Ethnomusicology, a word coined in 1955 by the Dutch musicologist Jaap Kunst, is the study of music in the context of its time and place because, like any other art, music is influenced by the society and culture of its creation. Musicology, the study of music, is understood to be the study of Western music. However, to understand fully the work of composer Dmitri D. Shostakovich, for example, something about the Soviet Union under Stalin must be known, just as to appreciate rhythm and blues or jazz, something about the African-American experience in America must be known. For this reason, the study of Western music within its social and cultural context is also considered to be ethnomusicology. As music writer Paula E. Kirman described it in her 1997 essay, "An Introduction to Ethnomusicology," the discipline is best understood as the fusion of musicology and anthropology.
Then called comparative musicology, ethnomusicology developed in the 19th and early 20th centuries as the study by Western scholars of the music of indigenous peoples. Writes Virginia Danielson in her 2007 article, "The Canon of Ethnomusicology: Is There One?": "One sees in early work a focus on musical systems and questions related to the origins of music and various musical styles -- a sort of Darwinian view of music that incorporated the possibility of ‘preservation' of styles presumed to be historically ‘early' on the ‘periphery' of the modern European world. The more dismal aspects of nineteenth-century industrialism seem to have fostered an idealization of the ‘folk,' an urgency to quickly ‘preserve' rapidly disappearing cultural artifacts, and attempts at Marxist analyses of cultural production."
These early ethnomusicologists were often influenced by an evolutionary sense of human culture. They believed that the music of "primitive" cultures was the root of human music in more "highly civilized" cultures, when in fact, different cultures had developed different musical styles based upon different aesthetics. This tendency to see the development of human culture as linear and Western culture as its apex sharply diminished after World War II but it still lingers, primarily through the mechanism of transcription. Ethnomusicologist Dr. Peter Toner writes in his own 2007 article, "The Gestation of Cross-Cultural Music Research and the Birth of Ethnomusicology": "Transcribing music onto the Western staff, even after the invention of recording technology, was and still is an important aspect of ethnomusicological training and practice, although the necessity and accuracy of transcription has always been subject to questioning and debate. … Any understanding of a non-Western music which is based on a transcription in Western notation will necessarily encode our own musical values."
This means that listening to entirely different styles of musical expressions through the prism of the Western staff often distorts that music. This is one of the most common criticisms of ethnomusicology and its close relative, cultural anthropology: We cannot help but look at and listen to others from our own perspective, and no outsider to a culture can ever fully understand it, and understanding is not useless but necessarily imprecise.
However, this criticism is also losing much of its force as more and more ethnomusicologists (and cultural anthropologists) are themselves members of the culture they are studying. At the same time, ethnomusicologists, even when they are foreign to their culture of study, often spend years immersed in that culture, learning the language and music to a far greater degree and with far more humility than earlier ethnomusicologists.
Ethnomusicology is a recognized academic field with major programs and archives around the world, including the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage. Any program at any particular school will tend to concentrate on a specific field of music, so students interested in pursuing degrees in ethnomusicology should select their institution according to its strengths in ethnomusicology. Strong interests in anthropology and sociology, as well as musicology, are extremely important in pursuing an advanced degree in ethnomusicology.
Ethnomusicology has also been supported by the field of world music. The term world music can be so broad as to be meaningless, given the current dominance and influence of American popular music, but it loosely means local music played by indigenous performers. This music may be and often is influenced by foreign, usually American popular, music, but it is, nevertheless, unmistakably rooted in its own culture. Musicians and ethnomusicologists from the developed world, particularly America and Europe, often work with local musicians to preserve and popularize their work, lest it be lost in a homogenized global culture.