Ethnomusicology: A Very Short Introduction (Book Review)

Ethnomusicology: A Very Short Introduction, by Timothy Rice. New York: Oxford University Press, 2014. 151 pp.

Reviewed by Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Since its formal establishment in the mid-twentieth century, ethnomusicology has campaigned admirably against the misrepresentation of music as a detached art. Looking beyond musicology’s traditional focus on classical music and maturing beyond the romantic search for musical origins in “primitive” sounds of native peoples, ethnomusicologists have shed clarifying light on the centrality of music in the human experience. As Timothy Rice explains in his delightful primer, Ethnomusicology: A Very Short Introduction, this “discipline with an awkward name” (p. 20) combines fieldwork and theoretical tools to uncover why we are musical, how we utilize music, and what our musical-ness tells us about ourselves.

In this brief yet rich introduction, Rice, a professor of ethnomusicology at UCLA and director of the university’s Herb Albert School of Music, outlines the field’s kaleidoscopic history and multifaceted approaches. Through big picture discussions and excursions into illustrative case studies, Rice shows how a discipline that once focused on classically defined ethnic groups has broadened the term ethnos (group of people) to include “subcultures” or “microcultures” based on all sorts of social glues: work, class, peer interests, recreational experiences, and so on. Whether the music-culture of study is a remote tribe or angst-ridden suburban teens, researchers employ the same methods—namely, some combination of interviews, participant-observation, learning to sing, play and dance, documenting musical traditions, and transcribing and analyzing music. The resulting information confirms and expands upon the ethnomusicological premise that “humans make music as a constituent element of culture,” and make “connections between music and other facets of culture” (p. 65).

Rice expertly lays out the key findings of the discipline. Among them is the assertion that being “musical” does not depend on personal talent or skill, but on the basic human capacity to “make” and “make sense” of music. He notes the difficulty (impossibility?) of arriving at a blanket definition of music suitable for all culturally recognized examples. He advocates replacing “music as object” with “music as process”: “the interactions between all the human beings present during a musical event, the motivations behind their behaviors, and the significance they attach to them” (p. 6). He describes music as a multi-layered resource, encompassing social and psychological data (and interactions between them), semiotics, aesthetics, and “the construction, self-representation, and contestation of individual and social identities” (p. 73). Rice also provides the reader a glimpse into the work itself, with chapters devoted to conducting research (ch. 3), writing music history (ch. 7), and ethnomusicologists at work (ch. 9).

Two points in the book have particular interest for this reviewer. One is the emerging awareness that both stability and change are natural forces in musical cultures. Rather than assuming that change is a symptom of decline or stability is a sign of vitality, Rice explains that most cultures exhibit dynamism and persistent contact with outside influences: “People have always treated their musical traditions inventively and strategically as resources to revitalize their communities, cope with devastation and change, make older forms of music meaningful in new social and cultural environments, and move toward a hopeful future” (p. 92). The second point is that most ethnomusicologists have discarded old divisions between “traditional” and “modern” societies, replacing them with a nuanced understanding of borrowing, mixing, hybridization, syncretism, commodification, fusion, and creolization—all of which are amplified with accelerating globalization and technological developments (p. 99).

With these and other insights, Rice and the ethnomusicologists he ably represents not only explain how music functions in world cultures, but also how each of us weaves musical sounds into our daily lives.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

11 thoughts on “Ethnomusicology: A Very Short Introduction (Book Review)

  1. John Morton

    I particularly like the idea of ‘music as process’ but the idea of ethnic music as being an end in itself is possibly misplaced because it resulted from isolated pockets of humanity in primitive times (before the advent of modern methods of travel and communication) and was therefore a consequence of environmental factors rather than its being an ‘ology’. Joseph Schillinger was right about many things (but not all, in my view) and he referred to a ‘correlation of variables’ as being the essence of all music. The idea is, of course, distasteful to many because it appears to reduce music to relativity. I find some of Rice’s quoted comments difficult to understand but ethnic influences have certainly enriched music, with influences eventually becoming a permanent feature of the music migrated into. But these are stylistic considerations, possibly.

  2. jlfriedmann Post author

    Ethnomusicologists are not just interested in the music itself, but how the music is integrated into larger social phenomena. While they do examine musical elements in the group being studied, their concern is focused more on what the music does and what purposes it serves. Perhaps this helps clear up some of the quoted comments.

  3. Mike Overly

    While I appreciate the study of the interactions between all the human beings present during a musical event, etc., it seems to me that Rice has expanded the definition of Ethnomusic to the point that the prefix ethno, to which he includes “subcultures” or “microcultures” based on all sorts of social glues, is really not needed and we might as well just call it music sociology. And as for music as process, that is simply stating the obvious, since to “make” and “make sense” of music is by definition an analog process. Now, back to weaving . . .

    1. jlfriedmann Post author

      Your point about ethnicity has not escaped contemporary ethnomusicologists, several of whom regard the name of the field to be no longer relevant. “Anthropology of music,” as it is sometimes called, works for me. Now back to the Angels-Orioles game.

  4. Miamon Miller

    Professor Rice clearly defines the field of ethnomusicology as it is today and it’s pertinent to note that the discipline evolves vis a vis research goals methodoloogies, etc. as much as the music it studies. The field of ethnomusicology emerged from the late 19th and early 20th century discipline called ‘comparative musicology.’ Jaap Kunst (Netherland), Mantle Hood (UCLA) and others objected to the idea of a comparison because it predicated a standard against which another culture’s music was judged, and since the standard was inevitably the European art tradition, they felt there was an inherent bias. Kunst came up with the term ‘ethno-musicology’ in the mid 1950s to avoid this potential prejudice.

    Whether or not it’s studied as ethnic music, anthropology of music, sociology of music, etc., is predicated primarily on its history within the institution where it’s taught. At UCLA, it emerged as part of the music department albeit an autonomous part where at Indiana U it’s in the anthropology department. Ethnomusicology is however, the overarching term .

    My only quibble with Prof. Rice is the implication you need more than one person at an event for music to take place. What about the lone shepherd with his flock, tootling on his pipe? It becomes a bit like George Berkeley’s question ‘if a tree falls in the forest and no one’s present, is there a sound?’

    Miamon Miller

    1. jlfriedmann Post author

      Thanks for chiming in, Miamon. Is the notion of music always being social something Rice presents in this book? (I don’t remember reading that, and I don’t think it’s suggested in this review.) That being said, there is a sense in which the music we make is inescapably informed by social contexts, so that even when we whistle in a field, the sounds we make are colored by previous group experiences. In this sense, the social is always of paramount importance. I think Alan P. Merriam made a similar point.

      1. Miamon Miller

        Thanks Jonathan. I should have introduced myself before chiming in but after coming to the blog, reading both the review and the comments, I found myself jumping in feet first, chiming in like a regular subscriber.

        I haven’t read Professor Rice’s book but I’m familiar with the discipline and have known Tim for at least 30 years That being said, I was reacting to the following from your review: (quotes of quotes). The assumption herein is that music is a social experience and that’s undoubtedly true in the vast majority of cases… but not all and I would even take exception to your example of whistling in a field or mine of the lone shepherd. If you posit that everything is colored by group experience or the memory of group experience it strikes me as too much of a theoretical point, a sort of ‘party theory’ that everything emanates from the social context. There are just too many outliers in the world, especially if you believe as I do that classical music can be studied using many of the same methodologies as are found in ethnomusicology.

        Somewhere on my dusty shelves lies Merriam’s Anthropology of Music but I confess not having looked at it for decades; however I’m sure you’ve gotten it right. I don’t want to leave you with the wrong impression, I greatly admire Tim Rice’s grasp and elucidation of the discipline. If I have a point, other than the Berkeley analogy, it’s that we tend to look at the discipline from the platform of the here and now, as it presently defines itself with the appropriate current lingo when in truth it’s subject to the same evolutionary shape- shifts (academically speaking) as the music it studies.

  5. jlfriedmann Post author

    I’m not aware of an outlier who makes music without any reference to cultural background, but I suppose it’s possible. Then again, it is often pointed out that music preferences/conditioning begin in the womb — but I get your point about such propositions being too theoretical. My own scholarship is heavily influenced by Émile Durkheim, so I tend to resonate with the emphasis on group experience and its influence on the individual.

    Regarding your point about the evolution of the field, Rice does situate his survey in the evolutionary spectrum of ethnomusicology. He also mentions the emerging discipline of “new musicology,” which, as you probably know, applies ethnomusicological theories to classical music.

    In general, I am not of the opinion that new approaches necessarily supplant the old. There is room for peaceful coexistence, and I still enjoy comparative musicological documents — particularly those that formed the foundation of Jewish musicology. I still like Durkhiem, too, who hasn’t written anything since 1917.

    1. Miamon Miller

      Good points. We’re all influenced by our first brush with the ideas that fire our imagination and intellectual curiosity. And I agree, there should be room for old viewpoints coexisting alongside the new. Practically speaking, it’s a rocky terrain as those professors with the music as object mentality are more or less grandfathered by virtue of tenure into an academic landscape more and more dominated by the proponents of music as process.

      When I fell into the field of ethnomusicology at UCLA in the late 1960s, I didn’t know it was in its early days as a discipline. I was just a kid who wandered through the door. Looking back retrospectively, I see now that it was dominated by Mantle Hood’s Institute of Ethnomusicology and his training theory of bi-musicality- the rationale behind the music department’s vast array of world music performance course offerings. Hood felt that students studying a world music culture need to develop fluency in the making of that music to not only better understand it as an object, but to relate to those native musicians playing it. The implication was that ethnomusicologists were themselves at the least, monolingual musicians. Although this differed significantly from comparative musicology, I think it was more a shift rather than a wholesale change (3.5 on the Richter scale). The ethnomusicologist still needed basic musical tools. Simultaneously at Indiana, Alan Merriam postulated a different music-in-culture approach and over time, this music as process model has carried the day- with good reason.

      In the later ’70s I did a year’s worth of fieldwork in Romania. The researchers in that country’s ethnographic institute were all essentially in the old school comparative musicology mold a la Bartók. Looking back now, I suspect that was a disconnect with communist party theory but I don’t believe the paradox was apparent. I certainly didn’t think of it then. I wonder if Tim felt this when he was in Bulgaria.

      that’s it for now… thanks for listening.


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