Conflating Instruments and Music: “The Piano Controversy” in Cairo
In 1932 Cairo hosted a conference at which ethnomusicologists of the West and East gathered to assess the condition of Arab music and to determine its proper fate. They deliberated upon manifold aspects of the culture’s music, from its preservation through recording to its inclusion in a standardized musical curriculum. In each area of debate the Western ethnomusicologists espoused views somewhat different from those of their Eastern counterparts, but upon no issue was there a divergence more marked than the “piano controversy.” This topic, whether or not Arabs should appropriate Western instruments—specifically the piano, as it is perhaps most representative of Western music—elicited such fundamental heterogeneity of opinion that those discussing it were unable to reach unanimity and had to defer the issue to a plenary session. Precisely because the “piano controversy” yielded such obdurate disagreement, however, its analysis reveals with clarity the various basic ethnomusicological ideologies present at the conference.
Many Egyptians viewed the piano as an integral Western instrument whose introduction into Eastern culture would there regulate intonation and consequently facilitate music education and enable the creation of Arab polyphonic music. And if the piano were retuned to accommodate the pitches unique to Arab music—especially quarter-tones, as opposed to Western half-tones—it could lead to the formation of a fixed Arab scale.
Several Western ethnomusicologists, however, argued that despite any benefits that the East might derive from its adoption of the piano (or any Western instrument), such a decision would compromise the indigenous beauty of Arab music. This sentiment is clearly linked with the “relativist” view of cultural evolution promulgated by such figures as Sachs and Lachmann. From this perspective, each culture evolves in its own manner and thus to disturb a culture’s natural evolution, even with the purest intentions and the most careful considerations, is to wreak havoc. Hence such Westerners considered the forced introduction of the piano as an inappropriate disturbance of the East’s natural evolution.
Muhammad Fathi, whose speech during the plenary session represented the climax of the entire conference, questioned the very premise of the argument put forth by this Western contingent—the beauty of Arab music. He complained that the inadequacy of Arab instruments limited the emotional spectrum of Arab music to “whining and pining” which Western ethnomusicologists disingenuously glorified as the expression of “love and romance.” He asked, “Would you [a Westerner] exchange … our [Eastern] music with what you consider charmingly beautiful in your own music …?” to which the answer was an implicit but certain “no.” Thus Fathi was accusing the Western ethnomusicologists of subscribing to a brand of exoticism whereby any music unfamiliar or foreign was blindly—and less than genuinely—considered precious. Accordingly, Fathi begged for the piano’s admission to the East, where it would not so much promote the development of Arab music as much as it would prevent its imminent demise.
Fathi’s plea was not without support from the West. One group of Western ethnomusicologists also approved of the Eastern incorporation of Western instruments, particularly the piano, but for reasons dissimilar to Fathi’s. They spoke of the “advanced” state of Western instruments and the “progress” they might inspire upon their arrival to the East. This language evinces the Social Darwinist ideology upon which their reasoning was founded. They presumed that cultural evolution is unilinear and thus pictured it as a spectrum on which all cultures lie, some—the “advanced” cultures—toward the front, others—the “primitive” cultures—toward the back. Accordingly they viewed the exportation of Western instruments to the East as the West’s duty as a superior cultural body. And many from the East supported this view with their acceptance of the Orient-Occident dichotomy; they felt that the Orient, of which their countries were constituents, should emulate the more advanced Occident, or the Western countries.
Others advocated the creation of a piano compatible with Eastern tonality simply because it seemed to them the lesser of two evils. If this were not done, they feared, Arabs would simply adopt the Western piano, the use of which would hasten the disappearance of their indigenous music. In this way, the Eastern appropriation of the piano would be a prophylactic measure designed not necessarily to stimulate musical development but rather to evade or merely postpone cultural decay.
In his final statement, Fathi propounded additional justifications for the Eastern adoption of Western instruments. He reasoned that musical “instruments, like scientific inventions, transcend culture and nationality,” implying that the West’s presumed ownership of their instruments was perhaps ill-founded. Lachmann, however, contested this view, claiming that unlike science, whose laws and tools function irrespective of culture, music “is the spirit of a nation and can change only when such change emanates from the depths of the very source of that music.” This disagreement might be indicative of a broader cultural divergence regarding art and its relation to property; perhaps Easterners place forms and productions of art in the ether, belonging to no one (or to everyone), while Westerners view them as direct extensions of physical reality, belonging to the person or people from whom they arose.
Fathi tried also to appeal to the Westerners’ sense of fair trade; during the Middle Ages, the East lent its instruments to the West, so why should the West now refuse to reciprocate? He further suggested that such cultural diffusion could eventually prove profitable for the West, as the Arabs might improve the instruments and “return them to you [the West] with the highest level of perfection.”
It seems to me, however, that there are several simple yet powerful arguments that Fathi and the other proponents of the diffusion of the piano failed to employ on their behalf. They could first object that people, not instruments, create music. Regardless of what instrument an Arab is using, any music that he produces will be Arab. Similarly, if Arab music undergoes a transformation, even Westernization, because of the introduction of the piano, it will remain Arab simply because those producing it are Arab.
As Fathi mentioned, some of the Western ethnomusicologists justified their opposition to the East’s incorporation of the piano with the insincere glorification of Arab music. They at once presumed the superiority of their “advanced” Western music and yet advised the Arabs to retain the “primitive beauty” of their music. The use of such Social Darwinist language, however, must have had an effect contrary to the goals of those who used it—implanting in the Arabs a desire for development. Comparing the profound grandeur of Western music with the simple charm of Arab music must have appeared as an invitation, or perhaps a challenge, for Arab improvement. These Westerners seem to have viewed the musical world as a bell curve, the lower end of which must be occupied by such peoples as the Arabs. But, as Fathi perceived, such is not the case; the uninhibited development of a culture leaves no victims.
One could also ask why there is no parallel concern about the introduction of Eastern instruments into the West. Would their presence not jeopardize the complex beauty of traditionally Western music? Or do the Westerners simply presume that Eastern instruments are so undesirable that they could not inspire such a cultural transformation? Furthermore, to illustrate the absurdity of the piano’s exclusion from the East, one could describe the prohibitions in other art forms that would correspond to the prohibition of the piano: Western artists would forbid the use of linear perspective in Eastern art, as it, like the piano, is a distinctly Western development; and Western culinary artists would proscribe the modern oven from the East, as its use, like the piano’s, might encourage the desertion of traditional Eastern practices.
Finally, and obviously, one should ascribe great import to the words and opinions of the Arabs. If they perceived a deficiency in their music and felt that it could be rectified by the introduction of the piano, why would one deprive them of that opportunity? Many of the Western ethnomusicologists assumed a paternal role—a role reinforced by some Eastern ethnomusicologists’ professions of the inferiority of their own instruments and music—and, showing little regard for the Arab perception of Arab music, presumed that “father knows best.”
But amidst all the discussion of the contrast between Eastern and Western music, between Eastern and Western instruments, many of those at the conference forgot—or simply failed to acknowledge—that a piano, like a hammer or a paintbrush, is just a tool. Thus while many viewed the Eastern incorporation of the piano as the Eastern incorporation of the Western musical tradition, they should have recognized it as merely the incorporation of a new vehicle through which the Arabs might attain a superior clarity of musical expression.
Racy, Ali Jihad. “Historical Worldviews of Early Ethnomusicologists: An East-West Encounter in Cairo, 1932.” Ethnomusicology and Modern Music History. Ed. Stephen Blum. Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 1991. 68-91.
 As the piano is a Western instrument, all arguments pertaining generally to Western instruments apply also to the “piano controversy,” which is a mere subset of the broader debate.
 Racy 85.
 Ali Jihad Racy, “Historical Worldviews of Early Ethnomusicologists: An East-West Encounter in Cairo, 1932”. Ethnomusicology and Modern Music History, ed. Stephen Blum (Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 1991), p. 79.
 Racy 76.
 Racy 78.
 Racy 80.
 Racy 79.