How do we understand the notes themselves?

How do we understand the notes themselves?

posted 19 Aug 2014 01:03 by Simon McKerrell

There have been many approaches to analysing Scottish traditional music, some useful, others less so. So today, what sort of approach to understanding musical structure and styles is useful for Scottish traditional music in the 21st century? 

As Gelbart (2007) explains, folk modality, or the study of Scottish traditional music as a modal form began in 1760 with Charles Burney who wrote and compiled a monumental four-volume history of music published between 1776 and 1789 (Burney 2010 [1776-1789]). However, at almost the same time, there emerged a substantial work of early traditional music theory in the writings of the 18th century auto-didact—Joseph MacDonald. Burney and MacDonald constitute the beginnings of analytical theory in Scottish traditional music, and they were very different indviduals, with very different approaches to understanding the traditional music of Scotland.
In a real sense, Burney and MacDonald stand for the two dichotomous approaches to understanding Scottish traditional music in the modern period. Burney, working largely on paper and drawing upon wide-ranging Western notions theorized Scottishness in music largely from an outsider’s perspective. Joseph MacDonald was a player of pipes himself, and was writing from the inside of the tradition, attempting to systematize emic knowledge for others within and also without the Gaelic musical traditions of the late 18th century. Of these two perspectives, the outsider’s, Western perspective of Scottish traditional music as an internal musical Other, was largely to be the more successful analytical tradition up until the folk revival of the mid-twentieth century. From that point onwards, politically motivated insiders and scholarly-trained folklorists and ethnomusicologists began to reposition Scottish traditional music, and its vocabularies and regional traditions within a more plural and institutionalized context. The shift towards recognising the intrinsic value of traditional musicians’ own language, concepts and systems began with the revival movement and the presentation of the Scottish travelling community to Scots themselves, and eventually, to international audiences in the 1970s. This movement met with sonic and musical cultural changes too, brought about by those very revivalists committed to rediscovering Scotland’s indigenous and authentic musical heritage. The revival started the experimental move towards the adoption of more mass mediated musical standards in intonation, harmonic arrangement, accompaniment, arrangement, instrumentation and structures which has continued to the present day.
In terms therefore of musical analysis, or scholarly analysis of Scottish traditional music, the methods have largely depended upon the socio-cultural and political motivations of the analysts themselves and each generation has brought with it, the prevailing musical fashions and ideas of its time. Today, the insider’s spirit of Joseph MacDonald can be witnessed in many of the more recent attempts to systematise and understanding Scottish traditional music and ideas drawn from across musicology, folklore, anthropology, ethnomusicology, linguistics and semiotics are enabling us to see Scottish traditional music from the inside. The evolutionary, preservationist, comparativist and nationalistic instincts of the 19th century have given way to more egalitarian, testimonial and relativistic instincts of today. However, this broad shift in thinking, which has at its heart the shift from universalism to relativism brings new challenges to the uses of scholarship, and the sorts of analytical questions that are reasonable to ask. We’ve had approaches as diverse as evolutionary models of gapped scale-types, mode studies, tune family studies, descriptive and prescriptive transcription for close analysis, motivic analysis of ballads/oral-formulaic studies, studies in variation and distribution, and more recently, some more culturally informed work on intertextuality etc. Too many of these approaches have really been founded upon a search for origins, or a search for the oldest authentic versions of tunes and songs. In today’s world, where authenticity has begun to collapse into the sonic and the performative, we really require analytical methods that can answer the sorts of questions that are important to 21st communities of practice. These are the sorts of questions that address not just the ‘when’ of traditional music, but the complex and often intertextual meanings of music in social life. It’s all very well knowing when the first printed version of a song or tune emerges into the written canon, but that doesn’t tell you very much about what it means to sing it in Perth, San Diego or Halifax today.
We’re going to be discussing these issues at the Understanding Scotland Musically conference this October in Newcastle and I will be writing about this in my forthcoming book (Routledge) on Scottish traditional music. I will examine some of the key analytical frameworks and concepts that have dominated the discourse surrounding the Scottishness of the notes and words of Scottish traditional music, and some of the models that are now possible in an increasingly mass mediated and commercial social contexts which can help us to understand Scotland musically.

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