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Ethnomusicologist Frances Densmore recording Blackfoot chief Mountain Chief for the Bureau of American Ethnology in 1916.

Ethnomusicology is an area of study encompassing various approaches to the study of the many musics around the world that emphasize their cultural, social, material, cognitive, biological, and other dimensions or contexts instead of or in addition to its isolated sound component or any particular repertoire.

A term, ethnomusicology, 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, or as musical anthropology.[1] Initially, ethnomusicology was almost exclusively oriented toward non-Western music, but now includes the study of Western music from anthropological, sociological and intercultural perspectives. Bruno Nettl once characterized ethnomusicology as a product of Western thinking, proclaiming that "ethnomusicology as western culture knows it is actually a western phenomenon";[2] more recently, Jeff Todd Titon has described it as the study of "people making music."[3]


Stated broadly, ethnomusicology may be described as a holistic investigation of music in its cultural contexts.[4] Combining aspects of folklore, psychology, cultural anthropology, comparative musicology, music theory, and history,[5] ethnomusicology has adopted perspectives from a multitude of disciplines.[6] This disciplinary variety has given rise to many definitions of the field, and attitudes and foci of ethnomusicologists have evolved since 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. In fact, the field was referred to early in its existence as “comparative musicology,” defining Western musical traditions as the standard to which all other musics were compared, though this term fell out of use in the 1950s as critics for the practices associated with it grew vocal.[7] Over time, the definition broadened to include study of all the musics of the world according to certain approaches.[8][9]

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.[7][9] 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".[10] 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 the traditional subject of musicology 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. Comparative musicology, the primary precursor to ethnomusicology, emerged in the late 19th century and early 20th century. The International Musical Society in Berlin in 1899 acted as one of the first centers for ethnomusicology. Comparative musicology and early ethnomusicology tended to focus on non-Western music, but in more recent years, the field has expanded to embrace the study of Western music from an ethnographic standpoint.

The International Council for Traditional Music (founded 1947) and the Society for Ethnomusicology (founded 1955) are the primary international academic organizations for advancing the discipline of ethnomusicology.

Among ethnomusicologists there has been varying definitions of the field. More specifically scholars have debated what constitutes ethnomusicology. Bruno Nettl distinguishes between discipline and field, believing ethnomusicology to be the later.[11] There are multiple approaches to and challenges of the field. Some approaches reference "musical areas" like "musical synthesis in Ghana" while others emphasize "a study of culture through the avenue of music, to study music as social behavior."[12] The multifaceted and dynamic approaches to ethnomusicology allude the ways in which the field has evolved over time.

There are many individuals and groups who can be connected to ethnomusicology. According to Merriam, some of these groups are "players of ethnic music," "music educators," "those who see ethnic music in the context of a global view of music, vis a vis, particularly, the study of Western "classical" music," "made up of persons with a variety of interests, all of which are in some sense "applied" like "professional ethnomusicologists," music therapists, the "musicologists" and the "anthropologist."[13]

Beginnings and early history

Ethnomusicology has evolved both in terminology and ideology since its formal inception in the late 19th century. Although practices paralleling ethnomusicological work have been noted throughout colonial history, an Armenian priest known as Komitas Vardapet is considered one of the pioneers to ethnomusicology’s rise to prominence in 1896. While studying in Berlin at Frederick William University and attending the International Music Society, Vardapet transcribed over 3000 pieces of music. In his notes, he emphasized cultural and religious elements as well as social aspects of music and poetry. Inspired by these thoughts, many Western European nations began to transcribe and categorize music based on ethnicity and culture. Inspired by these thoughts, many Western European nations began to put many ethnic and cultural pieces of music onto paper and separate them. It was known very briefly in the 1880s as "Musikologie” or "Musikgesellschaft," then “comparative musicology” until around 1950, at which point the term “ethno-musicology” was introduced to provide an alternative term to the traditional practices of comparative musicology. In 1956 the hyphen was removed with ideological intent to signify the discipline’s validity and independence from the fields of musicology and anthropology. These changes to the field’s name paralleled its internal shifts in ideological and intellectual emphasis.[14]

Comparative musicology, an initial term intended to differentiate what would become ethnomusicology and musicology, was the area of study concerned with utilizing methods of acoustics to measure pitches and intervals, quantitatively comparing different kinds of music.[15] Because of the high density of Europeans and Euro-Americans engaged with the area's research, comparative musicology primarily surveyed the music of non-Western oral folk traditions and then compared them against western conceptions of music.[16] After 1950, scholars sought to define the field more broadly and to eradicate these notions of ethnocentrism inherent to the study of comparative musicology; for example, Polish scholar Mieczyslaw Kolinski proposed that scholars in the field focus on describing and understanding musics within their own contexts.[15] Kolinski also urged the field to move beyond ethnocentrism even as the term ethnomusicology grew in popularity as a replacement for what was once described by comparative musicology. He noted in 1959 that the term ethnomusicology limited the field, both by imposing “foreignness” from a western standpoint and therefore excluding the study of western music with the same attention to cultural context that is given to otherized traditions, and by containing the field within anthropological problems rather than extending musical study to limitless disciplines within the humanities and the social sciences.[12] Throughout critical developmental years in the 50s and 60s, ethnomusicologists shaped and legitimized the fledgling field through discussions of the responsibilities of ethnomusicologists and the ethical implications of ethnomusicological study, articulations of ideology, suggestions for practical methods of research and analysis, and definitions of music itself.[14] It was also at this time that the emphasis of ethnomusicological work shifted from analysis to fieldwork, and the field began to develop research methods to center fieldwork over the traditional "armchair" work.

In 1960, Mantle Hood, a leading pioneer of American ethnomusicology, established the Institute of Ethnomusicology at the University of California at Los Angeles, largely legitimizing the field and solidifying its position as an academic discipline.


In the 1970s, ethnomusicology was becoming more well known outside of the small circle of scholars who had founded and fostered the early development of the field.[17] The influence of ethnomusicology spread to composers, music therapists, music educators, anthropologists, musicologists, and even popular culture.[18] Ethnomusicology and its academic rigor lent newfound legitimacy, as well as useful theoretical and methodological frameworks, to projects that attempted to record, document, study, and/or compare musics from around the world. Alan Merriam classified these ethnomusicological participants in four groups:[16]

  • 1) Performers of ethnic music, including anyone at all who learns to play an instrument from another culture: This group grew considerably during the 1970s due to increased awareness of and interest in ethnic music, partly assisted by the dissemination of records. These performers range from self-taught amateurs to experienced graduates of university world music programs.
  • 2) Teachers, usually primary or secondary, who teach the appreciation and performance of "ethnic" music: This group, along with the first, proliferated rapidly during the 1970s, aided in part by the October 1972 issue of the Music Educators Journal, a special issue entitled "Music in World Cultures" which included a bibliography, discography, and filmography to aid teachers of the world's musics. These teachers are not necessarily ethnomusicologists, but are nonetheless advancing some of the aims of the field.
  • 3) The musicological contingent: ethnomusicologists who study music in terms of the sound object (this can be in the form of performances, recordings, or transcriptions, and focuses on the pitch, rhythmic, formal, and harmonic content); cultural context, for these ethnomusicologists, assumes a secondary role.
  • 4) The anthropological contingent: ethnomusicologists who focus on human beings with the stance that “music is culture” and “what musicians do is society.”

One defining feature of this decade was the advent of anthropological influence within ethnomusicology. During this time, the discipline of ethnomusicology experienced a shift of focus away from musical data, such as pitch and formal structure, toward humans and human relationships. The incorporation of theoretical frameworks from the field of anthropology also led to an increasingly welcoming attitude towards accepting yet more fields of study, such as linguistics and psychology, into the broader pursuit of understanding music as it functions in (or "as") culture.

Throughout this decade, the tensions regarding comparative approaches continued to come into question in ethnomusicological circles. The introduction of Alan Lomax's system of cantometrics in the late 60's accounted for physical traits of vocal production like language/utterance, the distinctness of “singing voice” from speaking voice, use of intonation, ornamentation, and pitch, consistency of tempo and volume, and the length of melodic phrases, and also the social elements like the participation of the audience and the way a performance is structured; in this way, it intended to make the data of ethnomusicological research more quantifiable and grant it scientific legitimacy.[19] However, the system also legitimized comparative methods, thus extending the debate regarding the ethics of a comparative approach.


The 1980s ushered in a heightened awareness of bias and representation in ethnomusicology, meaning that ethnomusicologists took into consideration the effects of biases they brought to their studies as (usually) outgroup members, as well as the implications of how they choose to represent the ethnography and music of the cultures they study. Historically, Western field workers dubbed themselves experts on foreign music traditions once they felt they had a handle on the music, but these scholars ignored differences in worldview, priority systems, and cognitive patterns, and thought that their interpretation was truth.[20] This type of research contributed to a larger phenomenon called Orientalism. Literary theorist Edward Said claims that in Orientalist literature, Western scholars claim expertise on other people's lives and thus the right to represent them, which engenders and perpetuates the notion that Asian, Latin American, and African cultures are somehow inferior to the West by representing them as possible to "master" in a short time.[21] This practice also engenders musical appropriation and fetishization, which further trivialize a culture and its music.[22] As a result of these and related trends in Western literature and culture, Said spearheaded the movement known as Postcolonialism, which examines and responds to colonialism and neocolonialism through the critical study of relevant theory and literature.[23]

It was also during that time that Clifford Geertz’s concept of thick description spread from anthropology to ethnomusicology. In particular, ethnomusicologist Timothy Rice called for a more human-focused study of ethnomusicology,[24] putting emphasis on the processes that bind music and society together in musical creation and performance. His model follows Alan Merriam’s identification of the field as "the study of music in culture."[25] Rice puts more focus on historical change as well as the role of the individual in music-making. In particular, Rice's model asks "how do people historically construct, socially maintain and individually create and experience music?"[26] In addition to presenting new models of thought, Rice’s ideas were also meant to unify the field of ethnomusicology into a more organized, cohesive field by providing an organized series of questions to be addressed in the course of research.[27]

Another concern that came to the forefront in the 1980s is known as reflexivity. The ethnomusicologist and his or her culture of study have a bidirectional, reflexive influence on one another in that it is possible not only for observations to have an impact the observer, but also for the presence of the observer to have an impact on that which they are observing.

The awareness of the nature of oral tradition and the problems it poses for reliability of source came into discussion during the 1980s. The meaning of a particular song is in the kind of flux associated with any oral tradition, each successive performer bringing his or her own interpretation. Furthermore, regardless of original intended meaning, once a 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, it can, and does, take on a variety of different meanings.[28] The 1980s can be classified by the emergence of awareness of cultural bias, the reliability of different sources, and a general skepticism as regards the validity of the researcher's point of view and of the object of research itself.


By the late 1980s, the field of ethnomusicology had begun examining popular music and the impact of media on musics around the world. Several definitions of popular music exist but most agree that it is characterized by having widespread appeal. 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.[29] 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.[30]

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.[31] 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.[32] 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.[33] 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 cultural exchange globally, but on the other hand it could facilitate the appropriation and assimilation of musics. 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 (which had previously limited its focus almost exclusively to European art music), began to look more like ethnomusicology, with greater awareness of and consideration for sociocultural contexts and practices beyond analysis of art music compositions and biographical studies of major European composers.[34]

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.[35]

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.[36]

Additionally, postcolonial thought continued to be a focus of ethnomusicological literature. One example comes from Ghanaian ethnomusicologist Kofi Agawu; in Representing African Music: Postcolonial Notes, Queries, Positions, he details how the concept of “African rhythm” has been misrepresented – “African” music is not a homogenous body as it is often perceived to be by Western thought; its differences from Western music are often considered deficiencies, and the emphasis on "African rhythm" prevalent throughout music scholarship prevents accurate comparison of other musical elements such as melody and harmony. Influenced by postcolonial thought theories, Agawu focuses on deconstructing the Eurocentric intellectual hegemony surrounding understanding African music and the notation of the music itself.[37] Additionally, the new notational systems that have been developed specifically for African music further prevent accurate comparison due to the impossibility of applying these notations to Western music. Overall, Agawu implores scholars to search for similarities rather than differences in their examinations of African music, as a heightened exploration of similarities would be much more empowering and intellectually satisfying.[38] This means by reexamining the role of European (through colonialism and imperialism) and other cultural influences have had on the history of "African" music as individual nations, tribes, and collectively as a continent.[39] The emphasis on difference within music scholarship has led to the creation of "default grouping mechanisms" which inaccurately convey the music of Africa, such as claims that polymeter, additive rhythm and cross rhythm are prevalent throughout all of African music. The actual complexity and sophistication of African music goes unexplored when scholars simply talk about it within these categories and move on. Agawu also calls for the direct empowerment of postcolonial African subjects within music scholarship, in response to attempts to incorporate native discourses into scholarship by Western authors which have led to inaccurate representation and a distortion of native voices. Agawu worries of the possible implementation of the same Western ideals but with an "African" face, "in what we have, rather, are the views of a group of scholars operating within a field of discourse, an intellectual space defined by Euro-American traditions of ordering knowledge".[40][41]

Currently, scholarship that may have historically been identified as ethnomusicology is now classified as sound studies.

Ethnomusicology in Western popular culture

Ethnomusicology is not limited to the study of music from cultures often perceived as exotic or foreign. It is discipline that encompasses various approaches to the study of the many musics around the world that emphasize their particular dimensions (cultural, social, material, cognitive, biological, etc.) and contexts beyond their isolated sound components. Western music and its influences are thus also subject to ethnomusicological interest.

Media influences

The influence of the media on consumerism in Western society is a bi-directional effect, according to Thomas Turino.[42] A large part of self-discovery and feeling accepted in social groups is related to common musical tastes. Record companies and producers of music recognize this reality and respond by catering to specific groups. In the same way that “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,“ so do individuals shape the media's marketing responses to musical tastes in Western popular music culture. The culmination of identity groups (teenagers in particular) across the country represents a significant force that can shape the music industry based on what is being consumed.

Theories and methods

Ethnomusicologists often apply theories and methods from cultural anthropology, cultural studies and sociology as well as other disciplines in the social sciences and humanities.[43] 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.

Objective/subjective dichotomy

In 1971, Hood suggested that an ethnomusicologist must be familiar with a wide array of general musical knowledge as well as knowledge in at least one specific area of the world.[44] Further, prompted by a college student's personal letter, he recommended that potential students of ethnomusicology undertake substantial musical training in the field, a competency that he described as "bimusicality."[10] This, he explains, is a measure intended to combat ethnocentrism and transcend problematic Western analytical conventions. Fieldwork is an important methodology that characterizes many ethnomusicological approaches, which often entails some form of participant observation. This can include a variety of distinct fieldwork practices, including personal exposure to a performance tradition or musical technique, participation in a native ensemble, or inclusion in a myriad of social customs. The goal of this kind of immersion is to be better able to analyze and approach musical styles. Methodologies that emphasize the subjective experience of fieldwork stand in stark contrast to theories of scholars such as Alan Merriam, who believe that what the ethnomusicologist seeks is "objective, quantitative, and theoretical" viewing fieldwork, recording and transcription as more scientific and objective processes.[45]


Problems of analysis

The great diversity of musics found across the world has necessitated an interdisciplinary approach to ethnomusicological study. Analytical and research methods have changed over time, as ethnomusicology has continued solidifying its disciplinary identity, and as scholars have become increasingly aware of issues involved in cultural study (see Theoretical Issues and Debates). Among these issues are the treatment of Western music in relation to music from “other,” non-Western cultures[46] and the cultural implications embedded in analytical methodologies.[47] Kofi Agawu (see 2000s) noted that scholarship on African music seems to emphasize difference further by continually developing new systems of analysis; he proposes the use of Western notation to instead highlight similarity and bring African music into mainstream Western music scholarship.[41]

In seeking to analyze such a wide scope of musical genres, repertories, and styles, some scholars have favored an all-encompassing “objective” approach, while others argue for “native” or “subjective” methodologies tailored to the musical subject. Those in favor of “objective” analytical methods hold that certain perceptual or cognitive universals or laws exist in music, making it possible to construct an analytical framework or set of categories applicable across cultures. Proponents of “native” analysis argue that all analytical approaches inherently incorporate value judgments, and that in order to gain understanding into music it is crucial to construct an analysis within cultural context. This debate is well exemplified by a series of articles between Mieczyslaw Kolinski and Marcia Herndon in the mid-1970s; these authors differed strongly on the style, nature, implementation, and advantages of analytical and synthetic models including their own.[47][48][49][50] Herndon, backing “native categories” and inductive thinking, distinguishes between analysis and synthesis as two different methods for examining music. By her definition, analysis seeks to break down parts of a known whole according to a definite plan, whereas synthesis starts with small elements and combines them into one entity by tailoring the process to the musical material. Herndon also debated on the subjectivity and objectivity necessary for a proper analysis of a musical system.[47] Kolinski, among those scholars critiqued by Herndon’s push for a synthetic approach, defended the benefits of analysis, arguing in response for the acknowledgment of musical facts and laws.[50]

Analytical methodologies

As a result of the above debate and ongoing ones like it, ethnomusicology has yet to establish any standard method or methods of analysis. This is not to say that scholars have not attempted to establish universal or “objective” analytical systems. Bruno Nettl acknowledges the lack of a singular comparative model for ethnomusicological study, but describes methods by Mieczyslaw Kolinski, Béla Bartók, and Erich von Hornbostel as notable attempts to provide such a model.[51]

Perhaps the first of these objective systems was the development of the cent as a definitive unit of pitch by phonetician and mathematician Alexander J. Ellis (1885). Ellis used his system, which divided the octave into 1200 cents (100 cents in each Western semitone), as a means of analyzing and comparing scale systems of different musics. Ellis presented his research in "On the Musical Scales of Various Nations," making the influential statement that “musical scales were not acoustic givens but humanly organized preferences."[52] Ellis's study is also an early example of comparative musicological fieldwork (see Fieldwork).

Alan Lomax’s method of cantometrics employed analysis of songs to model human behavior in different cultures. He posited that there is some correlation between musical traits or approaches and the traits of the music’s native culture.[19] Cantometrics involved qualitative scoring based on several characteristics of a song, comparatively seeking commonalities between cultures and geographic regions.

Mieczyslaw Kolinski measured the exact distance between the initial and final tones in melodic patterns. Kolinski refuted the early scholarly opposition of European and non-European musics, choosing instead to focus on much-neglected similarities between them, what he saw as markers of “basic similarities in the psycho-physical constitution of mankind.”[46] Kolinski also employed his method to test, and disprove, Erich von Hornbostel’s hypothesis that European music generally had ascending melodic lines, while non-European music featured descending melodic lines.

Adopting a more anthropological analytical approach, Steven Feld conducted descriptive ethnographic studies regarding “sound as a cultural system.”[53] Specifically, his studies of Kaluli people of Papua New Guinea use sociomusical methods to draw conclusions about its culture.


From its beginnings in the 19th century until the mid-20th century, ethnomusicological fieldwork favored the “armchair” approach wherein scholars (folklorists, ethnographers, and early ethnomusicologists) collected data, usually through transcription or on wax cylinders, and carried out the analysis thereof at their home institutions.[54] Scholars in the Berlin school of comparative musicology, such as Carl Stumpf and Erich M. von Hornbostel, studied hundreds of recordings, many collected from colonial territories, eager to catalog and archive musics from other cultures.[55]

The transition to the type of fieldwork that characterizes contemporary ethnomusicology arose in the American school in the period following World War II. The focus shifted onto 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.[56] David McAllester was paramount in helping the discipline transition from the “armchair” approach to culturally specific fieldwork. His with his work with the Navaho, with whom he lived with for an extended period in order to understand the Enemy Way music more intimately, involved an entirely different conceptualization of music than that generally accepted in the West (the Navaho, like a variety of other cultures around the world, have no word for music, instead referring to it in the context of its function).[57] At this point in ethnomusicology's development, fieldwork began to grow into a cornerstone of ethnomusicological work.

As technology advanced, researchers graduated from depending on wax cylinders and the phonograph to digital recordings and video cameras.[58] Video recordings are now considered cultural texts, so ethnomusicologists can conduct fieldwork by recording music performances and creating documentaries of the people behind the music.[59] Though these technological advances have allowed fieldwork to begin to shift back to a comparative approach more akin to the "armchair" methods of Stumpf, Hornbostel, and the Berlin school, more recent fieldwork has been approached with increasing cognizance of relevant ethical and accuracy issues in the decades since World War II.[60] In particular, 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.[61] Mark Slobin writes in detail about the application of ethics to fieldwork.[62] Several potential problems 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.

Anthony Seeger, Emeritus Professor of Ethnomusicology at UCLA,[63] has done seminal work on the notion of ethics within fieldwork. Emblematic of his theories is a 1983 piece that describes the fundamental complexities of fieldwork through his relationship with the Suyá Indians of Brazil.[64] Throughout the short piece, he emphasizes the need to avoid ethnocentric remarks during or after the fieldwork process. Thus, rather than exploring conclusively how singing has come to exist within their culture, his goal is to explain how it creates culture presently, and how aspects of Suyá social life can be seen through both a musical and performative lens.

The process he describes is an intricate one, even without the thoughtful consideration of ethical implications. From the recording and transcription process to the final publication of a finished product, the labor Seeger engages in is highly complex and mentally taxing. Even after ethical standards have been applied to every step, there is still no way to completely avoid ethnocentric remarks, particularly coming from a Western scholarly viewpoint. Additionally, as he later explains, the most ethical method is generally the most difficult and time-consuming, regardless of how committed a particular fieldworker may feel about the moral principles of fieldwork. Seeger’s anecdote exemplifies well the inherent complexity of ethical practices in ethnomusicological fieldwork.

Theoretical issues and debates


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.[65] 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.[55] 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.[55]

The belief in universal characteristics of music was more common among 19th-century scholars. Wilhelm Wundt, for instance, claimed that "primitive" cultures use monophonic music and intervals similar to those in 19th-century music. However, by the early 1950s, the idea that all cultures shared any given musical trait had already fallen out of fashion[65] The only apparent universal of music is that all cultures seem to have music, an idea held by both early proto-ethnomusicological scholars such as Richard Wallaschek as well as more modern scholars like Alan Lomax.[19][66]

Some ethnomusicologists, such as David P. McAllester, argue that there might not be any absolute universals in music due to human variability and complexity. For instance, even such fundamental components of western music as the concept of an "instrument" might not exist in non-Western cultures; in fact, some cultures even lack the concept of "music," as a discrete idea, altogether.[67] But some, including McAllester, contend that there are “near-enough” universals, particularly music’s seeming ability to revolve around some tonal center and heighten human experience .[65][68] 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.[69]

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.[70] Harwood also highlighted several inherent issues with the notion of universality in music. The first of these is structure vs. function in music. He notes that human behavior is structurally predicated, and that as such, not all behavioral patterns (which some observe to find universals) imply functional activity in music. He noted that looking for causality relationships and “deep structure” (as postulated by Chomsky) is a relatively fruitless way to look for universals in music. He also drew content versus process in musical behavior. In drawing this distinction, he highlighted that scholars studying universals should shift from studying what, in terms of content, various cultural groups play to the process by which individuals learn music. In summary, his view is that “universals in music are not to be found in specific musical structure or function. Rather, those which we can identify are examples of basic human cognitive and social processes at work in construing and adapting to the real world.” [70]

Bruno Nettl is a proponent of a pragmatic approach to studying universals in music. He proposes a less philosophical, more mathematical treatment of the subject by positing that his peers should be looking for statistical universals rather than true universals. That is, commonalities across widely varying cultures in music are consequential, but true universals are too lofty to pursue. As an example he cites several of these aforementioned commonalities that may not be true universals: “tetratonic and pentatonic scales composed of unequal intervals…men, women, and children singing in octaves; stanzaic structure of songs and pieces.” [71]

 Many musical traditions' tuning's notes align with their dominant instrument's timbre's partials[72] 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.[73]

Linguistics and semiotics

Ethnomusicology has been influenced by anthropology’s exploration of culture as a set of meaningful symbols.[74] Some ethnomusicologists, as scholars of music as a human construct, have extended this interest in symbolism to form a subdiscipline of musical semiotics, or systems of signs and symbols in music and culture and how they reflect meaning. Bruno Nettl mentions and discusses various issues in the study of musical meaning, including the wide variety of culturally dependent, listener-derived meanings attributed to music and the problems of authenticity in assigning meaning to music.[75] Musical symbols, beyond conveying meaning, can also reflect or represent emotion, culture, and behavior much in the same way linguistic symbols do.

The interdisciplinarity of symbolism in anthropology, linguistics, and musicology has generated new analytical outlooks (see Analysis) with different focuses: Anthropologists have traditionally conceived of whole cultures as systems of symbols, while musicologists have tended to explore symbolism within particular repertories. Structural approaches seek to uncover interrelationships between symbolic human behaviors.[76]

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.[55][77] This new approach, widely influenced by the works of linguist Ferdinand de Saussure, philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce, and anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss, among others, focused on finding underlying symbolic structures in cultures and their music.[74]

In a similar 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 symbolic, but that it also bore many resemblances to language, making semiotic study possible.[78] Conceiving of music as non-scientific, Nattiez suggested that linguistic models and methods might prove more effective than the scientific method. He proposed that the inclusion of linguistic methods in ethnomusicology increased the field's independence, reducing the need to borrow resources and research procedures from other sciences.[77]

John Blacking was another ethnomusicologist who believed in a ethnomusicological parallel to linguistic models of analysis. In his work on Venda music, he writes, “The problem of musical description is not unlike that in linguistic analysis: a particular grammar should account for the processes by which all existing and all possible sentences in the language are generated.”[79] He urges others in the field to become more aware and inclusive of the non-musical processes that occur in the making of music, as well as the culturally-based reason for properties of the music in any given culture, in the vein of Alan Merriam’s work. Blacking’s purpose in describing his context-sensitive model also has the additional role of being a unified method of musical analysis which “can not only be applied to all music, but can explain both the form, the social and emotional content, and the effects of music, as systems of relationships between an infinite number of variables.”[79]

Some musical languages have been identified as more suited to linguistically-focused analysis than others: Indian music, for example, has been linked more directly to language than music of other traditions.[74] Since musical semiotics and linguistic analysis took root in the 1970s, its proponents have faced the criticisms that music only bears significant similarity to language in certain cultures and that linguistic analysis may frequently ignore cultural context.[80]


Since ethnomusicology evolved from comparative musicology, some ethnomusicologists' research features analytical comparison. The problems arising from using these comparisons stem from the fact that there are different kinds of comparative studies with a varying degree of understanding between them.[81] Beginning in the late 60's, ethnomusicologists who desired to draw comparisons between various musics and cultures have used Alan Lomax’s idea of cantometrics.[82] 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.[83] Another approach, introduced by Steven Feld, is for ethnomusicologists interested in 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.[84] Bruno Nettl has noted as recently as 2003 that comparative study seems to have fallen in and out of style, noting that although it can supply conclusions about the organization of musicological data, reflections on history or the nature of music as a cultural artifact, or understanding some universal truth about humanity and its relationship to sound, it also generates a great deal of criticism regarding ethnocentrism and its place in the field.[85]

Insider/outsider epistemology

The relevance and implications of insider and outsider distinctions within ethnomusicological writing and practice has been a subject of lengthy debate for decades, invoked by Bruno Nettl, Timothy Rice, and others. In The Study of Ethnomusicology: Thirty-One Issues and Concepts, Nettl discusses personal and global issues pertaining to field researchers, particularly those from a Western academic background. In a chapter that recounts his field recordings among Native Americans of the northern plains, for instance, he attempts to come to terms with the problematic history of ethnographic fieldwork, and envision a future trajectory for the practice in the 21st century and beyond.[86] Considering that ethnomusicology is a field that intersects in a vast array of other fields in the social sciences and beyond, it focuses on studying people, and it is appropriate to encounter the issue of “making the unfamiliar, familiar,” a phrase coined by William McDougall which is well known within social psychology.[87] As in social psychology, the “unfamiliar” is encountered in three different ways during ethnomusicological work: 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.[88]

Nettl has also been vocal about the impact of subjective understanding on research. As he describes, a fieldworker might attempt immersing themselves into an outsider culture to gain full understanding. This, however, can begin to blind 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 characterizes the majority of outsiders as "simply members of Western society who study non-Western music, or members of affluent nations who study the music of the poor, or maybe city folk who visit the backward villages in their hinterland."[89] This is an important point because it points to possible Eurocentric constructions of foreign and exotic music. Within this outsider/insider dynamic and framework unequal power relations come into focus and question.

In addition his critiques of the outsider and insider labels, Nettl creates a binary which roughly equates to that of Western and Nonwestern. He points out flaws in Western thinking through the analyses of multiple societies, and promotes the notion of collaborating, with a greater focus on acknowledging the contribution of native experts. He writes, "the idea of joint research by an 'insider' and an 'outsider' has been mentioned as a way of bridging the chasms."[90] In spite of his optimism, the actualization of this practice has been limited and the degree to which this can solve the insider/outsider dilemma is questionable. He believes that every concept is studied through a personal perspective, but “a comparison of viewpoints may give the broadest possible insight.”[91]

The position of ethnomusicologists as outsiders looking in on a music culture, has been discussed using Said's theory of Orientalism. This manifests itself in the notion that music championed 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.[92] According to Nettl, there are three beliefs of insiders and members of the host culture that emerge that lead to adverse results. The three are as follows: (1) "Ethnomusicologists come to compare non-Western musics or other "other" traditions to their own... in order to show that the outsider's own music is superior;" (2)Ethnomusicologists want to use their own approaches to non-Western music;" and (3) "They come with the assumption that there is such a thing as African or Asian or American Indigenous music, disregarding boundaries obvious to the host."[93] As Nettl argues, some of these concerns are no longer valid, as ethnomusicologists no longer practice certain orientalist approaches that homogenize and totalize various musics. He explores further intricacies within the insider/outsider dichotomy by deconstructing the very notion of insider, contemplating what geographic, social, and economic factors distinguish them from outsiders. He notes that scholars of "more industrialized African and Asian nations" see themselves as outsiders in regards to rural societies and communities.[94] Even though these individuals are in the minority, and ethnomusicology and its scholarship is generally written from a western perspective, Nettl disputes the notion of the native as the perpetual other and the outsider as the westerner by default.

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,[95] 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. From his own scholarship, Rice suggests "five principles for the acquisition of cognitive categories in this instrumental tradition" among Bulgarian musicians.[96] However as an outsider, Rice notes that his "understanding passed through language and verbal cognitive categories" whereas the Bulgarian instrumental tradition lacked "verbal markers and descriptors of melodic form" so "each new student had to generalize and learn on his own the abstract conceptions governing melodies without verbal or visual aids."[97] From these various techniques on learning the tradition, we can see that insiders and outsiders, while learning processes might be similar, they are not identical.

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.[98] 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?[99] One must be aware of the personal bias they may impose on the study of their own culture.

Kingsbury, an American pianist and ethnomusicologist, decided to reverse the common paradigm of a Westerner performing fieldwork in a non-western context, and apply fieldwork techniques to a western subject. In 1988 he published Music, Talent, and Performance: A Conservatory Cultural System, which detailed his time studying an American northeastern conservatory. He approached the conservatory as if it were a foreign land, doing his best to disassociate his experiences and prior knowledge of American conservatory culture from his study. In the book, Kingsbury analyzes conservatory conventions he and his peers may have overlooked, such as the way announcements are disseminated, to make assertions about the conservatory’s culture. For example, he concludes that the institutional structure of the conservatory is “strikingly decentralized.”[100] In light of professors’ absences, he questions the conservatory’s commitment to certain classes. His analysis of the conservatory contains four main elements: a high premium on teachers’ individuality, teachers’ role as nodal points that reinforce a patron-client-like system of social organization, this subsequent organization’s enforcement of the aural traditions of musical literacy, and the conflict between this client/patron structure and the school’s “bureaucratic administrative structure.”[101] Ultimately, it seems, Kingsbury thinks the conservatory system is inherently flawed. Kingsbury emphasizes that he doesn’t intend to “chide” the conservatory, but his critiques are nonetheless far from complementary.[101]

Another example of western ethnomusicologists studying their native environments comes from Craft’s My Music: Explorations of Music in Daily Life. The book contains interviews from dozens of (mostly) Americans of all ages, genders, ethnicities, and backgrounds, who answered questions about the role of music in their lives. Each interviewee had their own unique, necessary, and deeply personal internal organization of their own music. Some cared about genre, others organized the music important to themselves by artist. Some considered music deeply important to them, some did not care about music at all.[102]

Ethnomusicology and Western music

Early in the history of the field of ethnomusicology, there was debate as to whether ethnomusicological work could be done on the music of western society, or whether its focus was exclusively toward non-western music. Some early scholars, such as Mantle Hood, argued that ethnomusicology had two potential focuses: the study of all non-European art music, and the study of the music found in a given geographical area.[103]

However, even as early as the 1960s some ethnomusicologists were proposing that ethnomusicological methods should also be used to examine western music. For instance, Alan Merriam, in a 1960 article, defines ethnomusicology not as the study of non-European music, but as the study of music in culture.[104] In doing so he discards some of the 'external' focus proposed by the earlier (and contemporary) ethnomusicologists, who regarded non-European music as more relevant to the attention of scholars. Moreover, he expands the definition from being centered on music to including the study of culture as well.

Modern ethnomusicologists, for the most part, consider the field to apply to western music as well as non-western.[105] However, ethnomusicology, especially in the earlier years of the field, was still primarily focused on non-western cultures; it is only in recent years that ethnomusicological scholarship has begun to allow more diversity with respect to both the cultures being studied and the methods by which these cultures may be studied.[106]

Despite the increased acceptance of ethnomusicological examinations of western music, modern ethnomusicologists still focus overwhelmingly on non-western music. One of the few major examinations of western music from an ethnomusicological focus, as well as one of the earliest, is Henry Kingsbury's book Music, Talent, and Performance.[107] In his book, Kingsbury studies a conservatory in the north-eastern United States. His examination of the conservatory uses many of the traditional fieldwork methods of ethnomusicology.[107]


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.[108]

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.[109]

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.

Slobin’s discussion of ethical issues in ethnomusicology wass surprising in that he highlights the ethnomusicology community’s apathy towards the public discussion of ethical issues, as evidenced by the lackluster response of scholars at a large 1970 SEM meeting.

Slobin also points out an interesting facet of ethical thinking among ethnomusicologists in that many of the ethical rules deal with Westerners studying in non-Western, “3rd world” countries. Any non-Western ethnomusicologists are immediately excluded from these rules, as are Westerner’s studying Western music.

He also highlights several prevalent issues in ethnomusicology by using hypothetical cases from an American Anthropological Association newsletter and framing them in terms of ethnomusicology. For example: “Your bring a local musician, one of your informants, to the West on tour. He wants to perform pieces you feel inappropriately represent his tradition to Westerns, as the genre reinforces Western stereotypes about the musician’s homeland… do you have the right to overrule the insider when he is on your territory?” [109]

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.[110] 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.[19]

Martin Rudoy Scherzinger contests the claim that copyright law is inherently conducive to exploitation of non Westerners by Western musicologists for a variety of reasons, the first of which being the notion that many non-Western pieces of music are inherently uncopyrightable in that they are orally passed down and are therefore not original. Furthermore, the very notion of originality (in the West especially) is a quagmire in and of itself. Scherzinger also brought several issues to the forefront that also arise with metaphysical interpretations of authorial autonomy because of his idea that Western aesthetical interpretation is not different than non -Western interpretation. That is, all music is “for the good of mankind” yet the law treats it differently.[111]


Ethnomusicology historically involved gender-biased research and androcentric theoretical models, since men have traditionally dominated fieldwork and institutional leadership positions, and tended to prioritize the experiences of men in the cultures they studied.[112] Both male and female ethnomusicologists in fieldwork focused on the musical contributions of men, in line with the underlying assumption that male-dominated musical practices were reflective of musical systems if a society as a whole. Other gender-biased research may have been attributed to the difficulty in acquiring information on female performers without infringing upon cultural norms that may not have accepted or allowed women to perform in public.[113] 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.[114] With a lack of accessible female informants and alternative forms of collecting and analyzing musical data, ethnomusicological researchers such as Ellen Koskoff believe, we may not be able to fully understand the musical culture of a society. Ellen Koskoff quotes Rayna Reiter, saying that that bridging this gap would close the “seeming contradiction and internal workings of a system for which we have only half the pieces”.[115]

Division of men and women may have led to dichotomous thinking in terms of musical thought and behavior as practiced by men and women. Ellen Koskoff stresses that this division of men and women is viewed in the different societal expectations and ideas of men and women. “Many societies similarly divide musical activity into two spheres that are consistent with other symbolic dualisms”, culture-specific, gender based dualisms such as public/private, actions/feelings, sordid (provocative)/holy, etc.[116] Thus, the music comes to reflect those divisions in which women’s music and instrumentation is viewed as “non-music” as opposed to men’s “music” regardless of if the music shows musical ornamentation or not. In fact, instead of being valued as music, women’s musical ornamentation is often explained as having some other purpose within society. Koskoff remarks that there is a range in the linking of music, gender and performance, where some societies put men and women in strict separate settings where men dominate the public sphere and men and women are viewed as complementary in their roles within society and to each other.[117]

Women contributed extensively to fieldwork from the 1950s onward, but women’s and gender studies in ethnomusicology took off in the 1970s.[118] 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.[119] Since the 1990s, ethnomusicologists have begun to consider the role of the fieldworker’s identity, including gender and sexuality, in how they interpret the music of 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.[120] 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.[121]

In Katherine Hagedorn’s Divine Utterances: The Performance of Afro-Cuban Santeria,[122] she uses a very different method of fieldwork, where she observed herself during her research of Cubans and Santeria, in addition to the Cubans she surrounded herself with. Many times in her experiences in Cuba, Hagedorn remarks how her positionality, through her whiteness, femaleness, and foreignness, afforded her luxuries that many of her Cuban counterparts could not be presented with. In fact, her positionality in race, color and ethnicity put her in an “outsider” perspective on Cuban culture and affected her accessibility to the culture as a researcher on Santeria. Her whiteness and foreignness, she wrote, allowed her to circumvent intimate inter-gender relations found among men and women who played the bata drum. Unlike her Cuban female counterparts who faced stigma at the time, she was able to learn to play the bata and thus formulate the research she needed.[122]

Mass media

In the first chapter of his book Popular Music of the Non-Western World,[123] 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.”[124] 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.[111] 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.[125] 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.[126]

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.[127] By incorporating Mexican folk music and modern-day barrio influences, Mexican rock-and-roll musicians in LA made commercially successful postmodern records that included content about their community, history, and identity.[128] Lipsitz suggests that Mexican community in Los Angeles reoriented their traditions in order to fit the postmodern present. Seeking a “unity of disunity”, minority groups can attempt to find solidarity by presenting themselves as sharing experience with other oppressed groups. According to Lipsitz, this disunity creates a disunity that furthermore engenders a "historical bloc," made up of numerous, multifaceted, marginalized cultures.

Lipsitz noted the bifocal nature of the rock group Los Lobos is particularly exemplary of this paradox. They straddled the line by mixing traditional Mexican folk elements with white rockabilly and African American rhythm and blues, while simultaneously conforming to none of the aforementioned genres. That they were commercially successful was unsurprising to Lipsitz- their goal in incorporating many cultural elements equally was to play to everyone. In this manner, in Lipsitz's view, the music served to break down barriers in its up front presentation of “multiple realities”.[127]

Lipsitz describes the weakening effect that the dominant (Los Angeles) culture imposes on marginalized identities. He suggests that the mass media dilutes minority culture by representing the dominant culture as the most natural and normal.[128] Lipsitz also proposes that Capitalism turns historical traditions of minority groups into superficial icons and images in order to profit on their perception as “exotic” or different. Therefore, the commodification of these icons and images results in the loss of their original meaning.

Minorities, according to Lipsitz, cannot fully assimilate nor can they completely separate themselves from dominant groups. Their cultural marginality and misrepresentation in the media makes them aware of society’s skewed perception of them.[128] Antonio Gramsci suggests that there are “experts in legitimization”, who attempt to legitimize dominant culture by making it look like it is consented by the people who live under it. He also proposes that the oppressed groups have their own “organic intellectuals” who provide counter-oppressive imagery in order to resist this legitimization.[129] For example, Low riders used irony to poke fun at popular culture’s perception of desirable vehicles, and bands like Los Illegals provided their listening communities with a useful vocabulary to talk about oppression and injustice.[128]

Michael M.J. Fisher breaks down the following main components of postmodern sensibility: “bifocality or reciprocity of perspectives, juxtaposition of multiple realities-intertextuality, inter-referentiality, and comparisons through families of resemblance.”[130] A reciprocity of perspectives makes music accessible inside and outside of a specific community. Chicano musicians exemplified this and juxtaposed multiple realities by combining different genres, styles, and languages in their music.[128] This can widen the music’s reception by allowing it to mesh within its cultural setting, while incorporating Mexican history and tradition. Inter-referentiality, or referencing relatable experiences, can further widen the music’s demographic and help to shape its creators’ cultural identities. In doing so, Chicano artists were able to connect their music to “community subcultures and institutions oriented around speech, dress, car customizing, art, theater, and politics.”[128] Finally, drawing comparisons through families of resemblance can highlight similarities between cultural styles. Chicano musicians were able to incorporate elements of R&B, Soul, and Rock n’ Roll in their music.[128]

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.[131] 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.[132] 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.[133]

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.”[134] 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.[135]


Music forms a large part of national sentiment, or patriotism, and is subject to the reformist influences of globalization and cosmopolitanism. Thomas Turino examined musical nationalism and its implications within and across national boundaries, defining musical nationalism as the incorporation of local ‘folk’ elements elite or cosmopolitan musical styles.[136] The "national style" may include songs and genres used for reification of traditional culture, or more explicitly political purposes.[137] World beat can be considered contrary to nationalism, designed to appeal to a more global audience by mixing styles of disparate cultures. This may compromise cultural authenticity while commodifying cultural tradition.[138](see Globalization)


Through technological advances of the late twentieth century, recordings of music from around the world began to enter the Euro-American music industry. Timothy Taylor discusses the arrival and development of new terminology in the face of Globalization. The term “World Music” was developed and popularized as a way to categorize and sell “non-Western” music. 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.[139] The term “world beat” was also employed in the 90s to refer specifically to pop music, but it has fallen out of use.[140] The issue that these terms present is that they perpetuate an “us” vs. “them” dichotomy, effectively “othering” and combining musical categories outside of the Western tradition for the sake of marketing.[141]

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.[142]

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.[143] 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.[144]

Feld criticizes the claim to ownership of culturally appropriated music through his examination of Paul Simon’s collaboration with South African musicians his Graceland record. Simon payed the South African musicians for their work, but he was given all of the legal rights to the music. Although it was characterized by what seems to be fair compensation and mutual respect, Feld suggests that Simon shouldn’t be able to claim complete ownership of the music.[145] Feld holds the music industry accountable for this phenomenon, because the system gives legal and artistic credit to major contract artists, who hire musicians like wage workers. This system rewards the creativity of bringing the musical components of a song together, rather than rewarding the actual creators of the music. As Globalization continues, this system allows Capitalist cultures to absorb and appropriate other musical cultures while receiving full credit for its musical arrangement.[145]

Feld also discusses the subjective nature of appropriation, and how society’s evaluation of each case determines the severity of the offense. When American singer James Brown borrowed African rhythms, and when the African musician Fela Anikulapo Kuti borrowed elements of style from James Brown, their common roots of culture made the connection more acceptable to society. However, when the Talking heads borrow style from James Brown, the distancing between the artist and the appropriated music is more overt to the public eye, and the instance becomes more controversial from an ethical standpoint.[145]

Dr. Gibb Schreffler[146] examines globalization through the lens of Punjabi pop music, a particular area of his expertise.[36] As he suggests, the function and reception of Punjabi music changed drastically as increasing migration and globalization catalyzed the need for a cohesive Punjabi identity. In the 1930s, before liberation from British colonial rule, music that carried the explicit "Punjabi" label primarily had the function of regional entertainment. In contrast, Punjabi music of the 1940s and 50s coincided with a wave of Punjabi nationalism that replaced regionalist ideals of earlier times. The music began to form a particular genteel identity in the 1960s that was accessible even to Punjabi expatriates. During the 1970s and 80s, Punjabi pop music began to adhere aesthetically to more cosmopolitan tastes, often overshadowing music that reflected a truly authentic Punjabi identity. Soon after, the geographic and cultural locality of Punjabi pop became a prevalent theme, reflecting a strong relationship to the globalization of widespread preferences. Thus, he asserts, Punjabi popular music eventually "...evolved to neatly represent certain dualities that are considered to characterize Punjabi identity: East/West, guardians of tradition/embracers of new technology, local/diaspora."[36]


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.

From the cognitive perspective, the brain perceives auditory stimuli as music according to gestalt principles, or “principles of grouping.” Gestalt principles include proximity, similarity, closure, and continuation. Each of the gestalt principles illustrates a different element of auditory stimuli that cause them to be perceived as a group, or as one unit of music. Proximity dictates that auditory stimuli that are near to each other are seen as a group. Similarity dictates that when multiple auditory stimuli are present, the similar stimuli are perceived as a group. Closure is the tendency to perceive an incomplete auditory pattern as a whole—the brain “fills in” the gap. And continuation dictates that auditory stimuli are more likely to be perceived as a group when they follow a continuous, detectable pattern.[147]

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.[148] 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.[149]

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.[150][151] Debate still occurs over whether Western chords are naturally consonant or dissonant, or whether that ascription is learned.[152][153] Relation of pitch to frequency is a universal phenomenon, but scale construction is culturally specific.[154] Training in a cultural scale results in melodic and harmonic expectations.[155]

Cornelia Fales has explored the ways in which expectations of timbre are learned based on past correlations. She has offered three main characteristics of timbre: timbre constitutes a link to the external world, it functions as perceptualization's primary instrument and it is a musical element that we experience without informational consciousness. Fales has gone into in-depth exploration of humankind's perceptual relation to timbre, noting that out of all of the musical elements, our perception of timbre is the most divergent from the physical acoustic signal of the sound itself. Growing from this concept, she also discusses the "paradox of timbre", the idea that perceived timbre exists only in the mind of the listener and not in the objective world. In Fales' exploration of timbre, she discusses three broad categories of timbre manipulation in musical performance throughout the world. The first of these, timbral anomaly by extraction, involves the breaking of acoustic elements from the perceptual fusion of timbre of which they were part, leading to a splintering of the perceived acoustic signal (demonstrated in overtone singing and didjeridoo music). The second, timbral anomaly by redistribution, is a redistribution of gestalt components to new groups, creating a "chimeric" sound composed of precepts made up of components from several sources (as seen in Ghanaian balafon music or the bell tone in barbershop singing). Finally, timbral juxtaposition consists of juxtaposing sounds that fall on opposing ends of a continuum of timbral structure which extends from harmonically-based to formant-structured timbres (as demonstrated again in overtone singing or the use of the "minde" ornament in Indian sitar music). Overall, these three techniques form a scale of progressively more effective control of perceptualization as reliance on the acoustic world increases. In Fales' examinations of these types of timbre manipulation within Inanga and Kubandwa songs, she synthesizes her scientific research on the subjective/objective dichotomy of timbre with culture-specific phenomena, such as the interactions between music (the known world) and spiritual communication (the unknown world).[156]

Cognitive research has also been applied to ethnomusicological studies of rhythm. Some ethnomusicologists believe that African and Western rhythms are organized differently. Western rhythms may be based on ratio relationships, while African rhythms may be organized additively. In this view, that means that Western rhythms are hierarchical in nature, while African rhythms are serial.[157] One study that provides empirical support for this view was published by Magill and Pressing in 1997. The researchers recruited a highly experienced drummer who produced prototypical rhythmic patterns. Magill and Pressing then used Wing & Kristofferson’s (1973)[158] mathematical modeling to test different hypotheses on the timing of the drummer. One version of the model used a metrical structure; however, the authors found that this structure was not necessary. All drumming patterns could be interpreted within an additive structure, supporting the idea of a universal ametrical organization scheme for rhythm.[159]

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.[160] Currently there are several theories to explain the evolution of music. One of theories, expanded on by Ian Cross, is the idea that music piggy-backed on the ability to produce language and evolved to enable and promote social interaction.[161] Cross bases his account on the fact that music is a humanly ancient art seen throughout nearly every example of human culture. Since opinions vary on what precisely can be defined as "music", Cross defines it as "complexly structured, affectively significant, attentionally entraining, and immediately—yet indeterminately—meaningful," noting that all known cultures have some art form which can be defined in this way.[162] In the same article, Cross examines the communicative power of music, exploring its role in minimizing within-group conflict and bringing social groups together and claiming that music could have served the function of managing intra and inter-group interactions throughout the course of human evolution. Essentially, Cross proposes that music and language evolved together, serving contrasting functions that have been equally essential to the evolution of humankind. Additionally, Bruno Nettl has proposed that music evolved to increase efficiency of vocal communication over long distances, or enabled communication with the supernatural.[163]

Academic programs

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.[164]

See also

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


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Further reading

  • Merriam, Alan (1964). The Anthropology of Music. Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern Univ Press.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Hood, Mantle (1971). The Ethnomusicologist. Mc-Graw Hill.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Blacking, John (1973). How Musical Is Man?. Seattle: University of Washington Press. ISBN 0295952180.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Myers, Helen, ed. (1992). Ethnomusicology: An Introduction. New Grove Handbooks in Music. London: Macmillan. ISBN 0333576314.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Nettl, Bruno (2005). The Study of Ethnomusicology: Thirty-One Issues and Concepts (rev. ed.). Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Stone, Ruth (2008). Theory for Ethnomusicology. Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Pearson Prentice Hall. ISBN 9780132408400.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>

External links

Ethnomusicology is an interdisciplinary subject because it examines through musicology, history, anthropology and cognitive sciences and other areas. More importantly, through shcolars such as Nettl, McAllaster, Wachsman and List, Ethnomusicology is emphasizes as a universal language. Within Ethnomusicology’s own subject matter, Tim Rice analyzes Ethnomusicology by using Bulgarian music as an example in order to state the inner experience to music. Indeed, Ethnomusicology belongs to all human beings and people should appreciate as a method of global communication throughout the world. What makes ethnomusicology different and universal from pure musicology is that humans are able to distinguish it by natural response. According to Nettl, the way human beings make certain choices of music is based on their response to environmental and cultural events, which humans would react with biological and psychological effects. Because each individual has its own brain system, when they hear different types of music, they are able to decide what kind of music they are listening or where the music comes from due to music’s own characteristics. Since each country has its own unique music, it possesses a certain pattern of melody, harmony, rhythm and sounding, and humans are able to understand them no matter where they come from. And what Nettle means ‘biological’ and ‘psychological’ is how human brains, the cognitive system, corresponds to certain types of music with a natural ability. Additionally, “musical utterance” (Nettl 5) exits among different pieces and texts also contributes as an approach to musicology. Different musical pieces are composed under different cultural and historical context. Accordingly, the most realistic method of understanding the music is to first find the parts that music alike, and the last approach is to find extremely common characteristics among different kinds of musics. Besides looking at music cognitively, List and McAllaster analyzes the musical universality through humanistic and philosophical perspective. Because music comes from different countries, Lists argues that “the most universal characteristic of music is its non-universality as a means of communication” (399), music acts as if a bridge to link different cultures together and create a communicative tool that allows different people speak to each other. Accordingly, Lists’ s philosophy is the diversity of music that brings various kinds of people together. Because different music exists in multiple countries and regions, and people all have different backgrounds and ethnicity, the universality of music is actually the differences among music. Also the “heightened experience” he talked about also represented an idea of every student in his class offering a different opinion for music. Indeed, the “heightened experience” represents a common point where students feel the music with a similar kind of emotion. During that moment, students experience the universality of music because it brings everyone together. Similarly, Wachsmann also states the “heighten experience” through universal perspective of music by giving out kulingtang as an example. Wachsmann claimes that there might not be a direct cause and effect between the acoustic phenomenon and the state of mid to dance and music. What he meant was that each individual has a different understanding of music. For instance, to him, the Kulingtang produced a discomfort feeling to him, which made him unwilling to dance. The discomfort creates a common “heighten experience” for students to feel, creating a unique but universal acoustic state that goes through each student’s brain. As an insider of Ethnomusicology, Tim Rice considers Ethnomusicology as a scientific and social process. By giving an example of Bulgarian music, he demonstrates the “hermeneutics” that makes people realize the essence of Ethnomusicology. Rice points out a kind of ego that helps humans moving along the music with their own senses and understandings. Then he connects hermeneutics with an analysis among texts, symbols and actions. Although Rice’s arguments seems as if using science to analyze ethnomusicology, the ethnography he refers to actually create commonalities for Nettl, Lists and McAllaster. With understanding social and historical context, people are able to comprehend the background information of different music pieces. Indeed, all these authors agree with the existence of universality of Ethnomusicology. To sum up, as subject being relative to multiple areas such as anthropology, ethics, musicology and psychology, Ethnomusicology is seen as a multi discipline. Regardless of which country music represents, it all possess a universal characteristic for people to understand. As long as people are able to access to the social context behind the music, any one will be able to experience a common feeling of a certain kind of music.

Works Cited

Nettl, Bruno. 2005. “4. The Universal Language.” In The Study of Ethnomusicology: Thirty-One Issues and Concepts, 42-49. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinoi Press.

McAllester, David. 1971. “Some Thoughts on Universals in World Music.” Ethnomusicology 15(3): 379-80

Wachsman, Klaus. P. 1971. “Universal Perspectives in Music.” Ethnomusicology 15(3): 381-384.

List, George. 1971. “On the Non-universality of Musical Perspectives.” Ethnomusicology 15 (3): 399-402

Nettl, Bruno. 2005. “11. You Will Never Understand this Music.” In The Study of Ethnomusicology: Thirty-One Issues and Concepts, 149-160. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press.

Rice, Timothy. 1994. May it Fill Your Soul: Experiencing Bulgarian Music. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. pp. 3–15 and 64-88.