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

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. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA 8, MLA 7, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Note: primary sources have slightly different requirements for citation. Please see these guidelines for more information.

Cited article

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

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Help
Full screen
Items saved from this article
  • Highlights & Notes
  • Citations
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

matching results for page

    Questia reader help

    How to highlight and cite specific passages

    1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
    2. Click or tap the last word you want to select, and you’ll see everything in between get selected.
    3. You’ll then get a menu of options like creating a highlight or a citation from that passage of text.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Style
    Citations are available only to our active members.
    Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA 8, MLA 7, APA and Chicago citation styles.

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

    1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

    Cited passage

    Thanks for trying Questia!

    Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

    Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

    Buy instant access to save your work.

    Already a member? Log in now.

    Search by... Author
    Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

    Oops!

    An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.