What is Ethnomusicology?

A. Kori Hill

If you love reading about composers, compositions, and music traditions, you’ve likely enjoyed something written by a music scholar. These folks go by many names and use many tools to study all these things. Not all musicological topics are historical, and not all music scholars are musicologists. So today, I want to break down for you the three major disciplines of academic music study people pursue when they want to write about music history and culture: musicology, ethnomusicology, and music theory.

First, let’s discuss ethnomusicology, which is typically the study of non-Western music via transcription and ethnography. Ethnography is a research technique where you go to a specific community or town and live with the residents to learn about the music you’re studying (which often involves writing it down–transcribing!). Then, go back home and write a book or article (or both!) about it. In the beginning, ethnomusicology was dominated by the work and interests of white European and American men. But in the middle of the twentieth century, the field began to diversify, and more ethnomusicologists called for more nuanced analysis of traditions in Africa, Asia, and Indigenous populations. Though not without problems, ethnomusicology is arguably the most diverse of these three fields in terms of topics and scholars.

Music theorists also study a range of traditions and repertoire. But unlike ethnomusicologists, music theorists focus on diving deep into the music itself to understand the construction of styles and traditions. They use music analysis A LOT. They represent their observations through music notation, graphs, and discussion of major musical moments in the body of the text. But studying to be a music theorist doesn’t mean you can’t consider historical, cultural, or political questions, as many of them do just that.

At first, musicology was the study of archival music manuscripts and the preparation of these manuscripts for future scholars to study. Eventually, musicology became the study of music and the lives of composers like Beethoven, Brahms, Liszt, and Wagner. But like all fields, scholars within and outside the field who studied music critically realized this was a small piece of a bigger pie. Now, musicologists don’t study only Western classical music but popular and folk traditions. It’s become less a matter of what you study than how you study it: through archives, music analysis, and reception history.

Together, music theorists, ethnomusicologists, and musicologists have given us books, essays, and articles that help us understand music in society, past and present. Next time, we’ll review profiles of today’s music scholars introducing us to new reps and fixing some facts about the rep we thought we knew.



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