Music and Its Significance Within Culture

by Kiran

Music is critical in defining who we are, and how we determine identity. It is often times a facility in which to communicate emotions, beliefs, and abstractions that may not have been available otherwise. While our culture uses music mainly as an artistic facility, other cultures identify it as a living force. Friedson stated that, “many African peoples [specifically the Zar cults of Ethiopia and South Sudan]“… experience sickness and healing through rituals of consciousness-transformation whose experiential core is music”.[1] This force has said to be used in diagnosing and healing illnesses through ceremonies within the Zar culture.[2] Music is valued and represented through out cultures around the world. In her essay “Gender and Navaho Music: unanswered Question” Charlotte J, Frisbie writes that “In the Navajo world not knowing songs or having the ability to create them is equated with poverty”.[3] Music is so pivotal within the Navaho that the absence of it is related to a cultural dearth.

Clifford Geertz describes culture as “webs of significance [man] himself have spun.” He depicts the analysis of that web to be “not an experimental science in search of law, but an interpretive one in search of meaning.”[4] He is illustrating that what defines a culture is where we place both meaning and significance.[5] Geertz argues that we communicate through symbols: that meaning and symbolism is directly affiliated in defining culture. I would argue this same meaning is also placed within music. We make music meaningful because it is a key component within society. In the above examples, music for the Zar is a symbol of healing; whereas for the Navajo it symbolizes cultural participation and wealth, making music central to Navajo life. As well, the ghinnawas poems that the Awlad ‘Ali women sing, are a symbolic communication of sentiment, which is a means to subvert male dominance and form their community.[6] Likewise music at large is used to communicate symbolic messages through lyrics, rhythm, and melody to its recipients.

Levi-Strauss relates myth to the processing of philosophical and social dilemma within society. One could argue that music also allows us to process and relate abstract concepts and thoughts within our society. Music is found universally throughout cultures, and within each, is defined differently in its impact and application. Levi-Strauss argues that because of universal cognition people feel the need to find order and classification in the world. He argues that this is what helps create culture.[7] Music is one outlet cultures use to find this order, and can be understood through various binary oppositions. Just as for the Awlad ‘Ali, music often expresses sentiment, so it can express the binary of public/private. For the Zar music might relate to the binary between ill/well, and for the Navajo, that of individual/community. The structure of music is universal but the specific content and how it is utilized depends upon each culture.


[1] Friedson, Steven M. 1996. Dancing Prophets: Musical Experience in Tumbuka Healing.Chicago: University of Chicago Press

[2] Ibid.

[3], accessed 8 October 2014.

[4] Lecture, Professor Carole Mcgranahan, ANTH 2100 Frontiers of Cultural Anthropology: Symbolic and Interpretive Theory, 31 August 2015

[5] Ibid.

[6] Abu-Lughod, Lila. 1986. Veiled Sentiments. London.

[7] Lecture, Professor Carole Mcgranahan, ANTH 2100 Frontiers of Cultural Anthropology: Structuralism, 16 September, 2015

This entry was posted in Non-Human Essay (2015). Bookmark the permalink.

28 Responses to Music and Its Significance Within Culture

  1. Logan English says:

    I found this blog very interesting because I know music is a very big part of my life and American culture wouldnt be the same without it. Personally, I would have maybe used functionalism instead of structuralism because I think music and the need to express emotion and feelings through music could be considered a universal human need. -Logan English

  2. Heidi Shortreed says:

    I think that your essay would have been more effective in displaying the importance of music in culture if you had just used one group of people as your case study, instead of multiple groups. You essay was hard to follow at some points because of this. Otherwise, I thought that your essay was thought-provoking. I think that it would have been interesting if you had used the culture and personality theory to explain how music is shared and how individuals portray societal values through music.

  3. Alexander Billing says:

    This is an interesting topic as it could be easily looked at through a large variety of theories. I think the biggest thing, which the writer did mention, is that while music is universal across all cultures, it is interpreted or valued differently depending on the specific culture. As it is with the word limit I think the writer did do a good job with giving us a general idea of music across cultures.

  4. Keilynn Swindle says:

    Music is an important part of culture and always will be. Music moves the soul and helps to convey emotions that you otherwise would not be able to demonstrate. Music is not only a way to express yourself though, it can be seen as something that gives you pride. An example would be how artists in the U.S. are so famous because of how they can create entertaining music that people love. We glorify them and set them above others. I think this is something your essay could have benefited from mentioning but you made some really good points in regards to expression and how it varies across cultures.

  5. Cierra Russ says:

    One time my friend asked during a road rip, what would you do if there wasn’t music? And all of us didn’t know how to answer. Music has such a power to sway and control our moods as well as help us explain to ourselves things we might not have understood before. If you go to a concert there will be thousands of people singing along, but each one of them is singing those lyrics for a completely different reason. It’s interesting to see that some cultures value music to the point they see it as necessary to be a full member of society.

  6. Faisal Lalani says:

    That’s crazy, isn’t it? Music is universal. Every culture has some sort of attachment to these weird sounds we make. It’s an expression, really. It expresses what we can’t put into words yet can’t remain silent. Looking at the Awlad ‘Ali, who present their emotions through these short poems, imagine if they simply said their feelings instead of singing them. Does it have the same impact? I don’t think so. I think the act of making into something else entirely, a song or a poem for example, gives meaning to it. We hold our songs dearly. That’s why we have favorite songs or poems. That’s why we listen to the same song repeatedly. Music gives meaning, and that’s what it’s all about.

  7. Anna Sweitzer says:

    This essay drew me in immediately as soon as I read the title. Music has always been such an important factor in my life. It deeply affects my mood and can often determine how I am going to act and socialize with people. I completely agree that different societies and cultures have different purposes and meanings when it comes to music, but the importance of it is most definitely universal. It was refreshing to read Kiran’s outlook on the importance of music. Her anthropological connections were very clear and were explained well.

  8. Francesca DeCarlo says:

    I love this article because it expands the main topic of music across multiple anthropological fields, from the Zar cults, to the Navajo tribe, to the Awlad ‘Ali. It seems the continuity here is that music achieves a certain identity through either symbolizing a specific meaning or cause in these societies or bridging a gap between binary oppositions. I think these are all great thoughts here, but the one thing that is missing is how music takes on a non-human entity. Obviously, we as readers with knowledge of the topic could make the connection on our own, but I think perhaps the essay could have been a bit more effective if it expanded upon the idea of music as a non-human agent of society because, after all, that is the topic of the analysis. It does, however, adequately address the prompt which calls upon an interaction between humans and a non-human form. All-in-all this essay was a very in-depth analysis of the topic that went above and beyond many others, and very inspiring as I begin drafting my third essay.

  9. Anna Bockhaus says:

    I liked the way you took a topic everyone can relate to in some way or another, music and the power it has, and then applied it to communities and cultures that are different from the typical American culture. Not only could I as a reader resonate with your beginning analysis of music and the various roles it plays, but I learned of how music can be applied and appreciated in cultures different from my own. I really enjoyed your essay, nice work!

  10. Hayley Bibbiani says:

    Your essay was interesting and you chose a topic that is easy for your readers to relate to. Besides this, it was cool that you used different cultures and not just looked at American music. The only thing about this essay that was difficult for me was that it was hard to follow because the two connections did not flow as easy. Maybe using just the Awlad Ali’ would have been helpful for this because we have all read about it and have a basic understanding, although I do understand where you were coming from when trying to use different cultural examples to show how diverse it is.

  11. Antonio Gomez says:

    I think music is one of the best topics anyone could choose when talking about the non-human and its relationship with culture. Your explanation of how music is used for different purposes in different cultures truly got me interested in the rest of the essay. Its incredible to think how in some cultures such as the Navajo music is so significant that it can even relate to something like wealth. I also really liked the way you used Geertz’s symbolic anthropology, because music is not just only communicated through different symbols such as lyrics but its also symbolizes a certain culture in a way. For instance, mariachi, which means men playing slow, melancholic, love songs in spanish truly symbolizes Mexican Culture in a certain way. I think you could have used the theory of culture and personality instead of the second one you used, to talk about how music can shape the personality of certain individuals in a society. Due to the fac that it has been shown how people can have changes in their behaviour when listening to certain typed of music. However, I really appreciated the way you mentioned how music can express binary oppositions in the different cultural perspectives.

  12. Paul Fox says:

    I never realized that music can be interpreted so differently between cultures. It makes sense to me that musical meaning is so different between Zar and Navajo because they are so far away from each other. But I also wonder if musical meaning could be as different between different sections of the US as it is between the Zar and Navajo?

  13. Evan Mastro says:

    I really enjoyed reading this essay! I thought it was really interesting how you brought up universal cognition. I was just curious by what you meant when you said music is an outlet for finding order and classification in the world. Could you give an example or expand on that? Very interesting read! Well done.

  14. August Clausson says:

    I really liked this essay, mainly because music is such a big part of my life it has become habitual now. I find it incredible that the Zar Tribe use music as a means of healing, although I am slightly skeptical but that is beside the point. You said that music is a means by which cultures create order, so do you think societies would be characterized by anarchy if music was not present? Is music that strong of a force?

  15. I picked this post because I have always been such a big fan of all types of music. Music has always been a huge part of my life and I enjoy learning and reading about how music acts in other peoples lives. I liked how you mentioned different cultures and how you spoke about the influences in more places than just America. I enjoyed your topic and your post as a whole.

  16. Fascinating essay, I defiantly think that music can be a huge part in any culture and i couldn’t think of american culture without it. I like how you say that music is a way for culture to find order, i feel that that is very true, music helps to provide a creative outlet for cultural frustrations that often result in an order of sorts forming. music is also so much about expressing emotion, when a composer writes music for an opera or even a movie they are tying to write music that will back up the narrative and proved the audience with a sense of emotional attachment to the scene taking place. this is a way of most certain expressing sentiments and you did a god job of addressing that in your paper. Overall great essay!

  17. Dylan Shannon says:

    I have been aware of musics powerful influence since I was young, but I wasn’t aware that it had medicinal uses in some cultures! I’m not sure I agree that music is made powerful because of societies emphasis on it, but that it is powerful in its own right. I do agree though that music can have symbolic meaning, and can definitely convey messages and emotions. I would have enjoyed hearing more about how different cultures interpret the same music differently, as I think that really demonstrates what different cultures value in music. Great essay overall, really thought provoking!

  18. phoebe holasek says:

    I really enjoyed the take on music this article presents. In our culture today the music capable of inducing deeper emotional states/meaning seems to be overwhelmed by horribly catchy pop songs that lack any true depth at all. I also really liked the way the author explained each theory before diving into the application of it in terms of music. It made it easier to follow.

  19. Reilly Kahat says:

    This blog entry is very well done and I agree with all the points made, but it also has sparked a lot of thought of my own about music and culture within the united states, specifically music festivals. I believe that live music performances are at the root of the cultural influence music has within the united states and the transition from more classical genres and formal performances into all the other genres of music that have emerged throughout time has parrellelled the comfortability people have with expressing themselves. As music became less strict, so did the performances, and huge music festivals with multiple artists are when the music artists make is most significant. Yes listening to music on a device is obviously still meaningful, but often seeing an artist perform live creates a much deeper connection. Because these events are not typicaly free and are not everywhere, many US citizens never get the experience of lots of people comming together to enjoy and learn from a performace. From what you wrote however it is clear other cuntries and cultures hold live music and performance much closer to their every day lives which might be reflective of how close knit and community orriented the y are.

  20. Marissa Marino says:

    This was really well written. Music is such a powerful source of interconnectivity especially within cultures. It’s so interesting to think other societies use it as a source of bodily healing. It would be intriguing to see this from a Functionalist point of view to see how this plays into our “universal needs”. Music has such a important role, and not to mention revealing power about history happening within a culture, it’s hard to imagine life without it.

  21. Kirsten Holm says:

    It’s interesting that music is one unique characteristic that all cultures have, as far as I’m aware. It’s fascinating how regardless of where you are, the importance of listening to and creating music remains so universal. I wonder, in the modern age, with the dominance of American music, does this change people’s views about music around the world? Does music mean something different to people today than what it used to? I remember the first time I went to a country without english as its core language I was shocked to hear American music on the radio. Does this change how people of the countries view their own music as opposed to American music? Also, does that mean that some countries that emanate our music start to lose their cultural music? When you think about it, America’s “monopoly” on media must cause bigger ripples than we are aware of. That can be a good or a bad thing, but it makes one wonder how different things would be without America’s influence on other countries’ art.


  22. Graham says:

    This has gotten me interested in the healing/sickness aspect of music that you mentioned with the Zar. One aspect of this seems pretty interesting although not much could be found from quick searches. However, apparently sickness is caused by “red-spirits”, that wish to make their presence known. Once the host is aware of this presence, they dance to their music until they collapse in a “trance”. This is all done in order to achieve some sort of “symbiotic” relationship with the spirit. Beyond that. Zar music seems to be primarily used as an outlet for women, similar to the Awlad ‘Ali’s use of Ghinnawa’s. It really grew in popularity throughout Africa and the middle east. I’ve found conflicting reports on origin. Some claim Africa, some Egypt.
    A lot of cultures use drum and dance rituals that account for many aspects of life. Similarly, Native Americans view the flute for everything from meditation, to healing, to swooning their partners. When you consider that we’re all vibrational creatures, I think these types of practices make a lot of sense. Everything in the universe vibrates at its own particular frequency. When these cultures use music and dance to enter trance like states for healing, they truly could be connecting to themselves, and the world around them, in ways that the “civilized” world has lost touch of.
    On your last point regarding Levi-Strauss, I completely agree that music is a way for us to conceptualize the world around us. Within our society we could look to bands like Rage Against the Machine and how they politicized their music and essentially created a new genre for the younger population that was fed up with corporations and over-stepping governments to connect to. In that regard they really connected a group of people who previously may not have had the organizational presence to do so themselves. Their music/lyrics went directly in the face of the hegemony of our culture.

  23. Natalie Buchholz says:

    I wrote an essay on the same topic, it’s interesting to read about other ideas about music. As a musician, I have experienced first hand how helpful music can be. Looking at it through a Functionalist lens, music satisfies many basic needs. Music can create community, a safe place to explore emotions, and create ties across cultures. It serves as a way of understanding others that we cannot express otherwise.

  24. I found this essay very topical and interesting because I know how significant a role music plays in my life and the influences it has on me. It is, in some fashion, a significant part of all cultures. It is a way in which individuals can express themselves and relate to others in society. You also could have incorporated the culture and personality theory and how it pertains to music’s influence on generations as a whole.

  25. Makayla Tierney says:

    I personally think the government influences todays music and tries to control society through making unhealthy habits look “cool” or in style. With that being said different cultures create music for different more meaningful purposes than to just distract the mind. This article was well crafted and it was cool to see the different angles you approached it with. The idea of music being used in ceremonies to attempt to heal wounded people is amazing! Hearing that the navajo consider having non-musical talents equivalent to poverty is a pretty wild perspective on how important music is in their culture

  26. beel9934 says:

    I think your focus on the way Navaho, Zar,and Awlad ‘Ali cultures perceive and experience song is interesting as it depicts methods and meanings that highlight music as both intensely personal and inherently cultural. Your establishment of binary oppositions (personal/public, ill/well) is a good introduction to structuralism and is facilitated by your earlier discussion of both the gendered nature of music as well as its role as a means of resistance. The idea of resistance seems somewhat post-structuralist which, to my surprise at least, mashed very well with your use of the structuralist approaches that Focault generally went against. Your symbolic-interpretive analysis, while slightly disconnected from the post-structuralist/feminist/structuralist theories used later, was also really well worked out particularly in the case of the Navaho. It seems to me that music used as a symbol of prestige seems to mimic the practice of conspicuous consumption in western cultures. This essay was good not only in its discussion of music but in illustrating the interconnectedness of more recent theories, showing in particular a seemingly common connection between post-structuralism, feminism, and Marxism (suggested by the status/wealth detail) while also incorporating older theories.

  27. Kevin Kuptz says:

    Strictly speaking on the basis of personal opinion, I couldn’t agree more with your choice of essay topic. In my mind, music is second only to food as far as universal ideas go. There are a million different types sounds that can be combined to create music, and every culture has their own instruments, but very few people dislike music in general. You would be hard pressed to find someone who hated music and didn’t find any type of enjoyment from some form of musical expression. Music has a way of expressing emotions that a dialogue would be inadequate to do so, and it is in this fact that music takes on a mystical quality.

  28. Patrick Ingram says:

    I thought this was a very interesting well written essay. I personally like the topic because I think music is a great way to connect people from different cultures around the world. I also thought it was very cool how you looked at they are binary opposites in they fact that they are personal but also cultural/ public. Super cool essay I’m glad I got a chance to read it

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s