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Title: Ethnomusicology  
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Subject: Sociomusicology, Music psychology, List of Wesleyan University people, Music, Anthropology
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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.

Ethnomusicology – a term coined by Jaap Kunst from the Greek words ἔθνος (ethnos, "nation") and μουσική (mousike, "music") – is often described as the anthropology or ethnography of music. 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";[1] more recently, Jeff Todd Titon has described it as the study of "people making music."[2]


  • Definition 1
  • History 2
    • Beginnings and Early History 2.1
    • 1970s 2.2
    • 1980s 2.3
    • 1990s 2.4
    • 2000s 2.5
  • Ethnomusicology in Western Popular Culture 3
    • Media Influences 3.1
    • Representations Ethnomusicology in the Media 3.2
  • Theories and Methods 4
    • Scholarly Relevance 4.1
    • Analysis 4.2
    • Fieldwork 4.3
    • Theoretical Issues and Debates 4.4
      • Universals 4.4.1
      • Language Models and Linguistics 4.4.2
      • Comparison 4.4.3
      • Insider/Outsider Epistemologies 4.4.4
      • Ethnomusicology and Western Music 4.4.5
      • Ethics 4.4.6
      • Gender 4.4.7
      • Mass Media 4.4.8
      • Copyright 4.4.9
      • Identity 4.4.10
      • Nationalism 4.4.11
      • Globalization 4.4.12
      • Cognition 4.4.13
  • Academic programs 5
  • See also 6
  • References 7
  • Further reading 8
  • External links 9


Stated broadly, ethnomusicology may be described as a holistic investigation of music in its cultural contexts.[3] Combining aspects of folklore, psychology, cultural anthropology, comparative musicology, music theory, and history,[4] ethnomusicology has adopted perspectives from a multitude of disciplines.[5] 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.[6] Over time, the definition broadened to include study of all the musics of the world according to certain approaches.[7][8]

While there is not a single, authoritative definition for ethnomusicology, a number of constants appear in the definitions employed by top scholars in the field. It is agreed upon that ethnomusicologists look at music from beyond a purely historical perspective, and look instead at music within culture, music as culture, and music as a reflection of culture.[6][8] 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".[9] Musical fieldworkers often also collect recordings and contextual information about the music of interest.[6] 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. 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.

Beginnings and Early History

Ethnomusicology has evolved both in terminology and ideology since its inception in the late 19th century. It was known very briefly in the 1880s as "Musikologie," then “comparative musicology” until around 1950, then “ethno-musicology” until 1956, when the hyphen was removed with ideological intent to signify the discipline’s independence and validity. These changes to the field’s name paralleled its internal shifts in ideological and intellectual emphasis.[10]

Comparative musicology was the area of study concerned with utilizing methods of acoustics to measure pitches and intervals and to quantifiably compare different kinds of music.[11] Comparative musicologists primarily studied the music of oral folk traditions in comparison to western musical traditions.[12] Critical of the ethnocentrism with which comparative musicologists tended to approach their research, Mieczyslaw Kolinski proposed that scholars in the field ought to focus on describing and understanding musics within their own contexts.[11] After 1950, scholars sought to define the field more broadly and to eradicate these notions of ethnocentrism inherent to the study of comparative musicology. Throughout critical developmental years in the 50s and 60s, ethnomusicologists shaped and legitimized their 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.[10]

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.[13] The influence of ethnomusicology spread to composers, music therapists, music educators, anthropologists, musicologists, and even popular culture.[14] 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 participators in ethnomusicological pursuits in four groups:[15]

  • 1) Performers of ethnic music, including anyone at all who decides to learn 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 is 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, towards 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.


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.[16] 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.[17] This practice also engenders musical appropriation and fetishization, which further trivialize a culture and its music.[18] 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.[19] An example of postcolonial thought in ethnomusicological literature 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 Western notations have ignored important nuances in rhythmic performance, among other aspects of the music that are difficult to impossible for Western ears to perceive.[20] 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 he or she is observing. Finally, 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 to bear. 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.[21] 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.[22] 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.[23]

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.[24] 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.[25] 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.[26] Musical change was increasingly discussed. Ethnomusicologists began looking into a 'global village', straying away from a specialized look at music within a specific culture. There are two sides to this globalization of music: on one hand it would bring more enrichment to cultures, but on the other hand it could homogenize music. Ethnomusicologists have approached this new combination of different styles of music within one music by looking at the musical complexity and the degree of compatibility. This Westernization and modernization of music created a new focus of study; ethnomusicologists began to look at how different musics interact in the 1990s.


By the 2000s, musicology (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.[27]

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.[28]

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.[29]

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.[30] 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.

Representations Ethnomusicology in the Media

A 1973 episode of Sanford and Son featured an ethnomusicology librarian, possibly inspired in part by the Ethnomusicology department library at UCLA, who authenticates the Sanford collection of "Blind Mello Jelly" records.[14]

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.[31] Though some ethnomusicologists primarily conduct historical studies, the majority are involved in long-term participant observation. Therefore, ethnomusicological work can be characterized as featuring a substantial, intensive ethnographic component.

Scholarly Relevance

In 1971, Hood suggested that an ethnomusicologist must be familiar with a wide array of general musical knowledge as well as specific knowledge in at least one specific area of the world.[32] Hood recommended that students of ethnomusicology undertake substantial musical training in the field, a competency that he described as "bimusicality."[9] Fieldwork is an important methodology that characterizes many ethnomusicological approaches, which typically entails not only participant observation but also learning a performance tradition and technique so as to be better able to analyze and approach musical styles. Many early monographs in the field focused on the exposition of regional musics or musical instruments; for example, William Malm's Japanese Music and Musical Instruments (1959).[33] More theoretical or focused studies of particular genres or instruments groups have also become common, as well as theoretical elaborations of many areas and from diverse perspectives, including many of those discussed below.


The great diversity of music found in different cultures has necessitated an interdisciplinary approach to ethnomusicological study. These methods have changed over time, as ethnomusicology solidified as a discipline and scholars became more aware of various issues that arose regarding cultural study (see Theoretical Issues and Debates). Among these issues is the treatment of Western music in relation to music from other, non-Western cultures,[34] and the distinction between the most practical and appropriate methods.[35]

As a result, ethnomusicology does have a standard method of analysis. Bruno Nettl describes the lack of a singular comparative model for ethnomusicological study, listing methods of Mieczyslaw Kolinski, Béla Bartók, and Erich von Hornbostel as past attempts to provide such a model.[36]

Perhaps the first of these objective systems was the development of the [37] Ellis's study is also an early example of comparative musicological field work (see Fieldwork).

Alan Lomax’s cantometrics systematically analyzed songs in order to model human behavior in different cultures. This system involved a qualitative score of several characteristics of the song, relying on comparison to find commonalities among 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. He chose instead to acknowledge often-ignored similarities between them, as markers of “basic similarities in the psycho-physical constitution of mankind.”[34] Thus, he employed his method in part in order 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.

Steven Feld conducted descriptive ethnographic studies regarding “sound as a cultural system.”[38] 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.[39] 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 catalogue and archive musics from other cultures.[40]
The transition to the type of fieldwork that characterizes ethnomusicology arose in the American school in the period following World War II. Focus shifted to scholars conducting their own fieldwork, living within the culture being studied, and improving data collection as technological advances arose. Ethnomusicologists stressed the importance of face-to-face interaction in order to gather the most accurate impression and meaning of music within a culture as possible.[41] David McAllester was paramount in helping the discipline transition from the “armchair” approach to culturally particular fieldwork with his work with the Navaho, with whom he lived for an extended period in order to fully understand the Enemy Way music from their perspective, which 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).[42]
As technology advanced, researchers graduated from depending on wax cylinders and the phonograph to digital recordings and video cameras.[43] Video recordings are now considered cultural texts, so ethnomusicologists can conduct fieldwork by recording music performances and creating documentaries of the people behind music.[44] 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.[45] 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.[46] Mark Slobin writes in detail about the application of ethics to fieldwork.[47] Several potential problems with that may arise when doing fieldwork include attaining complete permission from the group or individual who is performing the music, as well as being sensitive to the rights and obligations related to the music in the context of the host society.
Anthony Seeger explores the complexities involved with fieldwork was his interaction with the Suya Indians of Brazil.[48] The process he describes, from the creation and teaching of the music to the actual recording process to the publication and archival of the music, is complex and intricate even without taking ethics into consideration. Even with keeping to ethical practices, there is not always a process that will be fair for every party involved. Additionally, the ethical way is usually more lengthy and difficult than a non-ethical method. Seeger’s anecdote is a prime example of the complexity of ethical practices in ethnomusicological fieldwork.

Theoretical Issues and Debates


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.[49] 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.[40] 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.[40]

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[49] 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.[50][51]

Some ethnomusicologists, such as

  • Society for Ethnomusicology
  • International Council for Traditional Music
  • British Forum for Ethnomusicology
  • International Library of African Music (ILAM)
  • The World and Traditional Music Section at the British Library
  • The Archives of Traditional Music at Indiana University
  • Ethnomusicology, Folk Music, and World Music (University of Washington)
  • Outreach Ethnomusicology An Online Ethnomusicology Community and Fieldwork Resource
  • SIL publications on Ethnomusicology listed by country
  • Yale Music Library Research Guide for Ethnomusicology
  • Sanford and Son's 1973 take on Ethnomusicology

External links

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

Further reading

  1. ^ Nettl, Bruno (1983). The Study of Ethnomusicology. Urbana, Ill.: University of Illinois Press. p. 25. 
  2. ^ Titon, Jeff Todd (1992). Worlds of Music (2nd ed.). New York: Schirmer. pp. xxi. 
  3. ^ See Hood, Mantle (1969). "Ethnomusicology". In Willi Apel. Harvard Dictionary of Music (2nd ed.). Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press. 
  4. ^ McCollum, Jonathan and Hebert, David, Eds., (2014). Theory and Method in Historical Ethnomusicology Lanham, MD: Rowman&Littlefield.
  5. ^ Pegg, Carole (et al) (2001). "Ethnomusicology". In Sadie, Stanley. New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians (2nd ed.). London: Macmillan. pp. 8:367–403. 
  6. ^ a b c Nettl, Bruno. "The Harmless Drudge: Defining Ethnomusicology." The Study of Ethnomusicology: Thirty-one Issues and Concepts. Urbana: University of Illinois, 2005. 3-15. Print.
  7. ^ Myers, Helen. 1992. “Ethnomusicology.” In Ethnomusicology: An Introduction, ed. Helen Myers, 3-18. New York: Norton.
  8. ^ a b Merriam, Alan. 1960. “Ethnomusicology: A Discussion and Definition of the Field.” Ethnomusicology 4(3): 107-114.
  9. ^ a b Hood, Mantle (1960). "The Challenge of Bi-musicality". Ethnomusicology 4. pp. 55–59. 
  10. ^ a b Nettl, Bruno. "The Harmless Drudge: Defining Ethnomusicology." The Study of Ethnomusicology: Thirty-one Issues and Concepts. Urbana: U of Illinois, 2005. 3-5. Print.
  11. ^ a b Merriam, Alan P. "Definitions of "Comparative Musicology" and "Ethnomusicology": An Historical-Theoretical Perspective." Ethnomusicology 21.2 (1977): 189. Web.
  12. ^ Merriam, Alan P. 1975. “Ethnomusicology Today.” Current Musicology 20: 50-54.
  13. ^ Merriam, Alan P. 1975. “Ethnomusicology Today.” Current Musicology 20: 54.
  14. ^ a b "Ethnomusicology Library (excerpt)". Sanford and Son. 1973. 
  15. ^ Merriam, Alan P. 1975. “Ethnomusicology Today.” Current Musicology 20: 50-54.
  16. ^ Nettl, Bruno. “You Will Never Understand this Music.” The Study of Ethnomusicology: Thirty-one Issues and Concepts. Urbana: University of Illinois, 2005. Print.
  17. ^ Said, Edward. 1978. Orientalism. New York: Vintage Books.
  18. ^ Taylor, Timothy. 2007. Beyond Exoticism: Western Music and the World. Durham and London: Duke University Press.
  19. ^
  20. ^ Agawu, Kofi. 2003. Representing African Music: Postcolonial Notes, Queries, Positions. New York and London: Routledge.
  21. ^ Titon, Jeff Todd. 1988. Powerhouse for God. Austin: University of Texas Press.
  22. ^ Manuel, Peter. 1988. '’Popular Musics of the Non-Western World’’. New York: Oxford UP.
  23. ^ Adorno, Theodor. 1990 [1941]. “On Popular Music.” In ‘'On Record: Rock, Pop, and the Written Word’’, ed. S. Frith and A. Goodwin, 301-314. New York: Pantheon Books.)
  24. ^ Frith, Simon. 1981. ‘’Sound Effects: Youth, Leisure, and the Politics of Rock’n’roll’’. New York: Pantheon. Pp. 39-57.
  25. ^ Manuel, Peter. 1988. ‘’Popular Musics of the Non-Western World’’. New York: Oxford UP.
  26. ^ Nettl, Bruno. 2005. The Study of Ethnomusicology: Thirty-One Issues and Concepts.Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press. Chapter 30: "A New Era"
  27. ^ Shepherd, John. 2003. “Music and Social Categories.” In The Cultural Study of Music, ed. M. Clayton, T. Herbert and R. Middleton, 239-248. New York and London: Routledge.
  28. ^ Nettl, Bruno. 1975. “The State of Research in Ethnomusicology, and Recent Developments.” Current Musicology 20: 67-78.
  29. ^ Schreffler, Gibb. 2012. “Migration Shaping Media: Punjabi Popular Music in a Global Historical Perspective.” Popular Music and Society 35(3): 333-358.
  30. ^ Turino, Thomas. 2008. Music as Social Life: The Politics of Participation. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press. Pp. 93-121.
  31. ^ E.g., from anthropology Turnbull, Colin (1961),  
  32. ^ Hood, Mantle, The Ethnomusicologist (Kent, Ohio: Kent State Univ. Press, 1971), pg 25.
  33. ^ Malm, William P. (1959), Japanese Music and Musical Instruments (1st ed.), Tokyo & Rutland, Vt.: C. E. Tuttle Co. 
  34. ^ a b Kolinski, Mieczyslaw. 1957. “Ethnomusicology, Its Problems and Methods.” Ethnomusicology 1(10): 1-7.
  35. ^ Herndon, Marcia. 1974. “Analysis: The Herding of Sacred Cows?” ‘’Ethnomusicology’’ 18(2): 219-262 Pp 221-222
  36. ^ Nettl, Bruno. The Study of Ethnomusicology: Thirty-one Issues and Concepts. Chapter 6. Urbana: University of Illinois, 2005.
  37. ^ Stock, Jonathan. 2007. “Alexander J. Ellis and His Place in the History of Ethnomusicology.” Ethnomusicology 51(2): 306-25.
  38. ^ Feld, Steven. 1984 “Sound Structure as Social structure.” Ethnomusicology 28(3): 383-409.
  39. ^ Cooley, Timothy J. and Gregory Barz. 2008 [1997]. “Casting Shadows in the Field: An Introduction.” In Shadows in the Field: New Perspectives for Fieldwork in Ethnomusicology, 2nd ed., 5-10. New York: Oxford UP.
  40. ^ a b c d Myers, Helen. 1992. “Ethnomusicology.” In Ethnomusicology: An Introduction, ed. Helen Myers, 3-6. New York: Norton.
  41. ^ Cooley, Timothy J. and Gregory Barz. 2008 [1997]. “Casting Shadows in the Field: An Introduction.” In Shadows in the Field: New Perspectives for Fieldwork in Ethnomusicology, 2nd ed., 5-10. New York: Oxford UP.
  42. ^ McAllester, David P. 1954. Enemy Way Music: A Study of Social and Esthetic Values as Seen in Navaho Music. Cambridge, MA: Peabody Museum of American Archaeology and Ethnology, Harvard University vol. XLI, no. 3.
  43. ^ "ReferenceB"
  44. ^ Lysoff, Renê T. A. 1997. “Mozart in Mirrorshades: Ethnomusicology, Technology, and the Politics of Representation.” Ethnomusicology 41(2): 206-219.
  45. ^ "ReferenceB
  46. ^ Cooley, Timothy J. and Gregory Barz. 2008 [1997]. “Casting Shadows in the Field: An Introduction.” In Shadows in the Field: New Perspectives for Fieldwork in Ethnomusicology, 2nd ed., 3-24. New York: Oxford UP.
  47. ^ Slobin, Mark. 1993. “Ethical Issues.” In Ethnomusicology: An Introduction, ed. H. Meyers, 329-336. New York: Norton
  48. ^ a b Seeger, Anthony (1992). "Ethnomusicology and Music Law". Ethnomusicology 36 (3). pp. 345–360. 
  49. ^ a b c Nettl, Bruno. The Study of Ethnomusicology: Thirty-one Issues and Concepts. Chapter 4. Urbana: University of Illinois, 2005. Print.
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  88. ^ Manuel, Peter. 1988. “Perspectives on the Study of Non-Western Popular Musics.” In ‘’Popular Music of the Non-Western World’’, 1-23. New York: Oxford UP.
  89. ^ Scherzinger, Martin. 1999. “Music, Spirit Possession, and the Copyright Law: Cross-Cultural Comparisons and Strategic Speculations.” Yearbook for Traditional Music 31: 102-25.
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  114. ^ Fales, Cornelia. 2002. “The Paradox of Timbre.” Ethnomusicology 46(1): 56-95.
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  117. ^ Magill, J. M., & Pressing, J. L. (1997). Asymmetric cognitive clock structures in West African rhythm. Music Perception, 15, 189– 222.
  118. ^ Repp, B.H. 1996. "The art of inaccuracy: Why pianists’ errors are difficult to hear." Music Perception, 14, 161-184.
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  121. ^ SEM: Guide to Programs


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

See also

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.[121]

Academic programs

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.[118] Currently there are several theories to explain the evolution of music – that it piggy-backed on the ability to produce language, evolved to enable and promote social interaction,[119] evolved to increase efficiency of vocal communication over long distances, or enabled communication with the supernatural.[120]

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.[115] 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)[116] 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.[117]

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.[108][109] Debate still occurs over whether Western chords are naturally consonant or dissonant, or whether that ascription is learned.[110][111] Relation of pitch to frequency is a universal phenomenon, but scale construction is culturally specific.[112] Training in a cultural scale results in melodic and harmonic expectations.[113] Expectations of timbre are also learned based on past correlations.[114]

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.[106] 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.[107]

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.[105]

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.


Through technological advances of the late twentieth century, recordings of music from around the world began to enter the Euro-American music industry. The term “world music” began in the 1990s as a marketing term to classify and sell records from other parts of the world under a unified label, and world music was introduced as a category in the Grammys shortly thereafter.[100] The term “world beat” was also employed in the 90s to refer specifically to pop music, but it has fallen out of use.[101] 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.[102] 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.[103] 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.[104]


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.[98] The national style may include those used for traditional or political purposes. 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.[99](see Globalization)


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.”[96] 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.[97]

[95] 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.[94] 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.[93] Just as music reinforces categories of self-identification, identity can shape musical innovation. George Lipsitz’s 1986 case study of

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.[90] 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.[91]


Martin Scherzinger offers a differing opinion on copyright, and argues that the law is not inherently ethnocentric.[89] 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.

Anthony Seeger explains that “not all rights and obligations [with regards to music] are laws.”[48] 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.

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.


In the first chapter of his book Popular Music of the Non-Western World,[88] 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.

Mass Media

Ethnomusicology historically involved gender-biased research, since men dominated fieldwork and institutional leadership and tended to prioritize the experiences of men in the cultures they studied. This issue may have arisen partly because of social dynamics: in societies where men dominate public life and women are mostly confined to the private sphere, ethnomusicologists may have had trouble encountering female informants or gaining access to women’s spaces.[84] Women contributed extensively to fieldwork from the 1950s onward, but women’s and gender studies in ethnomusicology took off in the 1970s.[85] 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.[85] Since the 1990s, ethnomusicologists have begun to consider the role of the fieldworker’s identity, including gender and sexuality, in how they interpret other cultures. Susan McClary’s watershed book Feminine Endings (1991) shows “relationships between musical structure and socio-cultural values” and has influenced ethnomusicologists, although it is not an ethnomusicological book.[86] 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.[87]


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.[83] 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.[51]

  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.

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

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.[82]

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.

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.[81]


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.[80] 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.[80]

Modern ethnomusicologists, for the most part, consider the field to apply to western music as well as non-western.[78] 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.[79]

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.[77] 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.

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.[76]

Ethnomusicology and Western Music

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.[75]

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.”[73] 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.”[74] 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.[74]

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.[71] 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?[72] One must be aware of the personal bias they may impose on the study of their own culture.

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,[70] 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.

In The Study of Ethnomusicology: Thirty-One Issues and Concepts, Nettl presents the discussion of personal and global issues pertaining to field researchers in communities that are studied, particularly issues faced by Western researchers by citing Mantle Hood, “The American of French or British ethnomusicologists because of who he is—that is to say, what he has succeeded in becoming through years of training—is capable of insights and evaluations…”[65] Since ethnomusicology is a field that includes and participates in a vast array of other fields, it focuses on studying people, and it is appropriate to encounter the issue of “making the unfamiliar, familiar” a phrase well known in social psychology coined by William McDougall.[66] Like in social psychology, the “unfamiliar” is encountered in three different ways: (1) two different cultures come into contact and elements of both will not be immediately explicable to the other; (2) experts within a society produce new knowledge, which is then communicated to the public; and (3) active minorities communicate their perspective to the majority.[67] Nettl also talks about the differences in perspective of each individual and how that affects the final understanding of the research. There is a thin like between making the unfamiliar, familiar, and as an outsider, a researcher might try immersing into the culture that is being studied to gain full understanding. This however, can, depending on level of immersion, begin to blind sight the researcher and take away the ability to be objective in what is being studied. The background knowledge of each individual influences the focus of the study because of the comfort level with the material. Nettl points out the flaws in Western thinking in analyzing different societies and presents the idea of collaborating with a greater focus on acknowledging the contribution of the native experts. He believes that every concept is studied through a personal perspective, but “a comparison of viewpoints may give the broadest possible insight.”[68] The position of ethnomusicologists, as outsiders looking in on a music culture, has often been discussed using Said's formulation of Orientalism, in the suggestion that the idea of music promoted by the field may be in many ways a Western construction based on an imagined or romanticized view of "the Other" situated within a colonial mindset.[69]

Insider/Outsider Epistemologies

Since ethnomusicology evolved from comparative musicology, ethnomusicologists have been using comparisons in their research. The problems that arose from using these comparisons stem from the fact that there are different kinds of comparative studies with a varying degree of understanding between them.[61] Ethnomusicologists who desired to find comparisons between music and culture have used Alan Lomax’s idea of cantometrics.[62] 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.[63] Another approach introduced by Steven Feld is for ethnomusicologist who are interested with creating ethnographically detailed analysis of people’s lives; this comparative study deals with making pairwise comparisons about competence, form, performance, environment, theory, and value/equality.[64]


Citing the non-scientific nature of music, Jean-Jacques Nattiez suggested that linguistic models and methods might prove to be more effective than the scientific method. The improvements of ethnomusicology, based on the linguistic methods, include the capability to rely in itself as a discipline, rather than continuously borrow resources from other sciences. The analysis complexity refined with the inclusion of structural dimensions, like diachronic and synchronic perspectives for music, and differentiations between the individual and the shared experiences.[58] While the idea of musical semiotics was common in the 1970s, it never gained great popularity, and only a few modern ethnomusicologists employ linguistic methods, with critics claiming that music only bears significant similarity to language in a limited number of cultures.[59]

In this vein, Judith Becker and Alton L. Becker theorized the existence of musical "grammars" in their studies of the theory of Javanese gamelan music. They proposed that music could be studied as a symbol, but also bore many resemblances to language, and therefore semiotic study could take place.[60]

Anthropology and musicology both interest themselves in the study of symbolism in culture; however, they differ in that anthropologists are interested in how culture as a whole can be described as a system of symbols, while musicologists seek more specific uses of symbolism in particular repertories. Some musical languages are more susceptible to linguistically-focused analysis than others. Among the former is Indian music, which is more similar to language than other traditions, and thus offers a better opportunity for linguistic musical analysis.[59]

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.[40][58] This new approach, widely influenced by the works of linguist Ferdinand de Saussure and anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss, focused on finding the underlying symbolic structure behind the cultures and their music.[59]

Language Models and Linguistics

Many musical traditions' tuning's notes align with their dominant instrument's timbre's partials[56] 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.[57]

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.[55]


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