Is Music More the Same Than We Realize?

It’s a concept known as “music universality.” It’s not just thinking that the new Katy Perry song sounds just like the new Nicki Minaj track; it’s a cross-cultural idea. The SmartSet.com, based out of Drexel University, takes a look at the situation.

Few things get music scholars more nervous than cross-cultural comparisons. The field of ethnomusicology, which was invented to inquire into this very subject, has grown increasingly uneasy with this part of its mission. The ethnomusicologist, in the words of Bruno Nettl, does not seek out such comparisons, but rather serves as “the debunker of generalizations.” Anthony Seeger has offered a similar perspective, expressing his resistance to “the privileging of similarities over differences.” In other words, if human beings from different cultures share certain musical proclivities and practices, academics in the field would rather not hear about it.

The prevalence of this resistant attitude is so extreme that researchers Steven Brown and Joseph Jordania, in their recent consideration of the subject, were forced to conclude that “many decades of skepticism have prevented the field of musicology from embracing the importance of musical universals.” When the subject is addressed, they add, it is almost always in the form of “meta-critiques about the concept of universals,” rather than actual consideration of empirical evidence. This would be peculiar under any circumstances, but is especially so given the growing amount of evidence that runs counter to the isolationist assumptions of the academic music community.

Yet music scholars are hardly alone in their preference for differences over similarities.

Ooo. An academic fight. Keep reading.

Alan Cross

is an internationally known broadcaster, interviewer, writer, consultant, blogger and speaker. In his 30+ years in the music business, Alan has interviewed the biggest names in rock, from David Bowie and U2 to Pearl Jam and the Foo Fighters. He’s also known as a musicologist and documentarian through programs like The Ongoing History of New Music.

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