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Ethnomusicology is a field of knowledge that investigates the art of music as a physical, psychological, cultural and aesthetic phenomenon.[1] An ethnomusicologist attempts to interpret and study music as it occurs in cultural contexts. Initially called ‘comparative musicology’, the field of ethnomusicology is also sometimes referred to as musical anthropology

Ethnomusicology - Anthropology

Brief History

The conception of ethnomusicology has been traced back to early-nineteenth century folklorists and collectors of traditional materials, songs, texts etc. This was an exploration of diverse regional cultures and ethnic origins. Subsequently, these collections were preserved and captured using nascent recording technologies of the time. Some early examples include Cecil Sharp who in 1904 published Folk Songs from Somerset. 

Herskovits and Waterman attempted to understand the effect that European colonisation had on Eastern and African musical cultures.[2]

It is apparent that these early phases were embedded partially in anthropological and in linguistic inquiries. Soon after, Jaap Kunst coined the term ‘Ethnomusicology’ in 1950.

Throughout the 20th century, with works of Alan Merriam, Alan Lomax, George Herzog, Mantle Hood and more, the discipline gained a reputable place as a theoretical, technical and multi-faceted domain of both musical as well as culture studies. 

Approaches in Ethnomusicology

Comparative Musicology

This precursor to ethnomusicology developed in Berlin during the late-nineteenth century. It largely focused on classifying musical cultures of the world and understanding the manner in which they differ. It included the comparative analysis of world folk cultures, musical styles and rhythms. 

This domain however, suffered from ethical problems. This comparison between non-western and European musical cultures lacked proper field methods. The non-western cultures were not fully ‘experienced’ by the researchers and hence, the domain came to be known as armchair ethnomusicology[3]. In 1880 Alexander J Ellis developed the cents system which demonstrated that musical scales considerably differed in different societies. Hence, the need for a sincere scholarly approach emerged. 

Merriam’s Approach

Alan Merriam was an American ethnomusicologist who in 1950, undertook extensive field research among the Flathead Indians in Montana. He published the book The Anthropology of Music in 1964 and suggested the following areas of inquiry for ethnomusicologists to pursue – 

  • Study of musical instruments and other sources of sound.
  • Understanding and interpreting song texts.
  • Categories of music.
  • The statutory position or role of the musician/performer.
  • What function music plays in the cultural setting.
  • Music as a cultural activity. [4]

Merriam also advocated the idea that ‘ethnomusicology is the study of music in culture and also music as culture. Merriam co-founded the Society for Ethnomusicology in 1952. 


In 1960, Mantle Hood pioneered Bi-musicality in ethnomusicology to emphasise the importance of training in music for the scholarly study of diverse musical cultures. Hood speaks of training the eyes, ears, hands and voice in order to ensure comprehensive theoretical understanding of music, which by and large came from unfamiliar (non-western) instruments and scales. This can help develop the aural perception and tonal memory of the otherwise ‘western’ researcher. [5]

This approach is significant in inculcating musicality as a tool during ethnomusicological research. 

Historical Approach

While comparative ethnomusicologists used historical viewpoints in their diachronically inclined study of music cultures[6], the historical approach has featured in modern ethnomusicology as a sophisticated domain. Using history is crucial in comprehending the current patterns of musical cultures. This approach indeed involves analysing old recordings and archived tapes from the very beginning of recording techniques. Now with the type of training in proper anthropological theory, scholars benefit from using historical approach wisely and responsibly. 

Methods in Ethnomusicology

Field Methods

Ethnomusicologists apply similar fieldwork techniques as cultural anthropologists do. The concept of participant-observation is equally important when investigating music of cultures[7]. It enables proper and authentic exposure to the sonic features of the music being produced. Moreover, the use of interviews can help ethnomusicologists infer the meaning behind folk songs, their emotion and background. Like cultural anthropologists, the learning of local language and its linguistic facets can also help ethnomusicologists better understand the words in the music.This is an important way of collecting qualitative data. The use of bi-musicality can help in fieldwork when the researcher actually trains himself in playing the instruments of specific cultures[7].

Archival Research

This method is a type of documentation and collection of musical data. Similar to field notes, this keeps a decent record of the music being observed or studied. Techniques like audio and video recording using cameras and smartphones can help store this data for future reference work. Archived data can help corroborate field notes and transcriptions made during ethnography. Sound captured in such methods is termed as ‘field recording’.


Transcriptions or ‘notations’ are representations of musical sounds using symbols or numbers. Ethnomusicology benefits from transcriptions of tempo changes, scales,rhythmic nuances, pitch and harmony within the musical case study [8]. Earlier, with the absence of recording technology, transcriptions were the only way to convey sound and style of music to the readers[9]. Today, transcribed notations supplement the analyses and other forms of recorded data. They uphold the nature of musical cultures in the framework of music theory. 

Applied Ethnomusicology

Applied form of ethnomusicology is currently the leading domain involving the practical use of the study of music cultures. Applied ethnomusicology has repurposed the parent domain in pursuit of community based goals like

  • Improving the society
  • Using music to benefit cultures (preservation, awareness)
  • Economic advantage (benefit concerts etc.)
  • Health benefits (music therapy)[10]

Applied ethnomusicology upholds social responsibility and uses music as means of communication, healing and restoration for social factors. 

Additionally, the evolution of methodologies in applied ethnomusicology has occurred in two waves.[11]

The first wave came with the publication of the journal Ethnomusicology in 1992. It mainly focused on the following principles  – 

  • Developing new frames for musical performance.
  • Giving feedback of the music to the community that creates it.
  • Providing means of conservation and access to strategy for the communities.
  • Developing structural solutions to broad problems.

The second wave is a recent phenomenon which diverges from folklore and myths. It instead, implements concepts from more practical dimensions including –

  • Action ethnomusicology for planned change.
  • Adjustment ethnomusicology for predictable social interaction.
  • Administrative ethnomusicology
  • Advocate ethnomusicology to ensure self-determination of a cultural group.[12]

Current Trends

Today ethnomusicologists study every type of music there is. Since the 1980s, researchers have examined modern musical styles and cultures like blues, jazz, rock and roll, funk and hip-hop. Globalisation and modern technology have made music a syncretic and hybridised phenomenon. Diffusion of music cultures in the world have made ethnomusicology interesting, if not boundless. 

That being said, the disruptive effects of homogenisation on preservation of cultures is just as apparent. It is a topic that ethnomusicologists like Steven Feld have explored.[13] The discipline also attempts to understand the socio-cultural and economic implications of the commercialization of music in the era of streaming services.

Medical ethnomusicologists have also probed into the healing and therapeutic aspects of music on illnesses and disorders. [14]


The history of ethnomusicology is vast and contains many epistemological breakthroughs. The various approaches of ethnomusicology have been addressed as critical in the formation of the discipline itself. Applied ethnomusicology is mentioned due to its rising potential and growing popularity in the world. Lastly, current trends and the scope of ethnomusicology have been recognized for its enormity and cross-disciplinarity. 


[1] Mantle Hood (1957). Training and Research Methods in Ethnomusicology. Ethnomusicology, 1(11), 2–8. doi:10.2307/924482

[2] Pegg, Carole, Helen Myers, Philip V. Bohlman, and Martin Stokes. 2001. “Ethnomusicology.” In The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, vol. 8, ed. S. Sadie, 367-403. London: Macmillan.

[3] Review by: Harold S. Powers (1966). The Anthropology of Musicby Alan P. Merriam. Perspectives of New Music, 4(2), 161–171. doi:10.2307/832225

[4] Merriam, Alan P. “Ethnomusicology Discussion and Definition of the Field.” Ethnomusicology, vol. 4, no. 3, 1960, pp. 110. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/924498

[5] Mantle Hood (1960). The Challenge of “Bi-Musicality”. Ethnomusicology, 4(2), 55–59. doi:10.2307/924263

[6] Vesa Kurkela (1994). The Historical Approach and Applied Ethnomusicology. Ethnomusicology, 38(3), 402–405. doi:10.2307/852102

[7] Barz, Gregory F., and Timothy J. Cooley, editors. Shadows in the Field: New Perspectives for Fieldwork in Ethnomusicology. Oxford University Press, 1997.

[8] Andre Holzapfel, Emmanouil Benetos, Andrew Killick, Richard Widdess, Humanities and engineering perspectives on music transcription, Digital Scholarship in the Humanities, Volume 37, Issue 3, September 2022, Pages 747–764, https://doi.org/10.1093/llc/fqab074

[9] Nettl, B. (2015). The Study of Ethnomusicology: Thirty-Three Discussions, 3rd edn. Urbana: University of Illinois Press

[10] Pettan, Svanibor, and Jeff Todd Titon (eds), The Oxford Handbook of Applied Ethnomusicology (2015; online edn, Oxford Academic, 11 Feb. 2016), https://doi.org/10.1093/oxfordhb/9780199351701.001.0001, accessed 23 Feb. 2023.

[11] Harrison, K.R. (2014). The Second Wave of Applied Ethnomusicology. MUSICultures.

[12] Pettan, Svanibor. 2008. Applied Ethnomusicology and Empowerment Strategies: Views from Across the Atlantic. Muzikološki Zbornik / Musicological Annual 44 (1): 85-99

[13] Steven Feld, “Notes on World Beat,” Public Culture 1, no.(1988): 31–17; quotes on 31, 34.

[14] Rice, T. (2014). Ethnomusicology: A Very Short Introduction. OUP USA.

Shaantanu Shende Anthroholic
Shaantanu Shende

Archaeology student at Deccan College Research Institute. Passionate about anthropological research and literature. Enthusiastic about war history. Avid reader and writer.

Articles: 23

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