Tonality and Racism


  1. Hi Jason,

    I enjoyed reading! I think for a future comparative musicology we will still need words like evolution and tonality but they need to be redefined in the most neutral way possible. For evolution, the neo-Darwinists have worked it out to mean that things evolve but in no particular direction, pace Stephen Jay Gould. So there’s no progress, and plenty of dead-ends.

    Since Balinese music is my wheelhouse, your comment on kebyar is my entry into the tonality issue. Careful if you describe it as noisy and dissonant. Not to them! On the other hand my Balinese friends find Brahms (for ex.) muddy and directionless.

    In gamelan I would say scale degrees have qualia in relation to the varied sizes of the intervals separating them. They also have extramusical qualia the way different keys had affects in Monteverdi or even Beethoven (the tragic D minor for ex.). But they have no tonality per se until the large gong coincides with them. Then they’re the tonic. So the tonality here is conveyed by something extrinsic to the scale. It’s still a powerful sensation. In some kebyar music the tone that coincides with gong is the same throughout an entire piece. It gives a certain stasis at that level, but can have much motion on other levels. In other pieces the tone coinciding with gong changes repeatedly and at different rates. The effect is analogous to modulating–I mean , it’s not at all the same thing because such comparisons are always facile, but you get the idea.


    1. Thanks for the comments. I apologize about the “dissonance and noise” statement. I didn’t mean for that to characterize the whole style but thinking of how it can use dissonance and noise, like in the “byar,” as a musical resource. (I think probably Balinese would say the “byar” is dissonant and noisy, but you would know better than I.) I can see how that can be misread, especially with the history of Europeans hearing Balinese music in ways that have little to do with how Balinese hear it. (The three listeners you describe in your book I think make that point very well!)

      Your point about scale degrees in Balinese music is very interesting and makes a lot of sense. I hadn’t thought of the comparison before but the idea that gong tone establishes a kind of modality for the pokok is very similar to the idea in European music theory that tonal center might be more of a phenomenon of phrase structure than abstract pitch relationships (such as in Megan Long’s book).

  2. I’ve updated this page with a newer version of the essay, in response to comments from readers. Thanks to Pat McCreless, Steve Rings, Dmitri Tymoczko, Jeff Perry, Michael Tenzer, Dan Harrison, Roger Dean. The Journal of Music Theory plans to publish the essay with responses from a number of theorists, so keep an eye out for that.

  3. The essay has now been submitted to the Journal of Music Theory and will be published soon with a number of responses, so I’ve taken it down from the website.

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