The Musical Ear: Oral Tradition in the USA

By Rahkonen, Carl | Notes, June 2011 | Go to article overview

The Musical Ear: Oral Tradition in the USA


Rahkonen, Carl, Notes


The Musical Ear: Oral Tradition in the USA. By Anne Dhu McLucas. (SEMPRE Studies in the Psychology of Music.) Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2010. [205 p. ISBN 9780754663966. $79.95.] Music transcriptions, footnotes, bibliography index, compact disc.

Anne Dhu McLucas, professor emerita from the University of Oregon, has written one of the few books on the topic of oral tradition in music. There are many books on specific oral traditions within the United States, but this is perhaps the only one that begins with oral tradition as the central topic, and then compares the commonalities of oral tradition between many different styles of American music. McLucas uses the term "oral tradition"

to cover all facets of a process-the aural, or taking in by ear of sounds, and the oral, or the transmission by mouth (but also understood to cover instrumental performances passed on without notation) . . . . [t]he term "oral tradition" will be understood to encompass all music not handed down in or necessarily learned from a written form" (pp. 1-2 n. 2).

There are many places where she uses the duel term "oral/aural." The musical case studies come entirely from the United States. We would expect that most of the examples would be of folk music, but McLucas gives just as many examples from popular, Native American, and art music, from the seventeenth century to the pres - ent. She has drawn examples from her reallife experiences, many locally from Eugene, Oregon. The narrative also shows all the earmarks of extensive teaching experience, with examples that could easily be shared with students, and also examples drawn from students. After each of the four chapters McLucas inserts an "interlude" that explains the underlying psychological research behind the things described in the preceding chapter. She does a fine job explaining this research in plain language, providing a good introduction to the topic for any interested reader.

In the first chapter, "The Oral Process and 'Roots' Music," McLucas considers four musicians as examples of the breadth of oral tradition in the United States. These are Hazel Dickens, an Appalachian singer; Willetto Antonio, an Apache singer and healer; Eagle Park Slim (Autry McNeace), a blues singer originally from East St. Louis, Illinois; and Kevin Burke, an Irish- American fiddler. The last two musicians currently live in Oregon. The accompanying compact disc contains examples of music from each of them. In describing these musicians, McLucas touches upon some of the major themes that will be explored later in the book, such as how musicians learn their repertory, the role of memory in performing, and the boundaries of creativity in adding to the repertory.

The first "interlude" examines "The Brain, Memory and Oral Tradition." McLucas reviews a wide range of literature from neuroscience, psychology and the psychology of music, studying how music memories are created, stored in the brain, and retrieved during performance. She concludes that musical memories are not like sound recordings, but are stored as various strands of sound, from which complete pieces have to be re-created at every performance. Previous experiences enrich musical memories and influence new performances, thus "memory and creativity are not so far apart" (p. 47).

The second chapter covers "Oral Tradition in American Popular Music." Many famous American song writers could not read music, though they composed great songs. Before the age of digital recording and music software, it took someone like Lou Halmy (1912-2005) to transcribe and arrange pieces for publication. Pat Monahan, a guitarist and songwriter from Seattle, records his songs directly, or works with other musicians to write the arrangements. His song "Her Eyes" shows the importance of "the hook" in popular music, a musical or lyrical phrase that stands out and is easily remembered. Andrew Glennon, a hip hop producer from Portland, creates "beats" from samples and loops of other recorded music, forming the underlying foundations for hip hop songs.

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