Exploring Ethnomusicology: The Study of Music Across Cultures

Ethnomusicology is the study of music across cultures. It is concerned with the music of a particular culture, as well as the relationships between music, society, and culture.

This field of study was pioneered by anthropologists like Alan Lomax and John Blacking, who travelled the world to document traditional music styles.

Ethnomusicology: An Overview

Ethnomusicology involves understanding music as a form of human expression and investigating the role that music plays in people’s lives. Ethnomusicologists may study a particular musical tradition, or they may compare and contrast different musical traditions from around the world.

What Does Ethnomusicology Involve?

Ethnomusicology is a fascinating field of study that can tell us a lot about the role that music plays in human society. Ethnomusicologists use a variety of methods to study music and its relationship to society. These methods may include fieldwork (immersion in a community to observe music-making firsthand), interviews, document analysis, and musicological analysis (a tool used by ethnomusicologists to understand how music works).

Ethnomusicologists also use participant observation. This involves taking part in the music-making activities of the community being studied, in order to gain a deeper understanding of the role that music plays in people’s lives.

In some cases, ethnomusicologists may also create their own musical compositions based on the traditions they are studying. This is known as composition-based research, and it can be an effective way of gaining insight into the structure and meaning of a musical tradition.

The History of Ethnomusicology

The history of ethnomusicology can be traced back to the late 19th century, when scholars began collecting so-called “exotic” music from non-Western cultures, without undertaking any related fieldwork. They would typically obtain these specimens from people returning from the colonies. There was a particular interest in so-called primitive music, which was thought to be representative of a more authentic and primal human nature. Naturally, this approach was fraught with racist and colonialist assumptions.

While this approach yielded a large amount of data, it did not always provide insight into how music was actually used in people’s everyday lives.

In the early 20th century, ethnomusicology began to take on a more scientific approach, with scholars devising new methods for studying music within its cultural context. This included fieldwork, in which researchers would go and live among the people they were studying in order to get a better understanding of their music and culture.

The use of fieldwork methods such as participant observation has helped to redress this balance and has resulted in a more nuanced understanding of the role that music plays in people’s lives.

The Evolution of Ethnomusicology

Over the years, ethnomusicology has evolved considerably both in terms of its scope and methodology. In the early days of the field, ethnomusicologists tended to focus primarily on so-called “traditional” forms of music such as folk songs and religious ceremonies. However, with the rise of popular music in the 20th century, ethnomusicologists began to take a keen interest in this area as well. Consequently, today’s ethnomusicologists often find themselves just as comfortable studying Lady Gaga as they are traditional Chinese opera.

Similarly, early ethnomusicologists relied heavily on written sources such as sheet music and historical documents in order to understand different musical traditions. However, with the advent of audio and video recording technology, ethnomusicologists are now able to directly observe and study musical practices as they occur in their natural setting. This has resulted in a much more accurate and authentic understanding of musical traditions from all corners of the globe.


Ethnomusicology is the study of music in its cultural context. It encompasses all aspects of music, from performance and composition to history and analysis.

Ethnomusicologists use a variety of methods to study music, including fieldwork, interviews, and recordings.

The discipline has evolved over the years as our understanding of music and culture changes. It provides a unique perspective on the world and helps us to understand the role that music plays in human cultures.

Related Terminology:

Musicology: the study of music history, theory, and composition

Performance Studies: the study of music performance and how it is affected by factors such as culture, context, and technology.

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