Music As Culture, Taste, Ritual, Myth And Ethnocentrism

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Analyzing the musical experience is going to provide us the understanding of how social order has been created, maintained, and how it distinguishes the individual and social structure

Tia DeNora

Regardless of its subject matter, our lives have been set to understand the realities and perspectives of the world and human life. Some mix up chemicals, others calculate, read, and, create. Here, social sciences; specifically sociology and social anthropology tries to analyze social and cultural circumstances as well as tries to create new implications of it. When it comes to music, sociology and social anthropology produces more than one claims; differing one and another: music is an intriguing topic for philosophers and social scientists. From Weber to Adorno, many scholars put stances on music from different perspectives; how it emerged, how it functions and exists in out social lives and cultures, and what it means. As music is also considered as a form of art – which sometimes is seen as a deep and abstract notion; a controversial concept by itself; but I would rather not to touch upon abstractions. Here, in this article, I am going to try to regard music as a notion which has sociological and anthropological implications, rather than focusing on abstractions and deep social theories.

The Distinction between ‘Sound’ and ‘Music’

“Above all, music is sound; it is a relationship in between the different, similar, or the same sounds.”

Chirping birds, swinging leaves and all other earthly auditory sounds. They are ready to get heard in the nature, as a result of detailed physical conditions. They have their own calculations: frequencies, amplitudes, timbres, envelopes, velocities, wavelenghts and phases indicating their own qualities. Music also has those properties as well, yet it has a continous flow as it is the combination of and relationship to sounds. Above all, music cannot be found in the nature by itself, yet, it is a humanmade concept. Depending on different explanations, music has some evolutionary, biological and psychological backgrounds, but also it has humanly, socially and culturally constructed layers. So, music has been set on the sounds found purely in nature; probably as a consequence of circumstances such as selection of the mate, and/or communicative purposes, but evolved something which is a way more social and cultural for the sake of declaration and expresion of the self and fostering the group belonging.

Social and Cultural Music: Social and Cultural Taste

Once groups of people transformed into regulated orderly societies, habits in the daily lives had become more and more entangled. As acquisition of shelter and food have been guaranteed and relatively became easier than past, people started to spend more time on novel and advanced activities. Music is only one sample for it; but this can be found in food, mobility, interpersonal relationships, love and so on. While keeping its evolutionary and biological backgrounds, people started to create meaningful and well structured sound relationships, which will eventually lead the emergence of music. “Anthropologists describe the place that rhythmically oriented activity held in the lives of primitive people. In those early times (from 20,000 to 40,000 years ago) the rituals, so important in an aborginial society, centered on overt physical movements supported by chanting wailing, clappling, or beating on crude devices.”

As musical activity also got complex, continuity of music required its categorization, and its categorization required the establishment of the taste. Production and consumption of music defines the taste; as in Bourdieusian sense, taste emerges as a result of collective responses to certain activities and individual choice on taste is highly dependent on the collective selection. The selection of the music helps to categorize particular societies and particular individuals in different social contexts, eventually might lead to a separation in between high and low cultures.

Performativeness: Music as Rituals

Whereas sociology approaches issues from a societal perspective, social anthropology is way more related to culture, and its performative ways: rituals and myths. Social anthropology, in general, sees social behavior as a social performance. According to Goffmann, restaurants, offices, hotels, schools and universities and all other physical places are stages, where individuals play and act pre-defined and imitative roles.

Music differs from this view in the sense that it is already a performance by itself, as dramas and movies, and it is the place where obstrusive performance have been presented. That is the reason why, people are interested in the lives of actors, actresses and musicians; as they are brave enough to dedicate their lives to explicit performances and they keep the secrets of those performances. Social anthropologist Victor Turner studied rituals from a religious perspective, where he sees social activities of life as a religion as the both include strong truths, myths and regulated performative actions. If we appropriate the claims of Turner to music, it obviously signals messages through kept inside truths, myths and symbols and performs it on the stage. So, music is a ritual, and music has a ritual.

Mythical and Scientific Thought: Totemism

Myths have been greatly studied by Levi-Strauss in his book entitled the Savage Mind where he distinguished the mythical thought and scientific thought. In other words; according to Levi-Strauss, mythical thought and scientific thought are parallel forms of knowledge where science is more successful at achieving results and has practical value and mythical thought makes sense of the world, and has sensational value.

Music is a physical activity consisting of mathematical calculations so it has a great scientific value in it. At the same time, it has an expressive and communicative role, so it can also be classified as a mythical thought, in accordance with Levi-Strauss’ distinction. More specifically, concerning the Western classical music, the degree of thought varies in between scientific thought and mythical thought depending on the particular era. To make it clear, even though it does already include expressive artsy items, Baroque period of classical music had been set to clarify the essential qualifications of the Western classical music.

Especially the works of J.S.Bach, was set to demonstrate the qualities and capabilities of the musical instruments to the musicians themselves. On the other hand, when we move on to the Romantic era, we encounter more and more totemism on the pieces; where the mythical thought is superior to scientific thought. Not only tempo, rhytm, and dynamics are a way more expressive, but also themes and myths superceded the scientific calculations of music in 19th century Romantic era. Pieces, suites, concertos and all other musical works have been set upon myths and totemism, such as it is in the musical suite of Camille Saint-Saens: The Carnival of the Animals (Le carnaval des animaux),1886 where the composer composed 14 pieces for an ad hoc ensemble, and each piece symbolizes an animal such as swan, lion, elephant and so on.

Ethnocentrism and Music

In the particular musical systems, musical production and acquisition varies, depending on culture, language, region and the texture of the society. “The natural relationship between sounds are raw materials and each culture creates different scales, modes, harmonic orders. The rational order that we hear from music is indeed the consequence of cultural traditions.”  This means, there are other ways and alternatives to the Western classical music. Western classical music is being taught as a result of Western centric perspectives where it includes ethnocentric ideologies. As European political and economic powers expanded all around the globe, an ethnocentric approach which empower and glorify European liberal arts, science, music and culture emerged. That is the reason why, “the European” become “the normal”, “the natural”,“the developed” and “the expected”. Studying, creating and fostering Western classical music empowers European values, norms and institutions, which might sometimes lead to the undermining of other musical systems existing all around the world.

Western classical music found its way from Greek antiquity and Christian church; however it has strong impacts on musical history due to political and social reasons. Basically, it emerges in a particular place and in a particular period of time; and it provides only one approach to organize and manipulate the sounds. The musical calculations are being used today have been organized by J.S. Bach, in the Baroque period of Western classical music, where he standardized the temperements and the dimensions of the relationship between the sounds. The system got innovated in Baroque also gives an assistance to contemporary and popular music as well; whilst it provides musicians to speak exactly the same language all around the world, however, at the same time, it also limits the other possibilities of hearing and playing.


GROUT, Donald Jay (1973), A History of Western Music, New York: W.W. Norton & Company Inc.

GOFFMAN, Erving , ‘Günlük Yaşamda Benliğin Sunumu’ Metis Yayınları, İstanbul

AYAS, Güneş (2019) ‘Müzik Sosyolojisi: Kuramsal Bir Giriş’ İthaki Yayınları. İstanbul.

BOURDIEU, Pierre (1979) “The Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste.

DENORA, Tia (2005)  “Music and Social Experience’ Blackwell.

LEVI STRAUSS. (1962) Claude. “The Savage Mind”

TURNER, Victor. (1967)“The Forest of Symbols. Aspects of Ndembu Ritual”


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