You are here


15 January, 2016 - 09:13
Available under Creative Commons-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. Download for free at

Although the question driving your inquiry is a "why" question, in order to answer it clearly, you should also look for the answers to the other questions about the musical practice that you are trying to understand:

  • Who does it? People of a particular age, gender, ethnicity, religion, nationality, culture, historical era, social or economic class, station in life?
  • What role do they have in the music? Are they composers, singers, dancers, players of a certain instrument, conductors or directors, stage hands? Are they a live audience or fans who often listen to recordings? The teachers of the performers, the family of the composer, judges, professional critics?
  • Where does the practice in question happen? In certain countries or regions, cities or towns? In particular venues (for example, churches, stadiums, concert halls, school rooms, living rooms, front porches, street corners)?
  • When does it happen? At particular times of the year or the week? Certain times of day? Does it happen often, rarely, regularly, unpredictably?
  • How is it done? Are particular instruments required to do it properly? Certain procedures or ways of dressing?
  • How important is each aspect of the practice? Would the music be considered "authentic" or "correct" only if it is performed by certain people, or in a certain place, or in a certain way?
  • How has it changed? Have the answers to these questions changed over time? For example, some kinds of music have a very different audience now than they did 20 years ago. Other types of music used to be performed in one type of place (such as a church), but are now typically performed in another place (such as a concert hall).

Don't assume that you know the answers. Do some research to make sure you are characterizing this musical practice correctly. Look for Finding and Evaluating Resources for Music Inquiries of information that check their facts rather than simply repeating popular assumptions. For example, some people assume that rock stars are young, but many famous rockers have continued to perform long past typical retirement age.

Once you have found the answer to these questions, you should be able to refine your original question. Rather than a vague "Why are they shaking hands?" your question should now be much more specific, for example "Why does the orchestra conductor shake hands with the concertmaster on stage at the beginning of a concert?" It's a good idea to make your "why" question as specific as possible, because the meanings of musical practices may change from one group of musicians to another. Take the time to rephrase your question so that you have a clear idea of when and where the answers you find will be relevant.

While answering the other questions, you may also have already begun to find answers to your "why" question. Try to find at least three independent sources that give a cultural, historical, religious, personal, philosophical or psychological reason for doing things that way. (An independent source is one that is not just quoting or repeating one of your other sources.) If you find that different sources (for example, an audience member and a book) give different answers, try to discover why there are different answers, and who subscribes to each answer.

Consider the following possible resources

  • Fan sites or educational sites - Many types of music have fan sites or sites dedicated to educating people about the music. This often includes discussions of reasons and meanings.
  • Ask directly - Can you ask a friend or relative who "does" this kind of music or is part of the culture that does it? Can you ask a fellow audience member or your music teacher? Does a fan site or educational site take questions?
  • Published Interviews of musicians in magazines, newspapers, newsletters, or books often discuss meanings and reasons for doing things.
  • Educational performances - Sometimes musicians will give concerts with the specific aim of educating outsiders about their music. These often feature question-and-answer sessions with the performers.
  • Concert notes and album notes may discuss the composers' or performers' intentions or purposes.
  • Books or articles about musical practices, written by musicologists, music historians, or ethnomusicologists, may discuss the cultural traditions, perspectives, and understandings that are tied to specific musical events.

You may discover that the reasons given for a certain practice are musical reasons. For example, if you ask why a particular instrument is used to provide the accompaniment, the answer may be that (in the case of the piano) a single person can easily provide a full harmonic accompaniment or (in the case of a tambura) that it provides the desired timbre. The "music answer" may give you some useful insight into the music, or you may find that you don't really understand that answer right now. In either case, you can continue to pursue the "cultural-historical answer" by asking whether and how that same function is achieved in other types of music. For example, you may discover that many types of music don't need a full harmonic accompaniment, or prefer to have multiple performers provide it. Or you may find that other cultures prefer a drone instrument with a very different timbre from a tambura. Then you can ask why that particular instrument seems to be the "right" answer to that musical problem for this particular type of music.