Music Research Paper

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Throughout history music has served as a means of telling (and remembering) stories, as a force in shaping or influencing society, as a mode of spiritual or religious expression, and in political contexts to either suppress or excite people subjected to restricted freedoms. The commercial music industry since the 1990s has fostered the spread of cultural and ethnic identities, especially through the genre of world music.

In examining music’s role in history it can be argued that music serves two major roles: it reflects the ideals and realities of societies, embodying history and memory, and it influences and sometimes creates those societal ideals, realities, and possibilities for the future.

Music Tells Stories

Music serves a fundamental role in the history of humanity as a means of telling stories about the past, and thus carrying collective memories into the future. Among the Mande of West Africa, the jali are a class of hereditary professional musicians and verbal artists who serve as orators, genealogists, and purveyors of oral history. The power to manipulate words has historically given the jali a privileged position in Mande society. Similar to these West African bards were minstrels (secular musicians) in the European Middle Ages (and jongleurs before them), who served as storytellers and purveyors of narrative.

Mexico also has singing-poetry traditions, such as the corrido—a narrative ballad genre that was especially popular during the Mexican Revolution—in which singers compose verses commemorating past and current events. Recently a subgenre known as narco-corridos has chronicled the exploits of Mexican drug traffickers, frequently celebrating them. On the other side of the globe, programmatic music abounds in Chinese traditional music, such as the pipa (lute) composition, “The Great Ambuscade,” which recounts a historic battle between two warlords in 202 BCE. Whether documenting the past or commenting on contemporary events, music helps people comprehend their histories and present realities.

Music and Morality in Early History

Music may provide a means of recording and remembering events, but it can often play an active role in shaping society, a fact that has concerned some of history’s most influential thinkers. In ancient China and Greece, respectively, Confucius (551–479 BCE) and Plato (428–347 BCE) developed similar ideas about music’s influence on the moral fabric of society. Both believed that the health of the state depended on playing the right kind of music. For Confucius, aesthetic ideals should follow morality: “good” music was that which contributed to good values; the “wrong” music could have severe consequences. A famous story depicts Confucius as advisor to a certain prince of the state of Lu. Against the advice of Confucius, the prince indulged his court with music for entertainment, distracting him from his princely duties and spoiling the economic prosperity of Lu.

Similarly, Plato warned of the danger music posed to society. In his Republic, he outlined an ideal society that would ban the music of certain instruments, and he favored the Dorian modal scale as encouraging bravery. (The Greeks developed seven modal scales based on the unequal intervals between the eight notes in a scale, each mode named for a different city whose mood most closely reflected the scale’s tone.) According to Plato, music and athletics could mold the ideal citizen if the training in neither took precedence over the other, but rather complemented one another to provide balance of mind and body. For Plato, as for Confucius, aesthetics were in the service of morality, and indeed he argued that it was more important for a poet to be a good person than a good musician. The conservative philosophies of Confucius and Plato were born of concern about the perceived downfall of their respective societies, and both thinkers believed that changes in the musical cultures of their times were indicative of, as well as causes of, social decline.

Music and Spirituality

Religious worship around the world frequently involves music, sometimes as ornamental to worship services, and other times as the very vehicle for praising and communicating with a higher power. Yoruba religions in West Africa, Cuba, Brazil, and Trinidad begin services with music as a means of praising the orishas (gods) and welcoming them into houses of worship; these traditions also use music and dance as vehicles for inducing altered states of consciousness in which one of the orishas may inhabit the body of a believer for a brief time. In Sufism, a mystical branch of Islam, music is used in the sema ceremony in order for participants to achieve an ecstatic state so that they may communicate with god. Biblical references to music include the use of music in worship, and the Christian Church was the main patron of Western classical music up through the eighteenth century.

Connections between music and spirituality are often made explicit in legends, myths, and parables, and this other-worldly derivation suggests the importance of music for social groups. The ancient Greeks, for their part, believed that music came directly from the gods, a tempestuous gift from Apollo in Pandora’s box. A legend in Indonesian oral history tells of an event around 300 BCE, when a great king won a battle in which he gained control of the enemy’s bronze drums, thus harnessing the power of the god of thunder as well as presaging the creation of Indonesia’s classical percussion tradition, gamelan. More recently, there is a famous Indian folk ballad of Kenaram, a notorious sixteenth century murderer who changed his ways only after hearing the song of a devout poet named Bangshi Das; afterward he became Bangshi’s pupil. This Indian ballad articulates the Hindu belief that music is devotion; through music one can attain the highest connection with god.

Other groups advocate the separation of music and spirituality. Despite the exception of Sufism, in most Muslim religious services music is forbidden. In Europe, the influence of Enlightenment philosophy in the eighteenth century encouraged secularization in the arts, and Western classical musicians began relying less on Church patronage. By the end of the century, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756–1791) was able to work essentially as a free agent in Vienna, and students of Western classical music hold his music in high regard due to his individual genius, rather than any connections between his music and spirituality.

Music’s Role in Colonialism and its Aftermath

In the era of European colonial expansion, beginning around the sixteenth century, many groups of people, along with their music, were subjected to European economic, political, and cultural dominance. Music has been integral to colonial and postcolonial processes. For Europeans, music was occasionally used as tool for the subjection of foreign peoples, and it was often used for religious conversion. For societies seeking to escape from European hegemony, music served a crucial role, particularly in nationalist and independence movements in India, Africa, the Caribbean, and Latin America.

A major consequence of European colonialism was the idea, apparently widely held among both colonizer and colonized, of European music’s superiority. There is little doubt that the notion of European cultural superiority greatly facilitated European hegemony, and in this sense music was an aid to colonization. In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, for instance, Spain sent music teachers along with missionaries to California in order to teach European polyphonic choral singing to Amerindians in the region. In addition to teaching and proselytizing, these emissaries of the crown often forbade the performance of indigenous musical practices.

Strategies for opposing European colonial power often included the reclamation of local musical practices. In India, for example, British colonialism had hastened the decline of court patronage of Hindustani and Karnatak classical music traditions. The rise of nationalism, which culminated in independence in 1948, however, included a renewed interest in and public patronage of traditional arts, and the period saw a rise in education and public performance of Indian music. In Trinidad, steel-band music played a most active role in the independence movement. Along with the leadership of Eric Williams (1911– 1981) and the People’s National Movement (PNM), Trinidad achieved independence in 1962. In his political campaign, Williams appointed steel-band musicians as his personal assistants, arranged for steel-band performances at PNM political rallies, and, in general, advocated for the steel-band as a symbol of Afro-Trinidadian national culture, ultimately cementing the notion of the steel drum as the national instrument of Trinidad. Similarly, cultural nationalist movements in Brazil and Cuba both countered legacies of Eurocentrism by focusing on the cultural contributions of their African-descended populations.

Composers trained in Western classical music were important in nationalist movements, notably Heitor Villa-Lobos (1887–1959) in Brazil. Such composers were influenced by European works from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, such as Igor Stravinsky’s ballet, Rite of Spring, which included Russian folk tunes, depicted pagan folk scenes, and caused a riot at its 1913 debut in Paris.

The Commercial Music Industry

From the mid-nineteenth century on, the world of music has been increasingly impacted by the rise of the commercial popular music industry, especially as it has developed in the United States, beginning in the 1840s with blackface minstrelsy. As it has progressed into the twenty-first century with global pop music, commercial popular music has been created in the context of electronic mass media, the increasing connectedness of previously isolated groups of people due to communication and travel opportunities, and the growth of multinational corporations. While some argue that popular music has served the role of simply advancing the capitalist project (see Adorno 1944), it can also be argued that popular music’s position in society is more complicated, as it is often used strategically by individuals and social groups as a means of identity formation and resistance to the alienation of capitalism.

As commercial popular music from the United States has been marketed abroad, musical cultures from outside the United States have in large part been faced with decisions about whether or not to incorporate this music into their own practice. Oftentimes, the decision has been to integrate aspects of Western popular music with the sounds and symbols of local musical practices, thus creating hybrids which are simultaneously international and local. In the 1980s and 1990s in Zimbabwe, for instance, popular musicians such as Thomas Mapfumo created music that was based on rock music instrumentation— drum kit, electric guitars, and keyboards—but which also included aspects of local Shona culture, such as the Shona language and an electrified version of the traditional thumb-piano, mbira (Turino 2000). Mapfumo was, himself, a pioneer performer in the world music industry.

“World music” emerged as a genre label in the 1990s, a creation of record-company executives as a marketing tool for recordings that mainly included folk and popular styles from countries other than the United States, although occasionally folk music from within the United States itself has also fallen under the world music rubric. In some ways, world music is just another example of the commercial market exploiting cultural difference for economic profit. On the other hand, individuals and their communities now have greater potential access to remote social groups; that exposure has the consequence of loosening the bonds of identification with certain organizations, such as the nation-state, in exchange for others, such as a diaspora group.

Music, Identity, and Visions of the Future

In the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, individuals and social groups have often used music as a strategy to form a collective identity. Beginning in the 1980s, children of South Asian immigrants in Great Britain began mixing traditional Indian music with European and North American electronic music, creating a number of hybrids, of which the most well-known is perhaps bhangra. Such hybrids have great significance for young South Asians, allowing them to feel connected, across the diaspora, both to their homeland in India as well as to contemporary Western youth culture. Meanwhile, the U.S.-based country music genre often articulates working-class attitudes, family values, and ethics of hard work. After the onset in 2008 of the international economic crisis, which hit automakers— and their blue-collar employees—particularly hard, the country singer John Rich released the populist anthem “Shuttin’ Detroit Down,” which lambastes corporate greed and government bailouts. Such songs give voice to the twenty-first century North American “everyman.”

If music reflects society, and allows individuals the chance to create society, then it also surely offers glimpses of how people imagine the world should be. In that sense, it has been argued that music is a “prophecy” of the future (Attali 1985). Whatever the case, music’s roles in world history are multiple and significant, meaning that we should all be sure to keep listening.


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