What is Ethnomusicology?

Occupy Wall Street protest, Fall 2011 (photo by Farzaneh Hemmasi)

Ethnomusicology aims at understanding not only what music is but why it is, what it means, and how it reflects, references, and inflects our human condition as people and as social beings. It is, in short, the study of music as aesthetic practice and social power.

Ethnomusicologists come from, draw upon and contribute to a variety of disciplines: music, cultural anthropology, folklore, performance studies, dance, cultural studies, gender studies, race or ethnic studies, area studies, sound studies, and many other fields in the humanities and social sciences. Fundamental to our discipline are the following:

1) A global approach to music, regardless of area of origin, style, or genre;

2) An understanding of music as social practice: viewing music as a human activity that is differently shaped by social and cultural environments;

3) An engagement in ethnographic and historical research: ethnographic fieldwork and/or historical inquiry that includes participating in and observing the music being studied, frequently gaining facility in another music tradition as a performer or theorist, and pursuing other sorts of deep-cultural understanding through music.

Ethnomusicologists are active in a variety of spheres. As researchers, we study music from all parts of the world — ranging from the most rarefied and theorized musical forms to the seemingly mundane sounds of “everyday” — and we seek to explain how music and sound articulate human thought and action. As educators, we teach a wide variety of courses not only on the world’s musical traditions but also on a broad range of themes whose sociocultural implications may intersect with many musics and societies. We also play a role in public culture: partnering with the music communities we study, we often promote and document music traditions or participate in projects that involve cultural policy, conflict resolution, medicine, arts programming, or community music. We also work with museums, cultural festivals, recording labels, and other institutions that promote the appreciation of the world’s musics.

Doronko Matsuri (Mud Festival), Shirokawa, Japan, July 2017 (photo by Josh Pilzer)
Marjinal, Jakarta, Indonesia, May 2018 (photo by Dennis Lee)