Bruno Nettl



The relationship of past to present is one of the principal issues in all human cultures. It is also perhaps the most important task of many areas of scholarship, and in different ways, of musicology and anthropology.

In ethnomusicology and in anthropology, one of the principal ways of associating past to present has been through the concepts of culture change and musical change, the idea that something that a society maintains and shares can change in character or in detail and yet remain essentially the same. I would like to approach the relationship of past and present through this concept. It is an immense subject, and you will understand why I have had problems finding ways to grasp it. To deal with it properly might require that one define culture and music and then change, to say nothing of providing a bibliography. But instead, as a more modest goal, I would like to try to circumscribe the subject by mentioning and discussing a few of the issues that dominate this area of endeavor, phrasing each in terms of a widely accepted generalization and then illustrating each with something from my experience.

The ultimate concern of musicology has always been the nature of musical change. The majority of musicologists, who see themselves mainly as music historians, have tried to show that there is a systematic way in which music proceeds from past to present, using, for example, the concept of periods, the significance of biography, the belief that similarity or identity must usually be explained by contact and influence. Following the approaches of anthropology, ethnomusicologists have sometimes also looked at music in that way, but more frequently they have been concerned with the analysis of a present-day situation and what the present can tell us about its own past, and with the observation of change more or less as it occurs.

  1. There is a multitude of relationships between past and present
  2. The music of the present is a map to its past
  3. Components of a musical system may change in different ways and at different rates
  4. Societies may shape the past to fit the present
  5. Musical change may contradict or mitigate culture change
  6. Music may play a special role in culture change
  7. References
  8. List of the audio examples
  9. Italian translation
  10. Your comments

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(updated 20 Oct 1996)