What in the World is Ethnomusicology?

“So what were you studying when you were over in Cork?” This question used to make me panic slightly because “ethnomusicology” is not a word most people are familiar with. This meant I could give a really general (and probably inaccurate) answer, or I would have to give a lengthy explanation about what it is and why it’s valuable. So to begin with, I could say ethnomusicology is like the anthropology of music – and then sometimes I have to explain what anthropology is. Some things never end. Like any field of study, it can be hard to come up with a single all-encompassing definition for a word: what is ethnomusicology? What is music? What is performance? It took a few tries, but now I feel much more comfortable in telling people exactly what I studied, which is great because, well, I love my degree! In fact, I love it so much that I decided I would write about ethnomusicology for you all in what is hopefully a personable and relatable way without throwing around a whole lot of academic jargon — see what you think!

Ethnomusicology is primarily a field of research, and it can be anywhere from general to specific. You could take an overview course on musical communities from all over the world, or you could choose to focus on one specific area. Usually you will find that the further you go into studying ethnomusicology, the more likely you are to narrow down your focus. After all, think of how many different types of music you hear just in your daily life! Ethnomusicologists can study abroad, or they can do a “home ethnography” and study their own culture. My interest in ethnomusicology started out in a very general World Music course in undergrad, where we learned about a different culture every week. This was all very surface level, but it introduced many different types of music I didn’t even realize existed: Hindustani ragas, Balinese and Javanese Gamelan, Mongolian throat singing, etc.! I soon came to realize that I could study my primary interest, Celtic music, by using the ethnomusicological method and I was eager to find more opportunities to study the many traditions that fall under this category.

Me getting ready to go to Ireland for the first time back in 2015!

So that’s all well and good, but what exactly do I mean by “ethnomusicological method”? Well, a method is the approach you take to study your subject of choice, and for ethnomusicology, we primarily do fieldwork to gather data. This is mostly through participant-observation; so if I wanted to study Irish traditional music sessions in Cork City, I would take my fiddle along to a variety of pubs in the city that would host these sessions and join in! Of course, in order to be ethical, you should always be open about your intentions to your fellow musicians. When you introduce yourself you should say 1. that you’re a researcher, 2. ask if they would be willing to let you take photographs or video, and 3. maybe even ask if they’ll let you interview them! Some people are okay with it, but not everyone is, so it’s always always important to make your position clear!

Ethnomusicology is similar to fieldwork in other areas of cultural anthropology in that you, the researcher, have a unique perspective to share with the world! Before you start participant-observation, you will have conducted enough background research to understand what others have written about your subject. You may even have some prior experience in the music itself. Say that you wanted to research American contra dance musicians because you attended these dances in the past and loved the experience enough to dig deeper and really understand all of its elements: music, dance, community, socializing through movement, etc… This makes you an “insider” to some extent, and that position is what is known as “subjective.” It means you already have experience of some sort with your field site, even if it is the most basic knowledge. However, chances are that if you were to join a Contra Band (teehee), most of your fellow musicians are not participating for research purposes: they are performing artists engaging in their craft. You, on the other hand, have research motivations rather than performing ones (although naturally it’s not often as clear cut as this, and you will have some overlap). This makes you an “outsider” of the group, or a researcher with an “objective” perspective. As ethnomusicologists, we combine our unique position as both an insider and an outsider to try and understand different music in our world in a way that no one else can because it is all filtered through our OWN perspective!

Some of my friends and I at my favorite Cork pub, An Spailpín Fánach

Of course, nobody is perfect. What I like about ethnomusicology is that it’s structured in such a way that we can acknowledge our shortcomings while still providing credible information. Everything we write is based on our personal experience, whether it is previous readings we choose to reference, field sites we choose to visit, or the particular opinion of our interviewees on a given day. There is no one “right” answer when it comes to ethnomusicology. I am only one person, and all the information you receive from me is filtered through what I choose to share, and how I choose to share it. Naturally, any statement I make could be up for argument, and there are many other valid points out there, and this is why ethnomusicology is such a great field. There is a constant need for us to study music and culture because of its dynamic nature — it’s always changing, and there is always another detail worthy of being examined. I don’t think that there’s really an “end goal” for ethnomusicologists: we are just constantly finding new things to analyze, new points of interest to explore, and new connections to make with different aspects of life. And while we’re at it, we self reflect and figure out how we can improve ourselves as a researcher, and honestly just as a person!

Another one of my favorite things about ethnomusicology, and something that I think is such an essential part of any field of study, is the emphasis on breaking down previous assumptions and dismantling stereotypes. Remember that bit about improving ourselves? Today’s media is full of stereotypes, some of which are so subtle we don’t even realize they’re there! To give you an example, before I lived in Ireland I had no idea just how little the musicians over there associated the Irish traditional label with the Celtic label. In fact, I was so intrigued by this assumption, which was based on my prior knowledge from American media, that I dug deeper and wrote my entire Masters thesis on the subject. You will absolutely be seeing more posts on this subject in the future — it’s sort of my baby. All of this aside, ethnomusicology may not be a particularly well-known field. And yet, it provides us with an opportunity to challenge the way we think, and really provides a deeper immersion into music by opening up an unending range of possibilities and experiences to make life’s journey worthwhile!

Ready for adventure!

4 thoughts on “What in the World is Ethnomusicology?”

  1. Good job! You know, that’s a really tough path; being a deep thinker yet still able to live solely in the moment (as anyone who plays as well as you sometimes has to). Good luck on this, I’ll be looking forward to future installments.

  2. I learned something new today! I honestly did not know that enthomusicolgoy was a thing! But I think it is awesome how you described that journey and let us in on it! Thanks Hannah!

    1. Yay! I’m glad you got something out of it! It’s a really cool field, probably most similar to anthropology, which is how I started out studying it!

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