Worship and Music - Ethnomusicology


Master of Arts (MA)


John L Benham

Primary Subject Area

Music; Sociology, Ethnic and Racial Studies


Cultural Transmission, Diaspora, Habitus, Semiotics, Tibet


This ethnographic study explores the role of music in cultural transmission in the Tibetan community of Toronto, Canada. Beginning with an integration of Peircian semiotics, Bourdieu's habitus and musical semiosis, I then identify certain non-Tibetan cultural elements being encountered by those in the Toronto community which are potentially creating cognitive structures foreign to those which have their generative principles in pre-exile Tibetan past, and the ways in which Tibetans are transmitting (to varying degrees) cognitive schemata which identify these non-Tibetan elements and protect against their appropriation. After exploring elements which are not Tibetan, I turn to those which are: a unified narrative of Tibetan history, an attachment to the physical land of Tibet, community, language, Tibetan Buddhism, family life and traditional music. It is argued that these Tibetan elements together constitute the conceptual core of Tibetan culture, perceived requisite for the entirety of authentic Tibetan cultural transmission to take place. Each element is examined as a representation of Tibetan culture, with the process of musical semiosis shown to correlate all elements into a conceptual whole.
Following this, the study looks at the transmission and appropriation of Tibetan music in a Tibetan student performing arts troupe. I argue that as students attend music lessons, they are in the process embodying the cultural structures of Tibet past. With the correlations produced through musical semiosis, every lesson (for the students) and every performance (for the audience) has the potential to create and reinforce Tibetan structures, and fuse together any and all of the core Tibetan cultural elements in deeply personal ways. When the same performances are framed in the Tibetan Community Cultural Centre, a space permeated by Tibetan stimuli operationalizing all five senses, they provide a mirror in which the Tibetan community might see their cultural preservation efforts reflected; and when the performance agrees with the communal sense of naturalness felt through the habitus, when the performance is deemed authentic, it provides the community tangible evidence that their preservation goals have been achieved.