Oral Composition and Questions of Method

To some, “oral composition” might seem a contradiction of terms. After all, by composing something, which in today’s usage means “writing music down,” one is cutting it out of the oral tradition and giving it a spatial manifestation in place of fallible memory. As Taruskin takes pains to remind us, however, orality and literary coexisted for some time: “.. It is important to remember that literacy did not suddenly replace ‘orality’ as a means of musical transmission but gradually joined it” (I, 17). Even after the “curtain went up” and early notational forms came into existence, music making was largely within the purview of the ear, not the eye.

The field of musicology has long neglected the profound influence of the oral tradition in the development of our musical culture. Since no concrete records exist for musics that are transmitted without documentation, traditional musicologists, steeped as they are in textual analysis, are at a loss. How does one describe a process that isn’t recorded?

Taruskin shows us two ways. First, by comparing a family of Graduals, we can see that many phrases across the different versions are really just variations on the same finite set of melodic formulas. What does this tell us? Perhaps it indicates that certain parts of the repertory in question were interchangeable, and that ensembles chose formulas for cadences and other structurally important places from a body of similar functional phrases. It also could indicate that the same pieces were performed in different ways, and that the variation in performances resulted in different notated versions of the Graduals.

In addition – and I love this – Taruskin cites the work of Nicholas Temperley on “The Old Way of Singing” (I, 27). Temperley is not an early music specialist. Indeed, he’s a scholar of Anglo-American church music whose work centers on the oral tradition and how it has worked in this context. Stymied by the opacity of the oral tradition, many a musicologist would simply admit defeat and move on to the next textually supportable observation. But instead, Taruskin draws on the research of a scholar dealing with American music in the last few hundred years. I can’t say entirely if the transference of perspectives is valid (the way oral tradition worked in the Holy Roman Empire of Charlemagne’s time may be very different from oral tradition in American churches), but the effort to validate and understand the role of orality on early music repertory is admirable. (By the way, Temperley says that when wordless singing traditions go for years without formal direction, they have a tendency to become extremely slow, weak in rhythmic detail, and rife with new melodic contributions.)

The perspectives Taruskin introduces – song family analysis, musical behavior within certain cultures, etc. – aren’t really common in many a musicological study. Indeed, they share more with our sister field, ethnomusicology. This begs the question: why aren’t more ethnomusicological theories incorporated into our understanding of music from the Middle Ages? Indeed, chant and similar repertories are, in many ways, more consistent with what ethno- examines than they are with what music- examines, a fact that I’d like to write more about this week (although it might go back into Week 1 reading territory!). The fascinating interaction between literate and oral traditions is the typical academic terrain of folklorists, ethnomusicologists, and pop music scholars. I would even argue that the research topic of jazz improvisation could elucidate interesting corners of this repertory (melodic formulas called up by memory in similar contexts = licks). Contributions from all these fields would really enrich our understanding of early music. Musicologists would be remiss not to take them into account.


  1. I also found the section on oral tradition in American churches quite interesting. I have a pet theory about those melismas, especially in large intervals: it’s easier to “scoop up” to a note than to try to hit it right on. (I certainly find this to be true when playing by ear and “sounding out” a melody.)

    1. Zach Wallmark says:

      Excellent point – you can’t help but think that there’s something very natural going on here. The human memory and vocal apparatus, unchanged since we became human, would be the same for 9th century monks as for singers in American churches. Hitting pitches dead on is not easy to do, even with the aid of written music. Without it, it could really turn into a guessing game. In order for a song to be transmitted through the oral tradition, it must be recognizable. But the intervals could be quite flexible for a song to still be recognizable (as evinced by any large group singing of “Happy Birthday”). Scooping up to the pitch has the added benefit of social reinforcement: when the rest of the people stop scooping, you can stop too.

  2. Anne Dhu McLucas says:

    Having experienced the “old way” of singing as it is still done in the Gaelic-speaking “Free Kirks” of Scotland (in the company of Nicholas Temperley, as it happens), I can vouch for both the ideas of slow tempo, ‘scooping’, but above all, profuse ornamentation on the known tune. Now this is an aspect that we don’t really know much about from Medieval notations–but I think the work of Lori Kruckenberg and others is beginning to open up the topic.

    Anne Dhu

    1. Zach Wallmark says:

      Thanks for your thoughts and experience on this!

  3. I couldn’t agree more with the final paragraph about the need for musicologists to take oral/aural musical processes more into account. I am always surprised how little its importance is acknowledged, even in in the 20th-century-to-contemporary era when our notated music traditions are too often assumed to have left orality completely behind – when in fact everyone who has ever read music from a score, no matter how exactly notated it might be (Ferneyhough take note), is still drawing much (if not most, I would argue) of the information about how it should sound from oral/aural cues they’ve picked up over the course of their musical lives.

    I was also interested to see Anne Dhu’s comment, as I was going to mention the Gaelic psalm singing tradition too.

    Closely connected to that, the piobaireachd (pibroch) tradition in Highland piping is one of the most illustrative examples I know about of an intially ‘pure’ oral tradition that became absorbed into a written one, starting ca. 1800 – but that even today has not yet been quite as completely absorbed (in the way it’s conceived) as has most of the Western classical tradition (sorry, bad sentence…in a hurry!).

    Today pibroch occupies a very interesting place between oral and written, as do all music traditions with any kind of notation – but in pibroch it’s especially striking, and the history of it is much more recent and therefore easier to trace (though still quite hard) than in Medieval (and subsequent) ‘classical’ music.

    Pibroch scores are highly detailed, seeking the same kind of legitimacy granted to the written note in Western culture, but they usually serve as little more than memory aids for most players. And when it comes to rhythm they barely resemble what’s actually played.

    For further reading I recommend Peter Cooke, Roderick Cannon, Barnaby Brown, Allan MacDonald, and others.

    I’ve written at length on this, and you can find the scholarship just mentioned in my bibliographies:

    My doctoral thesis:

    I wrote chapter 13 in this new book:

    Thanks for this blog – I hope to read the Taruskin cover to cover at some point as well, to prepare for my doctoral comps….so it’s nice to have this as a reference and encouragement. And I’ll definitely be checking out Nicholas Temperley.


    1. Zach Wallmark says:

      Very interesting diss topic, Robin – thanks for pointing us to this material and welcome to the blog!

  4. For more information than you possibly wanted to know about the workings of aural/oral tradition in American music (and in the brain), please consult my book, at last on sale, “The Musical Ear: Oral Tradition in the U.S.A.,” published by Ashgate. I guess it hasn’t reached being in stock on Amazon yet, but it’s in the Ashgate warehouse and they’re sending my comp copies today. Temperley’s research–and a lot more– is mentioned in the book, and I hope it will go some ways toward rectifying the imbalance between the coverage of written vs. oral, at least in American musicology.

    1. Mark Samples says:

      Anne—Congrats, and I can’t wait to check out your book!

  5. Thanks Anne – I’ll definitely be checking out your book.

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