The Study of Ethnomusicology: Thirty-Three Discussions

The Study of Ethnomusicology: Thirty-Three Discussions

by Bruno Nettl

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ISBN-13: 9780252039287
Publisher: University of Illinois Press
Publication date: 05/15/2015
Edition description: 3rd Edition
Pages: 568
Product dimensions: 6.20(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.50(d)

About the Author

Bruno Nettl is Professor Emeritus of Music and Anthropology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. An internationally renowned musicologist, Nettl cofounded the Society for Ethnomusicology and was longtime editor of SEM's journal, Ethnomusicology. His books include Nettl's Elephant: On the History of Ethnomusicology and Heartland Excursions: Ethnomusicological Reflections on Schools of Music.

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The Study of Ethnomusicology

Thirty-Three Discussions

By Bruno Nettl


Copyright © 2015 Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-252-09733-1


A Harmless Drudge

Reaching for the Dictionary


I think it was in September 2013 that the field of ethnomusicology may have finally arrived in polite society; the term appeared in a New York Times crossword puzzle, with the clue "Prefix to musicology." Sixty years earlier, when I was a brand-new college teacher and began using the word to describe what I did, it was met with expressions of wonder. But soon people were able to respond with terms such as "folk music" and "primitive music," and "ancient music and instruments" soon entered the conversation. By 1960 the follow-up question might have often been "Oh, do you play in a gamelan?" or "Have you heard of the didgeridoo?" In the 1970s, the conversation might well include the term "ethnic" music or even the etymologically outrageous "ethnomusic"; and in the eighties and nineties, free association might lead to "diversity" and "world music" and "indigenous music" (no one said "primitive" anymore). In the twenty-first century, one hears about theoretical frameworks, about Orientalism, about ethics, diasporas, international hip-hop. The free associations that "ethnomusicology" calls up have changed, and by and large the word is no longer the puzzler it was in 1950. But if the term is broadly accepted in the academy, elsewhere we're not yet out of the woods. Only recently, when I told my faithful physician that I taught a specialized field called ethnomusicology, he said, a bit condescendingly, "Oh, there must be as many as three or four of you." Yet ethnomusicology has widely affected a number of academic disciplines, it has greatly influenced the world of performers and audiences, and it has had a significant impact on the world's listening habits.

In the 130 years in which what is now called ethnomusicology may be said to have existed, beginning with pioneer works such as those of Alexander J. Ellis (1885), Theodore Baker (1882), and Carl Stumpf (1886), attitudes and orientations have changed greatly. And so also has the name, from something very briefly called Musikologie (in the 1880s; see Adler 1885), to "comparative musicology" (through about 1950, though also first used by Adler 1885), then to "ethno-musicology" (1950–ca. 1956), quickly to "ethnomusicology" (removing the hyphen, by the Society for Ethnomusicology, actually was an ideological move in the campaign for disciplinary independence), with later suggestions such as "cultural musicology" (Kerman 1985), "socio-musicology" (Feld 1984), and a perhaps doubt-inspired "(ethno)musicology" (Stobart 2008) occasionally thrown in. The changes in name accompanied changes in intellectual directions and emphases.

It is difficult to find a single simple definition to which most people in this field would subscribe, and maybe this is the reason ethnomusicologists were for many years excessively concerned with defining themselves. Alan P. Merriam, the scholar in the history of ethnomusicology most concerned with definition and the associated problems of basic orientation, cited repeatedly the need for ethnomusicologists to look carefully at what they had done, and wished to do, in order to move in concerted fashion toward their goals (Merriam 1960; 1964, 3–36; 1969b; 1975). In a major essay discussing the history of definitions, Merriam (1977a) brought together a large number of disparate statements defining the limits, the major thrust, the practicality, and the ideology of ethnomusicology; his list was later supplemented by Simon (1978), Myers (1992, 3, 7–9), and others. Interestingly, definitions are harder to come by in recent publications. Major theoretical statements such as those of Rice (2003, 2010), Stobart (2008), or Solis (2012) don't come right out with any. In one of the most recent discussions of the field, Rice starts out with one that strikes me as both too general and too specific: "Ethnomusicology is the study of why, and how, human beings are musical" (2014a, 1), but then (9–10) lists more than a dozen others, all of which he seems to accept as useful. Perhaps this definitional uncertainty has been a good thing, contributing to the elasticity of ethnomusicology's interests and the flexibility of its boundaries. Perhaps we need to remember the fable of the blind men and the elephant.

There are various types of definitions: Some tell what each ethnomusicologist must do or be in order to merit the title, and some synthesize what the entire group does. Others focus on what kinds of research have been done, or what should have been done instead, or what must eventually be done. Some definitions contemplate a body of data to be gathered and studied, or activities to be undertaken by typical scholars, or again the questions to which raw data may lead. Some seek to broaden limits, and to include within the scope of ethnomusicology all sorts of issues also claimed by other fields or disciplines, while others envision narrow specialization. A scholar trying to find order among all of these definitions (Merriam cites more than forty, but he stopped in 1976) would surely become what Samuel Johnson called (referring to himself, the lexicographer) a "harmless drudge" It's not, lest you've been misinterpreting the title of this chapter, the ethnomusicologists who deserve that title; it's me.

What now, specifically, are some of these definitions, and how can one group them? In their briefest form, without elaboration or commentary:

People who seek—or sought—to define ethnomusicology by the material that it contemplates have opted for one of these alternatives: it is the study of (1) folk music and music that used to be called "primitive" that is, tribal, indigenous, or possibly ancient music; (2) non-Western and folk music; (3) all music outside the investigator's own culture; (4) all music that lives in oral tradition; (5) all music of a given locality, as in "the ethnomusicology of Tokyo"; (6) the music that given population groups regard as their particular property—for example, "black" music of the United States; (7) all contemporary music (Chase 1958); (8) all human music; and (9) everything produced in culture or nature that could conceivably be called music.

Those who focus on the typical activities of ethnomusicologists might choose among the following: (1) comparative study of musical systems and cultures (a basically musicological activity); (2) comprehensive analysis of the musical culture of one society (essentially anthropological); (3) the study of musics as systems, perhaps systems of signs (an activity related to linguistics or semiotics); (4) the study of music in or as culture, or perhaps music in its cultural context, with techniques derived from anthropology (often called "anthropology of music"); and (5) historical study of musics outside the realm of Western classical music (using approaches of historians, area studies specialists, and folklorists).

Those definitions that focus on ultimate goals might include the following: (1) the search for musical universals, (2) the descriptions of the pattern of sound produced by a society (as discussed in Blacking 1969), and (3) a field whose practice will benefit humanity (see Titon 1992 and Averill 2003).

This sampling provides an idea of the number and variety of definitions and approaches. Beyond this, however, the disciplinary identity of ethnomusicology is often the subject of debate. Opinions: Ethnomusicology is (1) a full-fledged discipline; (2) a branch of musicology or (3) of anthropology; (4) an interdisciplinary field, or an "interdiscipline" (Solis 2012); (5) the kind of all-encompassing discipline that "musicology" ought to be, but is still trying to become (see various publications by C. Seeger as well as Stobart 2008).

One might also define a field of research by the kinds of things about which its people argue and debate. In a sense, this series of essays is itself an attempt to define ethnomusicology in terms of some of its abiding issues, concepts, questions, and problem areas of general concern. Conciseness continues to elude us: Wikipedia tells us ethnomusicology is "an academic field encompassing various approaches to the study of music (broadly defined) that emphasize its cultural, social, material, cognitive, biological, and other dimensions or contexts instead of or in addition to its isolated sound component or any particular repertoire." The Society for Ethnomusicology, on its website, uses what strikes me as an excessively narrow definition: "Ethnomusicology is the study of music in its cultural context. Ethnomusicologists approach music as a social process in order to understand not only what music is but why it is: what music means to its practitioners and audiences, and how those meanings are conveyed."

Some scholars have tried to find an elegant way of putting all of the aims of the field into one sentence. Thus, Merriam (in my composite formulation): the study of music in culture, as concept, behavior, and sound. Blacking: "the study of the different musical systems of the world" (1973, 3). Timothy Rice (1987) reduced a longer and less elegant sentence into the simple "How do humans make music?" My personal definition? Ethnomusicology is the study of all of the world's musics from a comparative perspective, and it is also the anthropological study of music. But don't construe this narrowly. As the reader will see in the ensuing essay, I have tried to get away from this two-pronged approach, but I haven't quite managed it.

Whence This Strange Word?

It began to be widely used shortly after 1953. Before that, the field was "comparative musicology," and Merriam (1977a, 192–93) believed that the terminological change came from the recognition that this field is no more comparative than others, that comparison can be made only after the things to be compared are well understood in themselves, and that, in the end, comparison across cultural boundaries might be impossible because the musics and cultures of the world are unique. In The Anthropology of Music (1964, 52–53), he also pointed out that most of the general publications of ethnomusicology did not deal with methods and techniques of comparative study. This was perhaps true at the time (Wiora 1975, A. Schneider 2006, and many essays in the Garland Encyclopedia from ca. 2000 are counterexamples, but they came later), but I would argue that it is difficult to find specialized studies that do not in some way, at least by implication, make use of intercultural comparison as a way of gaining and presenting insights.

But if we debate what caused the term to be adopted so quickly, we're also not sure just where it came from. Jaap Kunst is generally regarded as the first to have used the new term prominently in print (1950, 7). He did so, he says, because comparative musicology is not especially comparative. Most general works (for example, Myers 1992, 3) accept him as the inventor of the term.

But there are alternate possibilities. If I may insert a personal recollection, I first heard the term used by Merriam in 1952, and I have the feeling that he, and his associates in the Department of Anthropology at Northwestern University, might not have known Kunst's book. The participation of a number of anthropologists in the American leadership of comparative musicology seems likely to have favored the use of a term paralleling the names of several anthropological subfields: ethnolinguistics, ethnobotany, and ethnohistory, with others, such as ethnoscience, coming later. Then, scholars coming from music, seeing the term used by Kunst and by anthropologists, would have quickly joined in. Among the academic disciplines around 1950, anthropology had greater prestige than did musicology, itself often misunderstood even in midcentury. Musicologists, after all, were seen as academic Simon Legrees for students by students of musical performance, and musicological study was frequently regarded as the refuge of the unsuccessful player or composer. Nationalism too may have played a part. Americans were proud of their significant contributions to non-Western and folk music research between 1930 and about 1955, in comparison to their more modest work as historians of Western music. They might have wished for a term that expressed their special role, a term that was not simply a translation of the established German term vergleichende Musikwissenschaft. The fact that one was dealing with a special kind of music, low in the hierarchy of musics with which the conventional musicologist dealt, may also have stimulated the need for a special term, a whole word, "ethnomusicology," instead of a term merely designating a subfield of musicology that dealt, by implication, with "submusics" worthy only of being compared invidiously with the great art music of Europe.

But a further strand of the history of our word comes from the writing of the Ukrainian scholar Bohdan Lukaniuk (2010), who traces the word to the writings of his compatriot, the folklorist and collector Klement Kvitka, who coined it in 1928 (as etnomusikologia). Lukaniuk believes that the term was adopted by Mieczyslaw Kolinski (a Polish scholar who, due to the calamities of World War II, moved to Germany, Czechoslovakia, Belgium, the United States, and eventually Canada, and whom we will meet later in other contexts) and that Kolinski introduced it to Kunst. This makes good sense, but I don't remember Kolinski or Kunst ever mentioning Kvitka. My belief is that the term was actually coined—"invented," if you will—three times, but that it was so obviously available that almost anyone could have come up with it, at least by 1950. But there is little doubt that Kvitka was the first to use the word (or its Ukrainian equivalent).

Becoming an Ethnomusicologist

There may be many definitions of ethnomusicology, but those who call themselves ethnomusicologists or who otherwise associate themselves with this field are actually a relatively compact group. So, who are they? In 2008 the Society for Ethnomusicology conducted a survey that suggests that, professionally, their primary loyalty seems to be to the field of music, rather than to the social sciences. Some 80 percent of the teachers among them are in music departments. Admittedly, this survey applies largely to North America. Descriptions of the ethnomusicological population between around 1950 and 1980 may be found in Hood (1971) and Myers (1992). Let me try an impressionistic overview of the present, based on my experience largely, though not exclusively, in North America. Of those working in this field since about 1980, many have an initial background in academic music, as students of performance, theory, or composition. But increasingly, they have also come from backgrounds in popular music, and some are motivated by prolonged residence—perhaps as teenagers—abroad. A good many also come to this field from exposure to the wider world, perhaps as members of the Peace Corps, or as teachers of English abroad, or in missionary work, or through contact with—or membership in—minorities of many kinds. Typically, they seem to have been turned on to the field by the love of or fascination with a particular music and then become exposed to it intensively, perhaps learning to perform it, going on to the formal study of anthropology, or of a field of area studies such as South Asia, Africa, or the Middle East. Some turn to ethnomusicology after a period of living in a non-Western culture as teachers of Western music. Many students of ethnomusicology very quickly form a specialized allegiance to the music of a particular culture or area, and even a particular genre of music—Plains Indian powwow dances, Javanese gamelan, North Indian classical music, Algerian rai, popular music at home such as rap. In the United States, popular music has become a field of enormous interest. It is my impression that in western Europe and Australia, somewhat similar conditions obtain, but that in Asian and African nations students are most typically attracted by indigenous musics. Some ethnomusicologists started out as competent performers of the music they eventually wish to study academically—Patricia Sandler, originally a competent mbira player, undertook Ph.D. research in Afro-Brazilian music. Mei Han, a virtuoso performer on the zheng, received a Ph.D. in ethnomusicology after a successful performing career.

Most ethnomusicologists, in any event, undertake graduate study in this field; there aren't many (though there once were) scholars already established in other disciplines—music history, anthropology—who, in midcareer, switched lanes and moved to ethnomusicology. Graduate curricula in ethnomusicology vary considerably. Some of the leading ones are free-standing programs in their universities, many are attached to music departments and may be considered one of a number of specializations within musicology, and a few are in anthropology, popular culture, media studies, and folklore departments or programs. But while the orientations of these programs in North America varied greatly when they first came into existence in the 1950s and 1960s, and they still differ considerably, there has gradually developed a kind of mainstream, a central core of preparation, that includes some study of performance of the music in which one plans to undertake research—and perhaps incidentally also performance of other noncanonical musics that may be available—and considerable reading and study of anthropology and of anthropologically related theory.


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Table of Contents


Preface, xi,
PART I: Contemplating the Musics of the World,
1. A Harmless Drudge: Reaching for the Dictionary, 3,
2. Combining Tones: On the Concept of Music, 19,
3. Is Music the Universal Language of Mankind? Commonalities and the Origins of Music, 31,
PART II: As Sounds and Structures,
4. Inspiration and Perspiration: Creative Processes, 49,
5. A Nonuniversal Language: On the Musics of the World, 63,
6. The Fundamental Skill: Notation and Transcription, 72,
7. Contemplating Musical Repertories: A Sampling of Descriptive and Analytical Approaches, 89,
8. The Most Indefatigable Tourists of the World: Units of Musical Thought, 108,
9. Apples, Oranges, and a Model T: Comparison and Comparative Study, 122,
PART III: In the Field,
10. Come Back and See Me Next Tuesday: Essentials of the Fieldwork Tradition, 141,
11. You Will Never Understand This Music: Insiders and Outsiders, 157,
12. Citadels of the Profession: Archives, Preservation, and the Study of Recordings, 169,
13. No One Plays It Like Me: Ordinary and Exceptional Musicians, 188,
14. You Call That Fieldwork? Redefining the "Field", 199,
15. Who Owns This Music? The Host's Perspective, 211,
PART IV: In Human Culture,
16. Music and "That Complex Whole": Studying Music in or as Culture, 231,
17. Writing the Meat-and-Potatoes Book: Musical Ethnography, 248,
18. "If Music Be the Food of Love ...": Uses and Functions, 260,
19. The River of Heraclitus: On People Changing Their Music, 272,
20. Traditions: Recorded, Printed, Written, Oral, Virtual, 294,
21. The Basic Unit of All Culture and Civilization: Signs, Symbols, and Meaning, 302,
22. The Whys of World Music: Determinants of Musical Style, 319,
PART V: In All of Its Varieties,
23. The "Where" of World Music: Interpreting Geographic Distribution, 331,
24. Never Heard a Horse Sing: Taxonomies and Boundaries, 345,
25. The Creatures of Jubal: Instruments, 364,
26. How Do You Get to Carnegie Hall? Teaching and Learning, 376,
27. I'm a Stranger Here Myself: Women's Music, Women in Music, 390,
28. Diversity and Difference: A Variety of Minorities, 405,
PART VI: From a Broad Perspective,
29. Are You Doing Anyone Any Good? Thoughts on Applied Ethnomusicology, 423,
30. Musing about an Interdiscipline: Musicology, Anthropology, and the Study of Dance, 439,
31. Second Thoughts: Some Personal Disclosures, 454,
32. On the Shape of the Story: Perspectives on the History of Ideas and Practices, 464,
33. A Snapshot of the New Century: Notes on Ethnomusicology Today, 481,
References, 491,
Index, 535,

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