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The Musical Ear: Oral Tradition in the USA by Anne Dhu McLucas (review)
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This pathbreaking volume, published as part of the SEMPRE Studies in the Psychology of Music, is two books in one. One concerns music in the United States, with special attention to how oral tradition comes into play in traditional, popular, and art musical expressions, illustrated by a telling variety of concise case studies. The other concerns the scientific evidence that can help us understand how the human brain processes music. Four chapters on aspects of the first topic are each followed by “interludes” exploring the second. The relationships between chapters and interludes, at first loose, become more intimate as the volume goes on, and the fifth chapter synthesizes and summarizes.

Chapter 1 offers tidy case studies introducing general themes in oral tradition. Two songs sung by Hazel Dickens illustrate the fidelity-creativity continuum, a Mescalero Apache singer highlights the importance of meticulous memory in ritual song, a blues artist shows the importance of malleability of materials in his creativity, and last, a fiddler conjoins memory and notation as he learns an Irish tune. Interlude 1, “The Brain, Memory, and Oral Tradition,” treats similarly general themes, that is, factors affecting short- and long-term memories of melodic contour; here, brain geography becomes important. Chapter 2 treats oral tradition as an ingredient in popular music, with special attention to three topics: the interaction of musically literate and non-literate individuals in the cultivation of such music; timbre; and the variable nature of the “hook.” The following interlude focuses on the creative side of oral tradition, with sections on “filling in for memory loss,” imprecise contour memory as a spark for creativity, improvisation, and the interaction of repetition and creativity—all familiar topics, but with discussion buttressed by the results of careful scientific research.

Chapter 3 is a bit of a forced march through most of the topics conventionally treated in histories of American music, from early religious music through music in a variety of theatrical contexts to formal composition, mostly of the twentieth century. Two threads dominate: which important repertoires or individual composers draw directly or indirectly on oral tradition, and the topic of performance practice, that is, how much of what musicians do and audiences hear is not reflected in notation. McLucas pursues the latter thread in the following interlude, detailing, for instance, how the habits of thought associated with notation tend to limit variety in rhythm and timbre even for modern composers who are consciously focusing on those elements.

In chapter 4, the survey approach to American music as consisting of tribal/folk, pop, and art musics yields to a behavioral emphasis to explore how oral tradition operates in individuals’ lives. McLucas notes how children sing, how a near universality of ability in active musicianship fades when formal training kicks in for a selected minority, and how some music activity persists nevertheless for the majority—in group singing situations, karaoke, sports chants, and so on. She also takes a nuanced look at the predominance of what are generally but simplistically called passive listening habits, how the “downloading generation” (p. 139) receives plenty of music as wallpaper while on hold on the telephone, in banks, and supermarkets, and, this reviewer would add with regret, while studying. She contrasts this exposure to ways that they may also seek out very specific genres and pieces energetically, and savor and share these musical selections. The final “interlude” has a grand title: “The Mental Musical Capacities of Ordinary Humans and the Intersection of Meaning, Emotion, and Memory.” The specific American-ness of the topic disappears here, since all humans arrive on earth with a powerful template for musicality, which rises “to the level of a biological need, important in the evolution of human thought and perception” (p. 146). Central topics of the book are recalled here: this shared template includes the sense of timing, a memory for contours, and an amazingly precise classification of, and multiple cognitive uses of, timbre. Brief but eloquent sections follow on music and emotion, on the importance of music in human evolution, and on how central music is to human identity.

McLucas points out an undeniable fact several times, that “oral tradition is indeed a dominant feature of American musical...

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