A Brief Thought on Globalization and Music

Everything is Subjective!

Standard disclaimers apply.

I came across an article recently that talked about spatial perception in music. Most of us have seen cartoons where something goes up into the air (say, an elevator) and the orchestral accompaniment reinforces this notion of "ascent" by also "ascending." Conversely, if something falls, the music "goes down" with it.

So is it universal that our notion of "ascent" in space and music are intertwined?

"Not so fast!" say the researchers, based on two points:

  • Children do not seem to make this association without being trained, and
  • For certain cultures (Greek, Jewish, Arab) the association is reversed.

There are even "confessional" Lutheran ministers and trained musicians (who ought to know better) who will tout this type of research and its subjectivist conclusions as being a rationale for allowing great latitudes of freedom in worship music.

Enter The Global Media

I recall another article (about 20 years ago) discussing the origins of Reggae music. During the heyday of radio, people in Jamaica were exposed to American pop radio styles coming from coastal stations. Those who were fascinated with the music incorporated and blended the foreign musical vocabulary with their own, which was an exciting development in popular music.

When US recording companies heard of this new, blended music, they were eager to get these musicians into the studio. Unfortunately, there was a problem--the clinical obsession with accuracy that characterizes the record industry was directly at odds with the very loose, flexible approach favored by the musicians. They wouldn't show up on time, and when they did, they'd "make mistakes" and generally create an un-saleable mess. Ultimately the problem was "solved" by "cleaning up" the recordings, hiring "better" players, and so on.

A similar story is told of American Blues, and its incorporation into commercial recording. Even American Jazz has not been immune.

In these cases, we find an interesting interplay of Western/European/Pop styles with the "Other," followed by an inexorable homogenization of the style. In the interest of consistency, features like odd-length forms (Early blues players like Blind Lemon Jefferson would sometimes play 11-bar or 13-bar choruses) and rhythmic flexibility (with the early reggae players) are stratified--"smoothed out," if you will.

What's Next

As Western pop music became/becomes global, the "Everything is subjective" argument will weaken. Local traditions and cultural associations will inevitably be stratified, and it will be difficult to rely on the presence of individual variations in societies to support the argument.

That doesn't mean that subjectivity disappears entirely, of course, but could it possibly reduce the value of the argument, and ask us to reconsider it?

Does it not also compel us, as musicians, to reconsider abandoning the mass media? Why should western popular music be the only form that gets distributed around the globe? (or even in our churches?)