Monday, October 17, 2011

Transcription: The Ethnomusicologist’s Greatest Tool, or The Most Over-Rated Aspect of the Field?

I have been doing a lot of thinking about transcription’s relevance to the contemporary field of ethnomusicology. My conclusion: like it or not, transcription is a necessary evil, but only in certain instances, as it is often a complete waste of time.

Before going any further, I must submit to full disclosure. I am currently taking a course in transcription methods and it is proving to be the bane of my existence. Not only does it take up an enormous amount of time, but it also is the source of unrelenting stress. To make matters worse, I am amazingly terrible at it. For reference, each week I (attempt) to transcribe musics from varying cultures and genres: British ballads, country blues, Cambodian orchestras, central African hocketing flute tunes, Bulgarian women’s choirs, etc.

Now, I don’t mean this post to be a proverbial pity party, nor do I intend it to function as an outlet for my frustration. I am truly interested in opening a dialogue regarding the necessity of a skill that takes many years of hard work to simply hone to acceptable levels.

For those of you who are not ethnomusicologists, transcription (the process of visually representing music by way of writing it in standard Western notation or by devising an alternative means of achieving the same effect) began as a way for ethnomusicologists to discuss music with people who had no means of hearing the sounds for themselves. As technology has improved and recordings have become immediately accessible, there are some in the field who feel that the practice has run its course—Nettl seems to have aligned himself with this school of thought, at least to a degree. Some, such as Seeger, have even taken a proactive approach to eliminating the need for researchers to make their own transcriptions by developing transcribing machines—now, I know someone out will say that Seeger and the like spent countless hours working on devices such as the Melograph in hopes removing the biases of the human ear, though do you honestly think that was the only motivation? And, on the other hand, there is no shortage of those who stand unwaveringly by the skill as the principle tool in the ethnomusicologist’s arsenal. So what is the answer?

Now, I have already given away my thoughts, but some explanation may be in order. Like it or not, technology is advancing so rapidly that we are capable of embedding recordings in whatever e-Book or online journal article we happen to publish; until the takeover of e-books, online guides and supplemental CDs serve the same function. Additionally, it seems that a computer program capable of accurately analyzing tones and rhythms is within grasp. Moreover, if the ethnomusicologist is well trained in analytic techniques, s/he can effectively convey her/his thoughts with words alone.

However, spending hours listening to, and tweezing-apart, a single piece of music in order to accurately transcribe it provides access to otherwise unobtainable insights. Furthermore, the inclusion of a detailed transcription alongside a published text allows others to make their own judgments and to form their own opinions about the music; to deny this chance not only adversely affects the student, but the field of knowledge as a whole.

So, what do to? Should we continue to torture pupils of ethnomusicology through the forced acquisition of a skill that serves no genuine purpose outside of some sadistic rite of passage? Or, should we continue to ensure that no ethnomusicologist is sent out in to the field without the foremost skill necessary to accurately and justly serve the music s/he is to encounter?