Ethnomusicology, the study of music in its social and cultural context.


Ethnomusicology is commonly thought of as the study of music outside the Western classical tradition (a repertoire that could be defined by the popular term “world music”), but in fact it goes beyond the study of music as patterns of sound and is based on the fundamental tenet that music is a social phenomenon, and must be studied in the context in which it is created, performed, and assimilated. This means that no music lies outside its scope, and an ethnomusicological investigation of Western classical music is not only possible but desirable. Nevertheless, studies have tended to concentrate on folk music and other traditional music of the world, as well as the major classical styles of Asian civilizations (especially those of China and India), and most ethnomusicologists study cultures other than their own. The correct understanding of the aims and methods of ethnomusicology helps to answer the vexed questions of whether a non-Westerner studying Bach or Mozart would also be an ethnomusicologist, and whether ethnomusicology, as a Western invention, is simply a disguise for the continued dominance of Western concepts and values. It is clear that the study of musical techniques does not in itself constitute an ethnomusicological approach, and ethnomusicology seeks, by its very nature, to dispense with any kind of value judgement, other than those accepted by the society under investigation. The questions in ethnomusicologists’ minds, beyond those concerning the sound and structure of the music itself, are its social function, how it is perceived and evaluated within its own society, who produces it, how such members of the society are chosen and trained, for whom they perform, and for what purpose.

This approach makes ethnomusicology a branch of social anthropology. At the same time, the term itself, coined in 1950 by Jaap Kunst, and the one it replaced—Guido Adler’s “comparative musicology” (1885)—share the word “musicology“, and this has given weight to the more popular approach which concentrates on study of the workings of the music itself, often through direct participation in the learning and performance processes. The prefix “ethno” remains problematic, to some on a par with the discarded adjective “primitive”, and the balance of the anthropological and musicological demands continues to be a major concern.

The origins of ethnomusicology go back at least to the late 18th century. The Dictionnaire de Musique (1768) of Jean-Jacques Rousseau included examples from America and China, and others among his French and British contemporaries investigated Arab, Chinese, and Indian music. Much of the early research, nicknamed armchair ethnomusicology, was based on materials brought back by others. Some of the earliest pioneers were not primarily musicians, among them the British mathematician Alexander J. Ellis (1814-1890), known as the father of ethnomusicology. His seminal paper “On the Musical Scales of Various Nations” (1885) not only studied music from around the world with scientific rigour, but, of even more significance, challenged notions of natural tonal and harmonic laws, which initiated the process of sweeping away Western imperialist assumptions of cultural superiority.

Of no less importance was the invention of the phonograph by Thomas Edison in 1877, because it introduced a means of recording music which could be taken home for analysis (by others), and then became indispensable when collector and analyst were the same people, and systematic fieldwork became the norm. Béla Bartók, not only one of the 20th century’s greatest composers but also one of its leading folk-song collectors and researchers, was one of the main beneficiaries of Edison’s invention.


Since fieldwork relies on informants, they must be accorded due respect and remunerated. The responsibility continues when the researcher returns home and seeks to use the information, be it in teaching, publication, performing, or marketing as recordings. Successful fieldwork also relies on modern technology. The photograph has been replaced by the tape recorder, while the smaller cassette or DAT recorder, as well as the still and video camera and computer, are also essential aids. Fieldwork data commonly take the form of recordings, films and photographs, diaries and other jottings, publications from the country visited, and musical instruments. Treatises written within the culture studied, for example, the Sanskrit shastras of India, are an important resource, especially in historical ethnomusicology, and the study and classification of instruments, known as organology, must also be addressed. Since work on data is the first task of returning home, methods of transcription and analysis have been a central concern. The purposes of writing down the music are to facilitate analysis and publication and to assist documentation and preservation. One reason why many ethnomusicologists embark on their work is in order to save musical traditions from extinction or, ironically, Western influence. At the same time, changes in musical practice and repertoire are not only inevitable but are accepted by most ethnomusicologists as a sign of a healthy tradition. Yet different kinds of music, having different functions, will not behave in the same way, so change cannot be expected to be uniform. If a musical genre has a close relationship with a specific ceremony it is quite likely that its use will not only be restricted to that ceremony, but that care will be taken to preserve it in as unchanging a form as possible because its perceived efficacy will be affected if a change occurs. Examples could include religious chants and music used in certain healing rituals. Yet even this cannot be proposed dogmatically. Quite a striking example of change is the Balinese male interlocking sanghyang chant which was associated with trance and exorcism rituals and has become the source of the modern kecak chorus accompanying a dance drama put on for the entertainment of tourists.

Since the central premise of ethnomusicology is that a musical style is inextricably linked with the society which produced it, attempts have been made to find clear parallels between them. One of the most ambitious attempts systematically to find correlations between social types and musical ones was Alan Lomax’s Cantometrics (“measure of song”), formulated in the 1960s. The breadth of its application, the relative narrowness of its sample, and the numerous exceptions to its rules found by other scholars opened it to severe criticism, but such enquiry is by no means invalidated. Ethnomusicology has always balanced the need to examine a particular music on its own terms and in its own cultural context with a search for universals in music. On the one hand, it is known that all societies have something which could be perceived as music, making it as central to social cohesion as language or religion, yet what we would term music is often evaluated in completely different ways (for example, the song call to prayer in Islam, which is melodically rich, is not considered by Muslims to be music) and several societies do not have a term for music. On the other hand, the fact that our ears so readily accept what they hear from all over the world as music seems to prove that some universal modes of discourse are operating. Tonal and rhythmic structures, the principle of repetition, the widespread recognition of the octave, and often the fifth, as fundamental intervals, and the existence of pentatonic scales, from Scotland to China to the Andes, are some examples.


It would be a huge undertaking to assess all the major works of ethnomusicology, or even list the areas of the globe which have been researched. Some important studies are listed in the further reading list below. Instead, it will be useful to cite one or two examples to demonstrate the varying concerns and shifting emphases of the discipline. Several of the early ethnomusicologists intentionally distanced themselves from an involvement in the process of music-making, which they saw as compromising their respectability, especially if they were employed by a colonial administration. A good example is Jaap Kunst, whose monumental study De Toonkunst van Java (1934; Music in Java, 1949) remains unsurpassed, yet who did not devote himself to learning performance, as his successors have done. Nowadays, ethnomusicologists usually attempt to understand music through the practice known in anthropology as participant observation. It attempts to overcome the obstacles of meeting a music on its own terms, by simulating the processes of becoming part of the culture and society experienced from birth by the native musician—a process known as “enculturation”. It not only tries to eliminate the temptation to make misleading comparisons with the researcher’s own culture but also motivates the desire to teach non-Western music in the West itself. It would be too easy to argue that no outsider can go through the same enculturation as the native musician, and processes of comparison can never be truly eliminated. Indeed, much of the discourse and notation systems still used by ethnomusicologists are borrowed from the Western tradition. Nevertheless, the concept of bi-musicality (clearly analogous to bilinguality), propounded by Kunst’s pupil, Mantle Hood, and put into practice by him in the 1950s and 1960s in his pioneering ethnomusicology programme at the University of California, Los Angeles, has had an extraordinary degree of success, and most university departments of ethnomusicology include some element of practical tuition and performance in at least one non-Western music. The focus of Hood’s programme, and now of many others throughout the world, was the gamelan percussion ensembles of Indonesian music.


Despite its tendency to borrow from several disciplines, and to become complex and forbidding in the process, ethnomusicology has a friendly face, and its lessons and benefits, to other scholars and musicians, and to the general public, are beyond doubt. If it takes a workshop in, say, gamelan music to persuade an adult who was branded unmusical in childhood that he or she is quite musical after all, then already something significant has been achieved, not only for that person’s reappraisal of music and music-making, but also for his or her self-confidence and social skills.

One of the earliest contributors to Western knowledge of non-Western music, A. H. Fox Strangways, argued (1914) that the study of Indian music was not only a noble pursuit in itself, but would actually benefit our understanding of Western music. The old-fashioned comparative approach can still have its uses. The study of non-Western music may not only enhance our understanding of the Western tradition but place its strengths and weaknesses in a clearer perspective. Other wider benefits of ethnomusicology are the growth of practical work, often operating on an open-door policy of workshops and “taster sessions”, and the responses from composers. Several leading Western composers have been inspired by non-Western music since Debussy heard a gamelan play in Paris in 1889. Some, such as Messiaen and Britten, have borrowed actual material, while others, for example, Lou Harrison, have composed for non-Western instruments which they have learned to play. Steve Reich, one of the pioneers of minimalism, had lessons on the Ghanaian drums and Balinese gamelan in the early 1970s, and these experiences clearly helped shape his distinctive style. He also made the point that all music is ethnic, which no ethnomusicologist would dispute, and which all musicians would do well to remember.

Contributed By:
Neil Sorrell

Credited Images: aliexpress