On to the next textbook!

This week’s review is of Excursions in World Music, 6th edition, 2011, published by Pearson. Bruno Nettl is the general editor and, like Worlds of Music, each chapter in this textbook is written by a different author. Unlike WoM, however, some authors write more than one chapter in this text. For example, Isabel Wong contributed the chapters on Japan and China, and Thomas Turino penned the chapters on Latin America and Sub-Saharan Africa. The first edition of Excursions in World Music was published by Prentice Hall in 1992 and featured most of the same authors and topics.

Excursions in World Music

This textbook does not explicitly state whether or not it’s intended for music majors or non-music majors. Anecdotes in the text are juxtaposed with fairly in depth and technical terminology, which leads me to believe this book may have been intended for music majors. In my experience, however, it is often used in general world music survey classes for non-music majors.

I will return to the same reviewing rubric used for the last post. This rubric will remain consistent and help me (and hopefully you) to better compare all the textbooks in this series of posts. I admit that it is a rather general and subjective reviewing system (but ethnos are nothing if not subjective and it’s healthy to admit it). Excursions in World Music seems to follow a generally geographic organization. We are taken first to South Asia, than the Middle East, East Asia, and Southeast Asia. From there, we are introduced to Africa, then move north to Europe, then to Latin America, the Caribbean, and we end in North America. Each chapter tends to start with a story, usually from the author’s fieldwork experience. That story then pervades the chapter and the authors regularly refer back to the story throughout the chapter. Even though each author is usually describing traditional music in their stories, they are more explicit in explaining that this music is still performed today. This confounds the idea of a chronological chapter organization as traditional musics are described as happening alongside popular musics. It should be noted that information specifically on popular music is still often relegated to the end of the chapter.

Nettl states in his opening chapter that Excursions in World Music aims at both breadth and depth. In trying for both, however, the textbook sometimes skimps on both. Chapter 11, for example, claims to “give an overview of the musics of the hundreds of Native North American tribes” (4). This is, I suppose, technically true but leaves the reader without a clear picture of any one tribe and only a very superficial understanding of the general musical characterisics. Other chapters work better at balancing depth and breadth. Chapter 7, on Sub-Saharan Africa, provides a great deal of detail on the mbira tradition of the Shona and then relates specific mbira musical characteristics to more general African musical characteristics. This moving from the very specific to the more general seems effective when handled carefully.

For Excursions in World Music, each author is trying to tell the reader a story. In fact, nine of the twelve chapters begin with stories from the authors’ own experiences. The other three chapters also use storytelling, just not at the beginning. The writers use first person and familiar language to engage their readers.  While this makes for general ease of readability, it also lacks a straightforwardness. Additionally, the inclusion of very technical and sophisticated musical terminology belies the friendly tone of the stories. One could argue that this quality evokes or exemplifies the complexity and general messiness of music cultures. Certain chapters seem to hover between wanting to focus on a specific geographical area and wanting to focus on issues and concepts. This makes for a rather uneven reading experience.

To consider the authors’ concern for student comprehension, I turn again to maps and close listening guides. Excursions in World Music does not have any maps (*Heather faints*). This greatly confuses things, particularly when authors are talking about multiple cultures within a large geographical area. I think the informality of the storytelling would be better served by the inclusion of maps and greater attention paid to place rather than the (sometimes) exceedingly technical terminology. The listening guides, like those of WoM, break down each piece to indicate where certain things are happening in the music. The descriptions that introduce each piece are not consistent, however; certain pieces are given a paragraph or even two while some are either introduced with a sentence or not at all. These close listening guides seem to focus more on what’s happening instrumentally rather than vocally. Often lyrics/translations/vocables are not included. This is also not consistent within individual chapters as some examples will include translations/lyrics and some will not.

Overall, each chapter in this textbook is good at bringing the student into each musical culture area but can’t seem to agree on what to tell them once they’re there.

– Heather


1 thought on “On to the next textbook!

  1. Great review! I have used this book a number of times in undergrad non-major classes and in sections for adult learning classes. I agree with the review that the jargon used is more geared to music majors, but as a lecturer, I find it best to not teach from the book (not what the reviewer is suggesting) but to lecture with your own material and style with the text as a supplement to what the teacher does.

    The more I have used this book, the more I have grown weary of the stories told through it. Not that I doubt the validity of their experiences and I understand the purpose of such storytelling to make the text more approachable, but I agree with Heather that time could have been better spent on explaining (or not using so much) jargon; more judicious listening guides with better frameworks to understand the cultural meaning, not just the musical happening; a more clearly laid out chapter format for all authors to follow.

    With all of that, I still use the Nettl. I think it is a good text, but I use a lot of supplements for reading, listening, and understanding the text. It’s so difficult to choose which geo-cultures to include in these texts, but the Nettl does a good job of using the so called “world music canon” of the most commonly discussed cultures in these classes. Take the time to add to that list (and choose some chapters to not include) to shape the class the way you see fit, but if the student pays ca. $100, they should be able to use most of the text in some way!

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