About Ethnomusicology

Ethnomusicology is the study of the performance – music, dance and theatre – of the people of the world in its social and cultural contexts. Ethnomusicologists primarily employ ethnographic methods, whether their analytical focus is on performance details or on cultural contexts and social meanings. A dynamic discipline, ethnomusicology is persistently expanding, developing new ideas and practices. 

With roots in both the ‘curiosity’ of the Enlightenment and the lust for power of the European expansionist period, ethnomusicological practices were originally comparative and collection oriented.  As nationalist movements and the quest for self-determinism in the nineteenth century spurred interest in the collection and documentation of the songs and cultural artifacts of rural Europeans by (predominantly urban) European composers and folklorists, similar activities were ongoing in colonized places around the world. In 1885 Austrian musicologist Guido Adler designated a new term ‘comparative musicology’ (vergleichende Musikwissenschaft) to describe the diverse music research activities ongoing at that time. In the early 20th century, Austrian musicologist Erich Moritz von Hornbostel and German music-psychologist Carl Stumpf founded what eventually came to be known as the Berlin School of Comparative Musicology, a loosely tied collective of scholars researching diverse musics of the world from myriad analytical approaches (e.g. musical, acoustic, psychological, historical).

Following World-War II, ethical issues regarding an unacknowledged Western bias in the analytical approaches and the etic perspective of comparative musicology emerged.  Mid-twentieth century European and American music scholars began reorienting their assumptions and approaches to include emic perspectives and relativist interpretations, attempting to eradicate ethnocentrism (as much as possible) by engaging fieldwork themselves. Dutch musician-scholar Jaap Kunst first coined the word ethno-musicology in 1950 and the prefix ‘ethno’ has generated debate since. In spite of repeated upwellings of discomfort in the field regarding the nature of the prefix ‘ethno,’ this term is increasingly understood today as a reference to the ethnographic methods, not as a pejorative ‘ethnicization’ of non-western musics, which were once the primary research focus of the emerging discipline.  (Why the term ‘musicology’ designates the study of western art music history in a narrow sense, rather than the general scholarly study of music around the world, has to do with the gradual distribution of diverse music research practices into subdisciplines in different places across the world since the end of the nineteenth century.)

Over the course of its existence, ethnomusicology has engaged many significant, world-wide intellectual developments and trends from structuralism, functionalism, Marxism, and deconstructionism to gender studies, reflexivity studies, identity studies, postcolonialism, cognitive studies, computational approaches, and many more. Deeply interdisciplinary, ethnomusicology brings together research and interpretation strategies from a variety fields including: (in alphabetical order) anthropology, cognitive studies, cultural studies, comparative studies, choreomusicology, dance anthropology, ecological and indigenous studies, economics, human geography, medical studies, music theory and analysis, musicology, performance studies, ritual studies, and sound studies.

That ethnomusicology is persistently absorptive, innovative, and intellectually nimble is either the field’s greatest strength or its greatest weakness, depending on one’s perspective.  Nevertheless, as outlined by the Society for Ethnomusicology in the United States, several important ideas do bind the vast community of diverse scholars who identify, wholly or in some part, as ethnomusicologists: 

          1) They employ a global perspective on music (encompassing all geographic areas and types of music)
          2) They understand music as a social practice (viewing music as a human activity that is interrelated with its social and cultural contexts)
          3) They engage in some combination of ethnographic, analytical, and /or historical research about music

Ethnomusicological topics and ideas can be studied by anyone anywhere in the world. Such topics are regularly incorporated in pre-kindergarten, primary, and secondary school music and cultural curricula around the world, often without identification as ethnomusicology per se, but rather as ‘experiencing and learning about the music and cultures of the world.’ Ethnomusicology as an academic discipline is primarily an advanced study field, with most ethnomusicologists earning degrees in the field at the masters and doctoral levels. Ethnomusicologists work as researchers in communities around the world. They also work as researchers and educators in universities and throughout the public and private sectors in small towns, big cities, and regions, at museums, archives, companies, foundations, and NGOs, in publicly and privately funded research and community-support projects. Ethnomusicologists have often been instrumental in providing academic documentation in support of the rights of indigenous people to claim land and also in the preservation and/or development of sustainable contexts for endangered music cultures.

A few suggestions for further reading available in the Institute’s library collection:

Barz, Gregory and Timothy Cooley. 2008 (and forthcoming). Shadows in the Field:  New Perspectives for Fieldwork in Ethnomusicology. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press.

Berger, Harris and Ruth. M. Stone. 2019. Theory for Ethnomusicology: Histories, Conversations, Insights. Abingdon and New York: Routledge.

Grupe, Gerd. 2015. ‚Comparative (Ethno) Musicology: On the Cross-cultural Comparison of Musical Concepts and Performance Practices. Transgressions of a Musical Kind. Festschrift for Regine Allgayer-Kaufmann on the Occasion of her 65th Birthday, edited by Anja Brunner, Cornelia Gruber and August Schmidhofer. Düren: Shaker, 13-22.

_______2014. ‘Ethnomusikologie – what else? Die Musikforschung 67: 393-397.

Nettl, Bruno. 2015. The Study of Ethnomusicology: Thirty-three Issues and Concepts, 3rd edition. Urbana-Champagne: University of Illinois Press.

Rice, Timothy. 2014. Ethnomusicology: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press.

Sarkissian, Margaret and Ted Solís. 2019. Living Ethnomusicology: Paths and Practices. Urbana; Chicago; Springfield: University of Illinois Press.

Solis, Ted. 2004. Performing Ethnomusicology: Teaching and Representation in World Music Ensembles. Berkeley: University of California Press.