Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Musical Instruments and Economic Development

Phoenix has a wonderful museum called the Musical Instrument Museum.  It has an amazing collection of musical instruments from all over the world.

The geographical exhibits really can be divided into two sections.  There is a section, shown here, where instruments are generally made of dried gourds, sticks, animal skins, etc.  These are inexact instruments.  They are played in community and it seems that where they are used, everyone is expected to play.  The style and difficulty of the music is inclusive and accessible.

Then, there is a section where the instruments are intricate.  They are played by virtuosos as an exhibition, to be observed.

There is very little in between these two extremes.  There is a tipping point, and you either live in a communal musical context or a performative musical context.  Certainly, even in the performative cultures, we value communal music, and many of us still perform it in some ways.  That could be singing hymns at church, or sitting on a patio or around a campfire on a Saturday night.  But, much of our musical experience, and even its place in our sense of identity, is our experience with performative music.

The difference between these musical cultures is extreme.  In the communal cultures, music is a joyful, messy bonding experience where the performance settles around a sort of lowest common denominator standard.  It is comfortable, but unimpressive.  In performative cultures, musicians toil and strive, they get nervous about playing, they get stage fright, they are judged, and they create forms of beauty and expression beyond imagination.

On this side of the tipping point, we make amazing objects, do amazing things together, induce each other to better ourselves, show our appreciation for excellence, and yet we crave the community of the lowest-common-denominator.  But, for the most part, as a society, we have to choose one or the other.  There isn't a middle ground.  There are some middle ground countries - places where you might find guitars made out of gas cans and drums made from discarded lids.  Those places don't tend to be comfortable and safe places to live.  Excellence and growth is mostly only available past the tipping point, and it is inevitably bound up with stress.

Normally, that sort of social stress is associated with capitalism.  But, here, I think we can see capitalism as only a late manifestation of a longer historical development.  Most of the instruments used by virtuosos today were developed before the industrial revolution.  Performative culture to some extent goes back hundreds, even thousands, of years.  We crossed the tipping point a long time ago, for better and for worse.


  1. I am waiting for the housing market analogy or insight...we used to build our own homes etc....

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