Ethnomusicology’s depth and world music’s breadth

I wrote this for my Ethnomusicology class assignment. Well I admit it can be quite dry so read it only if you always wanted to know the difference between studying Ethnomusicology and world music.

The study of ethnomusicology has been commonly misconstrued as the study of World Music when in actual fact, ethnomusicologists inspect cultures, performance practices and the anthropological aspect of the music, much more than those who merely study World Music.

Ethnomusicology has come a long way with about a hundred and twenty years since its conception. First it was known as Musikologie in 1880, then “comparative musicology” through about 1950, evolving to “ethno-musicology” until 1956 where its current name, “ethnomusicology” was decided upon by those in the field. The hyphen in “ethno-musicology” was removed to signify a greater independence from musicology.

This essay will aim to highlight the more significant aspects in which the study of World Music is lacking in, in comparison to ethnomusicology, which are mainly ethnomusicology’s strong emphasis of study of music in culture, the study of the world’s musics from a comparative and relativistic perspective, and lastly, a study with the use of fieldwork.

According to Henry Stobart, the term “world music” was conceived in the 1980s and besides it being used as an ‘inclusive and appealing marketing term,’ was also introduced in university courses as a ‘means to present the various musics of the world on an equal footing.’ The term ‘musics’ was used instead of the singular, ‘music’, as people began to discuss ‘musics’ in the plural, as it was thought that there was no one universal musical language that everyone could identify with. As people became acquaint with the new knowledge of the presence of diverse musical languages and sounds, universities started to introduce briefly to students the multiplicity of the world’s music and ‘help students appreciate its relationships to their own lives and experience.’ Such an investigation into the world’s musics is definitely within the scope of the study of ethnomusicology. However, ethnomusicologists distinguish themselves by maintaining ‘an interculturally comparative perspective’ while exploring the musics of different societies. They place the music of each culture in relation to the ‘world of music’, which has certain similarities and differences, and ‘believe that insight can be gained from comparison’. This is usually done after studying the music ‘in its own terms,’ and ‘learning to see it as its society understands it.’ It is important to note the difference in how the student studying world music seeks to relate such knowledge of different musics to his or her own life, but the ethnomusicologist instead investigates the function, conception and possibly the evolution of the music of each culture in relation to the local society, giving a lesser role to what is gained personally.

Bruno Nettl put it explicitly in ‘The Study of Ethnomusicology’ that ethnomusicologists are extremely keen in music’s intrinsic value in a culture. Despite the disparity of views between the 1950s and 1970s in which ethnomusicologists were divided over the focus of study between concentrating on “the music itself” and the “cultural context”, the two groups ‘tended to merge’ eventually, after 1980. With the merger since the 1980s still in effect today, ethnomusicologists aim to balance the study of the anthropology behind the music and to make intelligent analyses of the music. Although people who study world music also ‘place the music into broader social, political, economic and environmental contexts,’ they neglect the ethnomusicologist’s emphasis on the way a society defines its music, how that society classifies and what it defines to be music, the function of music in the society and also how music will be changed because of the influence from other musics. Ethnomusicologists go further than those studying world music in highlighting the understanding of the process of musical change, which is inevitable in every type of music, exemplifying even further how they marry anthropology with music analysis. Factors that could cause a change in the music could be the advancement or introduction of technology, globalisation or change in musical tastes of the people. Ethnomusicologists therefore inspect what the musical changes reflect of the society under study and perhaps extrapolate it to the evolution the society is undergoing whether political, social or economic. They also measure the rate of change and tackle with the perceived notions of change, questioning whether change is necessary, beneficial or detrimental to the particular society under study. On the contrary, students of world music aim to understand the circumstances that led to the present state of music in a particular society, but tend to neglect how the music has evolved and hence do not compare musics of the past and present of a society.

As mentioned earlier, world music has been and is still being taught in university classrooms to curious students who intend to know more about the world’s musics. The aim of studying world music in universities is merely to ‘challenge dominant modes of hearing’ and ‘consider how musics of other cultures have been viewed, presented, and studied’ and the implications of how the students as outsiders (those not part of the culture) listen and view such musics. Ethnomusicologists however are not content with just doing “armchair research” practised in the 1900s, which involved reading and learning about other cultures without first-hand experience of the music in the culture of study. Thus a common view amongst ethnomusicologists today is to choose a specialisation in a society, for example the Bolivian people of the Highland Andes, and carry out fieldwork in the chosen culture. Fieldwork is perceived as the ethnomusicologist’s ‘bridge to the cultural “other”’ and certain ethnomusicologists like Kathleen J. van Buren who have carried out their fieldwork realise that the ethnomusicologist’s role in another culture is more than just learning about the music, having ‘direct confrontation with musical creation and performance’, and learning of how the music was conceived. Instead, it includes solving problems for the community, understanding how certain problems can be intertwined with music as an expression of pain and suffering, or a unique language which people can identify with and feel a sense of belonging to the community. As in van Buren’s article on the use of music in HIV campaigns, it is nearly impossible to find out more about a culture’s music and its role in society without first understanding how the people, which is most beneficial when understood first-hand, view music.

Ethnomusicology has come a long way with the numerous developments in its partnership with anthropology and musicology, and its relatively new emphasis on the importance of fieldwork. World music may dabble with the world’s musics in breadth, but it is the ethnomusicologists who strive to immerse themselves into a culture, usually not of their own, to present to others the depths and complexity in a culture’s music.

Sparse

I

Choose

Meaningless

Nights

Feel

Your

Desires

Wasted

Overwhelmed

Words

Cannot

Express

And

Wisely

Satisfy

The

Tired

Always

My

Failure

Right

In

Soul

This

Now

Poetry

Forever

Is

Ella

2.35am

It is 2.35am on a peaceful morning when I am writing this post.

And it has been a long time since I posted.

And an even longer time since I feel a sense of optimism and hope for the future.

On the bus ride home, I suddenly thought of my life in phases. And in all of these phases, I saw myself struggling to stay afloat, trying to make sense of who I am and what I am going to be.

And today, I see the start of a new phase in my life. It wouldn’t be a completely new me starting on a new journey, as I always thought that the start of these phases should be. Instead, I see someone more mature, more peaceable and more willing to learn, taking on a new stride in this world that I have yet to figure out fully.

For the first time in many, many months, I find myself having a new hope and optimism, away from the thoughts of futility that left me lost and cynical. It is indeed a final end to the phase of transition I had been going through since I left Junior College last year. For a large part, I felt lost without hope, yet clinging on to the ideals of love that I couldn’t quite reconcile.

Thus, this transition phase has ended, but it also heralds a new beginning that will certainly bring about love, joy and laughter in the midst of the different trials and sufferings that I have to go through. The past will also come back and present itself, but there is enough will and strength to overcome them, so that I can be the bigger person that my loved ones need me to be.

Aoede

I Battle

Inadequate inadequate

The battle cry I ring

Help me lift this heavy sword

The words resounding

Inferior inferior

The battle ground feels hard

Help me lift this plastic shield

My scars from its shard

Failure failure

The battle gear is fallen

Help me lift this boring armour

My hand is all too swollen

I battle with my inner fears

I battle with the world

I battle with the enemy

Whatever it may hurl

My vision is blur

I cannot really see

Who I struck with my sword

Is it my enemy?

Until I realise

I struck my Lord

I battle with my insecurity

This plastic shield has cut me

I battle with my failing

This feather armour shall fail me

Around I see red and scream

Terrified to feel the pain

Then I realised wounds of mine

Were never mine again

Beneath my feet the one I struck

And all around the blood

Alive and healed and perfect

I stand amidst the flood

The searing pain that lingers on

The sorrow that drowns my heart

The fear that shakes me constantly

As I pick from my skin each dart

I could cry till I am blind

And fall to my shattered knees

I cannot stand no more

Let me sign those treaties

Failure insecurity weakness

I embrace

Until the day I see

Your perfect glorious face

My battle cry I sing it out

This battle be not mine

But yours oh Lord

Make it thine

My battle cry tears of sadness

Lift me to see your joy

Uncover before me the evil

And the sin I should destroy

Knowing the blood that flows

May be restored to me

And breaking my heart

Helping me to see

The one I struck was not myself

Nor my enemy

But Lord it was you

Your blood has saved me

My battle is still ongoing

I have to fight till I die

And many times I feel like giving up

Help me stop living this lie

My battle cry Lord let me sing

Let it be a song

Bearing my heart and soul to you

Everything I find wrong

I stand on the victor’s ground

Battered and broken

But knowing this war continues

For you have never forsaken

ella