Music and/as Language: Ethnomusicology of North America

Open, Lecture—Fall

Is music a “universal language”? Though it often feels that way, this question is not easy to answer. Employing the tools of musicology and from linguistic anthropology, we will examine how music is a communicative process that is very much like language in some ways and quite different in others. Native American traditions from Canada and the Plains offer a profound point of entry for rich analysis. Mexican balladry offers a number of concrete case studies of the historical vagaries of lyric construction. Linguistic concepts such as referentiality and ambiguity will guide our examinations of country music and the blues. “Creolization,” another linguistic concept, will become an especially salient metaphor, as we consider the dynamic musical cultures of syncretic Nuyorican traditions such as salsa. Finally, our understanding of improvisatory jazz performance traditions will inform our understanding of what it means to communicate musically. A powerful case-in-point is Sarah Lawrence’s own Balinese gamelan, “Chandra Buahna.” Performance as part of this group is a required part of the fall semester (occasional exceptions may be granted by the instructor), and no musical experience is necessary. While these musical styles are sophisticated and the analytical approaches are challenging, prior experience with music theory is absolutely not required for this course.