I've been reading a book on world musics lately and and starting to get a sense of some interesting underlying geography. I have posted on some ideological questions before in this post: "The War on Classical" because the book has an editorial animus against classical music, which it thinks is uppity or something. Also, some of the individual authors of the chapters on different world musics seem to bend over backwards to assert over and over again either that their music is just as aesthetically good as classical or maybe just a bit better because it isn't tied down to all that fixed notation and stuff.
The article on Turkish music I found particularly annoying. It turns out that the two major theorists on traditional Turkish music were both from outside Turkey, one the Moldavian prince Dimitrie Cantemir and the other Ali Ufki, originally a Polish church musician, Wojciech Bobowski, who was enslaved in Istanbul, converted to Islam and became a leading composer and the first to adapt Western notation to record Turkish music. You have to love a culture where even the musicologists are slaves. The Ottomans had a propensity for slavery: the elite core of their army, the Janissaries, were all recruited from enslaved Christian boys.
But I am getting away from what I want to talk about: the underlying geography of world music.
In one musical culture after another I run across comments which outline a cluster of approaches to music:
No matter how many Turkish musicians are playing together at one time, they all focus on executing a single melody line, though each may interpret it differently.
Indian music is generated through a complex modal system ... which provides the basis for composition and performance to happen simultaneously (what Westerners call improvisation)
Whereas a Western composer notates the work on paper in a more or less fixed form ... Thai classical composers notate nothing: their compositions are created in their minds and then committed to memory.
Most of the female singers were jawari or qiyan, singing slave girls. These were indeed slaves, in that they could be bought or sold, but they were also highly-trained performers, sometimes fetching extraordinary prices... (referring to the music of Medieval Andalusia, al-Andalus)
Although the music was never notated - musicians have always learned this repertory aurally - by the sixteenth century songbooks had begun to circulate. These included the lyrics along with musical indications of the melodic modes. (referring to Andalusian music)
(In Chinese opera) Over time and a wide area, two basic creative approaches developed. One was the qupai system, where the librettist wrote lyrics to go with standard named tunes called qupai. To put it in Western terms, the librettist might specify, "sing to the tune (qupai) Yankee Doodle".
The instrumental groups of a gamelan perform specific functions, and their dense polyphony is created from just one melodic strand, drawing from a repertoire of patterns peculiar to each instrument.For most musicians, in most cultures, for much of history, music was an oral or aural tradition: it seemed entirely fitting that it be so as music is the most insubstantial of the arts, consisting of nothing more than compression waves in the air. By an act of pure creative genius, one Guido of Arezzo came up with an ideal solution for the notating of exact pitch: the simple idea of a horizontal line. All pitches could be judged in their relation to that line. Soon after, for even better precision, four more lines were added and voilá, the music staff was born. Mind you, it took another few hundred years to solve the problem of how to notate rhythms clearly and simply, but a few more acts of creative genius solved that too. As a bonus, since pitches could be written down clearly, that meant that Western musicians could notate not only melodies, but also harmonies. And if you stacked a few staves on top of one another, you could have a notation in which the entirety of an orchestral score could be seen at a glance. While there have been a number of other notation systems developed in other cultures, all of them are more like mnemonic guides than real systems of notation. The only time and place where a good music notation system was developed was in Western Europe between about 1000 AD and 1500 AD. Some other things that were uniquely developed in Western Europe: vaccines, antibiotics, the machines of the Industrial Revolution, the rule of law, and, sadly, modern warfare. But hey!
Since Western Europe, during those same years and for hundreds of years afterwards, also saw the development of musical styles and structures that did not develop anywhere else, such as true imitative counterpoint, tonal harmony and modulation and all the thousands of musical things that come from that, it is very likely that these developments presupposed musical notation. Don't you think?
So there are two basic musical approaches: the aural or oral tradition, and the notated, composed tradition.
Without a good musical notation to work with, music tends to be monophonic, with a heterophony of similar melodic lines, rhythmically complex, with a lot of extended rhythmic models and other formulas that need to be learned by rote, and essentially weak or lacking in genuine harmony. This, along with a tendency to be structured according to a poetic text and the likelihood of a complex treatment of pitches in the melody, describes nearly every non-Western musical style, whether it is from Thailand, China, Morocco or India. These are all markers of what is essentially folk music, that is, music transmitted via oral tradition and without what we would call composers as such.
The musical structures that we find in Bach, Mozart or Bruckner, depend on the ability to notate often very large musical structures, and do so clearly and creatively. Without notation, I think that the very concept of a composer as we find in Western music, just can't exist. The reason is that if you can write musical ideas down, sketch them, play with them, modify them, you are making the internal external where you can work with it. In all the other musical traditions, most of what the musicians are doing remains concealed, unexamined and therefore, not available to the composer's creative imagination.
This is Anton Bruckner - Symphony No. 6 in A Major with the Münchner Philharmoniker conducted by Sergiu Celibidache:
UPDATE: Just to head off any potential misunderstanding, I am not criticizing any particular musical culture here. More and more I realize that Asian music has a big influence on my compositions going right back to the 1970s. My point is just that the underlying geography of nearly all non-Western music is quite different from how music has developed in the West since the discovery of music notation.