When Women Play: The Relationship between Musical Instruments and Gender Style

By Koskoff, Ellen | Canadian University Music Review, January 1, 1995 | Go to article overview
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When Women Play: The Relationship between Musical Instruments and Gender Style


Koskoff, Ellen, Canadian University Music Review


In many societies, musical roles are divided along gender lines: women sing and men play. Of course, men also sing, and women sometimes play; yet, unlike men, women who play often do so in contexts of sexual and social marginality. This essay surveys the literature on women playing musical instruments in a variety of social and cultural contexts. It then presents some contemporary anthropological theories regarding the interrelationship between social structure and gender stratification that can be useful in understanding this data in the broader perspective of gender relations.1 I will, for now, regard women's performance on musical instruments, or the lack thereof, as an indicator of the gender style of a given society, for although all performance may be regarded as a locus of power, performance on musical instruments is often bound up with cultural notions of gender and control in ways that vocal performance is not.

First, some preliminary remarks concerning gender, musical instruments, and cross-cultural surveys. The term "gender" is being used here to define a socially constructed category (i.e., man and woman) and is distinguished from "sex," the biological category of one's birth (i.e., male and female). Further, although all societies recognize differences between the two sexes and often use these as the primary bases for the division of labour in economic, ritual, and other domains, gender categories are often quite fluid, with so-called "masculine" or "feminine" behaviours appearing to a certain degree in both sexes.2

The term "gender ideology" has been used by Ortner and Whitehead,3 among others, to denote the conceptual and valuative framework that underlies and structures appropriate behaviours for women and men. Ideologies may be codified as religious, moral, or legal justifications for gender relations.4 Although gender roles are based to a certain degree on biological categories, it is the value given to one gender over the other that promotes a certain socially accepted gender style, theoretically ranging from relatively equal autonomy and value for both men and women (complementarity), to a lack of equality in both autonomy and value (gender stratification).

Musical instruments are defined here simply as material objects outside the body (perhaps connected to the body) that are used in performances of music, dance, ritual, and ceremony, however culturally defined, or to accompany such performances. Clapping, slapping one's thighs, snapping fingers, or other rhythmic accompaniment that uses one's own body will not be considered here.

Concerning cross-cultural surveys, it goes without saying that social contexts for performance vary widely across cultures and time, as do the relative distribution and significance of instruments and instrumental performance. Making generalizations about gender and musical roles is therefore fraught with difficulties. Native perspectives, individual exceptions, and the complexities of everyday life tend to be glossed over or ignored in such generalizations, and they can often veer towards the glib. Yet, there is value in the cross-cultural survey, for certain patterns emerge from this perspective that can help to clarify relationships between men, women, and music, and the relative value given to those who engage in musical activity.

Contexts for Performance

Descriptions of women performing on musical instruments are fairly rare. Indeed, in a rough survey of various ethnomusicological journals, I could find no more than 10% of the total literature referring to women performers at all, and of that 10%, only about 20% made a passing reference to women performing on an instrument.5

I have grouped the descriptions of women's instrumental performances that I found into four basic (at times, overlapping or related) socio-musical contexts that can serve as appropriate categories for discussion: (1) the context of the court; (2) the context for courtship; (3) ritual contexts, especially those of healing, initiation, burial, or those involving role-reversals, where inter-gender relations are protested or mediated; and (4) the context of everyday life, involving musical performances accompanying food preparation, child care, or perhaps self-entertainment.

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