Music Music Sustainability
Catherine Grant
  • LAST REVIEWED: 05 May 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 11 January 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199757824-0105


The sustainability of music is an emerging—or rather, reemerging—theme in ethnomusicological research. Early studies in that discipline centered on documenting musical traditions feared doomed to extinction, an approach scholars now refer to as “salvage ethnomusicology.” Spurred by the Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage (UNESCO 2003, cited under Policy Instruments) and other national and international calls-to-arms, researchers and activists are increasingly reengaging with the complex challenges of maintaining and revitalizing threatened music genres, particularly those of indigenous and minority peoples. Current approaches are more pragmatic than earlier ones. For example, they typically acknowledge the natural emergence, change, and decay of musical traditions, as well as the many local and global processes that act upon all music genres, from technological developments and environmental shifts to rural-to-urban migration and economic and political pressures. Defining music sustainability as the ability of a music genre to endure, without implications of either a static tradition or a preservationist bearing, this article maps out a selection of scholarly publications, policy instruments, projects and initiatives, reports, and online resources that relate to this topic.

General Overviews

Though much ethnomusicological research deals with issues closely related to the sustainability of musical cultures and the specific traditions that comprise them, including continuity and change (see Musical Change), revival movements (see Musical Revivals), and the intersections between music, the local, and the global (see Globalization), until recently, relatively few sources have dealt in general terms directly with the topic of music sustainability. Drawing on frameworks from language maintenance, Grant 2014 presents a framework for gauging the vitality and viability of music genres. Another theoretical framework, this one for understanding the dynamics of music within wider “ecosystems,” is provided in Schippers and Grant 2016. Titon 2009 offers an earlier perspective on the issues, presenting a variety of scholarly viewpoints in a themed edition of the journal World of Music. In Fenn and Titon 2003, Titon presents his beliefs regarding the place of applied ethnomusicological work in solving “practical problems in the world outside the academy” (p. 130), including initiatives (such as archival repatriation projects) that potentially impact on the viability of music genres. In the spirit of applied ethnomusicology, Lomax 1977 represents an early call for action against the adverse effects of globalization on cultural diversity. Two further general texts relating to music endangerment and preservation point to the interdisciplinary nature of music sustainability research (see Interdisciplinary Perspectives): Stubington 1987 employs an ecological framework to distinguish between preserving musical traditions and maintaining or revitalizing them in living form, and Marett 2010 refers to the field of language maintenance to argue for the need for urgent intervention in the endangerment and loss of music genres.

  • Fenn, John, and Jeff Todd Titon. “A Conversation with Jeff Todd Titon.” Folklore Forum 34.1–2 (2003): 119–131.

    An email interview with Jeff Todd Titon centering on Titon’s long-term involvement with applied ethnomusicology. The piece explores Titon’s perspectives on the scope, methods, future directions, and ethical considerations inherent in applied work, including appropriate ethnomusicological approaches to change in music cultures.

  • Grant, Catherine. Music Endangerment: How Language Maintenance Can Help. New York: Oxford University Press, 2014.

    DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199352173.001.0001

    Drawing on experience from language endangerment studies, Grant identifies ways in which the field of language maintenance might illuminate new pathways to keeping endangered music genres strong. The book presents a replicable tool for gauging the level of vitality and viability of music genres across the world.

  • Lomax, Alan. “An Appeal for Cultural Equity.” Journal of Communication 27.2 (1977): 125–138.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1460-2466.1977.tb01838.x

    Warning of the threat of mass “cultural grey-out” resulting from globalization, Lomax argues vehemently for a global policy of cultural equity in order to counter a rapid loss of diversity and distinctiveness of cultural expressions across the world.

  • Marett, Allan. “Vanishing Songs: How Musical Extinctions Threaten the Planet; The Laurence Picken Memorial Lecture 2010.” Ethnomusicology Forum 19.2 (2010): 249–262.

    DOI: 10.1080/17411912.2010.508238

    Drawing variously on research from the field of language endangerment, from that of the British musicologist Picken, and from the author’s own experience as a performer in an Australian Aboriginal ceremonial tradition, Marett argues that the repercussions of “vanished” music genres extends far beyond the communities in which the losses occur.

  • Schippers, Huib, and Catherine Grant, eds. Sustainable Futures for Music Cultures: An Ecological Perspective. New York: Oxford University Press, 2016.

    Confirming some commonly held beliefs about music sustainability and challenging others, this book examines the social and cultural dynamics of musical practices, and their implications for sustainability. It includes nine case-study chapters of music traditions from Western opera to Ghanian drumming, as well as a framework for understanding and assessing music sustainability across diverse contexts.

  • Stubington, Jill. “Preservation and Conservation of Australian Traditional Musics: An Environmental Analogy.” Musicology Australia 10.1 (1987): 2–10.

    DOI: 10.1080/08145857.1987.10415175

    Drawing on discourse from environmental sustainability, Stubington distinguishes between preservation (essentially documentation) and conservation (maintenance or revitalization) of music genres, with examples from the Australian context.

  • Titon, Jeff Todd, ed. Special Issue: Music and Sustainability. World of Music 51.1 (2009).

    This issue of the journal World of Music explores issues relating to cultural and musical viability. The relevance of ecological models is a salient theme, including the suggestion that theory and practice relating to music sustainability should take into account the interdependence of the wider “ecosystem” in which music is situated.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.