Ethnomusicology is…

What is it?! Over the past century or so, a plethora of articles and books have been written attempting to define the field of ethnomusicology. We, as students, can only pass on to the next level of our studies by satisfactorily establishing our comprehensive knowledge of this field. Yet when someone asks us what it is we do or study, we seek refuge in mumbling “Uh, world music” and avoiding eye contact.

It is both humbling and gratifying to realize that some of the founders of the field and even scholars today couldn’t/can’t agree on what “ethnomusicology” is/was/should be and that the definition and conceptualization of ethnomusicology has changed over the years. With this being our first post on our new site, we thought we’d start off by sharing some inspiring and edifying words from scholars old and new regarding music in general and ethnomusicology in particular. Here is what they’ve had to say:

Willard Rhodes wrote in 1956 that, in its broadest sense, ethnomusicology “would include as its domain the total music of man, without limitations of time or space”

“The study-object of ethnomusicology, or, as it originally was called: comparative musicology, is the traditional music and musical instruments of all cultural strata of mankind, from the so-called primitive peoples to the civilized nations” – Jaap Kunst, 1959

John Blacking claimed in 1973 ethnomusicology should be a method of study and not defined by geographical area

Alan Merriam (who worked his entire career to clearly define the field), famously stated that ethnomusicology is “the study of music in culture” – Merriam, 1960 and 1964

Ethnomusicology’s view of music: “it is not that music has nothing to say, but that it allows everyone to say what they want” – Marc Slobin, 1992

Ethnomusicology is “the study of how music lives in the lives of people who make and experience it, and of how people live in the music they make” – Michael Bakan, 1999

“We believe that we must in the end study all of the world’s music, from all peoples and nations, classes, sources, periods of history. We just haven’t yet got around to all of it” – Bruno Nettl, 2005

Philip Bohlman says that new ethnomusicology “would involve confronting the forces of history with a plurality of ethnomusicologies, shaped by a common culture of activism and responsibility” – Bohlman, 2008

Henry Stobart ponders: “maybe it is going to be important for the future to emphasize what ethnomusicology has to offer–rather than who is and who is not an ethnomusicologist” – Stobart, 2008

Heather A. Strohschein


2 thoughts on “Ethnomusicology is…

  1. Another definition, and my current favorite, comes from Jeff Todd Titon. He frames ethnomusicology as “the study of people making music.” I especially like this one because it doesn’t assume that music is an abstract given in our world. Rather, it exists in “a cultural domain, made by humans, which must vary as cultures themselves do.” This version also plays with the double meaning of “making,” both as composition and performance or ritual. So pithy.

    Thanks for collecting these here. We should be worried if ethnomusicologists ever agree on a definition; that will likely be a sign that the discipline is in trouble!

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