Composition and improvisation in cross-cultural perspective
Composition and improvisation in cross-cultural perspective

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Composition and improvisation in cross-cultural perspective

1.3 Studying unwritten musics

I want to move now from concerns relevant to all music to those more relevant to the study of unwritten musics in particular. One of the biggest distinctions between the European art tradition and most others is in the use of notation, which musicians in the former use more extensively than those anywhere else. Although music notation is used in many other traditions, particularly within Asian art musics where it has a long history (for example, the earliest surviving written musical notation in India dates from c.500 AD at the latest; written notation was also in use in China by this time (Widdess, 1995, pp. 4, 90; New Harvard, p. 547)), it is the case that very few non-Western traditions use notation in anything like the way Western art music does. In most cases where notation exists (as in India, for example), it is used only to keep an additional record of music which is memorised, working as a kind of insurance policy. This notation is not used to teach music, and nor is it referred to in performance. To a great extent then the study of music outside the Western art tradition is the study of music which involves either a very limited use of notation or no notation at all – in effect, unwritten music.

As I suggested above, we can't assume that unwritten music is improvised. Indeed, when studying unwritten music, establishing the division between the composed and the improvised becomes virtually impossible. As psychologist Jeff Pressing asks (rhetorically), ‘since no action can be completely free of the effects of previous training, how does one reliably distinguish learned from improvised behaviour?’ (Pressing, 1984, p. 345). The answer is that we cannot; we need to side-step the term ‘improvisation’, and instead ask simple questions like how does the music work, and how is it structured?


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