Resonant Thoughts: Nicholas Cook’s “Music” (2021)

“The knowledge in terms of which universities operate is based on observation, systematized into generally applicable principles, documented and archived. It is knowledge laid down for the future, a kind of cognitive capital (hence the term ‘knowledge economy’). It is what performance students are taught under the title of ‘theory’, which suggests you become a musician by first learning the theory and then how to apply it in practice. But this is only one kind of knowledge, sometimes called ‘explicit’ in order to contrast it with the ‘tacit’ knowledge characteristic of complex decision-making in real time. Think acrobatics, cycling, motor racing, playing videogames, and of course music. This kind of knowledge tends to be embodied rather than purely mental. You recognize it when your fingers know something better than you do.

Music is a global phenomenon because it is inherently viral. People can’t help imitating what they hear, and so—like internet memes—music spreads between cultures at speeds limited only by transport and communications technology (from the 30 miles per day of horseback or 120 of a sailing ship to the 100 Mbps of a fast internet connection). The British rock singing style epitomized by Joe Cocker or Amy Winehouse is an imitation of white American rock singing style, itself an imitation of African American singing style. Descended from the tradition of blackface minstrelsy, arguably the foundation of American popular music, this musical blackvoice is not only a mode of vocalization and a nexus of cultural associations but also a form of ethnic role-play. It may seem astonishing that the Black and White Minstrel Show aired on British television as recently as 1978, but musicians are still blacking up vocally (and perhaps literally in the case of Ariana). And imitation gives rise to hybridization. […] Musical hybridity had come by the end of the 20th century to be celebrated as an expression of the creative vitality that results from the mutually respectful interaction of diverse musical cultures.

Music, in reality a practice that is constantly changing, presents itself as not only natural but also immutable (remember how people resisted the evidence of early recordings). Gagaku, the long but discontinuous tradition of Japanese court music, was reinvented in the late 19th century and instantly became the audible symbol of Japan’s ancient and unbroken nationhood. Western music introduced to Europe’s colonies legitimized imperial power by giving it the appearance of universality. Music also naturalizes hierarchies of gender and race, so abetting the essentialization that reduces people to tokens. Race is not a biological given—there is a continuum of physical features and skin colours that belies cultural constructions of race—but music perpetuates such divisions through social practice, even as it has the potential to erase them.

Music is a powerful force in both personal and social life, and understanding its effects is as important a skill for navigating today’s world as understanding the potential for deception inherent in photography or deepfake video.”

– Nicholas Cook, Music: a very short introduction (2021)

(This book, updated from its 1998 version, is one of the finest survey books about music I’ve read. It ranges widely, cites some of the best ethnomusicology/musicology/anthropology/sound studies texts about music, takes a bird’s eye view of all the world’s music, and concisely explains issues of theory, interpretation, technology, phenomenology, and meaning. It’s written for the generalist, but maps the state of thinking about music for the specialist. I wish I had read it while in university, or even high school.) 

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