Tag Archives: Herb Alpert School of Music

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.