“There is no such thing as music. Music is not a thing at all but an activity, something that people do.”
- Christopher Small
"There is no gender identity behind the expressions of gender... identity is performatively constituted by the very 'expressions' that are said to be its results."
- Judith Butler
One thing I love about studying ethnomusicology is making connections across disciplines. I am increasingly noticing a connection between how scholars talk about the nature of music and how scholars talk about the nature of gender.
Both scholars question the idea of their concept as a concrete thing. Many ethnomusicologists now conceptualize music as an activity, what Small refers to as “Musiking.” Part of this is a reaction to more traditional mindsets of music. Many people think that music notation is music, or that a recording is music. While these are both forms of musical transmission, they are not the music itself. Music does not depend on either one to exist. The only thing it needs to exist is the deliberate action of at least one human being.
In the field of gender studies, Butler and other scholars have made similar claims about the nature of gender. This was a reaction to the idea of natural gender roles that was so antithetical to the feminist movement. Gender is gender because we perform it that way. Even physical and biological characteristics are performatively gendered.
Both scholars have made effective arguments that have opened up extensive discussion in their respective fields.
There are two sides to each coin. There have been numerous critics of Butler’s theory, the most vocal being from transgendered people who feel their gender is a concrete thing and that their transitioning is a way to make their body match their actual gender. I am not aware of scholars who have challenged Small’s theories, but I myself believe that, to a certain extent, music exists as a thing or concept. Just as transgendered people strive to express their true gender, musical performers (or actors/participants) will relate the music around them to their own conception of “music.” Gender and music can be very real things for certain people.
I argue that both sides of either debate can be true. Reality is full of cases where opposite or otherwise seemingly contradictory ideas are both true. I think in both cases, the concepts fall somewhere on a continuum of real vs. performed. Like so many other things, the truth lies somewhere in the middle.