One frequently hears questions such as: Why do different races generally listen to specific genres of music? Why do music genres have a huge racial divide?
In societies obsessed with and manipulated by the notion of race, these questions are understandable. But it is also understandable that, for many forward-thinking people, they are highly troubling.
It says a lot about our state of mind that we have become used to linking matters to race even if they don’t have a racial basis.
Our preferences for specific musical genres do not have a basis in our genetic makeup, if one regards race as a genetically determined phenomenon. We should take delight because in respect of music, there is only one race: the human race.
It has to come as a tremendously liberating realisation that music is one of the attributes that makes humans human. By engaging in music, humans articulate their humanness and – even more so – their humanity. They have done so since the dawn of humankind in Africa.
If that is so, how are we to understand the undeniable existence of different musical genres? As humans dispersed out of Africa and across the world, they took their culture with them. As they dispersed, they lost contact with their respective cultures. And since the new environments they encountered differed vastly from one another, a great diversity of cultures developed in response – and continue to develop all the time.
So, the existence of different genres has to be regarded as a manifestation of our cultural diversity and not of our racial makeup. Even if it so happens that cultural diversity is, or has been, coincidental with the various human “races” as they evolved, musical diversity has to be seen as culture-specific, not race-specific.
What makes a music genre
In music, as in other arts, the word “genre” is not used consistently. In literature, the term can be used to distinguish between poetry, a novel or a play. In painting, between a landscape and a portrait, or between oil and water colour. For that reason, medium, style and form are additional terms that can help us to distinguish between different kinds of art.
Jazz, rock or classical are terms frequently used to distinguish between different “genres” of music. But they could also be described as different “styles”. In that sense, “style” would denote the more general and “genre” the more specific characteristics of the music concerned. Be that as it may, it is helpful to regard “genre” as a description of the social function of music.
For example, a hit song may be in the same style as a musical, but the two have different functions. Similarly, a symphony fulfils a different function than an opera.
It is also important to understand that when one likes a piece of music, when it becomes meaningful to a particular person, some of the meaning of that song will inhere in the style or genre in which it is composed or performed. If I am into jazz and loathe heavy metal then that preference will make me reject a particular song in the genre of heavy metal regardless of whether it is a good song or not.
So, a good deal of the meaning that comes across when I listen to music lies in its style or genre. It is like the saying: The medium is the message.
The flipside is that there are kinds of music where I don’t understand the stylistic conventions or the “vocabulary”. Therefore, music in that style will be meaningless to me, even if an individual number in that style is highly popular among its followers.
It is like being able or unable to understand a particular language. If I don’t know French I will be unable to distinguish between a joke and an insult directed at me in that language.
Where divides in music taste come from
Music is a less neutral form of communication than language. Consequently, different kinds of music seem to represent different kinds of value.
Rock music may represent the values of youth rebellion against what is perceived as the narrow-minded and materialistic value system of an older generation, while traditional folk music may be representative of an uncorrupted rural idyll. Such value systems are not fixed but can be rooted in the mind of the perceiver. For some classical music expresses the most profound sentiments of which humans are capable. For others it is elitist, imperialist, boring or simply uncool.
Comprehensibility and value, then, are the reasons why there are cultural – not racial – divides between adherents of different kinds of music.
Where do these divides come from? They are the result of any number of contributing factors, including upbringing in the parent culture, education, peer-group interaction, expression of a person’s individual identity, even a marker of territory.
For example, religious groups tend to articulate their identity and mark their territory with very specific kinds of music, even if their aim is to give expression to their religious aspirations. And in many cases the music that people listen to is determined by their mood. In this case they will even be prepared to switch between different genres, as long as the music is felt to act as a stimulant or to soothe the nerves.
In societies plagued by strong cultural divisions, music can be a very significant vehicle for reconciliation. Music is not a universal language, but it holds a special significance and meaning for all of us. We all articulate our humanity by means of music.
By learning to respect the significance and meaning that a particular kind of music has for my fellow human beings, even if I don’t subscribe to its value system, I will be able to recognise their human dignity in their music. This is regardless of whether that person is a vagrant singing his evening song, a child singing a nursery rhyme, a worshipper praising in song or a sports fan supporting his favourite team.
It would be even better if we could start talking to each other about what makes a particular kind of music meaningful and special to the other person. Who knows, we might even begin to practise musical multilingualism.
Winfried Lüdemann is a professor of musicology at Stellenbosch University.
This article first appeared on The Conversation Africa.