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Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

The seventh volume of The Roberts English Series, published in 1968, notes that several academic disciplines end with –ic. Roberts observes that some of these take the plural form, like physics and mathematics, while others, like arithmetic and music, do not. Moreover, words like mathematics “are usually construed as singular, despite the plural form.” Two oversights are made in this brief grammar lesson. First, by the 1960s, ethnomusicologists were using the term “musics.” To be fair, the discipline’s newness and relative obscurity would have made the neologism easy to pass over. Second, unlike mathematics, “musics” was meant to emphasize the multiplicity of musical expressions. It was not a singular noun in the guise of a plural, but a plural noun that challenged age-old assumptions about music.

It is hard to pinpoint when or by whom “musics” was coined. It appears in the title of the multi-volume Bibliography of Asiatic Musics, the first installment of which was printed in 1947. With the launching of the Ethno-Musicology Newsletter in 1953, the founding of the Society of Ethno-Musicology in 1954, and the development of ethnomusicology graduate programs at UCLA and elsewhere in the 1960s, musics gradually became a preferred academic term. In contrast to the singular form, which implies a monolithic phenomenon (as in the German die Musik), the plural highlights the multiplicity of cultural manifestations, each of which should be appreciated on its own merits.

Some of the earliest references to musics are found in studies on American musical styles. For instance, The Story of Jazz (1956) by Marshall W. Stearns sets out to examine “jazz in a perspective of the musics of the world to show how it differs from other music.” John A. Flower’s article “The Composer in Today’s World,” from a 1964 issue of the Michigan Quarterly Review, states: “We can talk about American music, but only in the abstract. What we have is American musics. The sum total of our musics is not at all the same reality that the term American music implies.” Neither author was an ethnomusicologist: Stearns was a jazz critic and Flower was a classical pianist. And neither was writing on music outside of his own culture. Yet both were attuned to the emerging lexicon of ethnomusicology, either through direct involvement or by absorbing the zeitgeist.

Musics received an official seal of approval with its inclusion in Alan P. Merriam’s influential tome, The Anthropology of Music (1964). Merriam was a founder of ethnomusicology, which he defined as “the study of music in culture.” While recognizing music as a universal human activity (one of the cornerstones of the discipline), he felt that the particularistic forms comprising the universal were better represented in the plural.

Since the 1960s, musics has become the signature term of ethnomusicology. Although it clashes with the general rules of grammar, it is widely used to convey the rich diversity of global musical customs, textures, and sounds.

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

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.