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

3.2 Technological change and the mediation of music

The adoption of concerts is not the only change to have affected the reception of music over the last hundred years or so. There are several other factors, including social changes and technological innovations, which have changed the ways in which music is experienced. Two major categories are the developments of recording and broadcasting technologies – which we might consider together as different forms of the mediation of music. This is a relevant part of the study of reception, since recording and broadcasting introduced new ways in which music could be received.

Although the first recording devices were western inventions, it may surprise you to learn how early the technology reached other parts of the world – Asia and South America in particular. The first recording machine was widely available in Europe and North America from the 1890s; commercial production of gramophone discs began around 1900; and the first commercial recordings of Asian music were made, by the Gramophone Company's recordist Fred Gaisberg, as early as 1902:

… by spring 1903 Gaisberg had recorded a total of 1700 discs of Indian, Burmese, Siamese, Malay, Javanese, Chinese and Japanese music. The master recordings were then sent back to Europe to be processed, and the finished records shipped to local agents along with gramophones manufactured by the same company.

(Gronow, 1981, p. 251)

As may be clear from this quote, the early recording of Asian music was part of a systematic attempt at commercial exploitation by the Gramophone Company and its competitors. Wanting to establish their products in Asia and South America, these companies decided that it made commercial sense to have records of local music with which to interest consumers in each market. As the Gramophone Company's agent in Calcutta, John Watson Hawd, wrote in 1902, ‘The native music is to me worse than Turkish but as long as it suits them and sells well what do we care?’ (quoted by Farrell, 1993, p. 33).

Naturally in the early days gramophone machines were a luxury that only the elite could afford, yet the fact that they did have an impact around the world can be seen from comments such as that of Ravi Shankar:

I had a pleasing voice and my family often asked me to sing some [Bengali] songs when we had guests at home. … Soon, I enjoyed singing and accompanying myself by picking out the notes on the harmonium's keyboard. We had a Gramophone at home and some records of instrumental music, some of Tagore's songs, and many religious songs and songs from the semiclassical musical dramas in Hindi and Bengali. I often used to imitate the records and sing along with them.

(Shankar, 1968, p. 60–1)

Thus even at this time (Shankar is referring to the 1920s and '30s) the mediation of music by recording was beginning to have an impact around the world, making music available in new contexts and circumstances, inspiring and influencing musicians who had access to the technology. This pattern has continued to the present day, its importance increasing as the technology has reached more and more parts of the globe. Truly mass access to such mediated music did not come with the early gramophone, but had to wait for further developments: of films, radio and later TV broadcasting, and more recently of cassette tapes. I want to use the next activity to introduce some of the more important issues raised by these phenomena.

Activity 2

Sources A–D below describe, in different ways, the influence of recording and broadcasting technologies on music – in India, Java and in general. (All are written by well-known ethnomusicologists.)

Once you have read each of them, make brief notes of the following points.

  1. Summarise the key point(s) raised by each source.

  2. To what extent do these authors, taken together, present a coherent picture? What evidence do we have of recording technology having varying, even contradictory, effects – and what does this tell us?

Source A

Bruno Nettl on the effects of recording technology in the non-Western world in general

As to the effects of the record industry on the non-Western world, each culture had its own experience, but one can to some extent generalise. A small number of performers, some excellent, others selected for recording by the coincidences of life, have come to dominate the listening of a large public … Further, music has decreased in its traditional, often religious function and become more associated with recreation. The connection of particular pieces or genres with specific times of year, or of day, has given way to a general use of music by anyone whenever he or she wishes to hear it … Third, variety in musical style has tended to give way to unification. Traditional folk and classical styles, religious music, and Western imports have converged into a group of related styles comprising light classical genres (of both traditional and Western music), Westernised forms of traditional music, and arrangements of folk songs – a kind of musical mainstream.

(Nettl, 1985. pp. 62–3)

Source B

Nazir Jairazbhoy on the impact of recording and broadcasting on village musicians in Rajasthan, India

Radio and films are among the more potent forces inducing musical change in Western Rajasthan as in most of India. Transistorised radios are found even in remote villages, and although they are generally beyond the means of most village musicians, a few do possess them. There is no doubt … that through radio and films nearly all these musicians have been exposed to many genres of Indian music […] It is only with their [i.e. the musicians'] apparently limited stock of film songs that we can be sure of wholesale borrowings from radio and films.

There are, however, indications of the influence of mass media on a more subtle level. Some … musicians employ a musical device, ‘break’, which introduces a moment of complete silence – when even the drum and clapper rhythms cease – following a climactic arrival at the main beat. This is a device commonly found in a variety of light classical musical forms and is also sometimes found in film songs. It is an easily duplicated dramatic effect which could well have been adopted by these musicians since they have been exposed to these other forms which are now commonly played over the radio.

(Jairazbhoy, 1977, pp. 57–8)

Source C

Anderson Sutton on the impact of cassette technology in Java

Not only have cassettes and cassette players penetrated to the remote villages, they have also become part of contemporary language. The noun kasèt (sometimes spelled ‘cassette’) refers to the cassette tape recording, and the noun tèp (from ‘tape’) to … the machine itself. [C]assettes have penetrated the realm of Javanese verbs as well … contemporary Javanese now includes words for the process of recording onto a commercial cassette: Gendhing kuwi wis dikasètké (That piece has already been recorded on commercial cassette’ – i.e. there is an objectified ‘text’ which can be referred to like a publication). […]

One of my gamelan teachers once explained to me that he preferred to play one tone on the large kettle instrument kenong at a certain point in a well-known classical piece, but that another player had chosen a different tone during a recent recording of the piece. My teacher knew that this recording … would be heard widely. Putting his aesthetic preferences aside, he taught his students to play the same tone as on the prestigious recording. […]

Whereas dancers used to require the presence of musicians to provide accompaniment for their rehearsals, the standard practice now is to use commercially produced cassettes of dance music, or to make recordings for that purpose. It is not unusual for a dancer to use a cassette recorder for performances, thereby eliminating the musician completely […] Ritual ceremonies in which gamelan has traditionally played an essential role are often held to the sound of cassettes blasting through a rented loudspeaker system. […]

The industry is taking such a large bite out of the livelihood of skilled musicians that very few can make a living simply as performing artists.

(Sutton, 1985, pp. 24–7)

Source D

Peter Manuel on the impact of cassette technology in India

The primary effect of cassette technology has been to facilitate the emergence of new stylised folk-pop genres whose financing, styles, origins, and often language are independent from those of cinema culture. […]

Many of the regional musics now disseminated on cassette are traditional genres marketed in more-or-less traditional styles, with relatively little audible influence of commercialisation or mass consumer culture. Cassette dissemination of the more traditional of these genres … has ensured a place in consumer culture for archaic yet still expressive genres which might otherwise be increasingly vulnerable to obliteration by a homogenising mass culture.

(Manuel, 1993, pp. 258–9)


  1. I would summarise the key points in these quotations as follows.

    • Source A (Nettl): the overall impact of recording and broadcasting means that (a) small numbers of performers dominate; (b) music's connection with traditional ritual functions decreases, as it becomes more associated with recreation; (c) diverse styles tend to become unified.

    • Source B (Jairazbhoy): musicians learn songs and musical techniques from the radio – causing a trend towards the unification of diverse styles.

    • Source C (Sutton): cassette recordings displace live recordings and put musicians out of work; musicians imitate recordings (thus reducing diversity).

    • Source D (Manuel): cassette recording aids diversification of repertoire, and the preservation of archaic, endangered forms.

  2. Most observers seem to agree that recording has led to the unification of different styles and a consequent lessening of musical variety, as the recordings themselves are imitated. There is some dissention from Manuel (D), however, who points out that cassette recording can have the opposite effect (the reason Manuel gives for this, elsewhere in his book, is that whereas disc recording tends to be controlled by a few large, monopolostic companies that can impose a limited repertoire, cassette technology is intrinsically more democratic in that it lends itself to private, small-scale recording). Although Manuel seems to believe that the situation he describes is caused by the inherent qualities of the cassette technology, it is striking that Sutton does not report the same effects in Java. It is difficult for us to judge, but we might guess that this has to do with cultural differences between the two societies shaping the way the technology is employed. In other words, although new technologies change the ways in which music is received, the precise impact on musical traditions seems to depend on the ways people in different societies choose to use those technologies.

The issues raised here are very wide-ranging. The impact of recording (and, although we have barely considered this, broadcasting) technologies are many and various; they differ from place to place and from musical genre to genre, and are the subject of considerable debate and even controversy. Although we have introduced recording (which includes, of course, a variety of technologies from wax cylinders to compact discs) as one theme, we have also begun to see both how different technologies have their own distinct characteristic effects, and how their impact may be different in different cultural contexts.


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