Elizabeth Tolbert, 3 March 2016

Title of the Talk: Meaningful Music, Unmediated Sound: An Evolutionary History (What and How Does Music Mean?)

When? Thursday 03 March 2016 (17:00-18:30)

Where? The Barn at St John’s College (Kendrew Quad)

Speaker: Elizabeth Tolbert (Department of Musicology, The Johns Hopkins University)

Abstract: I suggest that the conditions of representation that allow for music to be apprehended as socially and emotionally meaningful are biologically grounded in our evolutionary history. Specifically, I propose that music emerged from the evolution of the human capacity for culture (Tomasello 1999, 2005), and is a means of creating joint attentions and intentions in order to achieve social goals.  The evolution of a uniquely human form of social intelligence resulted in human symbolic systems such as music and language that give rise to an inherent phonocentrism (Derrida 1976), a perceived immediacy of vocally communicative sound. Although decades of ethnomusicological research have debunked the myth of music’s literal unmediatedness, I maintain that the experience of music’s immediacy, indeed the experienced immediacy of any symbolic communication, is what allows it to be intelligible in the first place.

Speaker Biography: Elizabeth Tolbert has earned a BM from Florida State University, an MM from University of Colorado, Boulder, and a PhD from the University of California, Los Angeles. Dr. Tolbert’s awards include Mellon Fellowship, Fulbright grant for study in Finland, NEH fellowship, and ACLS grant. Her recent publications have appeared in Embodied Voices (Cambridge University Press), World of Music, Notes, Ethnomusicology, and Yearbook for Traditional Music. Dr. Tolbert has formerly served as faculty at New York University, UCLA, and Northwestern University. Dr. Tolbert’s research interests in ethnomusicology include intercultural approaches to aesthetics, music theory, gender, ritual, and music cognition.

Convenor: Jason Stanyek (Associate Professor; Fellow and Tutor, St. John’s College)

Free admission – Open to the public. A drinks reception will follow the talk.


Event hosted as part of the Seminar in Ethnomusicology and Sound Studies Series, based at St John’s College, University of Oxford.

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