Musical Instruments and Ritual: A Systematic Approach

    -- DeVale, Sue Carole. 1988. Journal of the American Musical Instrument Society. 14:126-60

Many rituals around the world involve musical instruments. In this article, the author considers various possible relations between instruments and ritual. She presents models for research and analysis of these relations, both within a culture and across cultures. The article is a companion to her article described on page 4, and they should be considered essential in the study of organology.

DeVale states that there are two primary ways for musical instruments to participate in a ritual: the “receptive mode” and the “transitive mode.” In the receptive mode, the instrument—or more accurately, the spirit embodied in the instrument—is the focus of the ritual: a ceremony is performed on or for the instrument/spirit. In the transitive mode, the instrument is not the focus of the ritual; rather, it is an active agent that helps to ensure the efficacy of a ritual. The ritual may be performed on or for a person, place or thing, whether seen or unseen. “In the transitive mode an instrument often symbolizes the worldview of a culture as expressed in the ritual context.” (In her other article, DeVale describes in detail how in local thought and theology, a single gamelan ensemble of Java is a model for the cosmos.)

The model for the receptive mode focuses on the “life cycle” of an instrument and what rituals might be performed at each of the primary points. DeVale divides the life cycle of an instrument into twelve stages. These stages are grouped into four phases: construction, first use, subsequent uses, and last use. A 6-page appendix to the article provides a chart of the stages in the life cycle of instruments, using examples from Africa, Asia, and the Pacific.

In the transitive mode, either the “voice” or the “body” of the instrument may be involved in a ritual. In the former, an instrument’s sound (such as the didgeridoo in Australia) can have ceremonial power. In the latter, physical aspects of the instrument such as carving, painting, and more (again, see the didgeridoo as an example) has such power.

In the transitive mode, an instrument participates in ritual along a “physical-metaphysical continuum.” This continuum is illustrated in this article with an 8-string harp from Gabon. The companion article illustrates it using a gamelan ensemble from Java.

    --reviewed by Paul Neeley

Published in Vol.1, No.4 of

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Artists in Christian Testimony