Psychology and early ethnomusicology

Charles Samuel Myers, CBE (1873–1946), who coined the term shell shock during World War I, was among the psychologists whose work fed into comparative musicology and, later, ethnomusicology. He joined an anthropological expedition to the Torres Strait and Sarawak in 1898, and his studies of musical traditions in those places resulted in several articles.

“The ethnological study of music” presents a glimpse of how psychologists viewed ethnic music around the turn of the century. In this essay, Myers points out that unfamiliar music may seem as disorderly and meaningless as unfamiliar language, but in both cases sufficient study and habituation reveal inherent order and meaning. All music serves an expressive function, he states, and universal elements such as rhythm, harmony, scale, and tonal center may serve as bases for cross-cultural comparisons.

Myers goes on to argue that the documentation and study of non-Western musics is an urgent matter, as traditions are already becoming polluted by outside sources. Fortunately, he notes, the advent of sound recording has greatly facilitated this enterprise, making it unnecessary for the ethnographer to transcribe performances during fieldwork. Myers ends with step-by-step instructions and procedural recommendations for making field recordings with the Edison-Bell phonograph (above).

This essay appears in Anthropological essays presented to Edward Burnett Tylor in honour of his 75th birthday (Oxford: Clarendon, 1907, pp. 235–253); the book is documented in our most recent printed bibliography, Liber amicorum: Festschriften for music scholars and nonmusicians, 1840–1966.

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8 Comments

Filed under Ethnomusicology, Science

8 responses to “Psychology and early ethnomusicology

  1. Thanks for posting this! He was certainly more significant than we give him credit for in the field.

  2. His 1913 essay “The beginnings of music” was reprinted in “Music, words and voice: A reader” (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2008, pp. 21-23). This post has generated considerable interest–maybe we should post about that essay as well!

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  6. Readers may wish to know that Myers’ recordings made during the Torres Strait expedition are housed at the British Library and can be heard with other ethnographic wax cylinder recordings at http://www.sounds.bl.uk.

  7. Bernd Willimek

    Music and Emotions

    The most difficult problem in answering the question of how music creates emotions is likely to be the fact that assignments of musical elements and emotions can never be defined clearly. The solution of this problem is the Theory of Musical Equilibration. It says that music can’t convey any emotion at all, but merely volitional processes, the music listener identifies with. Then in the process of identifying the volitional processes are colored with emotions. The same happens when we watch an exciting film and identify with the volitional processes of our favorite figures. Here, too, just the process of identification generates emotions.

    An example: If you perceive a major chord, you normally identify with the will “Yes, I want to…”. If you perceive a minor chord, you identify normally with the will “I don’t want any more…”. If you play the minor chord softly, you connect the will “I don’t want any more…” with a feeling of sadness. If you play the minor chord loudly, you connect the same will with a feeling of rage. You distinguish in the same way as you would distinguish, if someone would say the words “I don’t want anymore…” the first time softly and the second time loudly.
    Because this detour of emotions via volitional processes was not detected, also all music psychological and neurological experiments, to answer the question of the origin of the emotions in the music, failed.

    But how music can convey volitional processes? These volitional processes have something to do with the phenomena which early music theorists called “lead”, “leading tone” or “striving effects”. If we reverse this musical phenomena in imagination into its opposite (not the sound wants to change – but the listener identifies with a will not to change the sound) we have found the contents of will, the music listener identifies with. In practice, everything becomes a bit more complicated, so that even more sophisticated volitional processes can be represented musically.

    Further information is available via the free download of the e-book “Music and Emotion – Research on the Theory of Musical Equilibration:

    http://www.willimekmusic.de/music-and-emotions.pdf

    or on the online journal EUNOMIOS:

    http://www.eunomios.org

    Enjoy reading

    Bernd Willimek, music theorist

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