World Musics in Music Education: The Matter of Authenticity1

When a music is transferred out of its original culture,2 it begins to lose some of its essential qualities. All teachers of world music, even those highly experienced, are confronted with matters of authenticity and compromise. That compromise may be inevitable is not at issue. The primary question is to what degree compromise is acceptable before the essence of a music is lost and no longer representative of the tradition under study. Also, since music is a dynamic phenomenon, much process as product, what is @@died in the classroom is bound to fall short of actual occurrences in the indigenous setting, i.e., the culture or subculture. An excellent example can be found in Bruno Nettl's account of "cultural interaction, acculturation, transculturation" that was not expected with an American Indian Powwow (The Western Impact on World Music: Change, Adaptation, and Survival, New York: Schirmer Books, 1985). He makes the point that Native American music is still taught too often as a static and unchanging phenomenon, while in reality dynamic processes are continually present and the music is constantly in flux.

Of course, when music is transferred from one culture to another at least a modicum of original flavor will be retained (as one example, music from Sub-Saharan Africa is probably going to contain certain identifiable textual features). Much like foods from other countries, however, which retain outward forms but lose their inner content in taste by the substitution and omission of certain spices, music also may suffer the lost of its most prized traits -- different tunings, timbres, language, and musical expression that make it unique and reflective of a specific culture. This discussion is concerned with these issues and with the attempt to retain sufficient content of the original to serve its purpose in representing a group of people and place that give a music -- in all its specificities -- meaning.

To further this discussion, a working definition of authenticity may be proposed. Absolute Authenticity can be defined as follows:

  1. Performance by the practitioners, recognized gen the culture as artistic and representative.
  2. Use of instruments as by the composer or group ere music.
  3. Use of the correct language as specified by the composer or group creating the music.
  4. Performance for an made up of the culture's members.
  5. Performance in a setting normally encountered in the culture.

The authenticity-compromise construct is not an either-or proposition but a continuum on intra- and intercultural levels with relationship to chronological periods and geographical location. It is not meant to preclude or proscribe world for educational purposes. In fact, application of the definition is designed to raise questions that are germane to cross-cultural education in music.

Taking music from one culture to another with the intent of retaining its original values, then, is of primary concern. The crux of the matter is this: When any music is removed from its native habitat, even by the culture's practitioners, the dynamics of the musical process of communication begin to change. To the degree that several of the parameters change, we alter the original. Particularly when music is transferred to the classroom for study, a high degree of authenticity is in greater jeopardy. In the process of studying music, the emphasis is frequently intellectual rather than holistic. In other words, the music's cultural aspects, aesthetic dimensions, sociological parameters, and psychological affects are suppressed in favor of the development of cognitive structures.

Factors that affect authenticity are as follows:

  1. Setting, both acoustical and socio-cultural, including use of recordings, videos, and films instead of live music.
  2. Language problems such as translations, inappropriate text underlays, or lack of intimate knowledge of the language.
  3. Changes from the original media.
  4. Simplified versions and other didactic adjustments.
  5. Performers lacking in training by authentic practitioners of the style, leading to questionable stylistic practices and the introduction of foreign cultural structures such as tunings, harmonizations, arrangements, etc.

While awareness of these factors may assist the teacher to select musical experiences with critical discrimination, the ultimate musical and cultural choice rests on the integrity, sensitivity, and education of the teacher. Choices require careful consideration of the attendant problems and extensive experience within transcultural parameters.

Because the classroom is at least once removed from the real experience under study, it frequently presents a sterile environment for authentic music experience. At best, understandings can be tested by exploring questions of authenticity, a matter of no small im portance in the interactive triad of teacher-student-music. Negatively, a classroom experience can so misrepresent a music tradition that it appears musically boring or uninteresting, of poor quality in substance or performance, incoherent in its structure, simple-minded, lacking in cultural values, and laughable in its pretence at being "music". Under this worst scenario, the student is discouraged from pursuing any further listening and other interactive experience with that particular music.

Translating texts into one's own language can also act as a barrier to learning about the other culture. Language is so intertwined with the cultural and historical experience of a people that to reject their words is to turn away from their habits and customs, their daily rhythms, their attitudes and values, the very substance one wants to observe and absorb.

Changes from the original media also alter music in a significant manner. Artistic expression weakens when it becomes generalized. One thing that we must not forget about art is its undeniable and crucial need for specificity. One cannot reproduce Chagall's Magic Flute by approximating his blues; one cannot play vibrato approximately for Mozart; the very essence of gamelan is the special sound of its bronze instruments-for which no wood can substitute-and their special tunings, so different from western scales. To give students a pale imitation is to give them an ersatz experience. In its most fundamental form, art is sensual and experiential; only later are conscious abstracts applied that generalize the experience for future reference. This immediacy of the object must be held sacred if we wish to bring alive the richness of each experience.

The foregoing also applies to simplifications of music for didactic purposes. There is no empirical evidence to show that such simplifications increase the students' musical abilities and achievement levels, or their understandings and appreciation of the music. Simplifications are generally based on the felt need to have students perform certain works. Yet there are few instances where less demanding music of the same genre and musical values cannot be found. There is much to make of the idea that simplifications lessen the quality of a work and render its musical values less effective. Examples could easily be brought to mind: Mozart symphonies excerpted and simplified for school orchestras (and not played at tempo, compounding the problem); melodies of music of the south Pacific divorced from their rich polyphonic contexts. At the very best, all these must be recognized only as a means to the original, if the original is part of the same instructional scheme.

Adjustments for didactic reasons may also include, in addition to changes in tunings, adding harmonizations where none exist, using the piano to accompany purely vocal and percussion forms, and myriad other adaptations. AU of these do damage to the original, if we consider all parameters of the musical entity to be of communicative and cultural value. This latter is the key to authenticity: if all aspects of a musical performance are considered in terms of their socio-cultural, communicative, and personal meaning dimensions, then it is precisely those aspects that one would want to retain in any translation of music from one culture to another.

There are obviously many problems in maintaining authenticity, and it is equally obvious that compromises have to be made in all teaching. The keys to the solution of these problems are qualifications and sensitivities of the teacher. The more qualified and sensitive a teacher becomes, the fewer mistakes one might make in bringing world musics to the classroom. To understand the pitfalls of the task one need only reverse the cultural view- point; imagine, for example a Brahms motet sung in the nasalized B@ese style of singing. Unless caution is continually exercised, Western teachers can easily make the same sort of errors with regard to other musics.


(1) Adapted from an article with the same title, International Journal of Music Education, May 1991.

(2) One could examine cultures from the viewpoint of time as well as space. Need it be said that Viennese culture of the eighteenth century or Roman culture of the sixteenth century both require attention to matters of authenticity

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Last modified on Friday, 03/05/2013

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