In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Ethnomusicology

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • World Music Textbooks
  • Journals
  • Music and Its Social Significance

Anthropology Ethnomusicology
Louise Meintjes, Ana María Ochoa, Thomas Porcello, David W. Samuels
  • LAST REVIEWED: 23 April 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 May 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766567-0046


Questions concerning the social significance of music have a long history within the interdisciplinary field of ethnomusicology. The emergence of comparative musicology in Europe in the early 20th century, and of ethnomusicology subsequently in North America, generated topical distinctions between Western classical music and the music of “others,” with attendant distinctions between epistemological approaches to the object of study. Such an epistemic distinction articulated a central paradox of the field: through a history and politics of global expansion, musical difference was recognized and explicated; yet that same expansion sought to transform or eradicate the subjects of difference through domination. Throughout its history the field has sought to understand the materiality of distinctive musical and sonic practices while simultaneously exploring the ways in which those practices articulate the social in the midst of the inequalities of the global order. If in Europe and North America the distinction between “the West and the rest” was institutionalized as a distinction between musicology and ethnomusicology, in other parts of the world this divide proved more difficult to institutionalize. First, in many such places, a desire to understand local musics was consolidated through the cultural politics of nationalism. Second, the disciplinary formation of studies of traditional and popular musics was embedded in the developments of other disciplines and practices such as literature, folkloristics, composition, performance, or anthropology. Consequently, in many countries that were former colonies, the term “musicology” has been used as a unitary term for the study of local musics, no matter the place of origin or local hierarchies distinguishing the value of those musics, such as is found in the divide between “classical,” “folk,” and “popular” in the United States. The problematics of this culturally and historically specific network of value distinctions is evident in the recent institutionalization of the term ethnomusicology internationally, which results from the rising dominance of the American academy. Now including the study of any music, ethnomusicology is less topically defined than it has been historically. Rather, it is characterized by its approach to music as a social phenomenon, investigated primarily through the interpretive science and art of ethnography. Ethnomusicologists render their work in writing, recording, and performing and invest their curatorial interests in sound archiving. The field’s pedagogical and media intersections are managed through the idea of “world music.” Contemporary researchers take up the challenge of theorizing three social themes and the various relationships among them: the embodied practices of music making, the politics of music circulation, and the culturally inflected acoustic dimensions of sound. In addition to these social theoretical concerns, ethnomusicology’s interest in celebrating and documenting the diverse world of musical expression endures. Studying aesthetic values and musical experience for themselves as well as for their social scientific potential are therefore dual goals of researchers in the field.

General Overviews

General overviews of ethnomusicology take a stand on the disciplinary relationship of the field to musicology and anthropology. Those that recount genealogies, such as Myers 1992 and Pegg, et al. 2007–2012, chart an intellectual history rooted in 19th-century European folkloristics, ethnology, linguistics, and sound archives, with a blossoming of the discipline after World War II in the North American academy, where music departments became the primary institutional home for ethnomusicology. Overviews sparsely recognize related intellectual traditions that developed in other parts of the world—if they note them at all. Fox 2008 traces the social scientific intellectual history of the field. Overviews that take account of the state of the field and its disciplinary positioning identify key issues of concern to ethnomusicologists at particular historical junctures. When first published, in 1983, Nettl 2005 marked the field as established in the music academy, if still secondary to its sister subfields of musicology, music theory, and composition, which concentrate their interests on Euro-American classical music history and practice. Principally addressing music scholars, the book describes the capacity of music to express identity and generate community as a core interest of the field. Myers 1992 discusses methodological, analytic, and historiographic questions that flow from Nettl’s general perspective. Two decades after Nettl’s work was first published, his culturalist definition of ethnomusicology was criticized in Pegg, et al. 2007–2012, which identifies newer preoccupations with aspects of place, difference, and globalization, singling practice theory out as a predominant approach. Here intersections with evolving social science perspectives are evident (if lagging somewhat behind), such as a more disaggregated and contingent description of social life and a more ambiguous role for the arts in relation to politics, capital and the media. At the same time, Pegg, et al. 2007–2012 also notes a burgeoning interest in music theoretical aspects of music from around the world, including a sustained and growing conversation among some ethnomusicologists, music theorists, and composers. Addressing music scholars in all subfields (in particular musicology and ethnomusicology), Clayton, et al. 2003 adds issues to those listed in Pegg, et al. 2007–2012, though much in the same vein, and the authors examine the idea of culture as addressed in music scholarship. In the wake of “new” musicology and in the context of a new critical mass of popular music scholarship, Stobart 2008 debates the ideological distinctions between contemporary musicology, ethnomusicology, and anthropology of music, addressing the mutual influence of these fields as well as some shared intellectual questions and presumptions.

  • Clayton, Martin, Trevor Herbert, and Richard Middleton, eds. 2003. The cultural study of music: A critical introduction. New York: Routledge.

    Music scholars from various subfields contribute chapters outlining the relationship of music to the social from various vantage points (e.g., biocultural evolution or psychology), discussing disciplinary stakes and contributions (e.g., from history or anthropology), or addressing debates about the study of particular social aspects of music making (e.g., mediation or globalization).

  • Fox, Aaron A. 2008. Music. In International encyclopedia of the social sciences. 2d ed. Vol. 5. Edited by William A. Darity Jr. Detroit: Macmillan.

    Succinctly charts the intellectual history of “ethnographic musical anthropology.”

  • Myers, Helen, ed. 1992. Ethnomusicology: An introduction. Norton/Grove Handbooks in Music. New York: W. W. Norton.

    A handbook of ethnomusicological method that includes a discussion of ethics. While some chapters are dated (e.g., on field technology), others—such as those addressing transcription, notation, the analysis of musical styles, and ethnography—are iconic of their time yet remain pertinent for the issues they raise and materials they present.

  • Nettl, Bruno. 2005. The study of ethnomusicology: Thirty-one issues and concepts. Urbana: Univ. of Illinois Press.

    Synthetic rather than polemic, a historically informed voice from the center of the field of ethnomusicology identifies key issues in the research and analysis of music. These include the concept of music and the general and particular with regard to musical styles, values, and transformation. Nettl delineates ways in which music presents itself as a shared but culturally specific phenomenon. He also discusses aspects of methodology and fieldwork. Originally published in 1983.

  • Pegg, Carole, Helen Myers, Philip V. Bohlman, and Martin Stokes. “Ethnomusicology.” In Grove Music Online. Edited by Deane Root. 2007–2012.

    Lays out ten theoretical issues of contemporary concern and situates them in the context of broader interdisciplinary trends. Also chronicles a history of the discipline. Available by subscription.

  • Stobart, Henry, ed. 2008. The new (ethno)musicologies. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow.

    An animated and generously toned debate among music scholars, mostly ethnomusicologists, positioned variously in the academy, though predominantly in music departments. Authors consider the identity of ethnomusicology, whether historically, theoretically, methodologically, or in relation to other musical disciplines. Concludes by posing questions about future directions.

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