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  • Sounds Heard, Meaning Deferred:Music Transcription as Imperial Technology
  • Glenda Goodman (bio)

"Whensoever they resorted to us, their first request was commonly this, Gnaah, by which they intreated that we should sing," wrote Sir Francis Drake, describing the interaction between the coastal Miwok Indians and his crew in what is now Point Reyes, California, in 1579.1 Music and noise informed, mediated, negotiated, warned, and pleased during the intercultural encounters through which European empires were built. After the fact, the representation of human sounds helped advance the ideological agendas of imperialism. For Drake, a message of Protestant-English supremacy subtexted his account of the Miwok Indians' alleged enjoyment of his crew's singing (as he claimed, their Native hosts were captivated by hearing English psalms). Denigrating and dismissing non-European musical practices was an equally important strategy for asserting European dominance; Drake described a Miwok ritual oration as "tedious," the singing as "a most miserable and doleful manner of shreeking."2 As Europeans' descriptions and transcriptions of the new aural sensations filtered back to Europe, composers transformed the materials into works that exoticized non-Western peoples.3 This essay assesses the soundscape of imperial encounter from a different direction: less concerned with exotic depictions of Others in musical works, I wish to consider how notated music itself was co-opted as evidence that helped map global trade in the eighteenth century.

Alongside maps, illustrations of flora and fauna, and portraits of native women and men, early modern European travelogues often contained transcriptions of non-Western music.4 Whether driven by curiosity, fear, or a clinical wish to gain information, jotting down notes was a practice shared by explorers, conquerors, missionaries, and traders. These transcriptions are interpretative documents of [End Page 39] the intercultural encounters that were endemic to early modern imperialism. They are also bewildering documents, difficult to interpret.5 Attending to these sources provides a critical way to address empire, for transcriptions reveal how the technology of music notation helped glean information about non-Western peoples and their musics. At the same time, ambiguities in how transcriptions were made and interpreted expose the tenuousness of imperial authority. The humble transcriptions were hitched to the hubris of imperialism.

Nearly all of the eighteenth-century music studied by musicologists such as myself is written in western staff notation, in which the five horizontal lines, dotted with note-heads and divided by bar-lines, prioritizes pitch and duration. Quite understandably, this notation captures the kinds of pitches and durations found in European music; when European travelers tried to transcribe non-Western music—music in which pitch and duration mattered less than other features (such as timbre or gesture)—the notation technology at their disposal was inadequate. Given such limitations, it is interesting that many of these transcriptions were printed in books that were not otherwise about music, books that contained information that was meant to advance the goals of European empires. In these books, music was more akin to maps, descriptions of fortifications and cities, outlines of political power structures, and accounts of local customs for anything from medicine to child-rearing—all of which were meant to help future travelers and enlighten metropolitan readers.6

Most broadly, we can understand the transcriptions to be reifications of European biases rather than documents of indigenous culture, instances of the "Savage slot" by which the West constructs itself.7 But more minutely, the transcriptions shed light on the quotidian difficulties of empire-building. Transcriptions betray a tension between control and unmanageability, revealing how mastery of musical information—that is, the musical sounds non-Western people made and the aesthetic, social, and political messages such sounds carried—eluded empire's grasp. As such, they reflect the habits of Enlightenment-era imperialists for whom comprehensive knowledge was an alluring delusion.8 There was no systematic gathering of information about specific cultures' music. Instead, what was documented and published were spotty examples that were snatched haphazardly. Not only were records incomplete, unable to capture all sonic elements; they were also proxies for experiences that were partly incomprehensible. As is now well-understood, the act of writing translated indigenous expressions into forms familiar to Europeans, yet supplemental meanings...


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