Coursepack 8



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Catherine Lachance

December 20, 1999

Humanities 100

Mark Liberman


Wendy Steiner

Question 5

Song and Narrative


Some aspects of one particular human culture are, amazingly enough, present in every other human culture. Narrative and song are two of these aspects. Why they are in every human culture corresponds to what they reveal about the human condition. At first glance, these two aspects are only aesthetically linked, but their connections with each other and with the universal human condition go beyond this. Narrative can be found in lyrical song, while song was the first form of verbal communication that eventually progressed into speech and narrative.

Narrative and song are ways of communication. The earliest humans used song to communicate, and as they progressed into modern man, they developed speech. (Tomlinson) Narrative formed after speech did, and so these aspects are tied together through communication.

Song and narrative are modes of knowledge. By imitating, they reveal the essence of the human experience. Like life, every story has a structure with a definite plot, a beginning, middle, and an end. “There must be an end relating back to the beginning—according to some theorists, an end that indicates what has happened to the desire that led to the events the story narrates.” (Culler 85) This structure includes a subject in search of an object, a sender (a human or non-human force sending the subject on a quest), and a receiver, helper, or opponent. These characters can be identified in each person’s life. This structure is also present in lyrical songs with the text telling some kind of story. Furthermore, the creation of stories and myths in society leads to cultural development.

Another way that narrative and song are found in every human culture is because it gives humans freedom to express themselves. They have the power and ability to perform these feats, which in turn gives them confidence. Besides communicating facts with narrative and song, humans can create wonderful stories and music to entertain others.

By itself, narrative reveals several elements of the human condition. First, it reveals that by nature, humans are curious beings. They want to know how humans (in general) think, and about what other humans are thinking.

For stories also have the function . . . of teaching us about the world, showing us how it works, enabling us . . . to see things from other vantage points, and to understand others’ motives that in general are opaque to us. The novelist E. M. Forster observes that in offering the possibility of perfect knowledge of others, novels compensate for our dimness about others in ‘real’ life. (Culler 93)


Through narrative, then, humans can pretend to know what they cannot.

Besides just being curious about other’s thoughts, humans like to know things, that is, to have knowledge about the world.

A story with omniscient narration, detailing the feelings and hidden motivations of protagonists and displaying knowledge of how events will turn out, may give the impression of the comprehensibility of the world. It may highlight, for example, the contrast between what people intend and what inevitably happens (‘Little did he know that two hours after he would be run over by a carriage and all his plans come to naught’). (Culler 91-92)
Humans enjoy learning about what is versus what may be. They also like to understand the realities of life.

Stories, the argument goes, are the main way we make sense of things, whether in thinking of our lives as a progression leading somewhere or in telling ourselves what is happening in the world. Scientific explanation makes sense of things by placing them under laws—whenever a and b obtains, c will occur—but life is generally not like that. It follows not a scientific logic of cause and effect but the logic of story, where to understand is to conceive of how one thing leads to another, how something might have come about: how Maggie ended up selling software in Singapore, how George’s father came to give him a car. (Culler 83-4)


Thus narrative reveals that humans like to learn about themselves and others. Stories can tell human beings what others are (or were) thinking, which satisfies the human curiosity of how others perceive the world. Different types of narrative also give a feeling of omniscient power that makes humans feel as if they know what will happen in the future.

Song contributes to enrich the human condition in a variety of ways. One of its main contributions is as a mode of communication. In addition to communicating concrete ideas, like calling people to eat food, music expresses the passions and emotions of the self (Tomlinson).

The songs of the slave represent the sorrows, rather than the joys, of his heart; and he is relieved by them, only as an aching heart is relieved by its tears . . . Sorrow and desolation have their songs, as well as joy and peace. Slaves sing more to make themselves happy, than to express their happiness. (Douglass 1260)
Thus the human condition is enhanced by this mode of communication.

Song also gives the power of interpretation to humans. Instrumental music, in particular, lacks specificity and therefore the responsibility to decide what information is being given is left up to the individual. For example, the music for the balcony scene of Berlioz’ Romeo and Juliet is completely instrumental, so the audience is allowed to interpret the scene’s outcome. (Tomlinson)

Song creates boundaries for humans. In a way it breaks the boundary humans have set between themselves and animals, but it also marks a barrier between social classes. It can be seen through Anthony Seeger’s anthropological study on the Suya Indians’ use of song that it brings them closer to nature. Other human cultures probably developed song in the same way that the Suyas have. From earlier times to the present, the Suya have learned and shared songs from many sources, such as mice, jaguar, neighboring tribes, and visiting anthropologists (Seeger 134).

Throughout their history the Suya have learned the songs of powerful strangers. In the distant past recounted in myths they learned songs from jaguars, mice, and enemies who lived under ground, as well as from Suya in the throes of permanent transformation into animals . . . The songs were incorporated into the collective village life, and performed in the plaza itself. The Suya treated their contemporaries in the Xingu, and the non-Indians, very much as they treated monsters in the past—they learned their songs and incorporated their material benefits into Suya society. (Seeger 134)


The Suya showed a link between animals and humans by learning the songs of the animals. This process broke down some of the barrier between humans and animals to show that other creatures can influence the human condition.

Although the human-animal barrier is somewhat destroyed by song, social class distinctions can be created by song. Opera is one form of song that puts a boundary between certain social classes and cultures. Opera utilizes artificial singing and turns music into a job. Song is therefore taken from all people and given to a select few. In this sense, song gives certain barriers to the human condition.

It is fascinating that narrative and song can be found in every human culture. They are found in each culture because they contribute to the human condition. Narrative and song are modes of communication and knowledge. They portray the human experience and give humans creative freedom to express themselves. Narrative reveals that humans are curious and thrive on knowledge, while song contributes to the human condition by giving humans the power of interpretation and by setting or destroying boundaries. Thus song and narrative contribute to the human condition in various ways, and that is why they are found in every human culture.
From November 22 Lecture:

Tomlinson, Gary.


From Section 8 of the Course Pack:

Culler, Jonathan. Literary Theory. Pp. 83-84, 85, 91-92, 93.


From Section 16 of the Course Pack:

Douglass, Frederick. My Bondage and My Freedom. 1885. P. 1260.


Seeger, Anthony. Why Suya Sing: A musical anthropology of an Amazonian people. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. P. 134.
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