A Brief Intro To Ethno/Musicology

German music historian Guido Adler defined the scope, method, and aims of musicology in the first journal dedicated to the subject. Adler defined musicology as  a science, but a science confined to “music perceived as an art form.” Namely, the study of European music. It was Adler who set the stage for the current language we discuss music in: Genres, evolution, eras, classification, and “metaphorical language rich in images of organic growth and decay.” These were not original concepts to Adler. Adler’s goal was to take art and make it scientific,and to do that he took core concepts from biological sciences. At its core, musicology can be defined as the scholarly study of music, separate from learning how to play music or write music.

Ethnomusicology on the other hand is notorious for being hard to define. If you look at Grove Music Online, or any number of sources, each entry will give you a vague definition, followed by caveats, like turtles, all the way down. One thing is certain though; one aspect of ethnomusicology is the study of different cultures and their relation to music outside of the realm of Europe and its art music. Ethnomusicology was originally titled comparative musicology, and it is comparative anatomy we have to thank for that. So how are comparative musicology and anatomy related, and why was the name changed? Comparative anatomy searches for similarities and differences in different species, and in doing so, it has become a foundation for the theory of evolution. Comparative musicology is named thus because it was originally thought of as the study of less evolved music, tribes, primitive folk, and exotic beings from the East. Now we can see that this entire concept is racist and colonialist in the extreme, and this is one of the reasons the field broke off from musicology. According to Jaap Kunst in his work Ethnomusicology, one of the revolutionary scientists we have to thank for the reframing of ethnomusicology is Alexander John Ellis. Ellis, affectionately called the ‘father of ethnomusicology,’ published a treatise on tone measurements that revealed that there is no natural scale and that all scales, including Western ones, were diverse and artificial. This went against all the musicologists who perpetuated the idea that ‘exotic’ music sounded out of tune, tasteless, and unmusical.

In Joseph Kerman’s book, Contemplating Music, he explains that the entire scope of musicology has diminished since its inception. A good example would be that ethnomusicology was once a part of musicology on the whole. Kerman also speaks on the factual nature of musicology, and how empirical data is at the core of the study, while philosophy is discarded. Another shift that has taken place is the separation of  music theory from musicology. Music history has such a large hold on the field that it is easy to forget that music history is not all that musicology is. One goal that ethnomusicologists have for musicology on the whole is to reevaluate how musicologists study Western art music. Can we get musicologists to take on an ethnomusicological approach? Gradually. We have already seen a small changes, in some instances, today, which is the result of a growing awareness of social issues and a greater access to other musical cultures. This is not only true for musicians, like those in Latin ensembles and World Music courses, but in music appreciation classes and in schools from kindergarten up.

The more we study the sounds created by humans on a global scale, the more we will realize that the cultures of sound and music are neither isolated nor in the past, and this is already being reflected in educational texts, journals, and every other form of communication from the grassroots up. The future of ethnomusicology will never return to its past as a study primarily of “traditional music.” Radio, Television, Film, and Popular Culture all fall under ethnomusicological studies and ethnomusicology is not just isolated to the arts either. Ethnomusicology is interdisciplinary in its very nature, and will continue to evolve the more we include different subjects into the field. Anthropology, critical theory, technology, physics, biology, economics, and ecology have all tossed their hat into the ring, and now that we’re thinking outside the box, the possibilities are endless.

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