is there a documented case of a human civilization or culture that had/has no form of music ?
June 19, 2007 11:13 PM   Subscribe

is there a documented case of a human civilization or culture that has/had no form of music ?

is there a documented case of a human civilization or culture that had no form of music ?

not really looking for a war of definitions... the heart of the question is, do all peoples have music?
posted by k7lim to Society & Culture (18 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
The Taliban?
posted by pompomtom at 11:29 PM on June 19, 2007 [1 favorite]

Taliban Chant.
posted by Jimbob at 11:40 PM on June 19, 2007

Music is on the list of 200 cultural universals compiled by Donald E. Brown:

music related in part to dance
music related in part to religious activity
music seen as art (a creation)
music, vocal
musical redundancy
musical repetition
musical variation

posted by painquale at 12:10 AM on June 20, 2007 [4 favorites]

Recent discussion from the Australian Broadcasting Company radio show All in the Mind:

Kyla Brettle: Is there any culture that you know of that doesn't practise some form of music?

Catherine Falk [Dean of the Faculty of Music, U. Melbourne]: The only one I can think of is a group of people in western Africa, people called the Ick, people who have been so completely decimated, where social life and being human had become so very difficult for them, that in fact norms of human behaviour went out the window and music certainly did. But I think every culture on the planet has a form of communication that we would call musical.
posted by ormondsacker at 12:13 AM on June 20, 2007

Keep in mind that the most popular ethnographic work on the Ik may be flawed.
posted by zamboni at 12:20 AM on June 20, 2007

The deaf culture?
posted by sien at 12:25 AM on June 20, 2007

zamboni: Yeah, I was looking at that - and Turnbull's described elsewhere as "a pioneering ethnomusicologist", so he's quite possibly the source of that factoid. More on Colin Turnbull vs. the Ik.
posted by ormondsacker at 12:34 AM on June 20, 2007

The deaf culture? Most of my deaf friends are music fanatics - with great and unusual tastes in music, since it's the vibrations they "listen" to. There have been some amazing deaf musicians too - Evelyn Glennie (who's worked with Björk and is the subject of a film, "Touch The Sound") and the German postpunk band "Die Todliche Doris" who created the idea of "Gehörlose Musik" ("soundless music.")
posted by Dee Xtrovert at 1:17 AM on June 20, 2007 [2 favorites]

Glennie has been profoundly deaf – meaning that she has some very limited hearing – since age 12. This does not inhibit her ability to perform at the international level. She regularly plays barefoot for both live performances and studio recordings, to better "feel" the music.

Evelyn Glennie contends that deafness is largely misunderstood by the public. She claims to have taught herself to hear with parts of her body other than her ears. In response to the misguided attention directed to her from the media, Glennie published her now famous Hearing Essay in which she personally discusses her condition.

(from the wiki)
posted by chuckdarwin at 4:44 AM on June 20, 2007 [2 favorites]

Sorry about that last answer: I missed a bit out!

Is there a documented case of a human civilization or culture that had/has no form of music?

Not that I've ever heard of. I once asked this question to a musicologist, and he said "no".
posted by chuckdarwin at 4:46 AM on June 20, 2007

Following on from Chuck Darwin's answer, at college I read a book called "Biomusicology" (a real page-turner...) and I believe the author makes a similar claim on the first page.
posted by Jofus at 5:25 AM on June 20, 2007

Well, definitions are important, otherwise you get stuff like some of the more ridiculous entries on that 200 universals list, like "murder proscribed": murder is by definition the proscribed killing of a person, it's not the same as killing someone. That's why its not murder for the soldier to kill his enemy or Texas to execute a convict. Saying that "murder proscribed" is a human universal is like saying that brown hair is always brown.

But that said, although much of my anthropological training has been devoted to better understanding the complex variations of many things on that list of human universals, I've never heard an anthropologist try to suggest that music was not a universal trait of humans. In fact, I seem to recall that many archaeologists consider musical instruments to be likely candidates as some of the earliest expansion of the human toolset (thinks like reed instruments made from actual reeds, which don't show up in the archaeological record very often, so have to be extrapolated about). My impression is that music is much like language, in that it may vary a great deal from place to place, but every place has some, and most people can learn it.
posted by carmen at 5:27 AM on June 20, 2007

You know there is the phenomenon of 'blindsight', in which people who are consciously blind still seem to be able to point at things or reach in the right direction. Do you think Evelyn Glennie could have an analogous condition, deafhearing?
posted by Phanx at 5:32 AM on June 20, 2007 [1 favorite]

Saying that "murder proscribed" is a human universal is like saying that brown hair is always brown.

Not at all. It's not tautological since it asserts of all human cultures the existence of some circumstances in which killing is perceived as wrong or taboo -- though I agree it is poorly worded.
posted by voltairemodern at 8:03 AM on June 20, 2007

This article in the new yorker about the Pirahã tribe in Brazil doesn't specifically mention music, but says they have no tradition of art and that they break a number of previously held rules about what we thought all human cultures do.
This is more about linguistics then anything else, but you could look into it.
posted by alkupe at 8:28 AM on June 20, 2007

The Piraha have music. (Ethnomusicoligist talking to a Christian missionary site).
posted by ormondsacker at 8:40 AM on June 20, 2007

voltairmodern, I respectfully disagree. Sorry to go on at length but this tangent is at least marginally related to the question in terms of a) why definitions are important to this kind of question, and b) why the 'human universals' lists are not good ways to answer these kinds of questions.

If you look at the explanation of the list, you see that it is compiled from anthropological literature. This means that every description of murder found in the literature indicated that it was proscribed, it does not mean that every description of a society contained an explanation/discussion of how that society viewed murder/the killing of persons/the killing of humans. So the statement clearly indicates that every time murder is discussed there is some prohibition against it (which is tautological), but it does not clearly indicate that every society has some category that can be meaningfully labelled 'murder'.

Now, I find it unlikely that there is a society that does not include some prohibitions against killing persons, however, definitions remain important. What about a case where prohibitions against killing persons are categorized together with prohibitions against killing particular kinds of animals or destroying particular inanimate objects? In such a case there are two categories of "murder" in which the definitions overlap but are by no means identical. In this case category A (sometimes, some people, some animals, and some things) overlaps with category B (sometimes, some people). If we ferret out the conditions implied by sometimes and some people, we may find that there is very little meaningful overlap, to the point where making a statement "category B is universal" is meaningless and useless for extrapolating anything about human behaviour.

The problem with these lists is that you can't easily distinguish what is meaninglessly broad or miscategorized from what is well established or accepted. The problem with saying definitions don't matter is that it's hard to meaningfully or accurately translate some types of categories with words used to define related but different categories.

All that said, once again, I've never heard anyone put forth an argument that music isn't a human universal, although I've heard arguments that forms and styles of music are not human universals, and that musical interpretations (like minor key=sad) are not human universals.

posted by carmen at 9:14 AM on June 20, 2007

An interesting issue is whether there are significant (large-scale / many-human) transient cultures without music -- or more accurately, without music other than what the members bring in from their own outside cultures.

One example: Antarctica. No indigenous human population, only a transient population of people whose roles and functions there are extremely clearly and cleanly defined. Of course there's occasional recreational music making during off hours, and there's outside musical media used as entertainment -- but to whatever extent Antarctica has a definable human culture, it's possible that it has less of a definable music culture or musical language than almost any other human population on that scale.

I think this is specifically because it's so rarefied, specialized and 'pure' a collection of people -- for this reason it may not count as a culture in the way the OP means. Still, it's an interesting example because of its sheer scale. (I've been interested in this question for a while, but I haven't been there myself and am no expert.)
posted by allterrainbrain at 5:18 PM on June 20, 2007

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