The purpose of the paper is to describe all the elements of a specific live performance, and describe its cultural significance regarding a particular social group. Ethnomusicologists study music as part of people’s way of life because there is a relationship between music and society. Music is a product and expression of culture, it doesn’t exist in a vacuum, “for art’s sake”, but is a distillation of culture. All music is the bearer of a set of values and behaviors that the society that generates it would otherwise lack.
What elements of this performance reflect the cultural norms of the performers? The function of arts in everyday life very often is to reflect ideas that are important to a community.
For instance, in Indonesia, as in Asia in general, society values a person for being a part of the larger group just as the musicians of the gamelan orchestra blend together with no one person standing out. The Western world tends to value individual actions more highly and this is where the concerto was invented, an art form where the skilled playing of one soloist is singled out for individual attention, set in relief against a large group.
Japan makes use of empty space in all art forms. A typical painting will leave two thirds of the canvas blank and a piece of music will limit itself to very few notes with many silences. In the stylized world of Kabuki theater there is an acting technique called “mie” where, at the climax of a scene, all actors freeze for a few seconds in dramatic poses. The common principle is the belief that blank spaces/silences are not in fact empty, they are as important as the lines/notes and serve to enhance and intensify the active part of the composition. If you then listen to western pop music you will find that most, if not all, of the space is filled with sound. So Japanese music requires us to modify our expectations and listen in a different way. Comparison with other art forms prompts the realization that the “less is more” principle is found anywhere in Japanese society and could be illustrated equally by the aesthetics of Zen Buddhism, flower arranging or the tea ceremony.

Your job is to try to understand this performance from the point of view of the people who perform it. Of course you will also bring your own experience and taste to bear on the experience but you must start with an open mind to everything that is new or different. You are not required to like or accept everything that you hear, but before you formulate an opinion, examine what might be valuable about this to another cultural group. By all means record your personal response to the performance: was it inspiring, beautiful, annoying, tedious? But you must formulate the reasons for your reactions. How does it compare to the music you generally listen to? Are there any similarities?

An interview with the performer is a primary source (as close to the performer as possible) and therefore usually a valuable source of information about the motivation for playing a certain type of music. It is not always possible to conduct an interview at the time of the performance but there are often interviews that have been conducted previously, to be found through on-line research.
A good paper shows evidence of reflection and insight about the event. You must attempt to both stand back from the performance to realize its place in a larger historical context as well as to look closely at the details of the performance and describe the parts that most clearly give a sense of the mood, atmosphere and sounds.

Questions to think about (not all will apply to your subject):
What are the origins of this music? Why does this music exist? If it is an ancient art form, what are the qualities that have led to its longevity? What is the value/significance of this performance to the community at large? Does it bring disparate groups or people of like mind together? Is it primarily for relaxation or entertainment? Or does it have educational, religious, ritual, ceremonial, political, historical significance? What does the music tell you about the audience for which it is written/about the performer? What kind of people play or listen to this music? What are the performers/audience wearing? What does this say about the event? How is the performer treated by the audience-with great respect/as one of the crowd? Is the performer being paid/ just doing it for fun?
Is there a clear separation between performer and audience or does everyone contribute to the performance (by dancing, clapping etc)? What is the setting of the performance-in a bar/concert hall, formal/casual? How does this affect the atmosphere? Does the audience talk during the performance or pay silent attention?
What is the difference between listening to recorded music/watching a DVD and attending a live performance?
How do different aspects of the performance enhance and complete each other? Is there variety in the performance, if so how is it achieved? How many instruments, how do they sound as a group, how do the performers interact with each other, is there a soloist or are they all equally important?
How loud/soft, slow/fast, and are there many changes in volume/speed during the performance? Why?
Can you tell if the performer is improvising, playing pre-composed music or a mixture of the two? How can you tell the difference? What is the effect?
What is your/the audience’s reaction to the performance? Is it different from the goal of the performer?
Is the performance successful? Is the performer talented? Why/not? Does it matter? What do you think the music is expressing?
You may make analogies between the music that you hear and other art forms from that culture (visual arts, literature, dance, food, clothing) eg just as Middle Eastern cooks add spices to food to make it more tasty and complex, their musicians also add many ornaments to the melodies to give them more beauty and depth.
If this is a production including words/dancing/costumes/make-up etc, imagine the performance without music and then describe how the music complements/enhances the other elements. This point is very important if you are reviewing a dance performance-make sure you write a paper about the music primarily and describe the dance as one of the elements in the performance, not the only element in the performance. Or if there are songs-what is the effect of the poetry by itself/what does the music add to the words? Include examples of the lyrics in your paper and explain why that kind of music is sung to those particular words.
Talk to an audience member at the concert-someone who you think might be familiar with this music. Ask them what they thought of the performance and what they enjoy about this type of music.