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Journal of Musicological Research

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Music as Representation
Philip V. Bohlmana
University of Chicago,

To cite this Article Bohlman, Philip V.(2005) 'Music as Representation', Journal of Musicological Research, 24: 3, 205 226
To link to this Article: DOI: 10.1080/01411890500233924


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DOI: 10.1080/01411890500233924

Journal of Musicological Research
Research, Vol. 24, No. 3-4, July 2005: pp. 00


Philip V. Bohlman
Music V.
Philip as Representation

University of Chicago
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In contradistinction to common adages proclaiming musics inability to

represent anything other than itself, there are remarkably complex ways
in which identitiesboth embedded within music and appropriated from
the extramusical contexts in which music takes placeactually engender
culturally distinctive representational processes. The very possibilities to
represent music or to be represented by music differ from culture to cul-
ture, and they necessarily reveal distinctive ontologies of music. Ethno-
musicologys particular concern for the representation of music deserves
special attention, not least because of the disciplines historical need to
recognize the ways music relates to what it is and what it is notthat is,
to musical texts and contexts. A framework with ten different processes
provides the theoretical core of an examination of music as representa-
tion. Five sets of contrastive pairs articulate the larger framework, which
consciously and dialectically includes theoretical approaches from all
disciplines of musical scholarship. It is because the representation of
music and representing with music are so central to what all musical
scholars do that musical scholarship acquires an aesthetic and ideologi-
cally activist impulse that deserves, if not demands, the attention of all
musical scholars.


One of the most basic principles of ethnomusicology is that music is

more than itself. We study music to understand more about cultural con-
texts, about ideology and politics, about the ways in which language func-
tions, about gender and sexuality, and about the identities of cultures
ranging from the smallest group to the most powerful nation. The point is
not so much that ethnomusicologists study all these things in and of them-
selves, but rather that they study music in order to understand all these
other things. Ethnomusicologists study music, in other words, because it
possesses the capacity to represent. Ethnomusicologists understand music
206 Philip V. Bohlman

as representation, and the concepts and methods used to understand how

music represents distinguish the discipline of ethnomusicology from other
disciplines of musical scholarship while in fact complementing and con-
siderably enriching those other disciplines.
Musics power to represent in itself results from a paradox: Music
represents both self and other. In order to be more than itself (other),
music also must be itself (self). Just how the self represents the other is
the subject of this article honoring Margaret Kartomi, an ethnomusicolo-
gist whose contributions to the understanding of musics representational
potential exert a particular influence on musical scholarship precisely
because they have known no disciplinary borders. The approach I take in
this article consciously reflects and reflects upon Margaret Kartomis
methodological predilection for systematic structure and lucid argument.
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She so often has made a signal contribution to ethnomusicology through

classificationa form of logical presentation and imaginative representation
thus empowering the connective and in her studies of music and mean-
ing, music and religion, music and culture contact, music and musical
instruments, and music and race, to reveal how music is always more than
Most broadly considered, music sometimes represents because its qual-
ities of selfness are like the otherness it reflects, and at other times self
and other contrasteven contradicteach other. Music can mediate
sameness or transform otherness. The representational paradox has often
been dismissedfor example, by composers of Western art music who
might argue, as Igor Stravinsky famously did, that music can represent
nothing other than itself. Dismissing musics representational paradox,
nonetheless, is only possible if one ignores both ontology and practice
what individuals and cultures understand music to be and how they use
musicfor the reality remains that belief in the power of music to repre-
sent in complex ways is virtually universal.
When shifted to a metaphysical levelsomething I do throughout this
articlethe representational paradox becomes even more complex,
because it is on that level especially that music assumes forms that reveal
it to represent through both agency and process. When music serves as
representation, we are witnessing its subjective potential; when music is

See, for example, Margaret J. Kartomi, Music and Trance in Central Java, Ethnomusi-
cology 17/2 (1973), 163208; Lovely When Heard from Afar: Mandailing Ideas of Musical
Beauty, in Five Essays on the Indonesian Arts, ed. Margaret Kartomi (Clayton, Australia:
Centre of Southeast Asian Studies, Monash University, 1981), 114; On Concepts and Classifi-
cations of Musical Instruments (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990); Indonesian-
Chinese Oppression and the Musical Outcomes in the Netherlands East Indies, in Music and
the Racial Imagination, ed. Ronald Radano and Philip V. Bohlman (Chicago: University of
Chicago Press, 2000), 271317.
Music as Representation 207

a representation of something, we recognize its objective functions.

When it represents, music may be either subject or object, orand this is
when the paradox seems at once obvious and obscuremusic can com-
bine the metaphysical traits of both subject and object.
The study of music as representation has played a singularly important
role in the history of ethnomusicology. It would even be possible to write
the history of ethnomusicology as a series of representational moments,
or perhaps representational revelations, when dramatically new concepts
of music emerged as a result of a new understanding of representation.
Such moments or revelations accompanied the earliest encounters
between Europe and its Others during the Age of Discovery (the sixteenth
and seventeenth centuries), when European colonizers and missionaries
realized that the music of indigenous peoples in the Americas, sub-
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Saharan Africa, or Asia was not what Europeans had thought music to
be; for example, it might accompany acts of cannibalism, as the French
missionary Jean de Lry observed during the 1550s while among the
Tupinamba, an indigenous people living around the modern Bay of Rio
de Janeiro.2 The wonder that characterized the music of colonial encoun-
ter led to the creation of a representational moment in the sixteenth cen-
tury, for in order to understand why the music of Europes Others was
different, Europeans began to employ various new ways to represent it,
not least among them transcriptions brought from the New World and the
introduction of other peoples music into European musical genres, such
as the Spanish villancico. The techniques and technologies of representa-
tion at such significant moments inevitably attempted to represent both
the music itselfthe objective parts understood by the Europeansand
the traits that the Europeans did not understand because of a subjectivity
of radical difference. It is not surprising that the study of music as repre-
sentation actually begins with Early Modern Europe and the accompany-
ing development of print technologies and the spread of musical literacy.
Ethnomusicology seeks to demystify musicto understand its otherness
by developing representational languages and technologies. The importance
of technology as a response to musics capability to represent should not
be overlooked: Ethnomusicology accompanies and even empowers the
spread of representational technologies. Again, we witness an aspect of
the representational paradox when scientific approaches are used to unlock
the secrets that musics otherness holds. When we undertake the study of
music as ethnomusicologists, we concomitantly learn and develop many
techniques to represent it. Quite early in our studies, we begin to transcribe
music that we collect with recorders in our fieldwork. By transcribing, we

See Jean de Lry, History of a Voyage to the Land of Brazil, Otherwise Called America [1578],
trans. by Janet Whatley (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999).
208 Philip V. Bohlman

again make decisions about representing self and other in music. Western-
trained ethnographers generally employ the techniques of Western notation
ideally combining them with culture-emerging systemsto represent the
aspects of selfness, but we inevitably introduce new symbols to transpose
aspects of otherness that Western notation cannot transcribe. Transcription
is one of ethnomusicologys representational metalanguages.
The ethnographic approaches of ethnomusicology, not least the central
practice of fieldwork, produces other metalanguages as well, ranging
from prose accounts of individual performances to the use of film to doc-
ument large-scale ritual. It is very significant that most ethnomusicolo-
gists find that any one metalanguage is in itself inadequate and that it is
preferable, instead, to develop as many as possible. Each representational
metalanguage has the potential to capture several specific traits of music
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particularly well, but the truly complex representational nature of music

ultimately demands techniques and technologies that make it possible for
performers and scholars alike to represent as many aspects of musics
selfness and otherness as possible.


Because of its power to represent, music may add something to or take

something away from that which it represents. When they interpret music
as representation, then, ethnomusicologists often ask one of two questions
or indeed both questions at the same time: Does music change that which
it represents by making it more than it originally was? Does music reduce
that which it represents, making it less than it was before music was introduced
to it?
Such questions are always ideologically charged, all the more so
because of the tension between self and other that the representational
paradox creates. To illustrate the ideological issues accompanying repre-
sentation, let us turn briefly to the ways in which music and sacred texts
often generate ideological conflict. When music joins words to enhance
the meaning of sacred texts, one is almost always forced to ask, as Marga-
ret Kartomi has in her comparative studies of ritual and meaning,3
whether the meaning is clarified or obscured by music. This question is
not as straightforward as it may seem at first glance. First of all, it is
almost impossible to find a religion in which song and music do not
accompany the performance of sacred texts quite extensively. Second, it

Margaret Kartomi, Tabut: A Shia Ritual Transplanted from India to Sumatra, in Nine-
teenth and Twentieth Century Indonesia: Essays in Honour of Professor J. D. Legge, ed. David P.
Chandler and M. C. Ricklefs (Clayton, Australia: Centre of Southeast Asian Studies, Monash
University, 1986), 141162.
Music as Representation 209

is equally impossible to find a religion where musics presence is not

limited in some ways, as if also to limit its power. Third, the questions
raised by the representational paradox may not really be about under-
standing at all, but rather about the ways in which music introduces some-
thing entirely differentin other words, the secular. We see this occurring
when musical instruments are banned from religious music because they
may represent secular practices, such as dancesomething that happens
in many religions.
Further complicating ethnomusicologys representational paradox
is the question of whether music itself changes when it represents.
Stated somewhat differently, is music abstract or symbolically specific
during the process of representation? When modeor ragain Indian
classical music represents a particular time of day, a mood, a mytho-
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logical narrative and set of characters, and visual depictions that

include all these characteristics, it is specific in the way its symbols
work. A different raga, in the case of Indian music, represents some-
thing else. In East Asian Buddhist chant, by contrast, representation is
almost entirely abstract. The musical underpinning of chant is indis-
pensable, but repertories and even practices lend themselves to exten-
sive improvisation.4
Especially important to remember when considering the singularity of
music and the plurality of musics from a cross-cultural perspective is that
musical representation assumes many different forms, and it does so
within the same culture. Perhaps it is the narrative quality of music that is
more specific and the religious quality that is more abstract, which is gen-
erally the case in Western music. In one music culture (such as that of
Japan), the semiotics of music may be highly focused, whereas in another
(such as many music cultures in the Middle East), musics semiotic sig-
nificance may be entirely secondary. These semiotic distinctions become
obvious when we remember that the signs that represent the object
musicexpress meaning in culturally specific ways. The semiotics of
notationthe notes on the pagein Western or East Asian classical
musics have no parallel in cultures in which music is orally transmitted,
even when, as is often the case, other signs are used to provide references
to repertory, style, and performance. Signs are no less significant for con-
veying the subjective meanings of music, for example, when they provide
guidelines for the performative limits of music in dance and worship.
When ethnomusicologists study music as representation, therefore, they
are not trying to determine a set of signs that prescribe how and what

See Pi-yen Chen, The Chant of Purity: The Liturgical Chants of the Chinese Buddhism
(Middleton, Wisc.: A-R Editions, forthcoming).
210 Philip V. Bohlman

music represents. How music represents is constantly changing, and what

music represents differs vastly from one culture to the next.


Ethnomusicology is a discipline that emphasizes the representation of

those things that music is and is not. To understand better the diverse
ways in which music represents in these two contrasting ways, the
remainder of this article provides an outline or framework that contains
ten different types of musical representation. On one level, each one of
the ten can be understood as containing an object that music represents,
say a story or a particular cultural identity. On another level, each one of
the ten is a process that also tells us how music represents, say by stim-
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ulating the senses or giving power to those possessing the technologies of

representation. On still another level, the ten representational practices
allow us to recognize and understand distinctive ontologies of music, in
other words the different ways in which representation generates distinc-
tive concepts of what music really is or can be, and how it can be both
subject and object. Representation, thus, requires translationwhich
accounts for the differences between subjectivity and objectivity, self and
otherbut strives for solutions that identify and draw meaning from their
To permit comparison, I have divided the ten representational practices
into two groups whose relation is dialectical. In the first group we con-
sider practices in which music is charged with the ability to represent the
self or selfness; in the second group, we find the representation of the other
or otherness (see Figure 1). The two groups, furthermore, display a certain
tension, in which the representation of what music is as self has a dia-
ectical opposite as other. The comparisons from Group 1 (self) to Group 2

Group 1Self Group 2Other

Music Representing Music Music Representing beyond Music

1. Sound 1. Silence

2. Sign 2. Story

3. Structure 3. Senses

4. Secular/Everyday 4. Sacred

5. Self-Identity 5. Power

Figure 1. Ten ways in which music represents.

Music as Representation 211

(other) are intentionally parallel. This will become clear to readers when
they look at music as sound in the first group and compare it with music
as silence in the second. However, not all comparisons from group to
group are quite that straightforward, because, of course, the ways in
which music represents are not at all straightforward. It may be most
helpful to use the ten practices and the dialectical tension between the two
groups as a point of departure and a framework for embellishing and
expanding individual experiences.


Musics selfness is most fundamentally embedded in sound. In almost

simplistic terms, one could argue that, without sound, there would be
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no music. Whereas there is little consensus about what other physical

phenomena may contribute to musics being in the worldits phenome-
nologythere can be no question that sound is indispensable. Music
gives meaning to sound, and sound is the basis for understanding meaning
in music. Accordingly, there is an intensively and extensively intimate
relation between sound and music. They are mutually dependent.
Sound provides us with a means of representing by opening many pos-
sibilities of organization, and it is for this reason that ethnomusicologists
often offer as the basic definition of music that it is organized sound.
Implicit in such a definition is that representation depends on organization
and that we are able to recognize it largely when we understand patterns
organized in ways that produce order. If sound lends itself to organization
as music, noise serves as an opposing force that produces only chaos. In
the most literal sense, music cannot represent chaos, because it would
then not be acting as music.5 These may be rather fine points of meta-
physical distinction, but they are important if we are to understand just
which sounds become music when they are organized. Nature is one of
the primary places in which sound is believed to be organized. Music may
represent nature in both biological and physical termsin other words, as
sound produced by living organisms (e.g., birds, in many musical cul-
tures) or as the physical properties of sound, which are believed to be
ordered and organized (e.g., in the production of musical intervals by
increasing the frequency of sound waves). Sound is also a product of
Note, however, the somewhat different metaphysical property of noise in Jacques Attali,
Noise: The Political Economy of Music, trans. Brian Massumi (Minneapolis: University of Min-
nesota Press, 1985). In Attalis largely historical argument, the ways in which societies trans-
form noise into music affords social agency and political power to different social and economic
groups. Music, therefore, serves as an index forand hence, a means of representingthe
transformation of one era to the next, in which the political economy is more complex, but also
more fragmented and socially skewed.
212 Philip V. Bohlman

nature because it is given a special position in human communication. In

other words, when speech organizes sound, it also makes an essential
move toward becoming musical. In nature, music organizes sound by
mediating, by participating extensively in the processes of organization.6
Just where the organization of sound takes place determines how we
understand the ways in which it can represent. On one hand, the organiza-
tion of sound is a phenomenon of physics, in other words of the produc-
tion of sound. Its organization is thus implicit in its physical structure. On
the other hand, sound is a phenomenon of biologyand music particu-
larly a phenomenon of human biologyhence making the organization of
sound a property of reception rather than of production. Music becomes
representational not only because of what one hears but of how one hears
it. It is music, nonetheless, that connects and mediates between the pro-
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duction and the reception of sound. It is music that humans use as a tool
for determining what forms of organized sound will have meaning. It is
music that allows sound to provide a template for an expression of sonic
selfness that contributes beyond itself to the broader processes of organi-
zation that we call representation.


The absence of sound is given meaning by music. The sonic characteris-

tics of music serve to establish boundaries when they encounter silence,
that is, when music ceases to sound. The question to consider here is
whether the silence that we experience once sound ceases becomes then a
part of musics selfness, or whether indeed it begins to lead us into that
which lies beyond music itself, into what we have been considering as
musical otherness in this article. The answer to the conundrum of what
music means when it represents silence is one central to ethnomusicol-
ogy, for that answer is highly culture specific.
We have already seen in the previous section that Western concepts of
music take the sounded characteristics of music and their organization as
a given.7 In other cultures, that is often not the case. In Western music
silence begins only when sound ceases, and this means, moreover, that
silence has no real independence from sound. We know this when we
consider rests in Western music, which simply occupy a place between
the end of one set of sounds and the beginning of the next. The musical
universe in Western aesthetics, thus, is at all times busy, with organized

See, for example, Steven Feld, Sound and Sentiment: Birds, Weeping, Poetics, and Song in
Kaluli Expression, 2nd ed. (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1990).
See, for example, John Cage, Silence: Lectures and Writings (Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan
University Press, 1961).
Music as Representation 213

sound occurring even in classical and medieval models of music in the

harmony of the spheres. The inability to think of silence separately is evi-
dent in the ways we speak about it in the West; for example, in the obser-
vation that it was so silent one could hear a pin drop. Whether or not we
accept the inherent contradiction of defining musics otherness in terms of
its selfnesswe have to hear something in order to recognize silence
the difficulty of representing silence is clear.
There are other music cultures, however, in which representing silence
is fundamental to the concept of music. The best known example of such
a music culture may well be that of Japan, which by extension owes its
concept of silence in music to religious and aesthetic traditions elsewhere
in East Asia. In Japanese music, silence has the name ma, which is better
translated as emptiness than as silence.8 The emptiness of ma exists on
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its own, and the listener focuses attention on the vastness that emptiness
can be. It is not a moment outside or beyond music through which one
moves to reach sound again, but rather a moment within music that asks
us to listen beyond sound. Listening beyond sound is really the crucial
point, because when we think about silence in this way, we realize that
music has itself entered several new metaphysical levels: those evident in
musics interaction with religion, with the human senses, and with human
experience. The point is that music represents silence by representing
much, much more. By studying the ways music also represents silence,
we therefore dramatically multiply the ways in which we understand how
music allows us to understand the many musical traits lying outside music


That music is more than sound and silence is evident in the many ways
signs are used to represent it. The use of signs further suggests the wide-
spread concept that music does not effectively represent itself, but rather
humans prefer to employ an intermediary level of representation that
draws the selfness of music closer to us only through translation. In this
section, I distinguish between two different uses of signs to represent
music. In the first, music is imagined to function like a language, hence
opening the possibility of describing music and even writing it as if it
were a language, with smaller and larger linguistic units. In the second,
signs are used simply to create a substitute for music, but indeed a substi-
tute that explains what music is through other media, especially visual

See William P. Malm, Six Hidden Views of Japanese Music (Berkeley: University of California
Press, 1986).
214 Philip V. Bohlman

The linguistic analysis of music has one of two different names

semiology or semioticsthe differences of which are not essential for
understanding the importance they have exerted on analytical thought.9
The belief that music and language are related and that they overlap has a
long history, but it was the French-Swiss linguist, Ferdinand de Saussure,
who distinguished the ways in which language can provide a framework
for representing things other than language, including music.10 Saussures
theory of semiology has been especially valuable in historical musicology
and ethnomusicology because it recognizes that signs actually give social
meaning to cultural practices. Music, therefore, represents by communi-
cating something about society.
Peircean semiotics (named after Charles Sanders Peirce), by contrast,
treats signs as markers for something else, even for something else that is
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not immediately present.11 Peircean signs are more objective than linguis-
tic in their functions, and accordingly they do not insist on an assertion
that signs, in and of themselves, tell us how music functions in society. At
first glance, it might seem as if the Saussurean emphasis on social func-
tion and linguistic system would be more appealing to ethnomusicologists
than the Peircean emphasis on traces and icons that stand in for music, but
in fact it is the opposite that is true.12 It is indeed the case that Western
thinking about music more often imagines that music functions like lan-
guage, but the moment non-Western thinking is introduced, the more neu-
tral role of Peircean signs has more utility.
The use of notation to represent music quite obviously relies on the
belief in literate societies that it is possible to understand musical meaning
by replacing sounds with signs. Notation, though it is learned at an early
age in literate societies, may be so extensive as to replace hearing music
with reading music. Arguably, the sign systems of notation make it
possible to experience music after dispensing with sound altogether. Eth-
nomusicologists have a tendency to distrust notation as an inadequate or
misleading sign system, which is one of the reasons that most ethnomusi-
cologists modify notational systems to suit the music they are transcrib-
ing. Ethnomusicology also multiplies the types of signs and sign systems
it uses: Anthropological ethnomusicologists integrate ethnographic sign

See Kofi Agawu, The Challenge of Semiotics, in Rethinking Music, ed. Nicholas Cook
and Mark Everist (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), 138160.
Ferdinand de Saussure, Cours de linguistique gnrale [1916], critical edition, ed. by Tullio
de Mauro (Paris: Payot, 1972).
Charles Sanders Peirce, Collected Papers of Charles Sandres Peirce, 8 vol., ed. C. Harsshorne,
P. Weiss, and A. W. Burks (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 19311966).
See, for example, Harold Powers, Language Models and Musical Analysis, Ethnomusi-
cology 25/1 (1980), 160; and Jean-Jacques Nattiez, Music and Discourse: Toward a Semiology
of Music, trans. Carolyn Abbate (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1990).
Music as Representation 215

systems into their descriptions of music; systematic ethnomusicologists

make extensive use of electronic means of measuring sound, which they
then represent with graphs and tables of sound waves, acoustical qualities,
and even pitch movement. The concern for just what it is that signs repre-
sent is one of the reasons that field recording is a crucial point of depar-
ture for ethnomusicologists; by recording, ethnomusicologists rely on a
sonic sign system to which they can turn again and again, and on which
they can run experiments. Signs mark the space of transition and transla-
tion between music and its representation, hence between music as sub-
ject and object, and they thus are indispensable not only to representation
itself but to the conviction that improving representation is possible only
by refining the use of signs.
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Societies throughout the world turn to music to tell their stories and
record their histories. Music represents through narrative in two ways that
reveal the extent to which we allow music to reach far beyond itself and
rework stories so that they are made more meaningful. These two narra-
tive possibilities of music and the ways in which their similarities and dif-
ferences overlap are already evident when we distinguish them in several
languages. In English, the distinction is clearer when we employ the terms
story and history, but in other languages the narrative power of music
is not as easy to disentangle from the commonplace names for narrative
(storia and storia in Italian, or Geschichte and Geschichte in German). To
understand the distinction in musics narrativity it is helpful to think of
two different kinds of representation. First, music may represent through
narrative by serving as a context, which allows music to be a participant
in the sociopolitical changes we call history. Second, music may itself
provide the text for a story, in other words the material that tells a story,
by representing it in ways unique to music. Clearly, just how music tells a
story is very complex, for in order to tell a story, music must combine
many ways of representing what lies beyond itself.
Just as different societies and cultures understand their histories in dif-
ferent ways, so too is music used to represent history in different ways. If
history is imagined through the telling of mythological tales, music often
provides a context for performance. The mythological cycles of Hindu-
ism, the Ramaya0a and the Mahabharata, are musically performed in
South and Southeast Asia, that is, in the classical musics of India and
Indonesia. Mythological cycles often produce epics, which in turn may be
transformed into more canonic historical texts, and music, again as a per-
formance medium, may contribute extensively to the transformation. The
various mythological-historical cycles that distinguish the cultures of the
216 Philip V. Bohlman

Mediterranean, from the Odyssey to Tristan to the Hillali epics of North

Africa to El Cid are inseparable from musics performative connection to
Music may acquire its power to tell stories by organizing the text of
stories in musical ways. Ballads, one of the most important genres of
musical narrative in European folk music, function in this way. It is com-
mon for the words of a ballad to be organized according to scenes in a
story or even scenes in a drama, each one of which may be shaped by the
melody into a strophe. The narrative practice of music we sometimes call
program music represents stories in even more deliberate ways. The
symphonic tone poem in European classical music, for example, is com-
posed to represent a place or a person, or perhaps an historical event.
Chinese instrumental genres, such as those played on the family of zithers
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known as qin, or on plucked lutes such as the pipa, frequently announce

in their titles that they represent nature or a battle in an early period of his-
tory. The representational power of music is even more directly expressed
in Chinese instrumental music, for Chinese musical notationadapted
from the ideograms used in writing the Chinese languageis highly
When music tells stories and provides further contextual evidence for
history, it does so by weaving many different kinds of representation
together. On one level, music may represent through sound itself; on
another level it may rely on the semiotic characteristics of signsfor
example, the inscriptions on musical instruments played by circumpolar
cultures, such as, the Saami of northern Scandinavia and Russia. There
may be still other levels in which music incorporates visual depictions,
for example, when ballads are circulated on broadsides with pictures also
printed on them, or when epic cycles are performed as dramas, such as the
different genres of wayang in Java. It is for such reasons that we rely on
music to draw us closer to history, to help us tell again the stories about
our own past, and about peoples and times we can no longer experience
directly. When music tells a story, it draws both its narrative evidence and
its listeners closer together, and thus also draws self and other closer


Of all the assumptions we make when we attempt to represent music,

none would seem to result from common sense more than our belief that
music has structure. Once we establish what the structure of any given
music is, it is the task of musical scholars to represent that structure in
such a way that its logic and order are apparent in some kind of universal
language. The basis of structure in music, however, may not be quite as
Music as Representation 217

simple as all that. There may be no real reason to assume that the music of
every culture possesses structural unity; in fact, there are musics in the
world that may demonstrate the lack of structureeven chaosquite
extensively. My interest here is not to argue for or against the presence or
absence of structure in music, but rather to examine the ways in which the
assumption that music has structure has generated analytical approaches
that formalize vocabularies emphasizing what is often called simply sys-
System has both musical and cultural components. Until recently,
anthropologyespecially social anthropology, but also cultural anthro-
pologyhad assumed that cultures were organized around systems (for
example, kinship systems) that told us who was related to whom and by
extension how societies reproduced themselves. Musical systems can be
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recognized by the names we give to them when we analyze them accord-

ing to modes or scales, or create categories that identify form or
genre. Ethnomusicologists work from the conviction that systems are
isomorphic, which is to say that the society we refer to by a name that
indicates its high degree of organization also has a musical system that
reflects the same degree of organization.13 In Turkish culture, then,
there are musical structures that produce Turkish music. That the repre-
sentation of structure through systems is open to criticism goes without
saying, and yet there seems to be no retreat from methods that emphasize
the analysis of structure.
The use of representation to identify the structures that produce sys-
tems has provided the essential framework for the ethnomusicological
study of non-Western art musics, especially those of Asia: for example,
Indian or Indonesian classical musics. It is noteworthy that when structure
generates system, the result is a complex music, which we then call art or
classical music. Complexity is unquestionably important if representation
is to be applied to the systems of Asian art music. Not only is it critical to
transcribe performances according to maqam (Arabic classical music),
radif (Persian classical music), or raga (Indian classical music), but anal-
ysis proceeds by fitting every piece or performance into one part of the
system or another.
There are even approaches to ethnomusicology in which virtually
all analytical work is carried out to allow experimentation with repre-
sentation. Notable here is the school of systematic musicology that
long dominated Central European ethnomusicology, a school called
systematisch-vergleichende Musikwissenschaft. Some of the most
important analysis in ethnomusicology comes from the major figures

See Thomas Turino, Structure, Context, and Strategy in Musical Ethnography, Ethno-
musicology 34/3 (1990), 399412.
218 Philip V. Bohlman

in this field, such as Slovak scholar Oskr Elschek and German

scholar Albrecht Schneider, who together edit the journal System-
atische Musikwissenschaft.14 In systematic musicology, the representa-
tion of musical structure using mechanical meanssonograms or
computer-generated imagesoften precedes and even replaces the rep-
resentation of cultural structures. Order and system are not only placed
in the center of every analytical product, but the representational tech-
niques needed to keep system at the center are constantly refined to
confirm the dominance of structure in music.


One of ethnomusicologys major contributions to an expanded under-

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standing of what music is and can be has been its examination of musics
presence in and influence on the body. Ethnomusicologists look not only
at the effect of music on the emotions, but how the emotions are repre-
sented specifically through musical characteristics. For ethnomusicolo-
gists, the senses acquire physical meaningin other words, they are
inseparable from the way the human body participates in all acts of music
making. When ethnomusicologists think about music as humanly orga-
nized sound, they are also making a claim for musics ability to represent
the body. Music represents, therefore, because it can effectively embody
the senses.
The musical representation of the senses has two basesbiological
and emotional. These two forms of representing the senses are wide-
spread throughout many music cultures, but significantly they show dif-
ferent nuances from culture to culture. They therefore reveal an almost
universal recognition that the body is a source for producing music, and at
the same time is affected by music because it is also the physical site
where music is perceived. The physical relation between the production
and perception of music is extremely significant for certain ontological
concepts of music. The performance of zikr (remembrance, i.e., the
extended repetition of the name of Allah to draw the body closer to Allah
in Islam) unfolds as a physical process accelerated by singing, dancing,
and even hyperventilation to heighten the sense of euphoria.15 The extent
to which musics biological properties shape beliefs in musics efficacy
and impact on human beings is also clearly evident in the frequent use of
Oskr Elschek, Musikforschung der Gegenwart, 2 vols. (Vienna: E. Stieglemayer, 1992);
Albrecht Schneider, Psychological Theory and Comparative Musicology, in Comparative
Musicology and Anthropology of Music: Essays on the History of Ethnomusicology, ed. Bruno Nettl
and Philip V. Bohlman (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991), 293317.
Gilbert Rouget, Music and Trance: A Theory of the Relations between Music and Possession,
trans. Brunhilde Biebuyck (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985).
Music as Representation 219

music to heal.16 In shamanistic societies and religions, the music-making

shaman (a religious healer with magical powers) may even enter the body
of the patient. The field of music therapy may be more scientifically
grounded than shamanism, but it nonetheless accepts that music can and
does directly change and heal the body.
The representation of music as emotion often reveals biological
associations of music with the body, but it also extends and multiplies
the way in which musics representational capability is understood.
The most difficult question posed by the representation of emotions is
whether musics potential to be reduced to systems is parallel to a sim-
ilar systemic basis for emotions. A musical vocabulary with a specific
syntax for individual emotions was codified in the eighteenth-century
European notion of a doctrine of affections (Affektenlehre in German).
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That system of representing senses differs, nonetheless, from the

associationboth specific and generalof Indian modes, or ragas, with
certain emotional states. The Indian raga does not so much codify as
provide a framework for emotions, which are also evident in the other
attributes of raga, such as association with a time of day or a mytho-
logical story. Linguistic anthropologists working in ethnomusicology,
notably Steven Feld, far more systematically investigate the ways that
music represents specific senses, recognizing and describingas Feld
did among the Kaluli people of Papua New Guineathat music may
function almost as a language that allows humans to express their
emotions.17 The ways in which music represents the senses assumes
many different forms, and these challenge ethnomusicologists to
refine their methods and expand their understanding of just how music


Are all human beings musical? Do we find music in the everyday worlds
of all human beings? Ethnomusicology answers both questions positively,
and by doing so it embraces a belief in the power of music to represent
that distinguishes it from other types of musical scholarship. Long before
modern ethnomusicology had developed, the recognition that there were
musical practices we would today call folk music was based on the belief
that music could represent the everyday. When Johann Gottfried Herder
actually used the term folk song (Volkslied) for the first time in the
1770s, he did so to describe as many activities as possible as musical and

Marina Roseman, Healing Sounds from the Malaysian Rainforest: Temiar Music and Medi-
cine (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991).
Feld, Sound and Sentiment.
220 Philip V. Bohlman

to associate those activities with all kinds of people throughout the

The idea that music was representational was very clear in Herders
formulation, for he described folk songs as the voices of the people in
songs. Folk song, in fact, formed at the border between speech and
music, where it took the form of what he and many others since have
called poesy. Scholars of folk song in the nineteenth century believed
that folk songs reflected the ways people spoke every day, in their dialects
or with the images they used to represent their everyday worlds. Folk
song was, therefore, a mirror of the everyday. Just as different individuals
passed through the day in different ways, different types of folk song
developed. Work songs were specific to the labors of different workers.
Children sang songs that differed from those sung by adults. All such
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songs, however, represented the interaction of human beings with the

worlds in which they lived every day.
Special repertories developed from the interaction with the everyday
world. The changing activities of the everyday during the course of
annual working cycles in rural societies formed the basis for calendric
songs, such as those for harvest. The rites of passage and rituals in a
society also gave birth to special repertories of music. In fact, a ritual also
may be interpreted as a departure from the everyday, but the important
point for us to keep in mind is that music has a way of representing the
everyday aspects of ritual by turning it into a shared cultural experience,
what Victor Turner would call communitas19 or what Pierre Bourdieu
would call habitus.20 Music and ritual interact to represent the very edges
of the everyday, those borders between the secular and the sacred.
Some of the most important folk music scholars and ethnomusicolo-
gists have been concerned with how music represents the everyday.
German folk song scholar Ernst Klusen was especially interested in the
way music was crucial to the formation of groups, both small and large,
within the contexts of everyday society. In ethnomusicology itself, it was
John Blacking who most forcefully claimed that what made music special
was the way all human beings used it to represent the everyday. In his
book, How Musical Is Man?, Blacking developed a theory that the
presence of music throughout human societies was species specific.21 In
other words, one of the things that all human beings do is turn to the
world around them with music. It is one of the most distinctive goals of
See especially Johann Gottfried Herder, Stimmen der Vlker in Liedern (Leipzig:
Weygandsche Buchhandlung, 1778) and Volkslieder (Leipzig: Weygandsche Buchhandlung, 1779).
Victor Turner, The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure (Chicago: Aldine, 1969).
Pierre Bourdieu, Outline of a Theory of Practice, trans. Richard Nice (Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press, 1977).
John Blacking, How Musical Is Man? (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1973).
Music as Representation 221

ethnomusicology to perceive and describe music in the everyday, and that

goal is one of the motivations for the spread of ethnomusicological theory
to study popular music more and more intensively at the beginning of the
twenty-first century.


The secular qualities of the everyday belong to the self, while by contrast
the sacred belongs to a realm of otherness. Precisely because the sacred is
found at such a distance in the realm of otherness, it must be drawn closer
to the self to be effective in religion. It is for this reason that music is so
important as a means of representing the sacred: Music mediates the dis-
tance between the secular and sacred worlds, drawing them closer
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together. More to the point of this article, music is especially good at rep-
resenting the sacred, and it is for that reason that virtually every culture
and religion recognizes the sacred attributes of music itself. When music
unleashes wonder, strengthens prayer, or accompanies the performance of
sacred texts, it functions to represent the sacred. Histories of music in
many cultures, moreover, may be fundamental examinations of the con-
stantly changing responses to musics ability to represent the sacred. The
history of music in South Asia, for example, takes the notion that Vedic
chant can represent the order of the universe in its embodiment of the
intoned and unwavering fundamental pitch of um. The migrations of
music as a component of ritual lend themselves to interpretation of the
historical longue dure of exchange between South and Southeast Asia.22
Even Western music history unfolds along a metaphysical path, along
which each milestone also reveals different attitudes toward representing
the sacred.
Music represents the sacred in two different ways. We might refer to
the first way as mediation. In other words, music is conceived to occupy
the space between the everyday and sacred world, and functions to trans-
form the meanings of the sacred so that they are understood on a more
human, everyday level. Many of the concepts of music that we find in the
cultures of indigenous peoples in the Americas demonstrate these mediat-
ing functions. The Native American peoples of the Great Plains of North
America encounter the musical pieces in their repertories by experiencing
them in dreams, where animals often sing them as songs. Animals were
previously important figures in Native American religion, hence, the
songs that Plains people experience through the mediation of dreams even
allow them to lay claim to such songs as personal compositions. The Suy
people of the Brazilian Amazon, too, understand song as a form of mediation
See, for example, Kartomi, Tabut, 141162.
222 Philip V. Bohlman

between sacred realms, and again there are various processes of exchange
that represent the importance of nature in Suy religion.23
The second way in which music represents the sacred is by enhancing
the intelligibility of the voice of a sacred being. Without music, under-
standing the voice of the sacred being might be entirely impossible. It is
for this reason that music is rarely absent from the performance of
revealed texts, such as the Quran in Islam. Whether read in silence and
privately by a Muslim worshiper or collectively in the cyclical perfor-
mance of an annual liturgical cycle, the Quran must be performed with
musical alteration of the texts themselves.24 The Muslim worshiper, then,
hears the voice of God in the Quran as a musical voice. It is perhaps of
additional importance that the musical performance of the Quran is not
called music, as if music itself undergoes a transformation when it repre-
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sents the revealed voice of Allah. Music plays a crucial role in many reli-
gions in the formation of canonical sacred texts, from the Jewish and
Christian bibles to the brahmanic texts of Hinduism to the daily rituals
chanted by Buddhists throughout the world. These canonical sacred texts,
finally, are testaments to the extensive ways in which music can represent
the sacred.


One of the most significant turns in ethnomusicological scholarship in the

closing decades of the twentieth century was the study of how music rep-
resents self-identity, thus, how music actually contributes to what has
been called the construction of the self.25 The classificatory schema in
Figure 1 suggests a series of practices that represent selfness, but it is with
this final concept that we reach a point of culmination, which might well
be a representational moment in the present history of ethnomusicology
when we compare it to its dialectic partner, power, in the following
Self-identity results when an individual or a society believes it can own
music, when its representational practices are based on the claim that my
music is not and cannot be their music.26 It is possible to own music
only when music acquires the attributes of an object and is represented in
such a way that its self-identity is made entirely obvious. Ownership
Anthony Seeger, Why Suy Sing: A Musical Anthropology of an Amazonian People [1987]
(Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2004).
Kristina Nelson, The Art of Reciting the Quran (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1985).
See, for example, Martin Stokes, ed., Ethnicity, Identity and Music: The Musical Construc-
tion of Place (Oxford: Berg Publishers, 1994).
See Susan D. Crafts, Daniel Cavicchi, Charles Keil, and the Music in Daily Life Project,
My Music (Hanover: University Press of New England, 1993).
Music as Representation 223

becomes possible when, for example, a song transmitted through oral tra-
dition is transformed into a recording or a written version, both of which
can be purchased and owned. When a decision is made about letting
music represent self-identitysay, the self-identity of a nation with
national musica process of producing and reproducing the musical
object often follows.
Music may represent a self-identity that is very individual or a group
identity that expresses the common culture of a larger collective. The
expression of identity through music, however, is the product of paradox,
and because of that paradox we learn a great deal about how music repre-
sents. In a nutshell, the paradox is that self-identity is not immanent or
authentic, but it is imagined to be. National songs as often as not come
from outside the nation, but this does not in the least diminish their power
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to represent the self-identity of the nation for those who sing them.27 The
problem derives from what I have been calling the representational para-
dox throughout this article: If selfness does not exist, then music provides
a means of constructing it. The meaning of self-identity in music depends
more on what self is not than what self really is. There must be some kind
of investment in constructing self-identity with music, and that invest-
ment is clearest when music makes the identity of the self historically
more and more different from the identity of the other.


Because music is represented with so many different, even contradictory

attributes, it possesses considerable potential for the displacement of
power. The displacement occurs socially, but differently according to
whether a group of people is making music or instead using music toward
specific social and cultural ends. In some measure, those with the means
to representthe resources to travel to the culture of the other, the
finances to invest in technologyacquire power while, those whose
music is being represented sacrifice power. If the representational prac-
tices that produce power through the control of otherness are the final
ones we consider in this article, it is not because the accumulation of
power through representation is coincidental. Quite the contrary, the dis-
placement of power is fully present in the previous nine practices, albeit
to varying degrees. It is in the tenth practice, however, that it becomes
absolutely clear that representation shifts power to self by taking it,
through acts of representation, from the other.

See Philip V. Bohlman, World Music: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford Univer-
sity Press, 2002), 88110.
224 Philip V. Bohlman

The exercise of power, including its abuse, accompanies the encounter

of ethnomusicologists with the societies we study. Occasionally, the soci-
eties we study while engaged in fieldwork take steps to prevent the exer-
cise of power through representations, for example, when they prohibit
the making of sound and video recordings. More often, the potential of
representation to enable the ethnomusicologist to take something from a
society is very great. My point here is not to shift the focus of this article
to ethics, but rather to draw attention to the fact that it is representation
itself that skews or shifts the balance of power. The words and perfor-
mances of informants fill the pages of the ethnomusicologists publica-
tionsmeaning in another society provides the texts of books for which
the ethnomusicologist holds the copyright and earns royalties. The ethno-
musicologist may give voice to voiceless peoples, but how often do the
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voiceless people really acquire a voice of their own?

Ethnomusicologists recognize that representation far too often leads to
the unequal distribution of power. It is for this reason that it is increas-
ingly common for ethnomusicologists to return to those they have studied
to show them just how they have been represented, tacitly or explicitly
asking for approval. Ethnomusicologists may even share money earned
through selling recordings and other media of representation with those
who were recorded; Anthony Seeger, to take a case in point, has returned
earnings from the recordings of the Suy people of the Brazilian Amazon
to the Suy themselves. Ethnomusicologists also transform their concern
for the unequal distribution of power into political activism, even assum-
ing the role of political spokesperson for the oppressed.28 The representa-
tional practices required by such activism may, in fact, be different from
those that translate sound into signs, or stories and structures into narra-
tive and systematic language. To address the issues of power, ethnomusi-
cologists raise questions about the inadequacy of representational
practices and they approach the problem of representation from ever-
changing perspectives. In so doing, they restlessly pursue the possibilities
and paradoxes of reducing the distance between self and other.


The ways in which music represents or is represented that I propose as a

framework in this article are meant to be inclusive rather than exclusive.
There are certain things that music represents that many readers may have
expected to find, but that appear not to have been included. There is no
section devoted to musical representation in nature, for example,

See, for example, the essays in Music and the Racial Imagination, ed. Ronald Radano and
Philip V. Bohlman (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000).
Music as Representation 225

though I do mention natural attributes of music at several points. I also

refer to the cosmological processes that some people believe music repre-
sents: for example, the medieval European scientific theories holding that
music represented the order of the universe. Though I recognize that
music has the representational attributes of both subject and object, I do
not create a category of the representation of musical works in either of
the groups I discuss.29 Time, too, might have been objectified in ways
that allow us to address how music represents it. There is also no category
to reflect modern Western notions of so-called absolute music, which
develop from a nineteenth- and early twentieth-century philosophy claim-
ing that complex music is in fact nonrepresentational.
Such subjective and objective attributes both do and do not fit in the
categories and groups I have been outlining in this article.30 The represen-
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tation of nature often reflects ideas not unlike the representation of the
sacred. The representation of the order of the universe often treats music
as a physical object, with abstract structural characteristics. In each such
case, the representational question is not so much about how as about
what, and in this article I have suggested that ethnomusicologys exten-
sive incorporation of representational practices results from its greater
concern for questions of how. In this way, the field of ethnomusicology
differs from other musical disciplines, in which whatmusical works
or nature, for instanceshapes ideas about music as representation.
The representational attributes that generate ethnomusicological theory
and practice are neither exclusive nor fixed, but rather they overlap with one
another. Critical to ethnomusicological thinking is the recognition that music
draws from and depends on multiple attributes when representing. Ethnomu-
sicology does not ignore questions of what, or for that matter of where
or when. Instead, it recognizes the ways in which representation also
depends on these questions. Quite literally, questions of what, where, and
when lead to an even more engaged concern for music as representation, and
that is why ethnomusicology refuses to ignore such questions. Perhaps most
important, such questions about representation show just how extensively
music possesses wide-ranging and complex representational attributes. Eth-
nomusicology formulates these questions as a complex, which intentionally
allows us to consider representation as globally as possible, recognizing that
the field changes as ideas about representation change.
The wealth of representational practices notwithstanding, ethnomusi-
cologists also are distinguished by the critical stance they take toward

See, for example, Lydia Goehr, The Imaginary Museum of Musical Works: An Essay in the
Philosophy of Music (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992).
For a discussion of the distinction of classes of meaning within classification, see
Kartomi, On Concepts and Classification, 1624.
226 Philip V. Bohlman

representation. No ethnomusicologist is willing to accept the possibility

of a single representational attribute, such as the objective limitations of
transcription in Western notation. Nor is any ethnomusicologist willing to
employ forms of representation that make absolute claims for authentic-
ity. Though we invest money and time in the development of technologies
of representation, we worry about the ways in which these are becoming
ineffective almost as soon as they accompany us to the field or take their
place in a sound laboratory. It might well be the case that ethnomusicol-
ogy is overly obsessed with the constant need to respond to the surfeit of
representational attributes immanent in the object music and the potential
to represent more than itself shaping the subject music.
The questions raised throughout this article about what music is and
what it becomes when its meanings extend beyond itself have answers
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that are inseparable from ethnomusicologys representational paradoxes,

but it is those paradoxestheir persistence and their thorny resistance to
resolutionthat urge us to think critically about what we as ethnomusi-
cologists do, and remind us never to abandon concerns about the reflexive
positions we occupy in the field of ethnomusicology. Clearly, it is this
very possibility that a deeper and more critically detailed approach to
rethinking music as representation at an historical moment of massive
globalization that this essay takes as a challenge for all who transform the
rich lessons of modern musical scholarship into action.