Much of what we’ve read in class, seems to share theoretical roots with contemporary anthropology. For instance,
“I found the dialectical tension between the individual and the ‘terrain’ of Bulgarian society captured in metaphors musicians used to describe the music they performed.” (385, “Metaphors of Power”, Buchanan)
What distinguishes the field of ethnomusicology from similar or related fields, such as anthropology? For instance, besides using a musical lens, in what ways does an ethnography by an ethnomusicologist differ from an ethnography by an anthropologist? Are there fundamental differences in theoretical framework(s) or methods? How do these similarities and/or differences affect the interpretation of the information produced through ethnomusicology?
Just as Buchanan, an ethnomusicologist, “found the dialectical tension between the individual and the ‘terrain’ of Bulgarian society captured in metaphors musicians used to describe the music they performed,” anthropologist Abu-Lughod observed a “dialectical tension between the individual and the ‘terrain’” of Bedouin society captured in the language used in the poetry of Bedouin women. In each case, the ethnographer uses a specific aspect of the culture under study as a window into the society as a whole.
Clearly, anthropology and ethnomusicology are closely related. For much of ethnomusicology’s history, the field has borrowed heavily from the theoretical models of anthropology. For instance, Malinowski’s functionalism, Evans-Pritchard’s structural functionalism, and Levi-Strauss’s structuralism have been fundamental to the development of anthropology and, subsequently, ethnomusicology. Additionally, ethnomusicology’s research methods, such as interviews and fieldnotes, are largely derived from anthropology; most notably, participant observation was used extensively by anthropologists like Bronislaw Malinowski, E.E. Evans-Pritchard, and Margaret Mead before spreading into ethnomusicology. More recent work by ethnomusicologists such as Gregory Barz have helped shift the focus of ethnomusicological fieldwork away from representation of data and toward experience, yet a similar shift has occurred in the development of anthropology, which has for years emphasized subjective experience as a defining feature of an ethnographers’ understanding of a culture. Adapting to increasing globalization and mass mediation of music, ethnomusicology has been influenced by Popular Music Studies, with its emphasis on music as commodity. This is not so different, however, from material culture studies within anthropology, which takes into consideration object fetishization and the symbolic meanings of objects (influenced both by Marxism and by semiotics/linguistics). It would seem that anthropology and ethnomusicology may not have any important theoretical distinctions besides ethnomusicology’s use of a musical lens.
The two fields do have different theoretical roots, however. Unlike anthropology, ethnomusicology has roots in comparative musicology. When the Society for Ethnomusicology began in the 50s, however, the name “comparative musicology” had been abandoned and the system of comparative methods was considered obsolete (at least by F.A. Kuttner). But the early issues of the SEM journal that we explored suggest that comparison was still central to the work of ethnomusicologists. Much of their work discussed broad stylistic trends and often made sense of “folk” musics in terms of Western art music structures. These ethnomusicologists were in the vein of the founder of comparative musicology, Bela Bartók, who focused on music as representative of national identity. His approach compared musical styles and initially treated cultures as bounded entities. And though ethnomusicology has come a long way, no longer treating music cultures as bounded entities and de-emphasizing Western musical ideologies, a common thread can still be traced back to these roots. Many ethnomusicologists’ primary object of study is still music itself (if not in actuality, then at least as seen from some perspectives outside the discipline).
This can be seen in the work of Alan Merriam, who observed the emergence of two paths in ethnomusicology, one focusing on sound and the other on behavior. Merriam, who wrote The Anthropology of Music, promoted ethnomusicology as the study of “music in culture,” or later, “music as culture.” The more musically-inclined Mantle Hood, on the other hand, focused on studying music in its cultural context. An important question remains: does an ethnomusicologist study music for music’s sake, because it has some intrinsic value as music, or does she or he study music to understand the social processes of the people involved? Even in modern ethnomusicology, both approaches can be observed. And where the former approach is preferred, ethnomusicology begins to veer away from anthropology.
Perhaps because of these different theoretical roots, ethnomusicology is largely yet to be embraced by anthropologists, and I think this separation between the fields results in different interpretations of their work. Though ethnomusicologists have spent years working against the Western notion of music as a special realm accessible only to musicians (a notion historically encouraged by Western scholars of musicology) the reality of their work may pose a contradiction. For even if the idea is not promoted by ethnomusicologists themselves, outside perspectives cast music as the central focus of the field – ethnomusicologists, as musicians, have a unique insider perspective unavailable to non-musicians. Thus it is possible that ethnomusicologists, by their very existence, may inadvertently perpetuate the Western notion of individual musical talent within academia. Perhaps this is why many anthropologists have been reluctant to study music, despite the many commonalities between the fields.