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Music-not a universal language and why musical tradition in the Philippines Matters

December 6th, 2013 pvfont13

“Music is the universal language of mankind.”  As much as I applaud the optimism that this quote implies due to its belief in the strength of music to improve the human condition, I think it is something we ought to re-evaluate.  Music, in the western context that the quote is actually implying, is not a universal language.  It cannot be further from being a universal language.

After studying both classical music and indigenous music of the Philippines, I have seen fundamental differences that altogether contradict western music.  For hundreds of years western music relied on a bipolar relationship between two pitches, the tonic and the dominant, or the first pitch in a scale and the fifth pitch in a scale.  For hundreds of years, musicians drew us in by expressing a tonic contrasting with a dominant relationship, and we were hooked.  This relationship lasted roughly until the turn of the 20th century when a large number of advancements dismissed old notions of that tonic dominant relationship, also known as the tonal system.  Thus, the era in which we live now is referred to as the post-tonal era.  Although the old adages of tonic-dominant relations are strained slightly in the ears of the more contemporary musicians, the tonic dominant relationship remains a fundamental part of what makes western music.  This contrast between pitches lies at the heart of all western music.

Right off the bat, Filipino music breaks expectations of what a western ear has for music.  I have played and listened to various instruments that don’t use pitch or they use instruments that play pitches between pitches.  Free from Greco-Roman origins, there is no concept of tonic-dominant contrast in Filipino indigenous music and likewise many classical compositions.  In fact, many concepts that are present in western music: pitch, time, and especially the instruments, don’t flow in a Filipino music system.  The fundamental aspect of almost all Filipino music is the concept of a drone, creating an eternally permeating sound through the ages.  This system has been in place for roughly 4,000 years and by all accounts doesn’t seem to be stopping neither in Filipino indigenous nor in classical musics.

Fundamentally, we are looking at musics, plural, not music.  Filipino music certainly is not western music.  Comparing universality between Filipino music and western music is comparing universality between Mandarin and English, or Swahili and Flemish.  Due to the roots being fundamentally different, these are in fact different musics. We live in a world of musics not music.  While the musics of the world are used to similar ends or are open to comparison, we cannot afford to make the assumption that we all communicate through music in the same manner, nor do we always view music in the same way.

In fact, it is this notion of musics that makes the Philippines so unique.  Recently, I’ve discovered that even more exciting is the notion that the Philippines has many musics as a country on its own.  The music of the Northern Kalinga traditions in Ilocos Norte is different from the Southern Mindanaoan gong kulintang, and there are hundreds of musics in between.  Musically speaking, the Philippines is its own world, a macroverse of cultures, languages, ethnicities, faiths, and traditions.  In spite of this, we can see a commonality in culture between all of the people of the Philippines.  The land and the people create one nation united.

Relating my music to the core identities of the Philippines has been emotional in the past few weeks.  Typhoon Haiyan crippled the Philippines but the relief effort has been and continues to be gigantic and always growing.  I mentioned in a previous post the notion of Kababayan, but I think looking at the music has helped me to understand why the Filipino communities have been so fervent in their efforts to rebuild the destroyed sections of their country and help their neighbors.  There is a collective bond between each community in this country that I believe is transcended through the musics.  Each musical tradition is like a stain glass tapestry that contributes to the artistry and multicultural identity of the Philippines.  The love for the Philippines and its many peoples directly correlates to the love of the many individual musical traditions found all over.  It allows them to identify themselves as a Tagalog, a Visayan, a Mindanaoan, but always and forever they say “Ako ay Pilipino” (I am a Filipino).


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Paul Fontelo '13

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