Academic journal article Australian Aboriginal Studies

What Is Music Analysis? Problems and Prospects for Understanding Aboriginal Songs and Performance

Academic journal article Australian Aboriginal Studies

What Is Music Analysis? Problems and Prospects for Understanding Aboriginal Songs and Performance

Article excerpt

Abstract: Music analysis has played a consistently important role in studies of traditional Aboriginal songs in Australia. Some musicologists, including Catherine Ellis, Linda Barwick and Allan Marett, have matched their extensive use of music analysis with critical and introspective concerns over the ethics and usefulness of music analysis for understanding Aboriginal songs and performance practices. These mirror concerns held by scholars working with other non-Western musics.

Different concerns over music analysis have arisen among historical musicologists specialising in the study of Western art music. Here the issues relate to a rejection of analyses that treat compositions as autonomous works of art, and a desire to deconstruct the ideological underpinnings of classical music. Some music theorists' replies to these criticisms have pointed to diverse and self-reflexive possibilities for music analysis.

Drawing ideas from all of these sources as well as from my own fieldwork and analysis, I conclude that, despite its inherent cultural trappings and other limitations, analysis can and does provide an invaluable means for understanding Aboriginal songs and performance, and that the subjective input of the music analyst--something which is recognised in analyses of Western art music--could be more accepted as a normal part of analysis of Aboriginal (and other non-Western) musics.


Music analysis of various sorts has been integral to European studies of non-Western music since the nascent period of the 1880s, while musical transcriptions of non-Western music found their way both into the notes of voyagers and missionaries and onto the pages of music encyclopaedias well before this time. The single factor that secured an important role for the analysis of music of oral traditions was the advent of recording technology at the end of the nineteenth century. (1) One consequence of recording technology was the reification of musical performance in ways that were previously not possible, and which now rendered the audible output of performance an object of study. (2) Another consequence was the emerging important status of institutions and individuals that collected, owned or analysed recordings.

During the heyday of comparative musicology (through the first part of the twentieth century), analysis comprised something of a sine qua non of musicological studies of non-Western music. The tools of transcription and analysis were commonly regarded as scientific, objective and value-free. However, with the growing body of ethnographic data from many world cultures (which helped draw attention to cross-cultural differences), the growing influence of interpretational methods derived from other disciplines (especially anthropology), and more recently the growing influence of critical theory in musicological circles, ethnomusicologists have come to realise that our analytic tools and methods are neither objective nor value-free, and not necessarily scientific.

Particularly since the 1970s, this shift of attitude has been accompanied by the flowering of many different analytic models and techniques designed to fit better particular music-cultural situations. (3) At the same time, a range of serious ethical questions about the analytic endeavour has been raised, while a significant cross-section of ethnomusicologists has abandoned analysis as a primary means of addressing important issues about music and culture. Some trends in analysis-related work over the past 20 years have included semiological examinations of music and performance, cognitive studies of music and music perception, and computer-aided analyses of pitch and rhythmic aspects of music. James Porter (1995) has noted a recent increase in studies which consider music and performance from both cultural/ethnographic and music analytical perspectives.

This article concerns the role of analysis in studies of Aboriginal music, but some points raised relate more generally to studies of non-Western (and even Western) music. …

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