Although there is no universally accepted definition of ethnomusicology, a few words stand out in most definitions: “sound,” “music,” “performance,” “context,” and “culture.” Ethnomusicology is “humanly organized sound” (John Blacking, in Byron 1995), “the study of music in culture” (Merriam 1964, p. 7), or more broadly, sound in context. Ethnomusicology also touches on other disciplines, such as linguistics, history, sociology, and the study of dance.
Bruno Nettl nicely skims over the befuddlement of defining ethnomusicology in The Study of Ethnomusicology (2005). By about 1950, ethnomusicologists studied what was then called “primitive,” “folk,” or “ancient” music. The first term was used to describe “unschooled” music, especially music from indigenous, colonial peoples. The second term referred to the music of nonliterate or semi-literate people in Europe or the European diaspora, the so-called peasants or the remnants of peasant populations of earlier eras. The third term referred to the focus for European musicologists who studied the roots of European classical music, especially in the Middle Ages, before modern musical transcription was as full as it has become.
Traditionally, ethnomusicology may involve learning to play what a North American novice might think of as “exotic” music, or it may focus on any music or sound whatsoever in a cultural context. An ethnomusicologist may view music sui generis. She may use music as a metaphor for something outside the music, or focus on an event of which music is a small part. As one moves from the study of music as such to music in context, one tends to move from scholars who are musicians and have training in transcription, toward ethnographers. Most scholars who study music in the field have musical training, but today they also have knowledge of local languages and/or linguistic theory, as well as participant observation skills. All these academic attributes combine in the groundbreaking work of Steven Feld, who examined sound in a cultural context, especially birdsongs that formed a springboard of meaning for the songs of the Kaluli people of Papua New Guinea (1990).
In the nineteenth century and early in the twentieth century some European composers and musicologists began to look at peasant music of their own countries, as well as the “primitive” music of the people in European colonies. They documented that music, either to enhance their own compositions or just to extend the range of musical styles with which they were familiar. At about the same time, other scholars in folklore and anthropology were beginning to document festivals, rituals, and other customs, many of which had musical or dance components. Working independently from one another, for the most part, these disparate scholars developed the roots of what later (around 1950) came to be called “ethnomusicology” in the United States.
In the 1890s aural recordings, first on cylinder records and then on discs, were made “in the field” or in recording studios such as at the Library of Congress. Early recordings supplemented written transcriptions of “exotic” music. Together with filmed musical events, aural and visual documents opened up the study of music in cultural context to a wider group of researchers. This led to a broad division in the field, between early ethnomusicologists who recorded in many different cultures in many parts of the world (Alan Lomax is a good example—see Cohen 2003) and more recent scholars who record in a few places throughout their careers and then write in depth on those few areas (Stone 2002). In keeping with a humanistic bent, which has challenged social science approaches to the field, most ethnomusicologists have become self-reflective and have subjectively inserted themselves into the musical and cultural context they study. However, whether or not ethnomusicology remains a social science, most ethnomusicologists hold a humanistic value that the music of ordinary people in their own cultural settings—as opposed to music by and for elites only—should be the focus of the discipline.
SEE ALSO Anthropology; Anthropology, Linguistic; Culture; Ethnography; Ethnology and Folklore; Ethnomethodology; Exoticism; Music; Performance; Rituals; Vinyl Recordings
Byron, Reginald, ed. 1995. Music, Culture, and Experience: Selected Papers of John Blacking. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Cohen, Ronald D. 2003. Alan Lomax: Selected Writings, 1937–1997. New York: Routledge.
Feld, Steven. 1990. Sound and Sentiment: Birds, Weeping, Poetics, and Song in Kaluli Expression. 2nd ed. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
Merriam, Alan P. 1964. The Anthropology of Music. Chicago: Northwestern University Press.
Nettl, Bruno. 2005. The Harmless Drudge: Defining Ethnomusicology. In The Study of Ethnomusicology: Thirty-one Issues and Concepts, ed. Bruno Nettl, 3–15. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.
Stone, Ruth M., ed. 2002. The World’s Music: General Perspectives and Reference Tools. Vol. 10 of The Garland Encyclopedia of World Music. New York: Routledge.
Donald R. Hill