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.


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