Participatory Discrepancies and the Power of Music

Essay Excerpt

The power of music is in its participatory discrepancies, and these are basically of two kinds: processual and textural. Music, to be personally involving and socially valuable, must be "out of time" and "out of tune."

For "participatory discrepancies" one could substitute "inflection," "articulation," "creative tensions," "relaxed dynamisms," "semiconscious or unconscious slightly out of syncnesses." For "process" one could substitute "beat," "drive," "groove," "swing," "push," etc., and for "texture" one could substitute"timbre," "sound," "tone qualities," "as arranged by," and so forth. The fact that these musical essentials are barely "figured" in Owen Barfield's sense (1965:24ff., 188) and certainly not "collectively represented" with any great clarity in language (1965:41, 111, 122, 154-155) is evidence, I believe, of their original or active participatory power (1965:2845). Put another way, wherever "lexical meanings" are various and ambiguous for a particular phenomenon, one can assume a lot of collective and individual unconsciousness and conversely a greaterpower for "speaker's meanings" (Barfield 1984) to define situations.

The syntactic or structural aspect of all music (Meyer 1965), but especially in thought-composed Western and other civilized musics, can create tensions, set up melodic/harmonic relationships that defer resolutions and gratifications and there by involve the listener in the music. But isn't this involvement more analytic, sequential, conscious, rather than "participatory" in the sense described below? Even in these civilized musical systems, syntax does not invite the listener to participate in the phenomena with the same powers that process and texture have. It is really only in relatively recent historical periods of Western music that syntax and a peculiarly rationalist approach to it (Weber1958) have managed to squeeze the mysteries of musical participation to the furthest corners of our awareness. (Keil, 275)

About the Author

Charles Keil professed American Studies at SUNY/Buffalo until censorship pressures and a shrinking context made early retirement seem attractive. Leaving Buffalo for Lakeville, Ct. in 2000, he plays in subfields of the "joyous science": applied sociomusicology, groovology and echology. Publications in process include Born to Groove (w. Patricia Campbell){borntogroove.org}; Polka Theory: Perspectives on the Will to Party; and, The Rhythm Section – probably a series of short books, and/or additions to this website, on the ethnography of "participatory discrepancies" in jazz, blues, and related musics.

Charles Keil has put untiring efforts into firmly establishing new fields that may be unfamiliar to many ears such as applied sociomusicology, ‘echology’ and ‘groovology’, and he has made many great contributions in the development of experimental ethnomusicology. In applying various findings from analysis based on his field work to children’s education (applied sociomusicology), and particularly in stressing physicality based on the concept of “resonating with the world”, he has espoused the importance of the study of ‘grooves’ (groovology), and of ‘echology’ where he maintains that echology is a part of cultural ecology in the broader sense. He has not simply sat still while advocating this, but has thoroughly mastered a variety of Latin American and African percussion styles, and has helped children and their parents to experience grooves while he himself performs together with them on percussion instruments, enthusiastically working to publicly share his theories by utilizing practical methods. In this sense of "practicing what he preaches", he can be characterized as an outstanding cultural activist. 

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