What Is Ethnomusicology? - Definition & History

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  • 0:02 Ethnomusicology Defined
  • 1:30 History of Ethnomusicology
  • 3:58 Ethnomusicology Today
  • 6:00 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Alisha Nypaver

Alisha is a college music educator specializing in historic and world music studies.

Ethnomusicology? What in the world does that mean? Learn how the study of world music changed and developed over time and what an ethnomusicologist does. Then test your knowledge with a quiz.

Ethnomusicology Defined

Ethnomusicology is the study of music in relation to the society and culture in which it was created. In addition to analyzing the elements and structure of music from around the world, it also examines the cultural significance of music composition and performance in the context of a community.

Take a minute to think about how often you experience music in your daily life. If you're like many people, you hear music quite often from a variety of sources, including stereos, television, movies, mp4 players, car radios, and store loudspeakers. But have you ever stopped to think about the importance of music in your life and the general types of music preferred by your community? If you have, you're thinking like an ethnomusicologist.

Ethnomusicologists are curious about how and why people make music. The music that endures over hundreds or even thousands of years can reveal a lot about the shared values of the societies that created and preserved it. However, with the increasing modernization and Westernization of the world, ethnomusicologists have also become collectors, working to preserve musical customs that are in danger of becoming extinct as Western-influenced popular music becomes increasingly dominant all over the world.

History of Ethnomusicology

Ethnomusicology grew out of a trend called comparative musicology that gained momentum in the early 1900s. As the name suggests, comparative musicology analyzes musical traditions by comparing and contrasting elements such as musical scales, rhythms, form, and instruments.

However, by the 1950s, the flaws in comparative musicology had become very apparent. Comparisons of related things often lead to an unintentional hierarchy because of our natural tendency to judge and rank things in relation to the familiar. For example, Japanese solo flute music may seem thin and relatively simple when compared to a Beethoven symphony played by a full orchestra. But is such a comparison even fair? If so, how useful is it?

To help put this in perspective, imagine that you're asked to compare sushi to pancakes. Sushi and pancakes are both a kind of food, made with measured recipes, and you may enjoy both sushi and pancakes, but your preference for either may depend heavily on what we might call context. You may opt for hot, syrupy blueberry pancakes on a cold Saturday morning, but prefer sushi for a light summer dinner. How can you definitively say which is better overall? Pancakes are sweet compared to sushi, but sushi may be more savory. Comparing two related but very different things in this way is not very useful or relevant, especially when taken out of context.

In comparative musicology, context was often overlooked. Most comparative musicology was armchair research, which means that the musicologists would gather, or sometimes only receive from others, recordings from a foreign locale, then bring them back for analysis in their home country. However, social scientists began to realize that a better way to study music was not to simply compare it to the familiar or in a familiar environment, but to look at it as part of the community in which it was created. Musicologists began to think of music as it was perceived by the people who created, performed, and enjoyed it. This change in perspective shaped modern ethnomusicology.

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