der Töne.“

Eduarsd Hanslick (1854): „...tönend bewegte Form.“

Ernst Kurth (1920) : „Musik ist emporgeschleuderte Ausstrahlung weitaus mächtigerer Urvorgänge deren Kräfte im Unhörbaren kreisen.“

Hans Pfitzner (1926): „Musik ist das Abbild der Ansicht der Welt.“

Arnold Schönberg (1922): „Music is at its lowest stage simply imitation of nature. But soon it becomes imitation of nature in a broader sense, not just imitation of the surface of nature but also of its inner essence.”

Igor Stravinsky (1935/6-36): “Music is essentially unable to “express” anything, wheter it be feeling, attitude, psychic state, a phenomenon of nature, etc. “Expression” has never been an intrinsic trait of music.”

5. Looking to the vernacular and to behaviour

If the study of published authorities in the field of definition provides at least some agreement on the nature and attributes of music, less unanimity is provided by other approaches to determining the definition and essence of music. The issue of definition is complicated further by the fact that each society uses its culture to structure and classify the world in its own way, based on its view of nature, the supernatural, the environment and society. It ought to be possible to define music in an interculturally valid way, but the fact that definers inevitably speak with the language and from the cultural viewpoint of their own societies is a major obstacle. Nevertheless musicologists generally regard music as a cultural universal.

II. The concept in a variety of cultures

The conceptions of music held by different societies, European and non-European, may be illustrated by a few selected examples providing some broad generalizations. In no culture is there unanimity of thought or opinion on fundamental issues such as the nature of music. While it is helpful to compare cultures with the use of strong, unified characterizations, it is also important to bear in mind the rich complexity of contradictory ideas, conceptions and verbal and artistic expressions in each.

1. Contemporary western culture

In Western culture the word “music” suggest a unitary concept, in the sense that all “music” is to an equal degree music, and the term “music” applies equally to art, popular, folk and other strata or genres. In the Western conception, however, not all music is equally valuable, and the shape of the concept tends to depend on the observer’s social group.

In Western societies instrumental music is more “musical” than vocal music. The Czech word for music, “hudba”, denotes primarily instrumental music and suggests vocal music in a secondary way. The word “muzika” suggests instrumental music specifically. The words “Musik” and “Tonkunst” in German are synonyms and “Tonkunst” in particular suggests Western art music and is hardly ever encountered in literature about popular, folk or or any non-Western music. The Western world sees music as a positive phenomenon. In English, “music” is used as a metaphor for beautiful, welcome or desirable sounds.

Various animal sounds are assigned musical quality. Birds “sing” and the sounds of whales and porpoises are usually associated with music, as is the “trumpeting” of the elephants and the “song” of swans, but not the barking of non-favourite dogs! In part, this may reflect the standing of these animals in traditional Western human opinions; people view birds, whales and porpoises more favourably than cows, monkeys and wolves; the former are therefore capable of music-making, while others, whose voices may be similar to certain conventional music sounds, are excluded.

In Western culture, music is a good thing, and it is good people who are associated with music. This characterizes European thought of the ancients and of the Middle Ages. The Pythagorean had a concept of “harmony of the spheres” of the solar system. Boethius suggests a division of music into three areas:

1. “musica mundana” (harmony of the world and the universe)

2. “musica humana” (harmony of the human body and soul)

3. “musica instrumentalis” (musical sound).

This concept played a major role in medieval thought and is very different from the music concept of the 20th century.

2. East Asia

In Japan Western music, traditional Japanese music and the music of other societies are all equally considered to be music. The concept emphasizes a firm classification of categories and genres, determined by function, instrument, and time and place of origin. Various works on Japanese music distinguish importantly between “biwa”, “koto” and “shakuhachi” and “shamisen” music, between concert, dance, theatre and folk music.

The multiplicity of genres and intercultural combinations is even more pronounced in Chinese culture. It is important to understand that the concept of music in the broad sense, “yue”, has a consistent history. The same ideograph my also be pronounced “le”, meaning enjoyment and happiness. The ancient form of the ideograph embodies all the arts: the performing arts of music and dance, literature, the fine arts, architecture and even the culinary arts as well. The music concept distinguishes between Chinese and other music, separating not by style as much as by origin.

3. Iran and the Middle East

Middle Eastern Islamic cultures use two contrasting terms to denote musical sound: “musiqi” and “khandan”. “Musiqi” refers to the broad spectrum of music as does music in Western culture, but it is used explicitly to designate instrumental music and less for vocal music; it refers to metric, composed sounds more than the non-metric and improvised. It is not used for sacred music but is reserved for secular social contexts. “Khandan”, on the other hand means “reading, reciting, singing” and is used most to indicate non-metric, improvised, sacred and serious genres.

In authoritative treatises, the concept of music as denoted by “musiqi” is often the object of ambivalence and criticism. The more it departs from the principles of “khandan”, the more it should be eschewed by the devout Muslim. In contemporary everyday life “musiqi” is designated with adjectives such as “sonati” (traditional), “mahalli” (regional) and “khoregi” (foreign) and so on.

Singing or chanting the Koran is totally “khandan” and has no musical quality.

The positive metaphorical extensions of music in Western culture seem to be hardly prominent, or perhaps even absent, in Middle Eastern Islamic cultures. The actual uses of music in the two cultures are similar, but in their conception, definition and evaluation of music the two differ importantly.

4. India

The high culture of Northern India has concepts that parallel Western ones as well as those of China. The word most closely equivalent to “music” is “sangita”, which in early times encompasses music and dance, but which later came to mean something like “music”. In modern-usage, it is the Indian vernacular word closest to “music” but refers, most specifically, to classical or art music. The word “gita” or “git” in combination with other words designates different genres, such as “filmi git” (film music or film songs) and “lok git” (folk or people’s songs).

In the theoretical literature of Indian music, “sangita” is divided into categories involving stylistic traits, instruments and instrument types, association with religious categories, dance and drama; and is itself a subdivision of categories of thought and creation such as rhythm, emotion and ritual.

5. Some African cultures

Except in their adoption of Western terminology and concepts, many African societies may not have a conception of music matching the holistic one in Western culture.

The Hausa people of Nigeria have an extraordinarily rich vocabulary for discourse about music, but no single word for music. The nearest equivalent to a generic word for “music” is “rok’o” that means “begging” and that does not cover all organization of sonorities. The Basongye of Zaire had a broad conception of what music, but no corresponding term. To the Basongye music is a purely and specifically human product. For them when you are content, you sing and when you are angry, you make noise. A song is tranquil, a noise not. The Tiv people of Nigeria also have no word for music as a whole. Shona, the main language of Zimbabwe, has the word “musakazo” that means “continuous instrumental music”. The most common Shona is associated with the concept of music is “tamba” that means “to play”.

Although it is dangerous to generalize about African musical cultures, it seems that the African conception of music is similar to that of the West in its use for designating desirability and positive value.

6. Some Amerindian and Oceanian cultures

In some North American Indian languages there is no word for “music” as distinct from the word “song”. Flute melodies too are labelled as “songs”.

In the traditional culture of the Blackfoot people of Montana there was no distinction between songs, which have supernatural sources, and speech of human provenance. Music was human-specific, animals did not “sing”. Music seems to be a system that reflects or reproduces the social system, a kind of conceptual microcosm of society and culture. The Blackfoot language has the word “passakan”, which applies to events including singing, dancing and ceremony.

The Oglala Sioux do not have a single word for music, but they have two important linguistic morphemes “ya” (relating to mouth) and “ho” (relating to sound) that serve to integrate a large number of objects, ideas and processes involving music.

The ‘Are’are people of Malaita, in the Solomon Islands, also have no term uniting all kinds of music. The basic ‘Are’are musical terminology is derived from four morphemes:

1. "'au” (bamboo)

2. “’o’o” (a slit-drum)

3. “nuuha” (song)

4. “kiroha” (referring to a sound game played under water, leading to specific glosses of stamping-tubes, panpipe ensemble and beating the slit-drums).

For the Suyá of Amazonian Brazil song is the result of a particular relationship between humans and the rest of the universe, involving an unusually close relationship and merging of states of being into a single combined state of being expressed through music. When humans, birds, animals, and other aspects of the universe are conjoined, the result is sound.

These examples show that the concept of music differs very greatly from culture to culture and that it is often inseparable from other domains of culture, particularly dance and drama.

III. The concept in scholarship

1. Definitions of the word an concept

(The author makes a list of the definition of music found in various dictionaries that is some kind of repetitive).


Most of the dictionaries definitions agree that music is an art combining sounds. But even these definitions suggest a variety of opinions.

Sartory regards arts that consist of sound an intrinsically music, avoiding, for example, the dilemma posed by arts involving speech. Bengtsson and Hüschen imply that a variety of non-congruent definitions from different periods and cultures may all be equally valid.

Eggebrecht maintains that music is a Western phenomenon, the definitions he presents refers only to music in Western culture, indeed, to art music. Eggebrecht’s unicultural approach contrasts with that of A.J. Ellis and his successors who became ethnomusicologists, and for whom music in its cultural variation was explicitly not a natural phenomenon. Keldïsh implies an intercultural view informed by psychology and biology.

Throughout, the definitions are narrower than the cultural usage of music would require.

2. Some central characteristics

From the time when musicology was set forth as a formal discipline by Guido Adler (1885), musicologists have taken a broad view of music. Adler’s article specifies the inclusion of various strata of music, all cultures and periods. Since Adler, musicologists have introduced hierarchies and made decisions as to what musics are in fact worthy of study, but they have not shrunk from these broad boundaries. Some definitions have been unreasonably broad. Thus Paul Henry Lang defined musicology as the science that “unites in its domains all the sciences which deal with the production, appearance, and application of the physical phenomenon called sound” (Harap, 1938), suggesting that the analysis of all sound, including speech, in the field’s purview and thus, by extension, capable of being understood as music.

The question of boundaries has been addressed by ethnomusicologists. John Blacking (1973) defined music as “humanly organized sound”. It is important to note the implication that music must be organized, is principally “sound”, is human-specific.

Alan P. Merriam (1964) proposed a model for the understanding of music that separates three sectors, sound behaviour and concept – equally components of music which affect each other constantly - but avoids the idea that music is principally sound.

George Herzog, in the title of an article, asked the serious question, “Do Animal have Music?” (1941) and replied tentatively in the affirmative. Ethnomusicologists have included analytical consideration of whale’s and porpoise’s sounds among the papers at their conventions. Sounds produced in early childhood could be considered to be either pre-linguistic or pre-musical, too.

One may define music as an art, that is, an activity whose practise requires special knowledge and ability; as a form of communication in which all humans participate; and as a set of distinct physiological processes.

The musicological concept of music is dominated by a contradiction. On the one hand, musicologists have brought to the world of performers and listeners a vast quantity of previously unknown music and in the course of this search have given their attention to much music considered inferior or irrelevant by others. On the other hand, they have found it necessary to justify their work of claims of hitherto unexpected aesthetic value in the music with which they deal. In the musicological professions there is an opposition between the tenet that musicologists study all music (or even all sound) and the insistence that musical works, performances or even entire systems or cultures do not have equal value.

3. Music among the arts

In Western culture musical creation is customarily divided into composition and performance, with improvisation perhaps an intermediate stage. Performance is not as respected as composition, and members of Western society do not think of music as a large conglomeration of performances. The world’s greatest musicians are composers far more than performers. Improvisation in art music has generally been regarded more as a craft than as an art.

In the conceptions of many societies, the visual arts and literature differ from music in the significance and nature, and perhaps even in the presence, of their performance component.

Music has been one of the arts in Western and musicological conception for millennia. Yet there may be obstacles to the complete inclusion of music in the realm of art, and differences in the degree and nature of artistic quality between music and other recognized arts, literature and visual arts. Two should identified:

(a) Music is an art, but in a number of the world’s cultures, not all music is equally “art”. We speak of “art music” or “Kunstmusik”, fashioned by composers who are artists, but do not admit popular songs or the songs of tribal societies into the same circle.

(b) More serious, intellectually, is the lack of parallel between music and literature in the relationships between the source materials and the art works. Not all uses of language are works of art, but the literary artist selects from everyday speech and fashions artistic products. In musicological discourse, music is sometimes referred as a “language”, but the distinction between vernacular and art music, even where culturally recognized, is of a totally different order from the difference between everyday speech and literature.

The questions in the musicological conception then remain: is all music art; is some of it art and some something else, presently undefined; or should music as a whole be viewed a system of communication analogous to language? What are the musical analogues to Saussure’s distinction between “parole” and “language”?

4. Music among the domains of culture

The world’s societies have greatly differing conceptions of music and its place in life and culture, assigning it broad or narrow scope, placing it high or low among the domains, some associating it mainly with dance and drama, others with speech, or with the arts as a whole, or again with religion and ceremonials, or yet with undesirable activities such as drinking and trance-like behaviour. The way in which musicologists in Western culture view the relationship of music to other cultural domains is a counterpart to these associations.

The concept of musicality has played a greater role than have its equivalents in other arts.

Music is alternately the vile work of villains and the expression of greatest cultural heroism.

Musicologists have naturally emphasized the latter, trying to associate music in each culture or period they study with the most desirable and developed of its cultural domains. For the 20th century, musicologists have been prone to see music in its relationship to the social sciences, and for the Middle Ages, to theology. Students of non-Western music have most frequently looked at music in its relationships to language and to social organisation.

5. The function of music

An important approach of musicology to the conceptualization of music is the study of the function of music in culture. A traditional view separates art music, often presumed to be essentially “l’art pour l’art”, from functional music that includes folksongs, popular music for entertainment, “vernacular” music such as marches and dance music and congregational church music such as hymns. The distinction between “art” and other music has come under attack and is in any event often difficult to apply.

Ethnomusicologists conclusions extend from the enumeration of uses of music in one society or all of the world’s cultures, to attempts to see music as having only one unique function, or a cluster of related ones. Whatever the many uses of music in the world’s societies, all cultures use music to integrate and unify a society and to draw boundaries among societies and their subdivisions, which may include subcultures, age groups and socio-economic classes. As the world’s cultures have become globalized and countries, cities, and even neighbourhoods increasingly heterogeneous, music as a kind of weapon for confronting the cultural “other” becomes more significant.

The close association of music with society, and its role in the interactions of ethnic groups and nations, may be a survival of the function of pre-musical sounds in early human times in which social groups may have impressed (and frightened?) each other with the use of powerful organized sound. Music appears universally, to be for communicating with the supernatural world, also a kind of “other”.

Ethnomusicologists in general take for granted that whatever universals exist in the sphere of function; each society has a unique configuration of musical functions and uses.

6. Classification

Statements by musicologists defining music often move quickly to an accounting of types of music, and classification subdividing music seem often to be part of basic musicological definitions and conceptualisations. The division of music into natural, human and sonic kinds of harmony by Boethius, was the starting–point for large number of classifications in European culture. Others include the division into theoretical and practical music, introduced by Aristoxenus (300 BCE) and reintroduced about 1500. Isidore of Seville (559-636) includes “musica harmonica” (vocal music), “musica ex flatu” (music of wind instruments) and “musica rhythmica ex pulses digitorum” (music produced by striking, e.g. percussion and plucked strings). In the 14th century, Theodoricus de Campo used the categories of “musica mundana” and “musica humana”, like those of Boethius, adding “musica vocalis” (animal sounds) and “musica artificialis” (music as we know it), which was again subdivides into vocal music with a sections of rhythmic declamation, and instrumental music with subdivisions of string, wind and percussion. Musicologists in the 20th century divided music by period of composition, by culture and subculture and by social function.

The classification of music in other cultures are complex, often following social and ceremonial functions, and from the 20th century onward, often taking into account intercultural differences.

In the late 20th century, the parallel or contrastive role of the sexes in the world’s musical culture, and contributions of women, came to receive substantial attention. Contrary to widespread beliefs promulgated in the past, there is no evidence to suggest that either men or women are innately more “musical”. In most societies a substantial difference in the nature of men’s and women’s participations in various area of music is maintained. In many societies the distinctions are so pronounced that the terms “women’s music” and “men’s music” are appropriate.

The traditional Western classification by orchestral instrument groups and the India-derived system of Hornbostel and Sachs (1914), inform importantly about Western attitudes toward music. The same may be said of a traditional Chinese classification system and of instrument classification developed in other societies.

7. Music as a universal phenomenon

Music is found in all human societies. It is a cultural universal. Ethnomusicologists, in particular, regard music as a human universal and have argued widely about its universal characteristics.

If one were, however, to make a comprehensive census of all human cultures or culture-units, one would probably find exceptions to all characteristics proposed as universals.

If there is a definition of music agreeable to the readers of this work, and if all cultures “have music”, then all cultures must partake of this definitions. In other words, if we are to accept that all cultures do have music, then all the world’s music(s) must minimally conform to that definitions. Second, all societies, including those that use a term like “music” or seem to have an unified conception of it, and those who have not, have a type or kind of stylizes vocal expression distinguished from ordinary speech.

But if all societies have music, is music a property of all human individuals, or of all normally developed humans? Psychologists have long assumed that there is such a thing as musicality, possessed by individuals to varying degrees, and in Western societies it is common to distinguish between “musical” and “unmusical” persons. At the same time, it is widely assumed that all normal humans have a capacity of participating in some sense in a complex of related activities labelled as “musicking” (Small, 1998).

The question of musicality as part of the equipment of the normal human, broached by John Blacking in “How Musical is Man?”, is answered by the suggestion that humans are basically musical, that music is a human universal, and that there is sufficient unity to justify thinking of all musics as a part of a single system.

8. The world of music or musics

Languages dictionaries, general encyclopedias and music dictionaries agree with the fact that music is found in all cultures. Because of this fact, one would assume that music has a single origin, was invented once by humans and then perhaps gradually diffused and thus changed, each culture adapting traits to its own needs. Indeed, one issue in the musicological profession concerns its view of the world of music: is the world of music a single world, and are we justified in saying that humans “have music”, or does the world of music instead consist of musics, each an individual, internally consistent system, somewhat like a language?

The 19th and early 20th centuries produced several theories:

Music originated as the human version of animal mating cries (Darwin, 1871);

- As the stylization of elevated or emotional speech (a view attributed to Wagner);

- As rhythmic accompaniment to group labour (Bücher, 1896);

- As a derivative of long-distance vocal communication (Stumpf, 1911);

- As a human invention for addressing the supernatural (Nadel, 1930).

Sachs (1943) distinguished two kinds of origin – from speech and from emotional expression.

The idea that music comes about because of specific social needs in different societies on different routes of multilateral cultural evolution suggests that different societies might have individually “invented” music on separate occasion. This might be the reason for the enormous stylistic variety in the world’s music. Separate origins might account for the absence of universal conceptions of terms for music. The discovery and analysis of sounds produced by certain animal species in which ordinary communicative sounds and mating calls and “songs” carry a distinction paralleling that of speech and song suggests that music may have originated simultaneously with language or possibly before.

The publication of significant musicological works during the second half of the 20th century questioning the boundaries of music and discussing the nature of the world of music are constantly being debated and the positions held towards these questions are constantly shifting.

In developing a definition and conceptualization of music, it is difficult to choose among the approaches mentioned. The purpose of this article is to show that, in conception of music, the world is a pastiche of diversity, and thus the author is obliged to avoid commitment to a single position.

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