“Why would you study that!”

Today’s post was inspired by something I read in Andrew Weintraub’s Dangdut Stories (2010). In his introduction, Weintraub discusses numerous reactions to his decision to write a book about dangdut (a popular music genre in Indonesia). Some of the reactions were very positive, but he quoted one “academic colleague” as saying: “Why would anybody want to study that!” (14; emphasis in original). This exchange got me thinking, because I don’t believe it’s actually all that unusual. I have had professors and colleagues look at me strangely upon learning that I’m studying Javanese gamelan groups outside of Indonesia. Although most people are interested and excited by my topic, I’ve been somewhat disheartened at the number of people who have responded like Weintraub’s colleague (it hasn’t been a huge number of people, but I personally think that more than zero is too many).

Why would anyone ever say “why would you want to study that!”? Hang on. I’m an ethnomusicology student; people have been asking me that for years now. Let me rephrase: why would any ethnomusicologist say to another ethnomusicologist, “why would you want to study that!”? Ethnomusicology, as a field/discipline/methodology, came about because people were interested in that. They heard that; they saw that; they were intrigued, moved, and inspired by that. We have had to fight for recognition and legitimacy (and in some music departments, the fight continues) both for ethnomusicology in general and for the plethora of cultures that we study. Bruno Nettl commented that even though, back in the day, ethnomusicologists limited themselves and stated firmly what they did and did not study, those days are long passed. There are speculations and arguments as to whether ethnomusicology has a canon and which musical traditions, genres, and cultures belong in that canon, but I always thought that the one thing ethnomusicologists could say with pride is that anything is worth studying. We don’t limit ourselves. No matter how strange or different or exotic (and it feels wrong to even use these words) a music seemed to us, our arguments have always been: “This is beautiful/compelling/intriguing! It matters to someone! This music speaks to someone. I don’t understand how right now, so I’m going to talk to people until I do understand. I’m going to learn and play the music until I understand. I’m going to teach this music until I understand.”

This aspect of ethnomusicology drew me to the field, made me excited about the music I was learning, and overjoyed that I got to share it with others. There will always be generational, cultural, national, and ideological differences between scholars. And that can be okay. Intelligent argument is incredibly stimulating and is definitely one reason why I plan to stay in academia as long as possible. Differences are what ethnomusicology is all about: making the “strange” familiar and scrutinizing the “familiar” for strangeness we didn’t recognize the first time.

I suppose that one might argue that ethnomusicologists can’t study everything. What would happen to the field? How would we define ourselves if we studied everything? While the topic of how ethnomusicologists define their work is, in itself, a life-long study, this is a valid question and supports the idea that ethnomusicology is a methodology. Ethnomusicology isn’t necessarily just what ethnomusicologists do, but it is how we do it. No one studies music like we do, so instead of limiting ourselves, I think we should study all musics. The question shouldn’t be: “Why would you study that!” I think a better question is: “Why haven’t we studied that yet!”

– Heather


2 thoughts on ““Why would you study that!”

  1. I completely agree! While the field may have started with focusing on the exotic, studying the mundane gives us so much more relevant information about how and, maybe more importantly, why people interact with music!

  2. An excellent post. I have often felt similarly about my two disciplines. In Art History, we are still somewhat constrained by canon – at least so far as the divisions between what is and is not “art,” though things are certainly more open than they’ve ever been towards including pop culture, ephemera such as posters & magazine illustrations, advertising mascots, toys, all sorts of things under the umbrella of “art.”

    In History, in theory, anything and everything should “go.” Fortunately, I don’t think I’ve yet encountered a fellow Historian, or for that matter very many profs or grad students from any discipline, who have expressed to me that my topic isn’t worth studying – perhaps because it’s too exotic, they just say “wow, interesting!” and move on. Though, I admittedly do that to other people all the time.

    however, and maybe this is too separate of an issue, but the one place I am still constantly asked “you study what? what for?” and with the implication that arts/culture topics and historical topics aren’t of obvious enough relevance, is on fellowship applications. Drives me nuts.

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