While I was searching the web for the historical reason people, in most every culture, utilize music in various rites I found that there is no exact history to this tradition (the use of music in certain momentous passages, not the type of music used). However, I also found that almost every culture that is known uses music in times of celebration and grief, for peace and war, and to commemorate special occasions within the culture.
I was left wondering why people, regardless of location, have continued finding music and incorporating it in specific rites (the most common birth, weddings, and funerals).
In Jeffrey Wainwright’s book, Poetry: The Basics, he writes the following:
“The ancient ceremonial aspect of gestural language persists in our desire for special forms of language for particular occasions. We all know for instance how difficult it is to ‘find words’ of condolence. In greetings cards, at weddings, funerals, in sorrow and commemoration and in love, wherever we feel the need for heightened, deliberate speech, wherever there is a need for ‘something to be said’, we turn to the unusual shapes and sounds of poetry. This is also why we might be drawn to write poetry in order to form an utterance that is out of the ordinary and commensurate to the weight or the joy of the occasion. Always at such times we will encounter the familiar difficulty of finding what we know to be the ‘right words’.”
Now, replace "poetry" with "music" (which is a special form of language) and I believe we have successfuly begun our journey into understanding the function of music in various rites (regardless of the culture, rite itself, restraints or traditions surrounding the music).
My personal experience with music and rites yields to a few more questions. (1) How participatory is the music in our own cultural tradition surrounding rites? And at what point is the barrier between performer and active participant crossed when playing for a funeral or wedding? and (2) How restrained is music based upon societal "norms"?
In class yesterday we discussed the difference between our participation, as a musician, in a funeral or wedding and the participation that is expected in other cultures (as in Ecuador with the Mother's lament after losing her child- it is tradition that the Mother sing a message to her child near the end of the service). While music is used as an expression of pain and a tool to heal in either observer or participatory music cultures, I have noticed that there are traditions that encourage active participation in the music (or service) and others that use formalities as a shield and provide more of a barrier culture regarding rites. (I haven't a clue if that made sense- but I'll explain.)
What led me to the poorly written point above is personal experience playing in both my sister's and my dear friend, Keith's funeral. In both instances I ended up crying only when I was playing my flute and allowing myself to feel the music. Keith had written that he wanted me to play Danny Boy solo flute and I ended up breaking down in the middle of the piece, but regrouped, started over and played the whole thing. I felt as if I had ruined his service and I remember feeling absolutely horrible about my involvement and, ultimately, my performance. But then I realized what happened was natural, it didn't make me unprofessional and it served as a testament to the person he was. (He was an amazing older man at my church who was like a Grandfather to me. He passed away from the same cancer my Father had- multiple myeloma. His wife is also a truly genuine person and she, unfortunately, has Leukemia but is doing well at the moment.) In the Mother's lament, however, the whole idea behind the tradition is to enable the Mother to publicly grieve and then, ultimately, use it as a healing experience. The Mother was openly crying and wailing while singing a personal message to her child. I found the contrast between my personal experience and one case study to be fascinating.
Yesterday when we were talking about this we talked about being in two places at the same time- one as a performer reading the notes and making sure we can play well, and then in the service or location itself. While I agree with this dichotomy which I have observed and felt, there are also times where what you are doing, as a musician, transcends the tuning and notes on the page. There comes a time where the music is not a performance, yet the performance of music enables you to engage in the ceremony, contribute to the experience for others, and walk away feeling fulfilled in some way. Honestly, I didn't feel in the services until I sang songs and picked up my flute to play in both of them. It was interesting to me that I could restrain my feelings up until the point in which I was actively participating through music.
Then, my experience with wedding music is immense as well. (My Mother is a director of music and organist so we do a lot of funerals and weddings- and people think flute is pretty for their weddings too.) Of course, as with any rite in any culture, there are cultural standards and traditions as to what is played and when you have music in the service. However, how restricted are we by these cultural standards?
In Morocco, the wedding is a huge party full of music and dancing. The first point is that rites and the way each culture approaches them range from quite restrained to completely unrestrained in organization of what is expected etc. Secondly, the Moroccan tradition is seemingly unrestrained, but if the couple really wanted a string quartet instead of the traditional Arab band and traditional Moroccan percussion dance that was performed for them- would it be accepted? Probably not. (However, they have added in the white bridal gown and tuxedo- after dressing in many different types of robes (for the bride) the couple ends the evening in "Western attire".)
To what degree is music a type of shield in either participatory or observer traditions? Is music used as a tool to grieve and celebrate or is it merely a formality that everyone expects? How much of our own cultural tradition restricts the music and function of music in the passing of specific rites? How much has it changed through out history?
These are all interesting questions to ponder but regardless of the cultural tradition that tells us how to use music- every culture utilizes music in the passing of various rites. This fact alone is telling of the nature of music. Music is truly another language that transcends plain speech (as Wainwright mentioned regarding poetry) and allows most people to express or feel something beyond themselves.