Why Ethnomusicology (Part 1): Why music teachers benefit from ethnomusicological approaches

Explorers in the wild.

Discovering the music of other cultures.

Living among the natives.

Understanding world music.

A harmonic analysis of Mozart’s Symphony No. 40.

Which do you think is the odd one out?

Many of our perceptions and impressions of music inform us that Mozart doesn’t belong on that list. These same perceptions group the first four items on the list together, and are likely to associate those items with the term ‘ethnomusicology’. It’s understandable. This is how many of us learn about music; we learn that there are different ways of approaching different ‘types’ or ‘genres’ of music. But it’s also limiting, and, in many ways, harmful. Breaking this down and understanding why is an essential aspect of the pedagogy of music, which aims to create more meaningful educational experiences for students and teachers. 

Let’s go back to the list and look at some of the ideas there: the idea of the ‘wild’, the concept of an explorer, the idea that a culture can be ‘discovered’. All of these position people who interact with music as either insiders or outsiders, as ‘Us’ or the ‘Other’. It’s a way of thinking that places restrictions on the way we make sense of our relationship to music, and the way we think about people who come from cultural or musical backgrounds different to our own. 

For music educators in increasingly diverse classrooms, with students who will enter a world very different from what we have known, it is more important than ever to acknowledge the limitations of these perceptions, and look for fresh ways to talk about music. And that’s why ethnomusicology. 

Previous posts addressed the need for this series, whether from the starting point of understanding genre in a CD shop, or simple tips for PYP educators to integrate ethnomusicological approaches into the classroom, inspired by conversations at the recent Smithsonian Folklife Festival. We’re now entering into a more comprehensive discussion about how ethnomusicological perspectives benefit educators.

An -ology is a subject of study or branch of knowledge, so it follows naturally that musicology is the study of music as an academic subject, as distinct from training in performance or composition; musicology refers to scholarly research into music. That in itself is enough to create some fear and resistance. 

But let’s add the prefix ‘ethno’ to musicology, and we get something different. This is a term that refers to the study of music from the cultural and social aspects of the people who make it. Let’s stop and think about that: the people who make it. 

When we look back on the evolution of ethnomusicological practices, we can see that the notion of exploring the music of an ‘other’ formed part of earlier practices. In 1885, Guido Adler described comparative musicology as a way of studying the “folksongs … of the various people of the earth,” both for “ethnographical” and classificatory purposes. Glen Haydon, in 1941, described comparative musicology as the study of extra-European musical systems and folk music (i.e. that of Chinese, Indian, and Arabian cultures, among others) that are transmitted by oral tradition. 

It was Jaap Kunst who was said to have coined the term ethnomusicology in the 1950s,  locating the study of music in the midst of the cultures and people who make it. That means ethnomusicology is not about ‘discovering’ an ‘other’ culture. It’s not about an explorer spending years living amongst distant tribes. The ethnomusicological approach is actually about removing distance and placing the scholar — or anyone who wants to understand music — in the midst of the cultural and social context where people interact with music. That’s a huge shift in the way we think about music: not just as sounds, but as life, culture, tradition, meaning, and behaviour.

Ethnomusicology achieves this way of thinking by taking distinct theoretical and methodical approaches that emphasize cultural, social, material, cognitive, biological, and other dimensions or contexts of musical behavior, instead of only its isolated sound component. Essentially, it’s about humans’ relationship with music.

For music educators, this vital. Music, especially when it’s considered an ‘additional’ aspect of a curriculum, is often overlooked by all but those (relatively few) students who wish to study it seriously. The ethnomusicological approach helps all students to discover the meaning, structure, and relevant of music through interactions they may already be familiar with.