Fact and Value: In Search of the Pattern That Connects

Carol Robertson

In Ethnomusicology of the Flathead Indians, Alan Merriam synthesized one of the central issues in our field:

All people in any culture must be able to place their music within the context of the whole of their beliefs, activities, and experiences. This means that there must be a body of theory of what music is, what it does, and how it is coordinated with a total environment, both natural and cultural, in which men exist.1

Merriam implies that musical actions require goals and strategies, that musical design must be coherent, and that the concepts and definitions of goals, strategies, design, and coherence will be rooted in factual knowledge as perceived by the musical actor and his/her universe of explanation.

Theory, as a form of explanation, is always wed to systems of value that determine what is "factual," what is documentable, what is believable, and what is worthy of transmission. The factors that confront ethnomusicology urge us to broaden our inquiry, absorb contrasting paradigms of thought, examine meaning in music as part of larger webs of significances, accept the existence of multiple realities, and sharpen our focus on the articulation of values through performance. Particularly, we need to grasp how what we "know" as fact in our own context affects what we can perceive as fact in l8th-century London, 19th-century Benares, or 20th-century Cairo.

As complex as the notion of "fact" is the ensuing dilemma of "provability." The documented theories of composition and performances that constitute our global (yet uneven) sample lead us to accept that the written score, the acoustical measurement, the tuning system, the rhythmic cycle, and the court accounting sheet are but one kind of fact.

Often insecure of our status as a science, we have tried to attain maturity by paralleling the physical sciences. While we have struggled to fit human data into categories that are compatible with 19th-century rationalism, the "hard" sciences that we emulate have moved on to another age of explanation. The advent of quantum theory has wrought works like the Tao of Physics2 and The Dancing Wu Li Masters3, wherein alternate approaches to explanations of the universe and its workings are compared to and refined through the teachings of Eastern sages—whom we curiously continue to refer to as "mystics," rather than as scientists or physicists.

What we are being told in this new age of cross-cultural science is that if a musical fact exists, it must be defined as part of a much grander system of knowledge. We are also being reminded of the enigma of provability in the charting of dynamics that are not observable by the empirical eye. Einstein recognized the relativity of scientific truth with this provoking image:

Physical concepts are the free creations of the human mind, and are not, however it might seem, uniquely determined by the external world. In our endeavor to understand reality we are somewhat like a man trying to understand the mechanism of a closed watch. He sees the face and the moving hands, even hears its ticking, but he has no way of opening the case. If he is ingenious he may form some picture of the mechanism which could be responsible for all the things he observes, but he may never be quite sure his picture is the only one which could explain his observations. He will never be able to compare his picture with the real mechanism and he cannot even imagine the possibility of the meaning of such a comparison.4

The Mapuche Indians of Andean Argentina hold an articulated interpretation of the soundscapes within their ecological and metaphysical niche, and of the relationships between patterned vocalizations and cause and effect. Vocabularies of intricate nuances are used to describe the ritualized vocal performance known as tayil, and to communicate the change experienced by singers and other celebrants. Within this nomenclature, only one term relates to a specifically musical element of structure. The word chempralitún means "changing in substance"; it designates the central tone within tayil renditions. This tone is not a tonic—it neither frames the performance nor is it the most frequently rendered pitch. It is not surrounded by a specific matrix of intervals. It usually occurs only twice—within the third and fourth phrases of a four-fold tayil—yet it is the most valued pitch in performance. All other tones are described as "places on the pathway" of the song journey. But the critical chempralitún tone, determined by its specific location and goal within performance, accomplishes the mission of vocalization: it transports the lineage soul embedded in the song into the realm of ancestral time and back into the world of the living. By crossing the barrier between past and present time, the chempralitún does indeed change the substance of experience; and that change is necessary for survival. Mapuche values are based on an intricate view of spiritual and social needs that accept time travel and communication with the past as tacit "facts." Because these values and beliefs define an ever-changing reality, dictate social interactions, and undergird every aspect of sacred performance, they must be seen by the observer as "true," and as provable within Mapuche science.

In quite a different setting, the Kassena-Nankani of northern Ghana point us toward yet another world view and value system. The composer or performer in this context must seek validation for his art through association with a protective spirit shrine that links him to the creative force of either his mother's or his father's lineage. The significance of kin continuity requires this bridge; and the power of composition to shed light on the delicate questions of witchcraft, civil authority, and the afterlife requires individual protection.

These facts of existence are spun out in restrictions on performance genres and performers at the funerals of senior males—men who through achieved status and proper burial will eventually become ancestors. In everyday contexts, any male of royal ancestry may perform on the four cylindrical drums (gulú) and seven overblown hocket flutes (ufa) used in the ubiquitous jongo dance suites. But in charem, the repertoire of death and transcendence into ancestral status, performances may be led only by those men who have been "caught by the river spirit." Being caught or chosen by the spirit of composition is the main distinction between those composers called goðó kotore and goðó zamse. Kotore indicates a musician who has learned his art through apprenticeship and through accompanying a master composer. Zamse specifies that the composer's source is spiritual/ancestral. Greater value is placed on the compositions and performances of those ordained by a protective and motivating spirit guide, both because these works contain more force and because the presentors and audience are sheltered from the potentially dangerous power of the piece by a sacrificial shrine. The complex web of relationships between performance and world view can be documented in every facet of Kassena-Nankani performance theory.

For the ethnomusicologist, these are the facts of analysis. To attempt an explanation of tayil or charem without an understanding of the complex values, hierarchies, or aesthetic criticisms from which they are birthed is tantamount to explaining the essence of Handel's works without regard for the patronage systems, church dogma, court rivalries, compositional resources, spiritual values, and oral traditions of his time. After looking at musical data in other worlds, it behooves us to engage in a serious ethnomusicology of Western music and of the values and perceptual shifts that have influenced composition, explanation, and theory-building in our own front yard. Ethnomusicology and musicology are especially appropriate allies in such an effort, for we share a tendency to study musics of cultures other than our own and are capable of employing both synchronic and diachronic strategies of reconstruction.

When we study our contemporaries—our peers in Calcutta, Lagos, Paris, or the high Andes—the barriers to understanding he primarily in differences in values and goals and in resulting differences in the perception of sound structures and the validation and explanation of performance. Historians who choose to limit their inquiry to the music of a vanishing European elite are also faced with the multiple realities of the highly specialized, urbane, 20th-century scholar who teaches, publishes and gives papers on organists and composers patronized by l8th-century churches and nobility rather than by the university administrative units that would circumscribe the "disciplines" to which we belong.

Even in our magnificent celebrations of the musical genius of J. S. Bach we witness a discrepancy in the contemporary factual universe of the observer vis-a-vis the historical factual universe of the observed. Bach seldom heard his works performed more than once, but we can turn him on or off with the mere flip of a radio dial. Bach is known to most of his adoring 20th-century public not because they have examined his scores; but because, with the sanction of music scholarship, he has entered our oral tradition. Certainly the same cannot be said of Heinrich Schütz, who was more valued in the cultural context and time frame he shared with Bach.

I raise these examples to pinpoint an important dynamic in scholarship. We have chosen and accomplished the resurrection of our musical ancestors, motivated more by our contemporary value systems than by the "facts" of the cultures we would interpret. We have selectively creatvd a musical heritage evaluated in terms of 20th-century aesthetics and sound environments. Based on current explanations of the universe, we have excavated sources and contexts that give rise to the foreign, historically remote traditions we venerate as "our" music. John Blacking5 has reminded us that identification with any form of musical activity nurtures a sense of selfhood and of belonging to a particular group. In the West, as well as in any other setting where a "classical" tradition is juxtaposed to music of the masses, the adherence to a specific music tradition establishes pedigree and social status. Like the Mapuche and Kassena-Nankani, we seek through our music a link to our ancestors.

Despite the monumental discoveries of comparative music scholarship in this century, many curricula continue to propagate the myth that the valued composers of the Western classical tradition invented harmony and polyphony, established the science of acoustics, and evolved (as the "chosen" musical race) the most complex and most worthy varieties of musical expression. We should not be, surprised to find that some of the values we are transmitting developed in an era when unifinear evolution and the survival of the fittest were being used as justification for anything from colonialism to apartheid. This was also an era when eugenics—the basis for contemporary genetic theory—legitimized the selective breeding of populations and the selective breeding of musical practices in our universities and conservatories.

In a recent book on genetics and the uses of human heredity, Daniel J. Kevles shows how the nativism infusing legislation in the United States in the 1920s was argued "empirically" in Congress, drawing on tests that proved "factually" the inferior intelligence and analytic capabilities of Asians and new immigrants from eastern and southern Europe.6 State legislatures chose to believe these alleged facts, imposing laws that limited the breeding of the lower classes. We now ascribe these values to their implementation in the Third Reich, ignoring our own adherence to the myth that a superior people created a superior music led by a handful of "old masters" whose manuscripts constitute the cornerstone of our musical belief system.

Contemporary composers have suffered from this view even more than have comparativists. For in reconstructing our musical ancestry we seem to have lost faith in the existence of musical miracles in our own midst. Like traditional musicians throughout the world, we behave as if the only music of enduring, magical value had been composed by our forebearers. The composer Karlheinz Stockhausen has taken on the reversal of this attitude as a life goal. He put it this way:

The most famous interpreters, their managers, and the managers of music industries refuse to perform contemporary music because it requires the payment of author rights, performance rights, and mechanical rights. New compositions require far more rehearsals than repertoire music. Their value is not generally established and therefore they "sell less" than traditional music.... Shake up the leading interpreters in the world, ask them to refuse to serve any longer the machinery of composerstripping, financial exploitation of dead composers through established gangs of cultural manipulation and "music marketing"; insist that they serve musical evolution: help vulnerable new music organisms rather than living from a 300-year-old bank account of musical literature; spend at least 50 % of their time rehearsing and performing new works; fight for progress and refuse to continue this ugly game of idolizing the past.7

Stockhausen's invective may hurt a little, but it is a clear indication of shifting values and contradictions within what we identify as the "same" musical tradition. In a deeper sense it addresses all musicologies, indeed, all disciplines that ignore the changing world in which scholarship unfolds.

The facts herein are that all peoples engage in forms of behavior and creativity that produce coherent, tacit communications in the domain of music, that all people have a method behind this madness, that all cultures render master communicators at different points in time, and that the processes of musical thought contain the key variables in our understanding of the soundscape of our species. The data He before us, but our view of musical facts and sources will always be colored by our assumptions about what is to be valued in a musical tradition. In our own world, those values have long hinged on music literacy, a profound disrespect for oral tradition, and habits of explanation that regard music history as an evolutionary path involving progress and decay rather than as a multilayered process of change.

We cannot overturn our value system, but we can move toward expansion and a profound re-examination of what music might be, given the growing body of data available from many kinds of sources that are accepted as fact by groups of music specialists in other cultural contexts. Western physiologists, neurologists, psychologists, and animal behavioralists are seeking close ties with ethnomusicologists—often valuing the very facts we cast aside and perceiving the value systems we resist.

The landmark studies in ethnomusicology combat our many prejudices. David McAllester's Enemy Way Music8 argued many of the new approaches fermenting in our midst, especially those put forth by Hugo Zemp,9 Steven Feld,10 Ruth Stone11 and Anthony Seeger.12 These scholars have used McAllester's introduction to the study of Navajo performance values as a foundation for a theory-building endeavor that embraces panpipe performance theory among the 'Are'Are of the Solomon Islands, metaphors for composition among the Kaluki of New Guinea, concepts of time as they affect African musical systems, and spatial and kin relations as motivators for composition and performance among the Suya of Brazil.

To these valuable works that address fact and value in specific cultures we can add works by non-ethnomusicologists that offer methods of analysis grounded in acoustical facts and sonic maps. Robert Cogan and Pozzi Escot13 led the way in 1976 to understanding the flesh and bones of sound—an idea that is further unveiled in Cogan's more recent New Images of Musical Sound (1984).14 Ray Jackendoff and Fred Lerdahl15 and the francophonic semioticians led by Jean-Jacques Nattiez16 have given us ways of analyzing performances as communicative events. It does not matter whether we "agree" with these perspectives. What does matter is that each of these approaches opens up new definitions of musical "facts" and new ways of grasping the multi-dimensionality of the musical experience.

On this occasion we are led to ask what aspects of this multi-faceted phenomenon we call music conspired to produce a period in world history that gave us not only Bach, Scarlatti, and Handel, but also their counterparts in India, China, Japan, and Sudanic Africa? What historical currents meshed to foster such a burst of creativity on such a global scale? Were the dynamics that produced the eighteenth-century genius of Gidayu Takemoto in Japan similar to those that produced the works of his European peers? Are the forces that define our discipline today significantly different from those that motivate our colleagues in India, Malaysia, Ghana, Hungary, or Argentina? Can we embrace the multiplicity of the musical experience sufficiently to erase once and for all the formal differentiation between ethnomusicology and musicology?

In the last two decades we have come to see ethnomusicology as something other than the study of the exotic or esoteric, the by-product of colonialism, or the reconstruction of "primitive" musical systems that tell us something about our evolutionary past. We have taken a stance within scholarship that advocates context, meaning, and different systems of explanation pertaining to different assemblages of facts. If our goal is to gain analytical wisdom as well as perceptual breadth we must accept that music is a far more complex phenomenon than we were ever taught in the conservatory, and that "musical facts" rarely stand independently. To illustrate this last point, we turn to Bruno Nettl's observations on the effect of value on music in the Islamic world:

Islamic culture places relatively low value on music, in theory forbidding it. Thus one conception of music in the major Islamic cultures is that it is something low on the scale of the values. The behavioral result is the low status of the professional musician and higher status of the informed amateur, and associated ideas of freedom. of the latter. This leads to improvisation as the form of musical behavior of greatest prestige and cultural centrality. The musical style or sound is the result of musical choices made with an essentially improvisatory system.17

And even this description does little justice to the complexity of the human psyche, the texture of time-patterned musical thought, and the tempering wrought by the crucible of experience. Now we need to unleash Nettl's astute eye on professionalization in Renaissance courts, or on the Stockhausen dilemma, or on the shift in values that has brought our four societies together to conduct our discourse separately.

I have tried to present you with three core ideas that guide my understanding as an ethnomusicologist of fact and value in the comparative study of global musical systems: 1) the existence of multiple realities and systems of verification; 2) the cultural values that constrain our world view and teaching of music; 3) the significance of value as an attitude within explanation. I can foresee a science of music that will embrace acoustics, physiology, communication theory, aesthetics, cognition, and notions that are still foreign to us. What we are able to value will always determine what facts we are willing to struggle with and what facts we choose to ignore. Our explanatory task is in at least one way drastically different from Einstein's analogy of the universe enclosed within a watch: the boundaries of musical experience are forever changing. The very nature of sound is to produce changes in the vibration of waves. The very essence of human communication is to manipulate experience.

As humanists we must encourage a re-examination of the premises that have guided our inquiries thus far. if we can accept the complexity of the notion of value within music scholarship as a fact, we have an even greater responsibility to mature into a comparative science. For if music is as central to the formation of world views as our data show it to be, comparativists hold a master key to the inner workings of humanness.


  1. Alan P. Merriam, Ethnomusicology of the Flathead Indians (Chicago: Aldine, 1967), p. 31.

  2. Fritjof Capra, The Tao of Physics (Cambridge & London: Harvard University Press, 1984).

  3. Gary Zukav, The Dancing Wu Li Masters: An Overview of the New Physics (New York: Bantam Books, 1979).

  4. Albert Einstein and L. Infeld, The Evolution of Physics (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1961), p. 31.

  5. John Blacking, "The Concept of Identity and Folk Concepts of Self," in Anita Jacobson-Whiting (ed.), Identity: Personal and Socio-Cultural, "Acta Universitatis Upsaliensis" ("Uppsala Studies in Cultural Anthropology"), 1983, p. 5.

  6. Daniel J. Kevles, In the Name of Eugenics: Genetics and the Uses of Human Heredity (New York: Knopf, 1985).

  7. Karlheinz Stockhausen, Questionnaire of the International Music Council (unpublished, 1984), pp. 1, 4.

  8. David P. McAllester, Enemy Way Music (Cambridge: Peabody Museum Papers, 1954), pp. 41, 43.

  9. Hugo Zemp, "'Are'Are Classification of Musical Instruments," Ethnomusicology 17:1 (1978) pp. 37-68, and "Aspects of 'Are'Are Musical Theory," Ethnomusicology 23:1 (1979), pp. 6-48.

  10. Steven Feld, Sound and Sentiment, Birds, Weeping, Poets, and Song in Kahuli Expression (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1982).

  11. Ruth Stone, "The Times of African Music," (unpublished manuscript, [n.d.]).

  12. Anthony Seeger, "What Can We Learn When They Sing? Vocal Genres of the Suya Indians of Brazil," Ethnomusicology 23:3 (1979), pp. 373-394.

  13. Robert Cogan and Pozzi Escot, Sonic Design: The Nature of Sound and Music (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1976).

  14. Robert Cogan, New Images of Musical Sound (Cambridge & London: Harvard University Press, 1984).

  15. Ray Jackendoff and Fred Lerdahl, "A Grammatical Parallel Between Music and Language, " in Manfred Clynes (ed.), Music, Mind and Brain: The Neuropsychology of Music (New York & London: Plenum Press, 1982).

  16. Jean-Jacques Nattiez, Pondemonts d'une semiologie de la musique (Paris: Union générale d'editions, 1975), p. 140.

  17. Bruno Nettl, The Study of Ethnomusicology: Twenty-nine Issues and Concepts (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1983).

Used as sources with no specific references were:

Carol E. Robertson, "Pulling the Ancestors: Performance Practice and Praxis in Mapuche Ordering," Ethnomusicology 23:3 (1979), pp. 395-416.

"Processes of Transmission: Music Education and Social Inclusion," in David P. McAllester (ed.), Becoming Human Through Music: The Wesleyan Symposium on the Perspective of Social Anthropology in the Teaching and Learning of Music (Reston, VA: The Music Educators National Conference and the Presser Foundation, 1985), pp. 95-113.