Is All Music Ethnic?

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

“If all music is ethnic music, then the ethnicity of programmed music is capitalism.” This provocative statement appears in Jonathan Sterne’s widely cited study of piped-in music at the Mall of America (Bloomington, Minnesota). According to Sterne, the music of that commercial space is the soundtrack of a loose community of shoppers engaged in a culturally specific ritual of browsing and buying—an activity that tacitly reaffirms the principals of capitalism.

Sterne’s observations are indebted to David P. McAllester, a founder of ethnomusicology who coined the phrase “all music is ethnic music” in his introspective essay, “The Astonished Ethno-Muse.” McAllester was drawn to the historically rich and meaning-laden ceremonial music of the Navajo Nation. He later realized that his focus on particularistic practices distracted him from the Navajos’ broader penchant for country and western music. He came to appreciate record stores and radio stations as important research locales, and to see ethnomusicological potential in all socio-musical contexts: “We are so captivated by the panpipes in the hawthorns that we hardly hear the music on the TV show in the living room.”

Sterne’s paper was published almost twenty years after McAllester’s (1997 and 1979 respectively), and McAllester’s epiphany came two decades after the field of ethnomusicology was formally established. Thus, in the space of roughly forty years, the discipline had grown from a narrow interest in “exotic” sounds of native peoples to include subcultures based on a range of social glues: work, class, peer interests, recreational experiences, etc. Navajo ceremonies and holiday shopping were placed side by side without any irony or cynicism.

Mature ethnomusicology, as it is sometimes called, has retrieved the core meaning of “ethnos” as a social entity. The term dates to the writings of Herodotus (c. 484-425 B.C.E.), who defined Greek identity as kinship (homaimon: “of the same blood”), language (homoglosson: “speaking the same language”), and customs (homotropon: “of the same habits”). To be sure, this tripartite classification does not apply to all national ethnicities, let alone other groups of people (the blood requirement is particularly problematic). But the elements of language and customs remain central to ethnicities of all types and stripes.

Language here is not just verbal and written communication, but also a complex of sounds (including musical), gestures, movements, shapes, symbols, colors, and attire. Likewise, customs are not just formal rituals, holiday observances, or heritage recipes, but also habits and informal activities common to a population (fast food, morning commutes, picnics, loitering, etc.). Hence, the ethnicity of shopping mall muzak, Navajo country radio, and music on American television. In short, because humans exist in groups and human music is fundamentally social, all music is ethnic music.

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

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