The Role of Music in Society & Culture

Instructor: Benjamin Olson
This lesson will detail the social functions of music in American society. We will explore a number of different ethnic groups, styles, and time periods in order to gain perspective on the role of music in American society.

Music in the U.S.

Music in the United States has always served a social function; music provides identity and the opportunity to tell others who you are. Music often provides a ritual function, either in the context of religion, or in secular rituals like dance parties.

Some traditional forms of American music focus mainly on the human voice and use minimal instrumentation or percussion. Others include highly complex musical instruments playing in large groups, or filtered through digital technologies.

A large proportion of the popular music enjoyed around the world has its roots in American genres. From the blues, to hip-hop, to rock & roll, to house and techno, to jazz, the DNA of American music can be felt all over the world. While much of the folk and traditional music found in the United Sates has its roots in the traditions of other countries. Regardless of the style or time-period being discussed, all American musical traditions must be understood within the context of the cultures in which they were created.

Native American Music

Music serves a critical function in many Native American cultures. While it is difficult to make generalizations about the voluminous number of cultures and ethnic groups that contribute to Native American music, a large proportion of Native American music focuses on complex vocal chanting and percussion. Music often serves a religious function in Native American cultures, telling stories or guiding religious rituals.

Hopi dancers and musicians in 1897.

For the Hopi people, music is intimately tied to the rituals associated with kachinas, supernatural sprits that they believe protect their communities. During ritual dances, songs are performed that ask the kachinas to bring rain and ensure a successful harvest. The Native American peoples of the Northeastern United States often use whistles, rattles, and complex call and response vocal techniques.

European Folk Traditions

As numerous waves of European settlers arrived in North America in the 18th and 19th centuries, they brought with them innumerable folk music traditions. England provided a rich tradition of folk ballads that told stories regarding love, loss, and important events. Settlers from Ireland and Scotland brought their rich musical traditions to the southeast, contributing to the development of fiddle playing, banjo music, and mandolin playing that continues to flourish there today.

Along the Atlantic coast, the fishing and whaling economies produced an array of maritime work songs and sea shanties. Some of these styles were intended to set the pace for difficult work at sea, serving a deeply practical purpose. Other styles were more based on the European ballad tradition and were designed to tell the stories of dangerous and often disastrous events at sea.

African-American Folk Traditions

As innumerable different African ethnic groups were abducted from their homes and forced into slavery in North America, they brought with them myriad musical traditions from their respective regions and cultures. Due to the brutality of slavery, it is difficult to chart the changes and development of African music in North America, but it is clear that traditional African music continued to be performed under slavery and made a profound impact on the African-American music that would emerge in later years.

Chanting, call and response singing, and percussion were important parts of African-American music during slavery, as many traditional instruments were no longer available to them. Work songs became a staple of African-American music that persisted well into the 20th century. The rich tradition of African-American music would eventually morph into the foundation of virtually every form of popular music evident in the world today.

Modernity and the Rise of Popular Music

In the 19th century methods of production and distribution began to change dramatically as the industrial revolution reached a fever pitch. These changes would instigate the rise of the blues, jazz, country & western music, and vaudeville and minstrel songs that can be loosely grouped under the heading popular music.

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