Triangulation and Music

by Dr. Norman Stanfield ~ December 14th, 2012. Filed under: Teaching.

 Why study ethnomusicology and popular music?

As music students approach their third year of undergraduate studies, they glance at the subject offerings and spot two courses devoted to music of the world and popular culture. In the massive universities in the States, even non-music students are tempted by the same courses and enrol in the hundreds. The introductory courses are similar to Music Appreciation programs where music notation is not a pre-requisite to understanding the course material. The textbooks, as expensive and ubiquitous as the classic Mus App books and CDs, are Cook’s tours of factual information and scholarly observations.

But what of the needs of students in a school of music? They are rapidly getting up to speed on the technical requirements of their music instruments or voice. Some will even be in the zone for a full-time career as musicians in the near future. At the same time, they are becoming increasingly more aware of the historical and a theoretical foundation of the music they perform. Their core music history and theory programs have already established the primacy and complexity of their adopted high art, Western Classical Music. So why embark on such a tangent as ethnomusicology or popular music?

One of the many answers is simple.  Triangulation.


This word may be familiar to those of you who, like me, have enjoyed the out-of-doors. Many’s the time my friends and I located ourselves on a hiking trail or slope of a mountain in Banff and Yoho National Parks by locating and identifying the surrounding peaks. The more peak spotting, the more confident we were of our maps. Occasionally our exact location was not at all what we imagined.  Back in the real world of day jobs, triangulation can be regularly seen in use by surveyors who measure land for future development.

Sociology has been obsessed with the concept of triangulation for decades, thanks to Norman Denzin. He developed a triangulation methodology which he described in his 1978 book, The Research Act. A quick search of the internet reveals that educational theorists have also used Denzin’s research to measure the effectiveness of their teaching goals and objectives. The goal of these triangulators is to get as close to the “truth” of an initial observation as possible by invoking several research techniques to either reinforce or cast doubt on the primary thesis.

Triangulation and the musical experience

Triangulation in the context I am suggesting is a method for locating your musical self by measuring your current understanding and appreciation of Western Art Music with the new points of view offered by ethnomusicology and popular music. In the process, you will likely discover that your musical needs, and those of your potential listeners, are not what you had imagined. You are no longer located in the same place you were as a Western art music practitioner.

Of course, Western art music listeners are aware that a deeper appreciation of, say Beethoven symphonies can be achieved by comparing (“triangulating”) his later masterpieces with his early works. Symphony number 7, for example, takes on new meaning when compared to the early symphonies.

However, the triangulation I am recommending results in more than a deeper appreciation; it is transformative. I am suggesting that you, the listener and/or music performer, can discover a new location of “you” when you triangulate your current music preferences and understanding with diverse genres completely outside your Western art music preferences. In other words, you discover that your understanding of music is not a “fixed point” from which to achieve greater insight. It moves around as you ramble through entirely new vistas of music-making.

This is an entirely different concept of learning, 180 degrees from the classical learning curve of knowledge acquisition. It is in keeping with the future of education as a system of creating artists of knowledge, rather than artisans of facts. The BC Ministry of Education has labelled this new direction in their dramatic, innovative mandate entitled Enabling Innovation: Transforming Curriculum and Assessment (August 2012). The ministry wants to replace the steady and inexorable procurement of facts to the back of the room, in favour of teaching young people how to be creative with knowledge and experiences.

Triangulation and Western art music

My definition of triangulation can be applied in the most wonderful ways to the music world.  In the realm of performativity, the sedentary stage presence of WAM musicians is found desperately wanting when triangulated with the movement and theatre of their popular music counterparts. Objections will be raised by old-school traditionalists who re-affirm the role of Western art music performers as ego-less broadcasters of the sound of the music coded in the music notations in front of them. When I think of this scenario, I am always reminded of Japanese puppeters in Bunraku.

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Western art music audiences, equally committed to restraint and immobility, allegedly insist on this quietude so they can meditate more properly on the sounds. But musical statues both on and off the stage are hand-in-hand with the steady decline in the interest in Western art music (except by those nations who have made a fetish of all things Western, especially “high art”). All are agreed that something has to change. And who’s to say that a performance of classical music wouldn’t be enhanced immeasurably by say, the musicians standing while playing (cello excepted, maybe) with music memorized?

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Triangulation and hybridity

It is in the territory of musical hybridisation that triangulation really shines. Interestingly, hybridity is most common in popular music. Folk music (aka traditional, roots, ethnic, and/or heritage music) is usually bounded by ethnocentricity. When combining two or more musical cultures into something new, an invigorating new location of music is fomred in the town square we call “the global village”. And if you don’t find yourself uplifted by the new sound, but instead, frustrated by the loss in translation of your “familiar” heritage, then welcome to the 21st century and its new mode of critical awareness.

The future of music lies in the hybridizing effect of globalisation, reflected back on each member of a culture no matter where they live.  Local musics, including Western art music and folk music in general, will inexorably become static, even if it is perfectly formed and steeped in nostalgia. The future will assign these experiences to the museum. Canada is perhaps the first nation to develop and champion hybridity, first by establishing a society of multiculturalism, then moving inexorably into the domain of transculturalism. Canadian identity will transform from the isolating effects of hyphenation (e.g., Latin-Canadian) to simply “Canadian”, as the mixing of music and other forms of culture finally achieve critical mass.


Peter Burke (2009) Cultural Hybridity

(From Amazon books) The period in which we live is marked by increasingly frequent and intense cultural encounters of all kinds. However we react to it, the global trend towards mixing or hybridization is impossible to miss, from curry and chips – recently voted the favourite dish in Britain – to Thai saunas, Zen Judaism, Nigerian Kung Fu, “Bollywood” films or salsa or reggae music. Some people celebrate these phenomena, whilst others fear or condemn them. No wonder, then, that theorists such as Homi Bhabha, Stuart Hall, Paul Gilroy, and Ien Ang, have engaged with hybridity in their work and sought to untangle these complex events and reactions; or that a variety of disciplines now devote increasing attention to the works of these theorists and to the processes of cultural encounter, contact, interaction, exchange and hybridization. In this concise book, leading historian Peter Burke considers these fascinating and contested phenomena, ranging over theories, practices, processes and events in a manner that is as wide-ranging and vibrant as the topic at hand.

Tyler Cowen (2004) Creative Destruction: How Globalization Is Changing the World’s Cultures

(From Amazon books) A Frenchman rents a Hollywood movie. A Thai schoolgirl mimics Madonna. Saddam Hussein chooses Frank Sinatra’s “My Way” as the theme song for his fifty-fourth birthday. It is a commonplace that globalization is subverting local culture. But is it helping as much as it hurts? In this strikingly original treatment of a fiercely debated issue, Tyler Cowen makes a bold new case for a more sympathetic understanding of cross-cultural trade. Creative Destruction brings not stale suppositions but an economist’s eye to bear on an age-old question: Are market exchange and aesthetic quality friends or foes? On the whole, argues Cowen in clear and vigorous prose, they are friends. Cultural “destruction” breeds not artistic demise but diversity.

Through an array of colorful examples from the areas where globalization’s critics have been most vocal, Cowen asks what happens when cultures collide through trade, whether technology destroys native arts, why (and whether) Hollywood movies rule the world, whether “globalized” culture is dumbing down societies everywhere, and if national cultures matter at all. Scrutinizing such manifestations of “indigenous” culture as the steel band ensembles of Trinidad, Indian handweaving, and music from Zaire, Cowen finds that they are more vibrant than ever–thanks largely to cross-cultural trade.

For all the pressures that market forces exert on individual cultures, diversity typically increases within society, even when cultures become more like each other. Trade enhances the range of individual choice, yielding forms of expression within cultures that flower as never before. While some see cultural decline as a half-empty glass, Cowen sees it as a glass half-full with the stirrings of cultural brilliance. Not all readers will agree, but all will want a say in the debate this exceptional book will stir.

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