Academic journal article Notes

The Canon of Ethnomusicology: Is There One?

Academic journal article Notes

The Canon of Ethnomusicology: Is There One?

Article excerpt

At first glance, the study of ethnomusicology would seem to be anti-canonical in its essence. As a field of study (if not as a discipline), it has certainly challenged the notion that only selected repertories--most usually the historic "classical" musics of Europe, but also "classical" musics in general--merit systematic and categorical inclusion in research and teaching programs.

As programs in ethnomusicology have developed and the related matters of publication and curriculum become institutionalized, however, at least in North America, patterns have emerged that might be viewed as "canonical." As patterns indicative of intellectual history, if not "canonical" obstinacy, these would seem to merit recognition and possibly critique. In the following pages, I will attempt to discuss what the current canon of ethnomusicology might be, how it has changed, what challenges the canon, and what appears to be the (essential, if you will) "bedrock" of ethnomusicology.

To get at these issues, it is useful to separate our awareness of the myriad musical cultures of the world from the discipline of ethnomusicology. In the increasingly interdisciplinary world of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, we see historians adopting typically ethnomusicological methodologies as ethnomusicologists add the techniques of historical research to their projects in such a way as to extract the methods from their subjects in very creative ways. (1) To the extent that ethnomusicology as a discipline has a "canon," that canon is its engagement with social theory (perhaps most notably in the scholarly practices of North America). It proceeds from an anthropologically based theory of culture that is itself problematized but that takes as an important point of departure a definition written in 1871 by anthropologist Edward B. Tylor: "... that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, custom and any other capacities or habits acquired by man as a member of society." (2)

Using various theoretical models, ethnomusicology probes the meaning of musical expression in societies and the relationship of sound structures to other social interactions thereby producing societies as it is experienced and observed. Ethnomusicology tends to be sensitive to power relations in a society and to the varying and multiple views of insiders and outsiders to a community.

The table of contents for Ruth Stone's forthcoming book, Theory in Ethnomusicology, provides a good view of the "disciplinary canon" of ethnomusicology (see fig. 1). (3) Following an introductory chapter, Stone takes up the characteristics of more than twenty interpretive approaches that have gained currency in ethnomusicological research at one point or another. (She presents them roughly in the order of their emergence beginning in the late nineteenth century, which is commonly viewed as the beginning of the Western discipline of ethnomusicology as it is taught in Europe and North America.)

At an entry level, Kay Kaufman Shelemay's recent textbook Soundscapes manifests "canonical" theory. (4) Using examples from all over the world, Shelemay invites beginners to look at ways in which musical sound constitutes social experience in familiar and unfamiliar settings from Boston to Bangkok. She draws attention to major themes in ethnomusicology that relate music to society: music and ritual, music and politics, music and social identity (see fig. 2). In an elegant address to the particular issues of the twenty-first-century global world, the book prompts students to observe and analyze the musical diversities and complexities of their own communities.

Seen over the approximate 150 years of its existence as a field of inquiry, ethnomusicological work appears as part of what might be called the political economy of scholarship in Europe and North America, home to the dominant world powers during this period. In her compilation of reprinted articles, Ethnomusicological Theory and Method, Kay Shelemay provides a substantial sampling of ethnomusicological writing between 1910 and 1987 that exemplify this point. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.