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Ethnomusicology is an academic field encompassing various approaches to the study of music (broadly defined) that emphasize its cultural, social, material, cognitive, biological, and other dimensions or contexts instead of or in addition to its isolated sound component or any particular repertoire.
Coined by the musician Jaap Kunst from the Greek words ἔθνος ethnos (nation) and μουσική mousike (music), it is often considered the anthropology or ethnography of music. Jeff Todd Titon has called it the study of "people making music." Although it is often thought of as a study of non-Western musics, ethnomusicology also includes the study of Western music from an anthropological or sociological perspective. Bruno Nettl (1983) believes it is a product of Western thinking, proclaiming "ethnomusicology as western culture knows it is actually a western phenomenon." Nettl believes that there are limits to the extraction of meaning from a culture's music because of a Western observer's perceptual distance from the culture; however, the growing prevalence of scholars who study their own musical traditions, and an increasing range of different theoretical frameworks and research methodologies has done much to address criticisms such as Nettl's.
Stated most broadly, ethnomusicology is the study of the music of the world. Combining aspects of folklore, psychology, cultural anthropology, and conventional musicology, ethnomusicology involves skills from a multitude of disciplines. Due to the variety of disciplines which help form ethnomusicology, there have been, however, a number of definitions. Additionally, the attitudes and focus of ethnomusicologists have changed and evolved over the past century, further complicating the issue of defining ethnomusicology. When the field first came into existence, it was essentially limited to the study of non-Western music, in contrast to the study of Western art music which had been the area of focus for conventional musicology. Over time, the definition broadened to include study of all the musics of the world according to certain approaches. Furthermore, the field was referred to early in its existence as “comparative musicology,” though this term fell out of use in the 1950s.
While there is no single unifying definition for ethnomusicology, a number of constants appear in the definitions employed by top scholars in the field. It is agreed upon that ethnomusicologists look at music from beyond a purely artistic perspective, and look instead at music within culture, music as culture, and music as a reflection of culture. Furthermore, it is generally agreed that one of the primary tasks of the ethnomusicologist is to conduct fieldwork, achieved by traveling to the area of interest and collecting recordings and information on the music of interest.
While musicology's traditional subject has been the history and literature of Western art music, ethnomusicology was developed as study all music as a human social and cultural phenomenon. The primary precursor to ethnomusicology, comparative musicology, emerged in the late 19th century and early 20th century. Comparative musicology and early ethnomusicology tended to focus on non-Western music that was transmitted through oral traditions. But, in more recent years, the field has expanded to embrace all musical styles from all parts of the world.
The International Council for Traditional Music (founded 1947) and the Society for Ethnomusicology (founded 1955) are the primary international academic organizations for the discipline of ethnomusicology.
The antecedent to ethnomusicology was the field of comparative musicology. After the development of the cents system by Alexander John Ellis in 1885, music scholars were able to empirically compare pitches generated by musics of different cultures. This provided the impetus for comparative musicologists to emphasize the differences between the music of different cultures, and to disprove cultural contact as the reason for convergent trends. Comparative musicologists, such as Béla Bartók, Zoltán Kodály, Constantin Brăiloiu, Vinko Zganec, Franjo Kuhač, Carl Stumpf, Erich von Hornbostel, Curt Sachs, Hugh Tracey, and Alexander J. Ellis. primarily studied the music of oral, folk traditions in comparison to the Western musical tradition. Of the cultures studied, the most frequently studied were the Asian and African cultures, due to their perceived exoticism and relatively close proximity to Europe.
In the 1950s, the comparative method fell under attack. One prominent researcher, Mieczyslaw Kolinski, argued that nature of their work was more than simply comparing two different fields; much of the work, particularly fieldwork, is descriptive. Scholars also believed that comparing musics of different cultures would inherently invoke biases and wrong conclusions due to differing cultural contexts. To complicate matters further, scholars faced the dilemma of defining their field of study, for as Willard Rhodes mentions, the general perception held by the public was that their research was obscure and not easily accessible. As a response, the entire field underwent a radical shift by the 1960s, transforming from a field of comparative musicology into what is now known as ethnomusicology. In this process, the research became more fieldwork driven, and began to incorporate various anthropological theory and techniques.
In the 1970s, ethnomusicology became a known word in the general lexicon. The influence of ethnomusicology spread to composers, music therapists, music educators, anthropologists, and musicologists, and ethnomusicology substantiated world music projects with its name and label. Alan Merriam described the participators in ethnomusicology at the time in four groups: 1) Those who use ethnomusicology for broad interests such as education, making money, or pleasure of performance, among others. 2) Professionals who act as brokers to persuade other professionals to share their knowledge with popularizers of the first group. 3) The musicology contingent that study the music in terms of sound and also the cultural context. 4) The anthropology contingent that focused on human beings with the stance that “music is culture” and “what musicians do is society.” With the advent of the influence on anthropological researchers within ethnomusicology, the discipline became less data oriented and more of a theoretical discipline. This led to the blossoming of employing other fields such as linguistics and psychology in helping anthropologists observe the cognitive processes and human behaviors in music making.
The 1980s saw a period of bias and representation awareness in ethnomusicology. Historically Western field workers quickly dubbed themselves experts on foreign music traditions, but ignored differences in worldview, priority systems, and cognitive patterns, and thought that their interpretation was truth. This type of research had contributed to a larger phenomenon called Orientalism. Edward Said claims that in Orientalist literature, Western scholars claim expertise on other peoples lives and thus the right to represent them, which negatively impacts how these cultures are treated. It also allows musical appropriation and fetishization, which essentializes and reduces a culture and its music. Ghanaian ethnomusicologist Kofi Agawu details how the concept of “African rhythm” has been misrepresented this way as an example of this phenomenon – “African” music is not a homogenous body like it is often called, its differences from Western music are often considered deficiencies, and Western notations have ignored important nuances in rhythmic performance, among other complaints.
Misrepresentation can also occur when a researcher does not pay attention to the validity of their sources. The very presence of an observer in the field can change what s/he is observing, like quantum uncertainty in physics. The meaning of a particular song is also distorted with every person it passes through, like a game of telephone. A performer may intend a certain meaning, but once that song is originally interpreted by the audience, recalled later in memory when recounting the performance to a researcher, interpreted by the researcher, and then interpreted by the researcher’s audience, the song can take on a completely different meaning. The 1980s can be classified by the emergence of awareness of cultural bias, source unreliability, and a general mistrust of the concept of “true” meaning and representation.
By the late 80s, the field of ethnomusicology had begun examining popular music and impact of media. Several definitions of popular music exist but most agree that popular music is characterized by having widespread appeal, association with urbanization, and relationship with media. Peter Manuel adds to this definition by distinguishing popular music by its association with different groups of people, performances by musicians not necessarily trained or intellectual, and dispersion through broadcasting and recording. Theodor Adorno defined popular music by contrasting it from serious music, which is purposeful and generally cooperates within strictly structured rules and conventions. Popular music can operate less deliberately and focuses on creating a general effect or impression, usually focusing on emotion.
Although the music industry developed over several decades, popular music drew ethnomusicologists’ attention by the 90s because a standardizing effect began to develop. The corporate nature surrounding popular music streamlined it into a framework that focused on slight deviations from the accepted norm, creating what Adorno calls “pseudo-individualism”; what the public would perceive as unique or organic would musically comply with standard, established musical conventions. Thus, a duality emerged from this standardization, an industry-driven manipulation of the public’s tastes to give people what they want while simultaneously guiding them to it. In the case of rock music, while the genre may have grown out of politicized forces and another form of meaningful motivation, the corporate influence over popular music became integral to its identity that directing public taste became increasingly easier. Technological developments allowed for easy dispersion of western music, causing the dominance of western music into rural and urbanized areas across the globe. However, because popular music assumes such a corporatized role and therefore remains subject to a large degree of standardization, ambiguity exists whether the music reflects actual cultural values or those only of the corporate sector seeking economic profit. Because popular music developed such a dependent relationship with media and the corporations surrounding it, where record sales and profit indirectly shaped musical decisions, the superstar person became an important element of popular music. From the fame and economic success surrounding such superstars, subcultures continued to arise, such as the rock and punk movements, only perpetuated by the corporate machine that also shaped the musical aspect of popular music.
By the 2000s, musicology, too, was looking into the notion that connections exist between social groups and characteristics.
With globalization of music many genres influenced each other and elements from foreign music became more prevalent in mainstream popular music. Diaspora populations such as the Punjab population in England were studied due to the characteristics of their music showing signs of the effects of global media. Their music, like many other music of displaced cultures, was made up of elements from the folk music of their culture along with the popular music of their location. Through this process the idea of transnationalism in music occurred.
Ethnomusicologists often apply theories and methods from cultural anthropology, cultural studies and sociology as well as other disciplines in the social sciences and humanities. Though some ethnomusicologists primarily conduct historical studies, the majority are involved in long-term participant observation. Therefore, ethnomusicological work can be characterized as featuring a substantial, intensive ethnographic component.
Some ethnomusicological works are created not necessarily by 'ethnomusicologists' proper, but instead by anthropologists examining music as an aspect of a culture. A well-known example of such work is Colin Turnbull's study of the Mbuti pygmies. Another is Jaime de Angulo, a linguist who intensively studied the music of the natives of Northern California. Additionally, Anthony Seeger, Distinguished Professor of Ethnomusicology and the Director of the Ethnomusicology Archive at the University of California, Los Angeles, studied the music and society of the Suyá people in Mato Grosso, Brazil.
Ethnomusicology’s crowning characteristic is the focus on fieldwork. In the early years it favored the “armchair” approach, where ethnologists collected data, usually through transcription or on wax cylinders, and scholars would carryout the actual analysis at their home institutions. Scholars in the Berlin school of comparative musicology, such as Carl Sumpf and Erich M. von Hornbostel, studied hundreds of recordings, many collected from colonial territories, eager to catalogue and archive musics from other cultures.
The transition to the type of fieldwork that characterizes ethnomusicology arose in the American school. Focus shifted to scholars conducting their own fieldwork, living within the culture being studied, and improving data collection as technological advances arose. Ethnomusicologists stressed the importance of face-to-face interaction in order to gather the most accurate impression and meaning of music within a culture as possible. David McAllester was paramount in helping the discipline transition from the “armchair” approach to contextual fieldwork with his work with the Navaho, with whom he lived and aimed to understand the Enemy Way music from their perspective.
As technology advanced, researchers graduated from depending on wax cylinders and the phonograph, to digital recordings and video cameras. Video recordings are now considered cultural texts, so ethnomusicologists can conduct fieldwork by recording music performances and creating documentaries of the people behind music. However, these technological advances have allowed fieldwork to begin to shift back to the way fieldwork was for comparative musicologists.
Universals of music have been studied through seeking the commonalities between different types of musics and discovering a conceptual framework that subsume imaginary differences between them. Charles Seeger categorized universals by using inclusion-exclusion styled Venn-diagrams to create five types universals, or absolute truths, of music. Ethnomusicologists studied universals because it created a new approach to explain musicology that differs from Guido Adler’s. Another viewpoint some ethnomusicologists such as David P. McAllester have with respect to universality of music is that there are most likely no absolute universals in music due to human variability and complexity and argue instead that the only true universal of music is its power to transform experience.
Many musical traditions' tuning's notes align with their dominant instrument's timbre's partials and fall on the tuning continuum of the syntonic temperament, suggesting that tunings of the syntonic temperament (and closely related temperaments) may be a potential universal.
In the 1970s, a number of scholars, including musicologist Charles Seeger and semiotician Jean-Jacques Nattiez, proposed using methodology commonly employed in Linguistics as a new way for ethnomusicologists to study music. In this vein, Judith Becker and Alton L. Becker theorized the existence of musical "grammars" in their studies of the theory of Javanese gamelan music. They proposed that music could be studied as a symbol, but also bore many resemblances to language, and therefore semiotic study could take place. Citing the non-scientific nature of music, Jean-Jacques Nattiez suggested that linguistic models and methods might prove more effective than scientific method. While the idea of musical semiotics was common in the 1970s, it never gained great popularity, and only a few modern ethnomusicologists employ linguistic methods, with critics claiming that music only bears significant similarity to language in a limited number of cultures.
Since ethnomusicology evolved from comparative musicology, ethnomusicologists have been using comparisons in their research. The problems that arose from using these comparisons stem from the fact that there are different kinds of comparative studies with a varying degree of understanding between them. Ethnomusicologists who desired to find comparisons between music and culture have used Alan Lomax’s idea of cantometrics. Some cantometric measurements in ethnomusicology studies have been shown be relatively reliable, such as the wordiness parameter, while other methods are not as reliable, such as precision of enunciation. Another approach introduced by Steven Feld is for ethnomusicologist who are interested with creating ethnographically detailed analysis of people’s lives; this comparative study deals with making pairwise comparisons about competence, form, performance, environment, theory, and value/equality.
In The Study of Ethnomusicology: Thirty-One Issues and Concepts, Nettl presents the discussion of personal and global issues pertaining to field researchers in communities that are studied, particularly issues faced by Western researchers by citing Mantle Hood, “The American of French or British ethnomusicologists because of who he is—that is to say, what he has succeeded in becoming through years of training—is capable of insights and evaluations…” Since ethnomusicology is a field that includes and participates in a vast array of other fields, it focuses on studying people, and it is appropriate to encounter the issue of “making the unfamiliar, familiar” a phrase well known in social psychology coined by William McDougall. Like in social psychology, the “unfamiliar” is encountered in three different ways: (1) two different cultures come into contact and elements of both will not be immediately explicable to the other; (2) experts within a society produce new knowledge, which is then communicated to the public; and (3) active minorities communicate their perspective to the majority. Nettl also talks about the differences in perspective of each individual and how that affects the final understanding of the research. There is a thin like between making the unfamiliar, familiar, and as an outsider, a researcher might try immersing into the culture that is being studied to gain full understanding. This however, can, depending on level of immersion, begin to blind sight the researcher and take away the ability to be objective in what is being studied. The background knowledge of each individual influences the focus of the study because of the comfort level with the material. Nettl points out the flaws in Western thinking in analyzing different societies and presents the idea of collaborating with a greater focus on acknowledging the contribution of the native experts. He believes that every concept is studied through a personal perspective, but “a comparison of viewpoints may give the broadest possible insight.”
A specific issue faced by ethnomusicologists has been discussed extensively in Edward Said’s well known book, Orientalism. The central idea that Said discusses is that Western knowledge or beliefs about the East, or the Orient are not based on fact or reality but a distinctly European/Western imaginative. Said says, “the Orient was almost a European invention” it was a place created off of the beliefs that the Orient contained “romance, exotic beings, haunting memories and landscapes, remarkable experiences.” Said also discusses that the Orient is the source of “Europe’s greatest and richest oldest colonies, the source of its civilizations and languages, its cultural contestant, and of its deepest and most recurring images of the Other In fact, the Spanish and Portuguese hoped to find new trade routes to get to the East quicker and establish a marketable source for trade, this of course led to a different discovery. He discusses that Orientalism clearly shows the “European-Atlantic power over the Orient”, it is rather a “geopolitical awareness” that the world is split into two unequal halves. Another form of power is seen through the intellectual authority over the Orient within Western culture. He uses his own experiences as an Arab Palestinian in the West and the assumptions caused by his origins. There are very distinct classifications that he must fit in, either, “politically he does not exist, and when it is allowed that he does, it is either as a nuisance or as an Oriental.” These issues are directly linked to the studies of ethnomusicology and attempts to overcome the effects of colonialism and the West's perception of The Other.
Because of the nature of fieldwork in ethnomusicology, which requires researchers to develop personal relationships with informants, researchers must be aware of their own ethical responsibilities toward the informant and themselves. These concerns can include questions of privacy, consent, and safety. Because it is such a universal issue for ethnomusicologists, the Society for Ethnomusicology (SEM) has a Committee on Ethics that publishes a Position Statement on Ethics.
Mark Slobin observes that discussion on ethics has been founded on several assumptions, namely that: 1) “Ethics is largely an issue for ‘Western’ scholars working in ‘non-Western’ societies”; 2) “Most ethical concerns arise from interpersonal relations between scholar and ‘informant’ as a consequence of fieldwork”; 3) “Ethics is situated within…the declared purpose of the researcher: the increase of knowledge in the ultimate service of human welfare.”; and 4) “Discussion of ethical issues proceeds from values of Western culture.” Slobin remarks that a more accurate statement might acknowledge that ethics vary across nations and cultures, and that the ethics from the cultures of both researcher and informant are in play in fieldwork settings.
Case scenarios for ethically ambiguous situations could include: whether or not to appropriate a rare instrument that is in danger of being destroyed; how to obtain permission to disseminate a recording of a musical performance; whether or not to become involved in political or economic issues that may arise in the community being observed.
Copyright poses an issue to ethnomusicologists in particular because of the differing degrees of protection from country to country. Rights surrounding music ownership are thus often left to ethics.
Anthony Seeger explains that “not all rights and obligations [with regards to music] are laws.” He cites his personal experience working with the Suyá people of Brazil, for whom he released a recording of their songs. Their practices and beliefs regarding inspiration, authorship, and ownership of songs, which often trace back to animals and spirits and can be “owned” by entire communities, do not allow for a single original author as defined by United States copyright law. In cases where copyright is even granted, Seeger identifies a number of concerns with respect to who—the informant-performer, the researcher, the producer, and the organization funding the research—earns what for their contribution to the copyrighted item.
Martin Scherzinger offers a differing opinion on copyright, and argues that the law is not inherently ethnocentric. He cites the early ideology behind copyright in the 19th century, stating that spiritual inspiration did not prohibit composers from being granted authorship of their works. Furthermore, he suggests that group ownership of a song is not significantly different from the collective influence in Western classical music of several composers on any individual work.
Cognitive psychology, neuroscience, anatomy, and similar fields have endeavored to understand how music relates to an individual’s perception, cognition, and behavior. This is a relatively new approach to the study of music. Research topics include pitch perception, representation and expectation, timbre perception, rhythmic processing, event hierarchies and reductions, musical performance and ability, musical universals, musical origins, music development, cross-cultural cognition, evolution, and more.
The perception of music has a quickly growing body of literature. Structurally, the auditory system is able to distinguish different pitches (sound waves of varying frequency) via the complementary vibrating of the eardrum. It can also parse incoming sound signals via pattern recognition mechanisms. Cognitively, the brain is often constructionist when it comes to pitch. If one removes the fundamental pitch from a harmonic spectrum, the brain can still “hear” that missing fundamental and identify it through an attempt to reconstruct a coherent harmonic spectrum.
Research suggests that much more is learned perception, however. Contrary to popular belief, absolute pitch is learned at a critical age, or for a familiar timbre only. Debate still occurs over whether Western chords are naturally consonant or dissonant, or whether that ascription is learned. Relation of pitch to frequency is a universal phenomenon, but scale construction is culturally specific. Training in a cultural scale results in melodic and harmonic expectations. Expectations of timbre are also learned based on past correlations.
Researchers have also attempted to use psychological and biological principles to understand more complex musical phenomena such as performance behavior or the evolution of music, but have reached few consensuses in these areas. It is generally accepted that errors in performance give insight into perception of a music’s structure, but these studies are restricted to Western score-reading tradition thus far. Currently there are several theories to explain the evolution of music – that it piggy-backed on the ability to produce language, evolved to enable and promote social interaction, evolved to increase efficiency of vocal communication over long distances, or enabled communication with the supernatural.
Many universities around the world offer ethnomusicology classes and act as centers for ethnomusicological research. The linked list includes graduate and undergraduate degree-granting programs.