Music Is a Lens to Understanding Culture

  • Sylvia Alajaji

Sylvia Alajaji sometimes wonders what her students are thinking.

When she asks them to name a person who epitomizes American culture, too often the answer is pop music princess Britney Spears.

“Music is a lens,” Alajaji said. “We look through music to understand society.”

As an ethnomusicologist, Alajaji, assistant professor of music at Franklin & Marshall College, studies music as a way to understand a culture. She joined the faculty this academic year.

“I am absolutely fascinated by popular culture,” Alajaji admitted. “I question why are things popular and why are these the voices we are hearing as opposed to the voices we are not hearing?”

For example, why is most popular music devoid of social and political comment and why do artists such as Spears dominate the cultural landscape?

She believes most artists steer away from taking a stand for fear of upsetting the companies that control the music industry. Those that do rock the boat, like the Dixie Chicks after the start of the Iraq War, risk cancelled concerts and public ridicule, Alajaji said.

The days of John Lennon and Bob Dylan have passed, she said.

“We have shifted away from questioning the status quo,” said Alajaji, who is teaching classes in popular music and society this semester.

“That is why I am always looking for musicians who are pushing boundaries,” she said, to introduce their music to her students.

As a child, Alajaji had lived in Beirut, Lebanon, during the civil war in the early 1980s. She and her family fled the conflict and resettled in Oklahoma.

“Talk about a culture shock,” Alajaji said, “but in retrospect, that helped me as an ethnomusicologist. I went from one culture where music played an important role in life to another world, another music, an entirely different life.”

Alajaji received her bachelor’s degree from the University of Tulsa in Oklahoma, and is currently pursuing her Ph.D. in musicology at the Eastman School of Music. She has focused her scholarly studies on Armenian music and its socio-political influence on Armenian culture.

This summer she will defend her dissertation, titled “Diasporic Communities and Negotiated Identities: Trauma, Recovery and the Search for the Armenian Musical Voice.”

Studying music wasn’t always her plan. At Tulsa, Alajaji majored in pre-med with an eye toward becoming a medical doctor. Research she did on Armenian music in her senior year made her reconsider that goal.

“I made a complete 180-degree turn,” she said. “Music fit my life.”

Alajaji brings her experiences to the classroom, but she said she hesitates to push her opinions on her students.

It would be easy, she admitted, to just tell the students that certain music is lousy and another style is better, but “that’s not my job. I want them to form their own opinions.”

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