On Philosophy’s Western Bias: Thinking Through “Non-Western” Music

The concept of “non-Western” music has long been both a cornerstone and a sticky issue for the field of ethnomusicology. Formed in the mid-1950s, the Society For Ethnomusicology was from its inception interested in the study of musical traditions from outside the Western classical music canon. Early on, its approach was musicological–studying music as an object rather than as a part of cultural field. Also, it was primarily non-Western art music traditions of from Japan, China, the Middle East, and India that were studied, perhaps in part because these traditions had surface similarities to Western European art music (e.g. like Western European art music they are the domain of highly trained specialists, their repertoire is built around mostly fixed musical scales, and their histories are preserved through various kinds of musical notation) that lent them a kind of perceived cultural prestige. In other words, they were similar the kinds of traditions that traditional musicologists might study. But as ethnomusicology was shaped by the field of anthropology in the 1960s and 70s and evolved as a discipline, the notion of its defining itself primarily through an interest in those musical practices that weren’t western eventually came to seem increasingly odd and untenable. First, what makes the West the default or central vantage point in our world, relegating all other geographies “non-western”? Second, why limit the ethnomusicological focus to geography anyway? Music, after all, is fluid because its social worlds were (and still are) constantly changing, with peoples moving about and what were once fairly distinct musical cultures becoming more and more interconnected, their stylistic lines blurred. Over time, ethnomusicology expanded to include the cultural study of any and all music traditions, an interpretive stance the field maintains today.

A few months ago I came across an interesting piece in the New York Times by the philosopher Justin E.H. Smith. The article not about music per se but about philosophy–specifically, the place of non-Western philosophy in Western philosophy curricula. In my reading, I found that many of Smith’s observations resonate in the world of teaching non-western music appreciation classes.

One of Smith’s main points concerns the strange treatment of non-western philosophy in western philosophy departments:

“…non-Western philosophy, when it does appear in curricula, is treated in a methodologically and philosophically unsound way: it is crudely supposed to be wholly indigenous to the cultures that produce it and to be fundamentally different than Western philosophy in areas like its valuation of reason or its dependence on myth and religion. In this way, non-Western philosophy remains fundamentally ‘other.'”

One way out of this Othering quandary, says Smith, is “to stop describing it as ‘non-Western’ but instead to be explicit about which geographical region, or which tradition, we’re discussing.” Ethnomusicologists have been doing this for a long time now, of course, framing their classroom discussions of various traditions with careful explanations of the musics’ social and cultural milieus, and by using the indigenous terms musicians use to talk about their instruments and their soundworlds.

Smith also advocates opening up his discipline by treating “both Western and non-Western philosophy as the regional inflections of a global phenomenon.” But Smith points out that one of the barriers to the “rigorous and serious approach to the teaching and study of non-Western philosophy” is that some “philosophers remain attached to the article of faith that philosophy is something independent of culture.”

With that, let’s return to music.

In music departments it is common practice for Western classical music–the great music by composers like Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms–to be studied as texts for harmonic decoding. In my university music theory classes some twenty years ago, we talked about the relationships between the notes and chords and rhythms of a piece, but never about what the music might mean–either culturally or emotionally. (It would have been cool if the teacher had taken a moment to ask us: “How does this chord make you feel?” I wonder what discussion might have ensued? And I wonder if I would have had anything to say?) In this way, the assumption of the class was that “serious” Western music was a set of artifacts independent of culture and fully graspable on its own formal terms. Western music, as Smith would put it, was “the unmarked category.” The late 19- century critic Eduard Hanslick (1825-1904) had a label for this view of music supposedly separate from its messy social milieu: autonomous music. Building on this idea, Hanslick believed that the “meaning” of music is its form and nothing more. Today, that view of music is disputed. At the very least, the meanings of music are generated in a variety of ways–some of them sonic, some of them social.

Anyhow, non-Western music isn’t usually inserted into the pedagogical mix of Bach and the other Western composing greats. Case in point: in our music theory classes, my classmates and I didn’t analyze transcriptions of Indonesian gamelan pieces or Indian tabla drum solos (though elsewhere we did gain wonderful experience learning to play the music of some of these traditions). The musics of the rest of the non-Western world were relegated to an introductory semester of world music/ethnomusicology/music as culture inserted into an otherwise 100 percent Western music history curriculum. During these few months we learned indigenous music terms like mbira and qin, listened to what at the time I thought were difficult to grasp sounds, and–curiously enough–used western analytical terms like timbre and polyrhythm to make sense of it all. The class text, for those of you who are wondering, was the first edition of Jeff Titon’s fine Worlds Of Music.

Finally, Smith says that the value of the Western philosophical tradition “has always been a result of its place as a node in a global network through which ideas and things are always flowing.” So with philosophy, so too with music, I think. For it’s in Western classical and pop styles, after all, that ideas and sounds (and sometimes even instruments) from other traditions flow and assert their presence. (Remember the Beatles’ sitar? Lou Harrison’s American gamelans? Steve Reich’s West African drumming-inspired percussion works?) Thus, a class on non-Western music taught today would benefit from considering the considerable resonances of non-Western music on Western composers, bands, DJs, and so on–from John Cage, Steve Reich, and the Beatles through to Bjork, Diplo, and beyond.


This is a clip of the Beatles’ George Harrison taking a sitar lesson with Ravi Shankar:

This is a clip of Bjork performing with kora master Toumani Diabate:

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