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This article is about the area of study. For the society and academic journal, see Society for Ethnomusicology.
Ethnomusicologist Frances Densmore recording Blackfoot chief Mountain Chief for the Bureau of American Ethnology (1916)

Ethnomusicology is an area of study 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.

Ethnomusicology, a term coined by Jaap Kunst from the Greek words ἔθνος ethnos (nation) and μουσική mousike (music), is often described as the anthropology or ethnography of music. Although early in its development as a discipline ethnomusicology was often positioned as a study of non-Western musics, ethnomusicology also includes the study of Western music from anthropological, sociological, or other perspectives. The territory of the field has changed radically since its beginnings. Bruno Nettl once characterized ethnomusicology as a product of Western thinking, proclaiming "ethnomusicology as western culture knows it is actually a western phenomenon."[1] Jeff Todd Titon has called it the study of "people making music."[2]


Stated broadly, ethnomusicology may be described as a holistic investigation of music in its cultural contexts.[3] Combining aspects of folklore, psychology, cultural anthropology, comparative musicology, music theory, and history, ethnomusicology has adopted perspectives from a multitude of disciplines.[4] This disciplinary variety has given rise to many definitions of the field, and attitudes and focus of ethnomusicologists have changed and evolved since the initial studies in the area of comparative musicology in the early 1900s. 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.[5][6] In fact, the field was referred to early in its existence as “comparative musicology,” though this term fell out of use in the 1950s.[7]

While there is not a single, authoritative 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 historical perspective, and look instead at music within culture, music as culture, and music as a reflection of culture.[6][7] In addition, many ethnomusicological studies share common methodological approaches encapsulated in ethnographic fieldwork, usually traveling to an area (or areas) of interest, then interviewing people involved in the music culture and, often, taking on the role of a participant observer in learning to perform in a musical tradition, a practice Hood termed "bi-musicality".[8] Musical fieldworkers often also collect recordings and contextual information about the music of interest.[7] Thus, ethnomusicological studies do not rely on printed or manuscript sources as the sole source of epistemic authority.


While musicology's traditional subject has been the history and literature of Western art music, ethnomusicology was developed as the study of 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.


One antecedent to ethnomusicology was the field of comparative musicology. The development of the cent system by Alexander John Ellis in 1885 offered one way for scientists to empirically measure and compare pitches.[9] This provided the impetus for comparative musicologists to emphasize the differences between the music of different cultures, and to argue against culture contact as the primary explanation of similarities among geographically distant music communities.[10] Comparative musicologists, such as Béla Bartók, Zoltán Kodály, Komitas,[11] Constantin Brăiloiu, Vinko Zganec, Franjo Kuhač, Carl Stumpf, Erich von Hornbostel, Curt Sachs, Hugh Tracey, and Alexander J. Ellis.[12] primarily studied the music of oral, folk traditions in comparison to the Western musical tradition.[13][14] Others, like Laura Boulton, created commercial recordings and built on the work of early recordists like Frances Densmore and Jesse Walter Fewkes, who followed in the tradition of Americans trained by Franz Boas.

Formative years[edit]

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.[10] Leading ethnomusicologist Bruno Nettl notes that comparing musics of different cultures would inherently invoke biases and wrong conclusions due to differing cultural contexts.[15] 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.[16] 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.[17] In 1960, leading pioneer of American ethnomusicology, Mantle Hood, established the Institute of Ethnomusicology at the University of California at Los Angeles.


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.[18] 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.[19] 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.[20] It also allows musical appropriation and fetishization, which essentializes and reduces a culture and its music.[21] 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.[22]

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.[23] 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.[24] 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.[25]

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.[26] 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.[27] 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.

Musical interaction through globalization played a huge role in ethnomusicology in the 1990s.[28] Musical change was increasingly discussed. Ethnomusicologists began looking into a 'global village', straying away from a specialized look at music within a specific culture. There are two sides to this globalization of music: on one hand it would bring more enrichment to cultures, but on the other hand it could homogenize music. Ethnomusicologists have approached this new combination of different styles of music within one music by looking at the musical complexity and the degree of compatibility. This Westernization and modernization of music created a new focus of study; ethnomusicologists began to look at how different musics interact in the 1990s.


By the 2000s, musicology, too, was looking into the notion that connections exist between social groups and characteristics.[29]

Ethnomusicologists continued to deal with and consider the effects of globalization on their work. Bruno Nettl identifies Westernization and modernization as two concurrent and similar cultural trends that served to help streamline musical expression all over the world. While creeping globalization had an undeniable effect on cultural homogeneity, it also helped broaden musical horizons all over the world. Rather than simply lamenting the continuing assimilation of folk music of non-western cultures, many ethnomusicologists chose to examine exactly how non-western cultures dealt with the process of incorporating western music into their own practices to facilitate the survival of their previous traditions.[30]

With the ongoing 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.[31]

Ethnomusicology in Popular Culture[edit]

Ethnomusicology is not limited to the study of music from “exotic” cultures; Western music and its influences is also a topic of interest. The influence of the media on consumerism in America is a bi-directional effect, according to Thomas Turino.[32] A large part of self-discovery and feeling accepted in a group is related to common musical taste, which leads to music producers catering to these certain groups. The statement Turino makes that “the sounds and imagery piped in over the radio and Internet and in videos shape adolescent sense of gendered selves as well as generational and more specific cohort identities“ is only half the story; the influence works in both directions to shape modern American popular music culture. The culmination of identity groups, and teenagers in particular, across the country represent a significant force that can shape the music industry based on what is being consumed. A 1973 episode of Sanford and Son featured an ethnomusicology librarian, possibly inspired in part by the Ethnomusicology department library at UCLA, who authenticates the Sanford collection of "Blind Mello Jelly" records.[33]

Theories and methods[edit]

Ethnomusicologists often apply theories and methods from cultural anthropology, cultural studies and sociology as well as other disciplines in the social sciences and humanities.[34] 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.

Scholarly Relevance[edit]

In 1971, Hood suggested that an ethnomusicologist must be familiar with a wide array of general musical knowledge as well as specific knowledge in at least one specific area of the world.[35] Hood recommended that students of ethnomusicology undertake substantial musical training in the field, a competency that he described as "bimusicality."[8] Fieldwork is an important methodology that characterizes many ethnomusicological approaches, which typically entails not only participant observation but also learning a performance tradition and technique so as to be better able to analyze and approach musical styles.[citation needed] Many early monographs in the field focused on the exposition of regional musics or musical instruments; for example, William Malm's Japanese Music and Musical Instruments (1959).[36] More theoretical or focused studies of particular genres or instruments groups have also become common, as well as theoretical elaborations of many areas and from diverse perspectives, including many of those discussed below.


During the early stages of ethnomusicology Marcia Herndon believed that because of ethnomusicologist’s rocky beginning, the society might benefit by creating concrete models to analyze music and share data. These models included the organic model, the mechanical model, the process model, and the mathematical model.[37] However Mieczyslaw Kolinski, in 1976, found it dangerous to restrict music to fit into certain models of analysis. Music is such a large and ever-changing phenomenon of human kind and by putting music into certain categories and styles, it may limit the full potential of individuality within music. Furthermore, it is difficult to analyze music as its structure can change during performance and according to the performer.[38] Today, there is no strict way to share and analyze data amongst ethnomusicologists. It is up to the individual to comprehend data.


In the early years, ethnomusicological fieldwork favored the “armchair” approach, where ethnologists collected data, usually through transcription or on wax cylinders, and scholars would carry out the actual analysis at their home institutions.[39] 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.[40]

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.[39] 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.[41] However, these technological advances have allowed fieldwork to begin to shift back to the way fieldwork was for comparative musicologists.

The ethical concerns of ethnomusicology are primarily related to fieldwork. Mark Slobin writes about the application of ethics to fieldwork.[42] A heightened awareness of the need to approach fieldwork in an ethical manner arose in the 1970s in response to a similar movement within the field of anthropology.

Anthony Seeger uses a personal anecdote to illustrate the complexities involved with recording music in the field and bringing it back to his native Western culture.[43] Several potential problems with that may arise when doing fieldwork include attaining complete permission from the group or individual who is performing the music, as well as being sensitive to the rights and obligations related to the music in the context of the host society. The example Seeger uses to describe the complexities involved with fieldwork was his interaction with the Suya Indians of Brazil. The process he describes, from the creation and teaching of the music to the actual recording process to the publication and archival of the music, is complex and intricate even without taking ethics into consideration. Even with keeping to ethical practices, there is not always a process that will be fair for every party involved. Additionally, the ethical way is usually more lengthy and difficult than a non-ethical method. Seeger’s anecdote is a prime example of the complexity of ethical practices in ethnomusicological fieldwork.

Theoretical issues and debates[edit]


Universals of music have been studied by seeking the commonalities between different types of musics and discovering a conceptual framework that subsume imaginary differences between them.[44] Ethnomusicologists initially started to question the possibility of universals because they were searching for a new approach to explain musicology that differed from Guido Adler’s.[45] Charles Seeger, for instance, categorized his interpretation of musical universals by using inclusion-exclusion styled Venn-diagrams to create five types universals, or absolute truths, of music.[45] Some ethnomusicologists such as David P. McAllester argue that there are no absolute universals in music due to human variability and complexity but believe that there are “near-enough” universals, particularly music’s seeming ability to revolve around some tonal center and heighten human experience .[46] Others, such as George List, fundamentally believe that there can be no universals whatsoever in music but maintain that scholars can learn much by still exploring the possibility of universals.[47]

Dane Harwood suggests that while there can be no cultural universals in music there exist universal modes of cognitively understanding that we all undergo when we listen to music.[48]

Many musical traditions' tuning's notes align with their dominant instrument's timbre's partials[49] 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.[50]

Language models and linguistics[edit]

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.[45][51] This new approach, widely influenced by the works of linguist Ferdinand de Saussure and anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss, was focused into finding the underlying symbolic structure behind the cultures and their music.[52]

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.[53]

Citing the non-scientific nature of music, Jean-Jacques Nattiez suggested that linguistic models and methods might prove to be more effective than the scientific method. The improvements of ethnomusicology, based on the linguistic methods, include the capability to rely in itself as a discipline, rather than continuously borrow resources from other sciences. The analysis complexity refined with the inclusion of structural dimensions, like diachronic and synchronic perspectives for music, and differentiations between the individual and the shared experiences.[51] 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.[52]


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.[54] Ethnomusicologists who desired to find comparisons between music and culture have used Alan Lomax’s idea of cantometrics.[55] 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.[56] 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.[57]

Insider/outsider epistemologies[edit]

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…”[58] 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.[59] 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.[60] 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.”[61] The position of ethnomusicologists, as outsiders looking in on a music culture, has often been discussed using Said's formulation of Orientalism, in the suggestion that the idea of music promoted by the field may be in many ways a Western construction based on an imagined or romanticized view of "the Other" situated within a colonial mindset.[62][citation needed]

Timothy Rice argues that despite the impossibility of being objective one’s work ethnomusicologists may still learn much from self-reflection. In his book May it Fill Your Soul: Experiencing Bulgarian Music,[63] he questions about whether or not one can be objective in understanding and discussing art and, in accordance with the philosophies of phenomenology, argues that there can be no such objectivity since the world is constructed with preexisting symbols that distort any “true” understanding of the world we are born into. He then suggests that no ethnomusicologist can ever come to an objective understanding of a music nor can an ethnomusicologist understand foreign music in the same way that a native would understand it. However, an ethnomusicologist can still come to a subjective understanding of that music, which then shapes that scholar’s understanding of the outside world.

Not only is there the question of being on the outside while studying another culture, but also the question of how to go about studying one's own society. Nettl's approach would be to determine how the culture classifies their own music.[64] He is interested in the categories they would create to classify their own music. In this way, one would be able to distinguish themselves from the outsider while still having slight insider insight. Kingsbury believes it is impossible to study a music outside of one's culture, but what if that culture is your own?[65] One must be aware of the personal bias they may impose on the study of their own culture.


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.[66]

Ethical issues in the field of ethnomusicology parallel those found in anthropology. The American Anthropology Association has made statements on the ethics of anthropological research, some of which concerns ethnomusicological study as well.

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.[67]

Some case scenarios for ethically ambiguous situations that Slobin discusses include the following:

1. The discovery of a rare musical instrument leads to the debate of whether it should be preserved in a museum or left in its native culture to be played, but not necessarily preserved. 2. The filming of a documentary video brings up the issues of consent from those who are being filmed. Additionally, the film should not necessarily be shown if the producer is not present to answer questions or clarify the video’s content if there are questions from the audience. 3. Deciding how the monetary gains of a musical production should be distributed is a more prominent case of ethical concern. 4. Attaining partial permission in the field is usually not enough to justify filming or recording; every person in the group should consent to the presence of a recording device. 5. Whether or not truthful but possibly condemning information about a group is a situation that should be treated with extreme caution. Any information that could cause trouble for the musicians may need to be censored.

Ethnomusicologists also tend towards the discussion of ethics in sociological contexts. Timothy Taylor writes on the byproducts of cultural appropriation through music, arguing that the 20th century commodification of non-western musics serves to marginalize certain groups of musicians who are not traditionally integrated into the western music production and distribution industries.[68] Steven Feld argues that Ethnomusicologists also have their place in analyzing the ethics of popular music collaboration, such as Paul Simon's work with traditional zydeco, Chicano, and South African beats on Graceland. Feld notes that inherently imbalanced power dynamics within musical collaboration can contribute to cultural exploitation.[69]


Ethnomusicology historically involved gender-biased research, since men dominated fieldwork and institutional leadership and tended to prioritize the experiences of men in the cultures they studied. This issue may have arisen partly because of social dynamics: in societies where men dominate public life and women are mostly confined to the private sphere, ethnomusicologists may have had trouble encountering female informants or gaining access to women’s spaces.[70] Women contributed extensively to fieldwork from the 1950s onward, but women’s and gender studies in ethnomusicology took off in the 1970s.[71] Ellen Koskoff articulates three stages in women’s studies within ethnomusicology: first, a corrective approach that filled in the basic gaps in our knowledge of women’s contributions to music and culture; second, a discussion of the relationships between women and men as expressed through music; third, integrating the study of sexuality, performance studies, semiotics, and other diverse forms of meaning-making.[72] Since the 1990s, ethnomusicologists have begun to consider the role of the fieldworker’s identity, including gender and sexuality, in how they interpret other cultures. Susan McClary’s watershed book Feminine Endings (1991) shows “relationships between musical structure and socio-cultural values” and has influenced ethnomusicologists, although it is not an ethnomusicological book.[73] There is a general understanding that Western conceptions of gender, sexuality, and other social constructions do not necessarily apply to other cultures and that a predominantly Western lens can cause various methodological issues for researchers.[74]

Mass Media[edit]

In the first chapter of his book Popular Music of the Non-Western World,[75] Peter Manual examines the impact technology has had on non-western music by discussing its ability to disseminate, change, and influence music around the world. He begins with a discussion about definitions of genres, highlighting the difficulties in distinguishing between folk, classical, and popular music, within any one society. By tracing the historical development of the phonograph, radio, cassette recordings, and television, Manuel shows that, following the practice set in the western world, music has become a commodity in many societies, that it no longer has the same capacity to unite a community, to offer a kind of “mass catharsis” as one scholar put it. He stresses that any modern theoretical lens from which to view music must account for the advent of technology.


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.”[43] 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.[76] 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.


The origins of music and its connections to identity have been debated throughout the history of ethnomusicology. Thomas Turino defines “self,” “identity,” and “culture” as patterns of habits, such that tendencies to respond to stimuli in particular ways repeat and reinscribe themselves.[77] Musical habits and our responses to them lead to cultural formations of identity and identity groups. For Martin Stokes, the function of music is to exercise collective power, creating barriers among groups. Thus, identity categories such as ethnicity and nationality are used to indicate oppositional content.[78]

Just as music reinforces categories of self-identification, identity can shape musical innovation. George Lipsitz’s 1986 case study of Mexican-American music in Los Angeles from the 1950s to the 1980s posits that Chicano musicians were motivated to integrate multiple styles and genres in their music to represent their multifaceted cultural identity.[79] Music is not only used to create group identities, but to develop personal identity as well. Frith describes music’s ability to manipulate moods and organize daily life.[80] Susan Crafts studied the role of music in individual life by interviewing a wide variety of people, from a young adult who integrated music in every aspect of her life to a veteran who used music as a way to escape his memories of war and share joy with others.[81] Many scholars have commented on the associations that individuals develop of “my music” versus “your music”: one’s personal taste contributes to a sense of unique self-identity reinforced through the practices of listening to and performing certain music.[82]

As part of a broader inclusion of identity politics (see Gender), ethnomusicologists have become increasingly interested in how identity shapes ethnomusicological work. Fieldworkers have begun to consider their positions within race, economic class, gender, and other identity categories and how they relate to or differ from cultural norms in the areas they study. Katherine Hagedorn’s 2001 Book Divine Utterances: The Performance of Afro-Cuban Santería is an example of experiential ethnomusicology, which “incorporates the author’s voice, interpretations, and reactions into the ethnography, musical and cultural analysis, and historical context.”[83] The book received the Society for Ethnomusicology’s prestigious Alan P. Merriam prize in 2002, marking a broad acceptance of this new method in the institutions of ethnomusicology.[84]


Through technological advances of the late twentieth century, recordings of music from around the world began to enter the Euro-American music industry. The term “world music” began in the 1990s as a marketing term to classify and sell records from other parts of the world under a unified label, and world music was introduced as a category in the Grammys shortly thereafter.[85] The term “world beat” was also employed in the 90s to refer specifically to pop music, but it has fallen out of use.[86] The issue of cultural appropriation has come to the forefront in discussions of music’s globalization, since many Western European and North American artists have participated in “revitalization through appropriation,” claiming sounds and techniques from other cultures as their own and adding them to their work without properly crediting the origins of this music.[87] Steven Feld explores this issue further, putting it in the context of colonialism: admiration alone of another culture’s music does not constitute appropriation, but in combination with power and domination (economic or otherwise), insufficient value is placed on the music’s origin and appropriation has taken place. If the originators of a piece of music are given due credit and recognition, this problem can be avoided.[88] Turino proposes the use of the term cosmopolitanism rather than globalization to refer to contact between world musical cultures, since this term suggests a more equitable sharing of music traditions and acknowledges that multiple cultures can productively share influence and ownership of particular musical styles.[89]


Cognitive psychology, neuroscience, anatomy, and similar fields have endeavored to understand how music relates to an individual’s perception, cognition, and behavior. 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.[90] 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.[91]

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.[92][93] Debate still occurs over whether Western chords are naturally consonant or dissonant, or whether that ascription is learned.[94][95] Relation of pitch to frequency is a universal phenomenon, but scale construction is culturally specific.[96] Training in a cultural scale results in melodic and harmonic expectations.[97] Expectations of timbre are also learned based on past correlations.[98]

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.[99] 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,[100] evolved to increase efficiency of vocal communication over long distances, or enabled communication with the supernatural.[101]

Academic programs[edit]

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.[102]

See also[edit]

For articles on significant individuals in this discipline, see the List of ethnomusicologists.


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  2. ^ Titon, Jeff Todd (1992). Worlds of Music (2nd ed.). New York: Schirmer. pp. xxi. 
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  8. ^ a b Hood, Mantle (1960). "The Challenge of Bi-musicality". Ethnomusicology 4. pp. 55–59. 
  9. ^ Stock, Jonathan. 2007. “Alexander J. Ellis and His Place in the History of Ethnomusicology.” Ethnomusicology 51(2): 306-25.
  10. ^ a b Kolinski, Mieczyslaw. 1967. “Recent Trends in Ethnomusicology.” Ethnomusicology 11(1): 1-24.
  11. ^ Poladian, Sirvart (January 1972). "Komitas Vardapet and His Contribution to Ethnomusicology". Ethnomusicology (University of Illinois Press on behalf of Society for Ethnomusicology) 16 (1): 82–97. 
  12. ^ Ellis, Alexander: On the Musical Scales of Various Nations HTML transcription of the 1885 article in the Journal of the Society of Arts (Accessed September 2008)
  13. ^ Gilman, Benjarmin Ives. 1909. “The Science of Exotic Music.” Science 30: 532-535)
  14. ^ Bartok, Bela. 1931. Hungarian Folk Music. London: Oxford University Press. Pp. 1-11.
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  17. ^ Merriam, Alan P. 1969. “Ethnomusicology Revisited.” Ethnomusicology 13(2): 213-229
  18. ^ Merriam, Alan P. 1975. “Ethnomusicology Today.” Current Musicology 20: 50-66.
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  20. ^ Said, Edward. 1978. Orientalism. New York: Vintage Books.
  21. ^ Taylor, Timothy. 2007. Beyond Exoticism: Western Music and the World. Durham and London: Duke University Press.
  22. ^ Agawu, Kofi. 2003. Representing African Music: Postcolonial Notes, Queries, Positions. New York and London: Routledge.
  23. ^ Titon, Jeff Todd. 1988. Powerhouse for God. Austin: University of Texas Press.
  24. ^ Manuel, Peter. 1988. '’Popular Musics of the Non-Western World’’. New York: Oxford UP.
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  29. ^ Shepherd, John. 2003. “Music and Social Categories.” In The Cultural Study of Music, ed. M. Clayton, T. Herbert and R. Middleton, 239-248. New York and London: Routledge.
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  31. ^ Schreffler, Gibb. 2012. “Migration Shaping Media: Punjabi Popular Music in a Global Historical Perspective.” Popular Music and Society 35(3): 333-358.
  32. ^ Turino, Thomas. 2008. Music as Social Life: The Politics of Participation. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press. Pp. 93-121.
  33. ^ "Ethnomusicology Library (excerpt)". Sanford and Son. 1973.
  34. ^ E.g., from anthropology Turnbull, Colin (1961), The Forest People 
  35. ^ Hood, Mantle, The Ethnomusicologist (Kent, Ohio: Kent State Univ. Press, 1971), pg 25.
  36. ^ Malm, William P. (1959), Japanese Music and Musical Instruments (1st ed.), Tokyo & Rutland, Vt.: C. E. Tuttle Co. 
  37. ^ Herndon, Marcia. 1974. “Analysis: The Herding of Sacred Cows?” ‘’Ethnomusicology’’ 18(2): 219-262 Pp 221-222
  38. ^ Kolinski, Mieczyslaw. 1976. “Herndon’s Verdict on Analysis: Tabula Rasa.” ‘’Ethnomusicology’’ 20(1):1-22 pg. 20
  39. ^ a b Cooley, Timothy J. and Gregory Barz. 2008 [1997]. “Casting Shadows in the Field: An Introduction.” In Shadows in the Field: New Perspectives for Fieldwork in Ethnomusicology, 2nd ed., 3-24. New York: Oxford UP.
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  41. ^ Lysoff, Renê T. A. 1997. “Mozart in Mirrorshades: Ethnomusicology, Technology, and the Politics of Representation.” Ethnomusicology 41(2): 206-219.
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  46. ^ McAllester, David. 1971. “Some Thoughts on Universals in World Music.” Ethnomusicology 15(3): 379-80.
  47. ^ List, George. 1971. “On the Non-universality of Musical Perspectives.” Ethnomusicology 15(3): 399-402.
  48. ^ Harwood, Dane. 1976. “Universals in Music: A Perspective from Cognitive Psychology.” Ethnomusicology 20(3): 521-533.
  49. ^ Sethares, William (January 1998). Tuning, Timbre, Spectrum, Scale (1st ed.). New York: Springer. ISBN 978-3-540-76173-0. 
  50. ^ Milne, Andrew; Sethares, W.A.; Plamondon, J. (December 2007). "Invariant Fingerings Across a Tuning Continuum". Computer Music Journal 31 (4): 15–32. doi:10.1162/comj.2007.31.4.15. Retrieved 2013-09-19. 
  51. ^ a b Nattiez, Jean-Jacques. 1973. “Linguistics: A New Approach for Musical Analysis?” International Review of Aesthetics and Sociology of Music 4(1): 51-67.
  52. ^ a b Nettl, Bruno. 2005. The Study of Ethnomusicology: Thirty-One Issues and Concepts. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press.
  53. ^ Judith Becker and Alton L. Becker, "The Grammar of a Musical Genre, Srepegan," Journal of Music Theory 23 (1979), pp. 1–43.
  54. ^ Nettl, Bruno. The Study of Ethnomusicology: Thirty-one Issues and Concepts. Chapter 6. Urbana: University of Illinois, 2005. Print.
  55. ^ Lomax, Alan. 1978 [1968] Folk Song Style and Culture. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Books. Pages 3-33 and 117-168.
  56. ^ Henry, Edward O. 1976. “The variety of Music in a North Indian Village: Reassessing Cantometrics.” Ethnomusicology 20(1):49-66.
  57. ^ Feld, Steven. 1984 “Sound Structure as Social Structure.” Ethnomusicology 28(3):383-409.
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  59. ^ Wagoner, Brady. 2008. “Commentary: Making the Familiar Unfamiliar.” Culture & Psychology 14(4): 467.
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  62. ^ Said, Edward (1978). Orientalism. New York: Vintage. 
  63. ^ Rice, Timothy. 1994. May it Fill Your Soul: Experiencing Bulgarian Music. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Pp. 3-135 and 64-88.
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  65. ^ Kingsbury, Henry. 1988. Music, Talent, and Performance: A Conservatory Cultural System. Philadelphia: Temple UP. Pp. 3-57.
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  68. ^ Taylor, Timothy D. 1997. Global Pop: World Music, World Markets. New York and London: Routledge. Pp. 1-37.
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  76. ^ Scherzinger, Martin. 1999. “Music, Spirit Possession, and the Copyright Law: Cross-Cultural Comparisons and Strategic Speculations.” Yearbook for Traditional Music 31: 102-25.
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  89. ^ Turino, Thomas. 2000. ‘’Nationalists, Cosmopolitans, and Popular Music in Zimbabwe’’. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Pp 3-30 and 311-354 Pp. 7-9.
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  98. ^ Fales, Cornelia. 2002. “The Paradox of Timbre.” Ethnomusicology 46(1): 56-95.
  99. ^ Repp, B.H. 1996. "The art of inaccuracy: Why pianists’ errors are difficult to hear." Music Perception, 14, 161-184.
  100. ^ Cross, Ian. 2003. “Music and Biocultural Evolution” In The Cultural Study of Music, ed. M. Clayton, T. Herbert and R. Middleton, 17-27. New York and London: Routledge.
  101. ^ Nettl, Bruno. “In the Beginning.” The Study of Ethnomusicology: Thirty-one Issues and Concepts. Urbana: University of Illinois, 2005. Print.
  102. ^ SEM: Guide to Programs

Further reading[edit]

  • Merriam, Alan (1964). The Anthropology of Music. Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern Univ Press. 
  • Hood, Mantle (1971). The Ethnomusicologist. Mc-Graw Hill. 
  • Blacking, John (1973). How Musical Is Man?. Seattle: University of Washington Press. ISBN 0295952180. 
  • Myers, Helen, ed. (1992). Ethnomusicology: An Introduction. New Grove Handbooks in Music. London: Macmillan. ISBN 0333576314. 
  • Nettl, Bruno (2005). The Study of Ethnomusicology: Thirty-One Issues and Concepts (rev. ed.). Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press. 
  • Stone, Ruth (2008). Theory for Ethnomusicology. Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Pearson Prentice Hall. ISBN 9780132408400. 

External links[edit]