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Music, World Music Media Review



What in the World Is Music?

"Western art music constitutes only a very small percentage of human musical engagements." – Preface

November 27, 2019 - Raleigh, NC:


Alison E. Arnold and Jonathan C. Kramer: What in the World Is Music? (Print textbook book with enhanced online supplements.) New York: Routledge, 2016. 290 pp. $105. Available here. Also in E-Textbook version for purchase or rental here.

Yes, it's a textbook. And it's been out for a while. And we dilly-dallied over reviewing it. But then we actually read it and invested some time perusing the online supplemental materials. So it's more than a textbook – it points us to a whole new way of contextualizing music history as we once understood it. Donald Jay Grout's History of Western Music (1960) served as the Bible for several generations of students, despite the limitations defined in the title; this new work will surely revolutionize the approaches of future scholars and performers since it eliminates all the significant barriers, actual and perceived, to understanding music, with the result that artists and teachers may now, in one volume, explore that totality of our heritage and therefore know more about the myriad strands that form our truly global musical culture in the 21st century.

There's added appeal for Tar Heels in that the authors are both based at NCSU. And there's a certain gee whiz about the whole undertaking since the NCSU Music Department lacks degree-granting powers. But that in no way diminishes the importance of this book or the superb academic qualifications of the authors. Indeed, it's hard to imagine a book like this emerging from any traditional school of music or conservatory. That's because NCSU has for years and years carved out special niches for its (mostly) ag and engineering students, in order to ensure that they emerge from the university as fully-rounded adults, well-versed in our civilization in all its aspects, including the arts. Bravo! (Anyone who doubts this should recall that NCSU for a time hosted the largest university-based concert series in the world.)

I've addressed my long-term professional relationship and friendship with Kramer in a note at the foot of this review. Arnold is comparably distinguished: she worked with Stanley Sadie on The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, 6th edition, 1980; edited the South Asia volume of the Garland Encyclopedia of World Music, Vol. 5, 2000; and is a noted performer and scholar of Irish and other Celtic music traditions. She wrote her oft-cited dissertation on Bollywood from University of Illinois under the direction of the noted ethnomusicologist and dedicatee Bruno Nettl.

Their book itself is laid out in fifteen lessons, grouped into four units. These are: Foundations of Music; Music & Identity; Music & the Sacred; and Music & Social Life. When you strip away the peripherals, what else is there? These are in fact the basics.

But there's so much more, starting with these basics and growing through the centuries to musical life as we now know it. There are articles on sound and hearing, on the human voice and instruments, on rhythm and melody and harmony, on the origins and functions of music, and on how we relate to all of this, individually and collectively, in both secular and sacred settings, worldwide. And then there's the matter of how we use it – in storytelling, in diverse theatrical environments, in opera, on recordings, in films – and in concert halls, nightclubs, in sports palaces, at civic and political gatherings, and more* – lots more.

What does all this mean? Those of us who work mostly in Western European classical music tend all too easily to slip into the trap of liking what we know and knowing something about what we like. Yes, there've been various third streams and crossovers for a very long time, altong with some intrusions from other genres, but the music we routinely hear at orchestral or chamber music or choral concerts or in the opera house tends to be what some have called "museum" culture – if not (as one wag put it) "mausoleum" culture. We must remember that old music was once new and that there was likely resistance from the first folks who heard it. It's the winnowing-out process that leaves behind the pieces that lack staying power, that presents us with a statistically-narrow pile of war-horse classics that routinely turn up, season after season. This book helps us understand how some of this happened while, concurrently, prompting us to explore more widely, to discover new treasures that we may eventually be inspired to incorporate into our repertory of much-loved classics. And even if that doesn't apply to every example contained herein, careful readers will nonetheless find their horizons significantly expanded.

Note that there is a video description of the material presented by the authors available here.

You'll read the book in short order, even allowing for reflective pauses all along the way. Exploring all the online links and sound files and the additional searches they prompt? Well, that could well take a lifetime of listening and learning.

And yes, it's worth every penny to displace all those historical artifacts with this whole new way of viewing the musical heritage that has come down to us and that forms and informs us all, going forward. Highly recommended!

*Admittedly, some of this rather severely telescopes the material discussed, but this approach actually enhances the relevance of the text, and significantly, since it tends further to contextualize the material for contemporary readers and listeners.

PS Kramer is a much-admired artist and scholar whose career the author of this review has followed since he was engaged as a cellist by the NC Symphony. We've known and enjoyed his work as artist-in-residence at NC State and in the music department there, as a solo and chamber artist, as a conductor of the civic orchestra, and as a distinguished teacher. We've also followed his academic work, including the profound scholarship on view in his many lectures and in this book. It's no accident that one of the dedicatees of this book is one of Kramer's most significant mentors, Gordon Epperson, cellist and author of The Musical Symbol: A Study of the Philosophic Theory of Music. This surely formed a jumping-off point for Kramer, in a manner of speaking, for What in the World Is Music? reflects the same, all-encompassing point of view. (For the record, the other dedicatees are David P. McAllester, the aforementioned Bruno Nettl, and Henk Tjon.)