Why Ethnomusicology: A Series

One of the pleasures music-lovers enjoyed before the days of streaming, was going to a CD shop, choosing an album, and bringing it home to listen to it. It was certainly one of my favourite things to do in University. We consume music quite differently now of course — not necessarily better or worse, and this isn’t a discussion about technology in any case. I’d like to start this conversation by remembering a very specific aspect of the CD shop visit: stepping in, looking at albums on racks, and seeing them arranged by genre. 

Genre — that’s an interesting term. Some of the usual suspects in a CD shop would be rock, pop, jazz, rap, the somewhat-nebulous ‘New Age’, and, invariably, that seemingly-innocuous but loaded term: world music. 

Let’s pause to do a simple experiment. Which of the genres above come to mind immediately when we think of each of the albums below?

1. Like A Prayer, a studio album by Madonna

2. All Eyez On Me, a studio album by Tupac Shakur

3. A live recording of a concert at the Acropolis by Yanni

4. A studio recording ot JS Bach’s B Minor Mass

5. A studio album by Alash, an ensemble of throat singers from Tuva

Even the most automatic answers may be open to debate, but many would answer this way:

1. Pop

2. Rap / Hip hop

3. New Age / Crossover

4. Classical

5. World Music 

If, at this point, you’re thinking of questions that start with “But…”, “Why…”, or “Are you sure…”, it means we’re on the right track. 

One of the questions I ask my students in lectures — particularly undergraduates training to become music teachers — is what they think of the term ‘world music’. Could, for example, a studio album by a Tuvan throat singing ensemble be considered anything other than ‘world music’? How about traditional music, or folk music? Would anyone consider Tupac Shakur a folk musician? Is Indonesian gamelan music easier to define as folk music? Would we think a Carnatic vocal album should be categorised as classical music or world music? What about traditional music: is Bach’s B Minor Mass any less traditional than Tuvan throat singing? And if we look at world music as ‘music of other cultures’, or ‘music of global cultures’, where does this situate the individual who’s defining it? Why is it that many people consider ‘world music’ something other than Western classical, jazz, or popular music, even if they themselves are not from any of the cultures in which these forms of music originated?

And more importantly, does it matter?

Ethnomusicology provides a way of addressing these questions. To understand how, we need first to realise that the field of ethnomusicology has evolved greatly since its inception, a topic I will address in another post in this series. We also need to realise that conventional ideas of ethnomusicology as the study of the music of the ‘other’, are inadequate, and that they limit the true potential of this approach. 

Fundamentally, the ethnomusicologist examines humans’ relationship to music. It goes beyond the ‘what’ of musicology, and asks who, where, when, how, and why. It examines the connection between music and other issues such as culture, identity, personality, evolution, politics, belief, and social function. And it examines how these issues influence individuals in the roles of performer, composer, educator, coach, student, guru, apprentice, policy maker, curriculum planner, marketing manager, music-lover, parent, child, religious leader, filmmaker — or any role that involves music as a mediator of meaning.

Ethnomusicology, then, cuts across genres and looks at the relevance of music to a person or group. Why not, then, use an ethnomusicological approach to understand Bach’s B Minor Mass? And why can’t ethnomusicology be used to understand the music around us? Conventional ethnography tended to situate a researcher in a ‘different’ or ‘foreign’ culture to conduct a holistic, longitudinal study, but ethnographic methods today are increasingly being used to understand everyday life around us, from consumer culture to schools. Ethnomusicology is not about studying an Other which, to paraphrase Edward Said, is deemed unable to represent itself by the one holding the magnifying glass. It is about understanding the relevance of music here and now, whether the here and now is a concert hall or school assembly, classroom or cathedral, sports arena or hillside. 

As we delve into this series of posts about ethnomusicology, we’ll start to understand how some of the questions we have about music and its relevance to people can be addressed by using the vocabulary and frameworks of this field. Alongside this discussion, this series will provide insights and best practices for educators, curriculum planners, performers, practitioners, and individuals from any field whose work necessitates an understanding of music in society. 

Of course, it is my hope that this series on ethnomusicology gives anyone who consumes music — whether listening to CDs, streaming, or in any other way — the confidence to interrogate the knowledge we receive about music, its labels, and its forms; and it is also my hope that this will lead to rewarding and satisfying intellectual expeditions.