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Anthropological Concepts: Creation & Functions of Music

Multicolored maracas

Is Music a Universal Language?

Music is said to be a universal language, meaning that even if people don’t speak each other’s language, they can still enjoy music together. But this is probably not true.  Have you ever listened to music from another culture and thought that it sounded strange or maybe just like noise? That’s because music is different among different cultures, and usually, you are only used to hearing your own culture’s music. The scale systems that are used to make the music are different in other cultures, so the sounds are different. In addition, the rhythms are different as well. For example, traditional European music is measured in patterns of 2, 3, or 4 beats, while Non-European music is measured in patterns of 5, 7, or 11 beats. These differences in scale systems and rhythm can make it hard for people to understand music from other cultures.

Creation and function of music. Image of a woman playing an instrument.

Creation of Music

Not only is the music different in other cultures, but the process of creating music is different, too. For example, the Inuit people believe that all songs have already been written, and a musician takes parts of the existing songs and recombines them into something new. As another example, the Pima people also believe that all songs already exist, but they are tangled up somewhere in the cosmos, and the musician is supposed to untangle them. In Iran, musicians memorize a large body of music and then use it to create more music. Western musicians do something similar since they learn a body of musical theory and then use that to create music. Then there is a culture in Bolivia where there is a different process for creating music. Each person creates and sings one and only one unique and personal song during their whole lifetime. And, the person’s song becomes part of their personal identity.

Image of wooden musical instruments

Functions of Music

Even though all cultures have music, the function of music varies from society to society. For example, music can mark transitions in life. In Bosnia, music is used to mark the transitions between different ages. When a girl becomes an adult, they are expected to sing in public during community dances. Then once a woman gets married, they are expected to only sing in private. Then, when the woman becomes an elder, they stop singing. So, you can tell the age of the female by their singing. As another example, the Maasai in East Africa and the Blackfoot Native Americans also use songs to mark ages. As boys grow up, the music they sing changes. When boys are young, there are certain songs they can sing, and then when they join the warrior class there are different songs to sing, and then when they become a married adult man, there are different songs to sing yet again.

Music can also be used in healing ceremonies. This has been very popular in many places like Africa for a long time, but in Western cultures, we only realized the power of music in healing recently and then started doing music therapy for patients. Music can also express individual or group identity. For example, among the Flathead Indians, music tells people that no matter what other changes in their ways of life have occurred, they are still Flathead. Music can also reflect part of society. For example, in Iceland, each person in a band plays a different instrument with each song–no one specializes in say, drums, or guitar, or singing. Everyone takes a turn at doing each part of the band. This reflects Icelandic society since people aren’t specialists in their work–it is normal to have several different kinds of jobs, and being versatile is important.

Want to Learn More?

Do you want to learn more about Anthropology and music? Check out my Udemy course, “Exploring The Arts Through Cultural Anthropology.”

Thanks for reading!