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Modeling Ethnomusicology$

Timothy Rice

Print publication date: 2017

Print ISBN-13: 9780190616885

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: April 2017

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780190616885.001.0001

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Toward the Remodeling of Ethnomusicology

Toward the Remodeling of Ethnomusicology

(p.43) 1 Toward the Remodeling of Ethnomusicology
Modeling Ethnomusicology

Timothy Rice

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter proposes a model of the research foci of ethnomusicologists in the 1980s and model for the formative processes at work in music cultures. The simple three-part model indicates that music is historically constructed, socially maintained, and individually created and experienced. The model responds to and extends the thinking of Alan Merriam. The chapter claims that simple models, rather than complex models such as one that Charles Seeger proposed, are easy to remember. It also claims that simple models are particularly useful as heuristic devices for planning and carrying out research in ethnomusicology.

Keywords:   model, formative processes, Alan Merriam, Charles Seeger, heuristic devices

Ethnomusicology, like any academic field, is constantly being created and recreated through the research, writing, and teaching of its practitioners. Direct action in the form of new data, interpretations, theories, and methods effectively defines the field. Modeling a discipline, on the other hand, requires a step back from direct engagement in research to ask the descriptive question, what are we doing?, and the prescriptive question, what ought we be doing? The answer will surely depend on the intellectual and social matrix of the modeler (Blum 1975; C. Seeger 1977), and the effectiveness of the model will depend on the extent to which it either captures simply and elegantly the current work being done in the field or provides a kind of “moral imperative” for future action.

Probably the best example of an effective model in the recent history of ethnomusicology is Merriam’s model proposed in 1964 in the The Anthropology of Music. His “simple model … involves study on three analytic levels—conceptualization about music, behavior in relation to music, and music sound itself” (Merriam 1964: 32). The model is essentially circular in form (Figure 1.1), with concept affecting behavior, which produces the sound product. And, Merriam continues, “there is a constant feedback from the product to the concepts about music, and this is what accounts both for change and stability in a music system” (p. 33). This model was seminal in the history of ethnomusicology and to that date was the most forceful and cogent statement of anthropological concerns with respect to music. The model defined ethnomusicology as “the study of music in culture” and that view—even as modified to “music as culture” and “the relationship between music and culture”—has remained one of the core concepts in the discipline ever since.

We can of course argue about the extent of its influence during the last twenty years, but there can be no doubt that it continues to be influential. It is (p.44) still frequently cited to contextualize particular research problems (e.g., Yung 1984; Sawa 1983); Bruno Nettl (1983) called it “definitive,” not just of the study of music but apparently of music itself; and it provided the basic model for the collaborative textbook Worlds of Music (Titon 1984). If that book’s authors, coming from a very wide range of backgrounds, could agree on this model, then the continuing extent of its influence is clear—at least as an overall image or model of the field.

Toward the Remodeling of Ethnomusicology

Figure 1.1 The Merriam model.

In addition to defining the field and being influential, Merriam’s model has three other attractive properties that make it a useful foil for the “remodeling” proposed here. First, it is a simple model with three analytic levels. Part of the reason it has been influential is that it is easy to remember. Second, its levels seem to be relatively complete and inclusive. They cover a broad range of concerns. Third, it is a cogent model in the sense that its analytic levels are supposed to interrelate. In spite of these attractive properties, I acknowledge that not everyone has agreed with this model, and we have certainly wrestled with it as much as we have embraced it. But because it is simple, inclusive, cogent, definitive, and influential, I am going to refer to it frequently in the “remodeling” that follows, partly because I hope the model proposed here has many of these same qualities.1

The first and most immediate effect of the Merriam model was to increase the amount and prestige of work done on social, physical, and verbal behaviors associated with music. Its second effect was to set in motion a search for ways to relate these behaviors to the “music sound itself.” Much of the subsequent work in “the anthropological study of music” (Blacking 1979) can be interpreted as attempts to find the points of intersection, causation, or homologies between Merriam’s analytic levels.

In the search for those connections, a number of social science paradigms have been borrowed and invoked over the last twenty years, including biological approaches (Blacking 1977), semiotics (Nattiez 1983), ethnoscience (Zemp 1978), ethnography of performance (Herndon and McLeod 1980) and (p.45) communications (Feld 1984), structuralism (A. Seeger 1980), symbolic interactionism (Stone 1982), Marxism (Shepherd 1982), hermeneutics (Becker and Becker 1984), and an eclectic mix of numerous approaches (Feld 1982). Although these paradigms and methods are often seen as conflicting or mutually exclusive within anthropology and sociology, and certainly differ from the structural functionalism behind Merriam’s The Anthropology of Music, their application within ethnomusicology can be interpreted as an attempt to solve the central problem created by Merriam’s model: how can we convincingly speak about the relationship between music and other human behaviors?

Although much of the “theory” developed in ethnomusicology over the last twenty years has addressed this question, there are obvious signs of resistance to the sought-after perfect union between so-called musicological and anthropological approaches. An incident from 1985’s annual meeting in Vancouver can serve to illustrate the divergence of opinion in the field and some of the continued resistance to anthropological approaches. During the discussion following Stephen Blum’s paper, “The Ethnomusicologist vis-à-vis the Fallacies of Contemporary Musical Life,” someone commented that in the paper and response and discussion to that point, he had not heard much reference to contemporary social theory, particularly coming out of anthropology, and worried that ethnomusicologists were perhaps twenty years out of date in their view of society and culture. The responses by prominent ethnomusicologists to this observation covered an astonishing range. Someone responded that she and probably others did keep up; someone else said she wished she could keep up but was so busy as a teacher covering “the whole earth” that she couldn’t keep up; and two people responded essentially with, “Who cares if we keep up?” If anyone were laboring under the impression that ethnomusicology was a unified discipline or even that there was widespread agreement that it represented a union of anthropological and musicological approaches, this interchange would have been illuminating and perhaps discouraging.

In addition to this lack of agreement about the methods and disciplinary roots of our field, there is evidence of pessimism about what we have achieved in the way of a union between anthropological and musicological approaches even by those deeply committed to such a union.2 Gerard Béhague (1984: 7) recently wrote that “our analytical tools for establishing that relationship [between “social context” and “music sound structure”] unequivocally lack in sophistication.” Herndon and McLeod (1979: iii), in the late 1970s, still complained that “the wholeness … which gives equal consideration to the music, (p.46) itself, and the behavior surrounding its origin, production, and evaluation still eludes us.” Ruth Stone (1982: 127), whose innovative approach to event analysis was designed to solve this problem, admits that “it is not yet possible to achieve the ideal unitary analysis.”

Thus, ethnomusicology seems to be in a rather odd position. On the one hand, we have an old model that continues to exert a fair bit of influence and to define the core problem for the field. On the other hand, there is pessimism about the extent of our achievements in solving the problem, continued open resistance to anthropological models,3 and competition among a host of social science paradigms that have been rushed into the breach in an attempt to solve all or some of our problems. In this context, I think it is time to rethink the relationship between ethnomusicology and its cognate disciplines and perhaps, like an old house, remodel it along lines that describe and prescribe what we actually do rather than what particular scholarly traditions tell us we ought to do.

Some might argue that modeling a discipline is not necessary. Obviously research will continue largely along lines dictated by personal interest, intellectual training, traditions of scholarship, and social and institutional demands. Yet disciplinary models are attractive for a number of reasons.4 They provide a kind of intellectual framework that helps us contextualize, interpret, classify, and evaluate our work, and they can provide some sense of direction or purpose. Lewis Thomas (1974), the well-known essayist on biological topics, characterizes the scientific enterprise as analogous to the building of an anthill. He guesses that individual ants, like most scientists, have no idea of the shape of the anthill they are building. The combined intelligence of masses of ants and scientists achieves spectacular results even though individual ants and scientists cannot imagine exactly to what purpose their work is directed. Modeling is an (p.47) attempt to imagine the shape—however hazy—of the metaphorical anthill that we are building.

The Model

There are two immediate, personal sources for the model presented here. One comes from my teaching experience, the other from reading in the secondary literature. First, I teach an introductory course to all first-year students in a large conservatory-style music program at the University of Toronto. The course treats all kinds of music (Western and non-Western, classical, folk, popular, and so on) as a prelude to a more detailed study of Western classical music. The course description, generated in committee, reads, “Formative processes in music cultures of the world.” Thus, I have been forced to wonder in a very practical, pedagogical context just what the formative processes in music are. Are they melody, harmony, and rhythm, as some of my colleagues in the faculty of music seem to imagine? Or are they the relationship between music and politics, economics, social structure, music events, and language, as ethnomusicologists have claimed in the last twenty years? Was there a way to pull some semblance of order out of the long lists one could make? Was there a way of reconciling the music structural concerns of many music history courses with the anthropological concerns of many ethnomusicology courses?5

I developed various ways to deal with this problem, and then about four years ago, while rereading Clifford Geertz’s The Interpretation of Cultures, I was struck by his claim that “symbolic systems … are historically constructed, socially maintained and individually applied” (1973: 363–364). Instantly I recognized these as the “formative processes” that I had been searching for. Here was a three-part model, analogous to Merriam’s, that was easy to remember and that seemed to balance social, historical, and individual processes and forces in ways that seemed immediately and intuitively satisfying. The Merriam model, or at least its working out over the last twenty years, has tended to lead to an emphasis on social processes and, as a consequence, alienated ethnomusicology from the concerns of historical musicology. How could one teach about all music when the perspectives brought to bear on different musics seemed so different?

(p.48) I would like to examine the implications of a slightly modified form of this statement by Geertz as a “model for ethnomusicology.” Simply put, I now believe that ethnomusicologists should study the formative processes in music, that they should ask and attempt to answer this deceptively simple question: how do people make music, or, in its more elaborate form, how do people historically construct, socially maintain, and individually create and experience music?6

It is hard to capture the overlapping strands of theory and practice as they currently operate in our field, but if this statement by Geertz struck a responsive chord in me, then it probably is because this sort of thinking is in the air. When I looked more closely at recent literature with this model in mind, I indeed found pre-echoes of it in the writing of a number of our colleagues.7 For example, Herndon and McLeod ask this same question (i.e., how does man make music?), in their book, Music as Culture, but do not then go on to make the coherent series of claims that this model does. John Blacking has argued perhaps most persuasively for the emphasis on process, as opposed to product, that is modeled here.

(p.49) Probably the place where the general emphases of this model are currently being worked on most clearly is in the area of performance practice or ethnography of performance and communications. Steven Feld (1984: 6), for example, argues for a focus on listeners “as socially and historically implicated beings”—a statement that captures the three poles of this model. Bonnie Wade (1984: 47) points out that “creativity in the performance practice of Indian art music … involves … the role of the individual performer, how he sees his own creativity in relationship to his musical tradition, to his fellow performers, and to his audience.” Creativity as individual experience, history as tradition, and social processes involving musicians and audience represent one of many ways that the three parts of this model can be interrelated to tell an interesting story. That story gets at fundamental musical processes without belaboring points about homologies between musical and cultural forms, and yet it manages to integrate the study of music into the study of history, society, and cognition.

Kenneth Gourlay (1982: 413) came very close to modeling the field along these lines. Gourlay’s A.B.C. calls for “a humanizing ethnomusicology with three distinct, if related, fields of inquiry.” “A,” for Armstrong’s affecting presence, involves the study of “how musical symbols operate to produce their effect or meaning, and what effects they produce.” “B” stands for Blacking’s model of change, and “C” stands for condition, context, and conceptualization. He does not go on to show, however, how the three fields can be related.8

Thus, the general outline of the model proposed here is clearly in the wind. But this relatively recent atmosphere in the field has yet to be developed into a simple, cogent, and inclusive model, and to have its implications for the field examined.

The Parts of the Model

First, the model needs to be explained in terms of how it organizes the welter of “issues and concepts,” to use Nettl’s (1983) phrase, generated by ethnomusicologists.

(p.50) “Historical construction” comprises two important processes: the process of change with the passage of time and the process of re-encountering and recreating the forms and legacy of the past in each moment of the present.9 In synchronic, “in time” studies of music in a particular place at a particular time, the study of historically constructed forms as a legacy of the past finds a place here. Jean-Jacques Nattiez (1983: 472) has deplored what he calls the synchronic “culturalism” of much current ethnomusicology and argues for a greater emphasis on diachronic approaches to musical form. However, he concludes that “music generates music.” I prefer this model’s claim that people generate music while at the same time acknowledging the formative power of previously constructed musical forms. Individuals operating in society must come to grips with, learn, and choose among a host of previously constructed musical forms. Although this process is normally acted out in specific instances of learning, listening, and playing using the medium of music itself, analogous behavior in the speech domain requires musicologists to describe the intricacies of forms in words. Both operations—musician/performers making music for musician/listeners and musicologists writing or speaking to their readers or audience—require a sophisticated encounter with historically constructed forms.10

Historical construction can also be interpreted as the diachronic, “out of time” study of musical change or the history of music. In spite of the notorious difficulty of constructing music histories in many of the cultures we typically consider, ethnomusicologists have been fascinated by the issue of change. It (p.51) would be descriptively accurate and therefore useful to have a model of our field that reflects the central importance of change, of historical processes. For us, history or “historical ethnomusicology,” to use Kay Shelemay’s phrase, does not, in fact, seem to be one of many issues, but a primary issue, a fundamental process, a given of music making, and this model acknowledges that by elevating the study of change to the highest analytical level of the model.11,12

Processes of social maintenance have been particularly well documented by ethnomusicologists in the years since Merriam’s The Anthropology of Music, and it is easy to construct at least a partial list of the way music is sustained, maintained, and altered by socially constructed institutions and belief systems: ecology, economics, and the patronage of music; the social structure of music and musicians; protest, censorship, and the politics of music; performance contexts and conventions; beliefs about the power and structure of music; music education and training; and so on. The study of the processes by which these social systems impact music and, conversely, how music impacts these systems has been one of the most fruitful areas of research in the last twenty years, whether expressed in terms of context, causal relations, homologies, or deep-structural relations.

Emphasis on the individual is probably the most recent and as yet weakest area of development in ethnomusicology. While the study of individual composers and individual acts of creation is well entrenched in historical musicology, such studies have remained until very recently suspect in ethnomusicology. The antagonism and even fear of humanistic, historical, or individual approaches is exemplified in this statement of Judith and A. L. Becker (1984: 455):

A move toward the study of particularities nudges ethnomusicology away from the social sciences into the realm of the humanities where uniqueness is legitimate. Our discipline has historically been allied with the social sciences; we take our paradigms from the social sciences. Any step toward the humanities also feels like a step toward the approaches of traditional (p.52) historical musicology with its outworn methodology and unexamined assumptions.

They then invoke another paradigm they call literary criticism, ironically an approach deeply rooted in the humanities but that has recently been taken over by social science. The interpretive anthropology of Geertz and others seems to move the social sciences in the direction of the humanities and drastically reduces the need for the fear and trembling one senses on both sides of this apparently once-formidable division. This model, in fact, does move ethnomusicology closer to the humanities and historical musicology (and might have the effect of moving historical musicology closer to ethnomusicology), but without giving up an essential concern for the social bases of musical life and experience or a general scholarly concern for generalization and comparison.

John Blacking has emerged as a clear advocate of approaches to the study of the individual in a number of recent articles, but he too betrays a fear of individuality when he argues that it is not Mozart’s uniqueness but his capacity to share that is important (1979). A balanced approach must be willing to acknowledge the extent and importance of individuality and uniqueness in particular societies, and finding a balance between historical, social, and individual processes should be an important part of “the interpretation of [musical] cultures.” The work of Ellen Koskoff (1982), Dane Harwood (1976), Bruno Nettl (1983), Klaus Wachsmann (1982), Steven Feld (1984), and the writers of Worlds of Music (1984) has moved us substantially in the direction of increased consideration of individual creativity and personal experience as legitimate objects of scholarly enquiry.

Some of the issues that might be discussed under individual creativity and experience include composition, improvisation, and performances of particular pieces, repertories, and styles; perception of musical form and structure; emotional, physical, spiritual, and multisensory experience mediated by music; and individual cognitive structures for organizing musical experience and associating it with other experiences. If interest in the individual and individual experience continues to grow, then eventually the history of ethnomusicology might be interpreted as having moved successively through the three stages of this model, from a concern with historical and evolutionary questions in its early “comparative musicology” stage, to a concern for music in social life after The Anthropology of Music, to a concern for the individual in history and society in the most recent or next phase.

In fact, the work actually being done in the field today is rather well balanced between these approaches. The articles in Ethnomusicology in the eight-year (p.53) period from 1979 to 1986 contain a good balance among these approaches. The largest group predictably emphasizes social processes, but a perhaps surprising number look at individual processes as well:

general theory and method




music analysis




social processes


individual processes




Thus, it seems that this model rather effectively reflects not just the current theoretical atmosphere in the field but also the balance in the actual work we are doing. It is an accepting model in which virtually everyone in the field can find a place for his or her work.

Interpretation in the Model

Perhaps the most exciting feature of this model is the richness of interpretation that it suggests, hardly surprising since it was originally sparked by a book entitled The Interpretation of Cultures. In fact, the model suggests four hierarchical levels of interpretation (Figure 1.2).

To be effective, a model should be dynamic or cogent; that is, it should imply or suggest ways to relate the parts of the model to one another. In fact, this model strikes me as particularly dynamic in the sense that its parts can so easily be shown to interlock and interrelate. If the levels easily interrelate, then the move from description to interpretation and explanation, which bedevils the Merriam model, should be straightforward and in fact a feature of this model.

Toward the Remodeling of Ethnomusicology

Figure 1.2 Hierarchy of levels in the model.

The main interpretive problem set up by the Merriam model was to find ways to relate music sound to conceptualization and behavior, and I have already written about some of the pessimism about what we have achieved. A striking recent statement of the difficulty of interpretation presented by the Merriam model comes from Worlds of Music, which uses it. Speaking of dividing music cultures into “parts” along the lines of the Merriam model, Titon et al. (1984) write: “At best, isolating parts of a music-culture for study is an oversimplification; at worst, an untruth. But given the limitations of courses and textbooks, it is our only recourse” (p. 9). (p.54)

All of us sympathize with their dilemma precisely because it is not just a dilemma of courses and textbooks, but a dilemma for ethnomusicology as a whole. J. H. Kwabena Nketia (1985) called for “the development of an integrative technique that enables the scholar to group and regroup his data” (p. 15) and for “methods of synthesis that bring together the different aspects of music and music making in a meaningful and coherent manner” (p. 18). He called this a “challenge” for ethnomusicology, and this model is an attempt to respond to that challenge.

At the first and lowest level of interpretation, I suggest that instead of or in addition to seeking to relate the levels of Merriam’s model to each other through cause, homologies, or correspondences, we embed them within the levels of this model and ask how they contribute to the formative processes we have identified (Figure 1.3).

Toward the Remodeling of Ethnomusicology

Figure 1.3 Merriam’s levels embedded in this model.

A rich story could presumably be told about how changes in sound, concept, and behavior contribute to the historical construction of a particular kind of music (e.g., Cavanagh 1982). Another story might revolve around the social forces that maintain sound structures, assign them meaning and value, and generate behaviors consistent across both musical and nonmusical domains. A third story might treat the range of individual variation in ideas, behaviors, and music in a given musical culture. In this model, Merriam’s analytic levels can still be used, but the way they are related to one another is a little more flexible and varied than a monolithic search for causes and homologies, and thus easier to achieve. Furthermore, instead of sanctioning formal descriptions of either sound, cognition, or behavior, as interesting as they might be, this model demands an interpretation of what our descriptions imply about our knowledge of fundamental formative processes. For example, a formal (p.55) analysis of the “music sound itself” might yield interpretations of a piece’s importance in the historical construction of the style, of individual creative processes as evidenced in the piece or performance, or of elements in the cultural or social system that affected elements of form. Good writing in ethnomusicology already does these sorts of things, and that is why I claim that the interpretations demanded by this model are relatively easy and enormously varied. It is a rich model allowing for a variety of perspectives, not a narrow model with a single perspective.

Moving to a second, higher level in this model, we can ask how its parts interrelate to generate interpretations. Two main structural problems with Merriam’s model have led to problems of interpretation, whereas this model solves them. First, in the Merriam model, music sound is directly contrasted to behavior and cognition. Having separated music from context in this artificial way, we have struggled ever since to put this particular Humpty-Dumpty back together again. In the model proposed here, the analysis of music, the study of the music sound itself, is demoted to a lower level of the model, while people’s actions in creating, experiencing, and using music become the goal of the inquiry. Instead of trying to find homologies between unlike things—sound, concepts, and behaviors—this model tries to integrate and relate like things, namely, three formative processes.

The second structural problem with Merriam’s model is that the relations between his analytic levels go only in one direction and relate one level to only one other (see Figure 1.1). In this model, on the other hand, each level is connected to the other two in a dialectical, or two-way, relationship. There are simply more relationships in this model and thus more possibilities for interpretation. Each process can thus be explained in terms of the other two (Figure 1.4). Historical construction can be explained in terms of both changes in patterns of social maintenance and individual creative decisions. Individual creation and experience can be seen as determined partly by historically constructed forms as learned, performed, and modified in socially maintained and sanctioned contexts. Social maintenance can be seen as an ongoing interaction (p.56) between historically constructed modes of behavior (traditions if you will) and individual action that recreates, modifies, and interprets that tradition. Thus, the levels in this model are on a metaphorical “rubber band”: they can be pulled apart to be analyzed but they keep wanting to snap back together. This gives the model a certain dynamic, interpretive energy, to extend the metaphor, and allows the telling of many interesting stories. In general, application of this model demands a move from description to interpretation and explanation and provides a flexible, varied, and rather easy way to do it, or at least to imagine how to do it.

Toward the Remodeling of Ethnomusicology

Figure 1.4 Relationships in the model.

If we are able to identify and relate fundamental formative processes in particular ethnographic situations, then this should lead us to the third level of interpretation in the model, which is a concern for general statements about how people make music. The model thus leads us to a comparative stance with respect to music. If we can keep before us an image of fundamental formative processes that operate in many cultures, this should lead us to create microstudies that can be compared to other microstudies, as opposed to the detailed, independent, and insular studies that seem to proliferate in the ethnomusicological literature at present.

One example of how the model was used in a particular situation and had a comparative effect was a paper by Stephen Satory, a graduate student at the University of Toronto, who decided to use the model in his report of fieldwork in the Hungarian community in Toronto for the 1985 Niagara chapter meeting of the Society for Ethnomusicology. Subtitling his paper “The Role of History, Society and the Individual,” he analyzed the musical life of Hungarians in Toronto, and particularly the position and importance of the dynamic revival (p.57) movement involving improvised dancing called tanchaz, or “dance house,” begun in the early 1970s in Budapest. Although he could have focused on any part of the model, he chose to address all three parts of it. Having committed himself to the model, he was constantly forced by it to move beyond a description of what he had observed to interpretations of broader processes. In his discussion of historical construction, he periodized immigration patterns, discussed the rise of community social institutions in Toronto to support cultural expression, and distinguished five types of transmission of the tradition, many of them involving specific individual actions. As for social maintenance, he compared this tradition in three locales: in the villages of Transylvania where the forms originated, in Budapest, and in Toronto. He interpreted its lack of popularity in Toronto, compared to its importance in Hungarian venues, as a consequence of the differing political, social, and intellectual climate in the three places, concluding among other things that the unstructured, improvisational aspects of the tradition do not correspond to the goal and work-oriented values of Hungarian immigrants to Toronto. In spite of its lack of popularity and community support, however, the tradition lives in Toronto through the agency of a relatively small number of individuals who value it variously as a means of ethnic group identity, nostalgia for village life, a source of friendships, exercise, and the aesthetic pleasure of skill and virtuosity. Using the model allowed Stephen to rework his material from a number of different perspectives, and the interpretations he made of his particular data linked his work to the work of many others.

At the Niagara meeting, his paper was one of four papers on immigrant musical traditions in North America. In the discussion that followed, Stephen’s paper became the focus of comment not because it was the best researched, had the richest data, or concerned the most colorful tradition, but because it was the only paper that went beyond description to interpretation. The interpretations linked his specific research to wider issues that all of us were interested in and could discuss. Perhaps we should not ask much more from a model than that it increases the possibilities for communication among us.

The fourth level of interpretation would eventually identify what is shared and what is unique about music in the repertoire of human behaviors. Something like this level was suggested by Blacking (1979: 11): “the aim of ethnomusicological analysis is to reveal what is peculiar to the process of making and appreciating music, as distinct from other social activities.” At this level ethnomusicology would contribute to comparative studies in many cognate fields and to our knowledge of humankind in general. If the fundamental formative processes in music are conceived as historical, social, and individual, then the (p.58) eventual identification of musical processes will connect music to the rest of human behavior and music study to the rest of the academic world.

Relations to Other Disciplines

Finally, this model of an ethnomusicology that includes historical, anthropological, and psychobiological components and concerns could be a model for a unified, rather than a divided, musicology. This is a satisfying conclusion because it reflects the direction in which some ethnomusicologists have wanted to move for years. Ethnomusicologists often possess a sort of missionary zeal that they have a corner on the best, most proper, and widest perspective on music and that ethnomusicology is in fact musicology.13 But it is not helpful to downplay or ignore the significant achievements of historical musicology in favor of a claim that we have all the right answers. Historical musicologists have much to teach ethnomusicologists about historical and individual creative processes, just as we have much to teach them about the powerful forces of contemporary culture on musical sound structures and the social and cognitive bases of musical experience.

When ethnomusicologists speak of musicology, they seem to regard its primary methodological stance as analytical and product oriented (e.g., Qureshi 1981), but at least some historical musicologists seem to work from perspectives not incompatible with those of ethnomusicologists. Anthony Seeger (1985: 349), in his review of the New Grove coverage of the many “ologies” of music, points out that Vincent Duckles, in his article on musicology, “at least raises the serious possibility that … all musicology becomes ethnomusicological in focus” (p.59) and calls part of the article “an excellent summary of an important ethnomusicological perspective.” As he points out, “no single perspective [on music] will ever be more than a perspective” (p. 351). The model proposed here may solve this problem of isolation and of unitary perspective by demanding the integration of perspectives at one level of interpretation.

The historical musicologist Richard Crawford likens his approach to that of a mapmaker in search of it all, as opposed to a prospector in search of a few treasures,14 and Friedrich Blume, in his 1972 essay on “Musical Scholarship Today,” defines a musicology that “embraces all fields of musical activity in all periods of history and all peoples and nations” (p. 16). He regards himself as a historian and musicology as a branch of history in much the way that many ethnomusicologists regard themselves as anthropologists, with ethnomusicology as a branch of that discipline. As a consequence of his view that musicology is a branch of a discipline with much wider social and cultural concerns, in his case history, he speaks about a musicology that has a broad reach, rather than a narrow analytic focus. Among other things, he calls for a study of “the mental processes shaping [sounds]” (p. 16) and regards as “dangerous” an isolated view of music that forgets “the impact of music in our social life and the role played by music in humanity” (p. 27).

If historical musicologists with deep roots in the discipline of history have such ethnomusicologically orthodox views, it would seem to follow that a complete musicology—one concerned with integrating our knowledge of music into our knowledge of mental, social, historical, and spiritual processes and with the music of all peoples and nations—might best be imaged with roots in three far-reaching disciplines: history, anthropology, and psychology. Claims about whether the resulting discipline is humanistic or scientific in its orientation could perhaps be left aside once and for all. Blacking and Gourlay, in their search for what is life enhancing about music; Feld, in his search for the sources of emotional content in music; and the Beckers, in their desire to interpret rather than explain musical cultures, have adopted value-based, personal, and difficult-to-compare orientations traditionally associated with the humanities. Some historical musicologists, on the other hand, perhaps (p.60) taking their cue from developments in history generally and also in ethnomusicology, write about studying music “in the past” rather than “of the past” (Treitler 1982); the “vast masses” and their lives and music, as well as the great heros and great masters; and the social life and mental processes of music—orientations traditionally associated with the social sciences. We seem to be living in an ecumenical age when the disciplines to which we are “sub” are moving closer together. Musicology must take part in that movement. We can both benefit from it and contribute to it. Such a musicology also has a much better chance than our present divided versions of making significant contributions to our knowledge of humankind.

If we are able to create a unified musicology willing to make bold interpretive statements about the nature of the formative processes in music, the result would be a new and stronger discipline.15 Musicology, which now has a rather limited profile and impact in the wider academic world, could take its proper place alongside its cousins in the other humanities and social sciences as a discipline making engaging and coherent claims about people and their artistic, social, and intellectual behaviors.


Bibliography references:

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———. 1985. “Integrating Objectivity and Experience in Ethnomusicological Studies.” The World of Music 27(3): 3–19.

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———. 1985. “General Articles on Ethnomusicology and Related Disciplines [in the New Grove].” Ethnomusicology 29(2): 345–351.

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(1.) For a recent list of “research models” in ethnomusicology, see Modir (1986).

(2.) Carol Robertson (1984: 450) complained of the “dozens of dissertations” that comment on “ecology, geography and history without tying these introductory chapters into subsequent chapters on musical sounds.”

(3.) Larry Shumway (1986) criticizes Worlds of Music for a “social science orientation” with not enough emphasis on aesthetics and the personal experience of music, a sign that he and others still resist the emphases of much recent research and writing.

(4.) While the best writers in any field probably have no need for simple models, it strikes me that models may be particularly helpful to students and others trying to find a context for their work. I did a casual survey of dissertations completed in the last seven years at US schools of ethnomusicology and was surprised, perhaps naively, to find that few contextualized their work even perfunctorily within a general theoretical framework in ethnomusicology—they simply considered a particular musical tradition and previous scholarship on it. (The exceptions tended to be work on ethnicity and identity, for which there is a clear and identifiable body of literature.) In effect, ethnomusicology does not exist as a discipline in these dissertations. If they can be taken as an indicator of the field, then ethnomusicology is, as Blacking (1971: 94) has lamented, “little more than a meeting ground for those interested in the anthropology of music and in music of different cultures.” A model, particularly an inclusive one of the sort being suggested here, might allow a higher percentage of students and scholars than at present to imagine the general shape of the field and the place of their work in it.

(5.) While the perspectives brought to bear on Western and non-Western music often seem different, that does not imply, as Kerman (1985: 174) has suggested, that “Western music is just too different from other musics, and its cultural contexts too different from other cultural contexts” to allow ethnomusicological research to “impinge directly on the study of Western music.” It is not the music and contexts that are so different as to preclude comparative study so much as it is the mainstream approaches and values in the two areas that often seem to be at odds.

(6.) Another slightly more cumbersome way to articulate the question might be:

Toward the Remodeling of Ethnomusicology

The question might also be phrased, how and why do people make music?, but the answer to the “why” question may follow rather naturally from a consideration of “how.” In any case, Herndon and McLeod (1979) and Erdman (1982), among others, have all retreated from asking why to asking how. Blacking (1976b: 4) has pointed out that there are important senses in which music makes man, but while this is an engaging aphorism, I prefer the notion that man is always the active agent in the creation, experience, and maintenance of music.

(7.) J. H. Kwabena Nketia (1981, 1985) has struggled with the problem of defining the field in two interesting articles. Among other things, he is critical of a shift of emphasis from musical experience to the behavior that surrounds music and the assumption “that there is a one-to-one correspondence and a relationship of causality between aspects of music and aspects of culture and society… . The assumption is not easily demonstrated even for individual cultures” (1981: 24–25). In his 1985 study he complains that “current approaches in ethnomusicology tend to be monistic or characterised by one dimension of music” (p. 12). He then goes on to call for “the development of an integrative technique that enables the scholar to group and regroup his data” (p. 15) and for “developing methods of synthesis that bring together the different aspects of music and music making in a meaningful and coherent manner” (p. 18)—precisely the kind of approach being modeled here. He goes on to construct a categorization of the field based on “three cognitive dimensions of music” (p. 14), which really are more like three methodological stances vis-à-vis music: as culture, as the object of aesthetic interest, and as language. He claims that his cognitive dimensions provide scope for this integrative approach but, without demonstrating how this might happen, leaves it as a “challenge” for ethnomusicology. In fact, it may be precisely this sort of methodological classification, which seems to separate rather than unite us, that may have to be overcome or altered.

(8.) The thrust of this model may, at first glance, appear to be insular and academic, in comparison to Gourlay’s simultaneously pessimistic and activist “humanizing ethnomusicology.” In fact, the model has as an important component of its social matrix the teaching enterprise. What are the important lessons about music that we want to convey in the course of a pedagogical process that, at its best and most optimistic, ought to be “humanizing”? I see a great potential for a model like this at least to humanize the environments in which we work and the students and colleagues whom we teach.

(9.) A third approach to historical issues is Kay Shelemay’s (1980: 233) notion of “historical ethnomusicology,” which involves “the potential that a synchronic study holds for illuminating the historical continuum from which it emerged,” a remarkable reversal of the usual claims about the ability of history to illuminate the present. (For another recent reversal of the usual approach to history, see Yung’s [1987] notion of “historical interdependency” as a process by which the new affects the perception, construction, and revision of the past.) Shelemay thinks that “the lack of emphasis on historical studies is the result of the break with historical musicology.” The lack of emphasis, however, may be more in theory than in practice. Although our methods rest heavily on fieldwork and an implicitly synchronic approach to the “ethnographic present,” a large percentage of our published work focuses on processes of change, either directly observed or reconstructed from previously available data. We have, in practice, identified change and historical processes not just as one of many processes, but as a fundamental one. Probably historical processes and interpretations have been resorted to as convenient interpretive gestures when social and cultural processes and interpretations were not observed or were more problematic.

(10.) Gourlay (1982: 142) objects that analysis is not an approach “to understanding what happens when men and women make music,” but it may be a key to understanding what happened when people made music, to reconstructing past experience, and to understanding musical creativity (e.g., Cavanagh 1982).

(11.) Bielawski (1985) attempts to develop a full-blown theory of historical perspectives in ethnomusicology and emphasizes them—perhaps not surprising for an Eastern European—in his statement of basic goals for the field: “To study music from various historical points of view should be the aim of contemporary ethnomusicology” (p. 14). He goes on to argue that systematic and historical perspectives are “supplementary and interdependent,” but like so many other claims along this line, he does not go on to say how precisely this might work.

(12.) McLean (1980: 53): “The one means of compiling a ‘history’ of Oceanic music is to begin with music styles as currently practised.” The study and description of musical styles on the modern map is the beginning of an attempt to reconstruct history (see Nattiez [1982] for an example of a theoretical map with historical density).

(13.) What will this discipline be called? Gilbert Chase (1976), in a pointed and delightful polemic on the relationship between history, anthropology, and musicology, decries the divisions within the discipline and points out a terminological shift since the days of Adler (1885) and Haydon (1941), and a significant retreat from the promise held out by the Harrison, Hood, and Palisca volume of 1963 entitled simply Musicology: “We have not yet—unfortunately—reached that point in time at which the term musicology is generally accepted as signifying the total study of music in human culture … musicology, without any qualifier, has been tacitly appropriated by the historical branch of that discipline” (pp. 231–232). The terminological situation since the mid-1970s has not improved, although one could cite the 1977 International Musicological Society meeting in Berkeley and the New Grove as evidence of a theoretical improvement. If usurpation of the term musicology was tacit in the mid-1970s, it is explicit in the 1980s with the publication of Kerman’s Contemplating Music and the formation in 1982 of the Journal of Musicology, which, although it has an ethnomusicologist on the editorial board, pointedly ignores ethnomusicological concerns in its statement of purpose: “A quarterly review of music history, criticism, analysis, and performance practice.”

(14.) Richard Crawford (1985: 2), speaking for the field of American music studies, also carves out an orientation very close to ethnomusicological principles: “For scholars of American music in recent years have more and more looked beyond the selective, aesthetically dominated perspective of the concert hall and begun to consider any kind of music made in America as potentially significant. They have broadened their focus from Music with a capital M to music-making: in John Blacking’s phrase, from product to process.” He goes on to propose a journalistic who-what-where-when-how model, very similar to one proposed by Anthony Seeger (1980), that gets at issues dear to the hearts of ethnomusicologists.

(15.) Helen Myers (1981: 43) calls for a rigorous scientific approach based on Popper’s notions of falsifiability: “What is required of us is to pose adventurous and imaginative conjectures and then strengthen them by systematically attempting to prove them false.” While I share her enthusiasm for “adventurous and imaginative conjectures,” the interpretive approach advocated here may not lead to directly falsifiable statements (Dentan 1984), but rather to complex “stories” that can only be compared using criteria such as completeness, cogency, inclusiveness, and so on.