What Is Ethnomusicology? Definition, History, and Methods




Ethnomusicology is the study of music within the context of its larger culture, though there are various definitions for the field. Some define it as the study of why and how humans make music. Others describe it as the anthropology of music. If anthropology is the study of human behavior, ethnomusicology is the study of the music humans make.

Research Questions 

Ethnomusicologists study a wide range of topics and musical practices throughout the world. It is sometimes described as the study of non-Western music or “world music,” as opposed to musicology, which studies Western European classical music. However, the field is defined more by its research methods (i.e., ethnography, or immersive fieldwork within a given culture) than its topics. Thus, ethnomusicologists can study anything from folkloric music to mass-mediated popular music to musical practices associated with elite classes.

Common research questions ethnomusicologists ask are:

  • How does music reflect the wider culture in which it was created?
  • How is music utilized for different purposes, whether social, political, religious, or to represent a nation or group of people?
  • What roles do musicians play within a given society?
  • How does musical performance intersect with or represent various axes of identity, such as race, class, gender, and sexuality?


The field, as it is currently named, emerged in the 1950s, but ethnomusicology originated as “comparative musicology” in the late 19th century. Linked to the 19th-century European focus on nationalism, comparative musicology emerged as a project of documenting the different musical features of diverse regions of the world. The field of musicology was established in 1885 by Austrian scholar Guido Adler, who conceived of historical musicology and comparative musicology as two separate branches, with historical musicology focused only on European classical music.

Carl Stumpf, an early comparative musicologist, published one of the first musical ethnographies on an indigenous group in British Columbia in 1886. Comparative musicologists were primarily concerned with documenting the origins and evolution of musical practices. They often espoused social Darwinist notions and assumed that music in non-Western societies was “simpler” than music in Western Europe, which they considered the culmination of musical complexity. Comparative musicologists were also interested in the ways music was disseminated from one place to another. Folklorists of the early 20th century—such as Cecil Sharp (who collected British folk ballads) and Frances Densmore (who collected songs of various Indigenous groups)—are also considered to be ethnomusicology’s forebears.

Another major concern of comparative musicology was the classification of instruments and musical systems. In 1914, German scholars Curt Sachs and Erich von Hornbostel came up with a system to classify musical instruments that is still in use today. The system divides instruments into four groups according to their vibrating material: aerophones (vibrations caused by air, as with a flute), chordophones (vibrating strings, as with a guitar), membranophones (vibrating animal skin, as with drums), and idiophones (vibrations caused by the body of the instrument itself, as with a rattle).

In 1950, Dutch musicologist Jaap Kunst coined the term “ethnomusicology,” combining two disciplines: musicology (the study of music) and ethnology (the comparative study of different cultures). Building on this new name, musicologist Charles Seeger, anthropologist Alan Merriam, and others established the Society for Ethnomusicology in 1955 and the journal Ethnomusicology in 1958. The first graduate programs in ethnomusicology were established in the 1960s at UCLA, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and Indiana University.

The name change signaled another shift in the field: ethnomusicology moved away from studying the origins, evolution, and comparison of musical practices, and toward thinking of music as one of many human activities, like religion, language, and food. In short, the field became more anthropological. Alan Merriam’s 1964 book The Anthropology of Music is a foundational text that reflected this shift. Music was no longer thought of as an object of study that could be captured fully from a recording or in written musical notation, but rather as a dynamic process affected by the larger society. Whereas many comparative musicologists did not play the music they analyzed or spend much time in the “field,” in the later 20th century extended periods of fieldwork became a requirement for ethnomusicologists.

In the late 20th century, there was also a move away from studying only “traditional” non-western music that was considered to be “uncontaminated” by contact with the West. Mass-mediated popular and contemporary forms of music-making—rap, salsa, rock, Afro-pop—have become important subjects of study, alongside the more well-researched traditions of Javanese gamelan, Hindustani classical music, and West African drumming. Ethnomusicologists have also turned their focus to more contemporary issues that intersect with music-making, such as globalization, migration, technology/media, and social conflict. Ethnomusicology has made major inroads in colleges and universities, with dozens of graduate programs now established and ethnomusicologists on faculty at many major universities.

Key Theories/Concepts

Ethnomusicology takes as given the notion that music can provide meaningful insight into a larger culture or group of people. Another foundational concept is cultural relativism and the idea that no culture/music is inherently more valuable or better than another. Ethnomusicologists avoid assigning value judgments like “good” or “bad” to musical practices.

Theoretically, the field has been influenced most deeply by anthropology. For example, anthropologist Clifford Geertz’s notion of “thick description”—a detailed way of writing about fieldwork that immerses the reader in the researcher’s experience and tries to capture the context of the cultural phenomenon—has been very influential. In the later 1980s and 90s, anthropology’s “self-reflexive” turn—the push for ethnographers to reflect on the ways their presence in the field impacts their fieldwork and to recognize that it is impossible to maintain complete objectivity when observing and interacting with research participants—also took hold among ethnomusicologists.

Ethnomusicologists also borrow theories from a range of other social science disciplines, including linguistics, sociology, cultural geography, and post-structuralist theory, particularly the work of Michel Foucault.


Ethnography is the method that most distinguishes ethnomusicology from historical musicology, which largely entails doing archival research (examining texts). Ethnography involves conducting research with people, namely musicians, to understand their role within their larger culture, how they make music, and what meanings they assign to music, among other questions. Ethnomusicological research requires the researcher to immerse him/herself in the culture about which he/she writes.

Interviewing and participant observation are principal methods associated with ethnographic research, and are the most common activities ethnomusicologists engage in when conducting fieldwork.

Most ethnomusicologists also learn to play, sing, or dance to the music they study. This method is considered to be a form of gaining expertise/knowledge about a musical practice. Mantle Hood, an ethnomusicologist who founded the renowned program at UCLA in 1960, termed this “bi-musicality,” the ability to play both European classical music and a non-western music.

Ethnomusicologists also document music-making in various ways, by writing field notes and making audio and video recordings. Finally, there’s musical analysis and transcription. Musical analysis entails a detailed description of the sounds of music, and is a method used by both ethnomusicologists and historical musicologists. Transcription is the conversion of musical sounds into written notation. Ethnomusicologists often produce transcriptions and include them in their publications to better illustrate their argument.

Ethical Considerations 

There are a number of ethical issues ethnomusicologists consider in the course of their research, and most relate to the representation of musical practices that are not “their own.” Ethnomusicologists are tasked with representing and disseminating, in their publications and public presentations, the music of a group of people who may not have the resources or access to represent themselves. There is a responsibility to produce accurate representations, but ethnomusicologists must also realize that they can never “speak for” a group of which they are not a member.

There is also often a power differential between the mostly Western ethnomusicologists and their non-western “informants” or research participants in the field. This inequality is often economic, and sometimes ethnomusicologists give money or gifts to research participants as an informal exchange for the knowledge the informants are providing to the researcher.

Finally, there are often questions of intellectual property rights with regards to traditional or folkloric music. In many cultures, there is no concept of individual ownership of music—it is collectively owned—so thorny situations can arise when ethnomusicologists record these traditions. They must be very upfront about what the purpose of the recording will be and request permission from the musicians. If there is any chance of using the recording for commercial purposes, an arrangement should be made to credit and compensate the musicians.



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