Reception of music in cross-cultural perspective
Reception of music in cross-cultural perspective

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Reception of music in cross-cultural perspective

1 Reception and the musical event in cross-cultural perspective

The way music is received is clearly an aspect of the social and cultural context of music-making. Specialist, professional music-making in particular needs an audience and needs patronage. If audiences don't approve of the music being performed, and patrons cease to support musicians, music-making will be forced to change. If audiences or patrons demand different types of music, musicians may have to oblige (or, perhaps, move on to find new patrons). If the mode of reception changes, as for example when music begins to be disseminated via recordings or radio broadcasts, this too may have an impact on the kind of music produced.

The reception of music can influence musical events – in other words, the reception of music affects the subsequent production of music. This concept involves consideration of the way in which the production of music is tailored to suit the consumer, which involves asking questions such as:

  1. Does this music have an audience (a person or group of people present and attentive, regarded as distinct from the performers)?

  2. If so, is the presence of the audience a necessary condition for the performance?

  3. Are the members of the audience socially distinct from the performers, and if so how?

  4. Which aspects of the music seem to be particularly important to those who attend the event (both audience and performers)?

Some of these questions are easier to answer than others. I have considered four different types of music in Table 1.

Table 1

Panpipe ensembles in Conima, PeruSuyá unison song, BrazilNewari ritual music, NepalJali performances, Mali
1 Is there an audience?YesNoYesYes
2 Is the audience necessary for performance?Collectivity is important; the presence of a separate audience group probably not.Not applicableProbably notYes
3 Is the audience socially distinct from the performer (s)?Not distinct in social class (although the audience probably includes more women and children).Not applicableYes; it includes women and children.Yes; it includes nobles, as well as children and a higher proportion of women than in the performing group.
4 Which aspects of performance seem most important or highly valued?Size of group, volume, social interaction.Participation/ unity, ritual function.Religious/ritual function.First verbal content, then other musical features (melody, rhythm).

To elaborate on the answers in Table 1, the first two rows suggest that in more than one instance, either there is no audience, or, if there is one, its presence may be considered incidental to the performance (audience members don't have to be there, and if they are they don't have to like what they hear and see). Where a distinct audience group is present, its social relationship to the performing group is another variable factor. Two possibilities are represented here:

  1. that the audience group, although drawn from the same social stratum as the performers, includes people excluded from musical performance on grounds of gender or age (for example the Newari ritual, and arguably the Peruvian panpipe ensembles);

  2. that the audience comprises, or includes, people belonging to a distinct social class (here, the Malian noblemen patrons).

The fourth question is in most cases the hardest to answer. It can be difficult to determine which aspects of a performance are most important to the listeners. (Does every member of the audience appreciate the same things? Do people always know which aspects of a performance they value, or are they sometimes not conscious of them?). Nevertheless the answers do seem to vary widely. The Peruvian fiesta-goers like to see and hear large, collective groups performing music with a loud dynamic level; presumably, since many will dance, the rhythmic characteristics of the music must fulfil certain basic requirements. The collective nature of the performance seems to be particularly important to the Suyá too, and we might surmise that the particular type of song and mode of performance are regarded as essential parts of the ritual of which they form a part.

This ritual function seems to have an overriding importance in the Newari example too; one senses that, since the music is addressed to the God being propitiated, the attractiveness of the music to human ears may be of little importance. Of course, that is not to say the onlookers do not like the music, but ‘liking’ can be a complex process – for instance, one can like music because of its associations, as well as because of its intrinsic qualities. Finally, in the African example we are getting closer to a model of music-making we would recognise from a Western concert hall, inasmuch as the focus of the event is musical sound produced by one group of people for the appreciation of a distinct group.

The last model, for obvious reasons, will be the dominant one where music is made by professional specialists, although other factors we have encountered should not be discounted. We go to concert halls to hear music, but for many of us the sense of collective enjoyment of, even participation in, a musical event remains an important factor. Likewise, musical events in modern Western societies retain certain ritual aspects – for instance, through our attendance we affirm our identity as part of our society (or a particular social and cultural sub-group); the behaviour of the participants, performers and audience, is in many respects formal and stylised, arguably to a greater degree than can be explained by practical considerations (this may be true of both art music and rock music performances, for instance). We may like to think that our musical events are purely means by which musical sounds are transmitted from performer to listener, but in reality there are always other factors involved.

The next example deals with some of these issues in a little more depth. Our focus this time is on the occasion on which music is performed – the performance event. We will be investigating the context within which this takes place; the expectations of performers and audience; and the reactions of the audience to what they see and hear.


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