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I Buried Ethnomusicology

I Buried Ethnomusicology

Commentary on recent developments at the musicology department in Amsterdam

Wim van der Meer

The very prefix ethno- had grated on my nerves since the time I was a student of cultural and social anthropology at Amsterdam University. Ethnology was something they were doing in Leiden, a remnant of colonial studies. That connotation lingers on in expressions like ‘ethnic clothing’, ‘ethnic food’ and ‘ethnic music’, and it is part of a worldview that centers around the externally constructed binary ‘the west and the rest’.  In musicology this hegemonic thinking has been very pernicious. No linguist (today) would consider linguistics the study of English/French/German (or Spanish/Portuguese/Italian) while terming ethnolinguistics as the study of all other languages. But musicologists and those who label themselves “ethnomusicologists” do.  Even outside of the boundaries constructed by scholarship in music we understand that musics are frequently partitioned by these identifications referring to musics  as belonging to a body of arts that are western music, thus denominating all other musics as ethnic (or the later term [1] world music).  Ethnomusicologists around the world further reinforce and endorse this world hearing by the very fact that they maintain the binary of musicology and ethnomusicology— a binary many of them acknowledge as obsolete. This is hypocrisy of an absurd magnitude when one considers that by sustaining a defunct binary while yet acknowledging its emptiness many of them implicitly or explicitly support the idea that ‘western’ music is the only real music, or at least the best, the highest, the most developed, and therefore universal. In the past it was common to consider the study of primitive or ethnic music as a way to know the origins of what had become the pinnacle of musical development, including Curt Sachs, Walther Wiora and Jaap Kunst. This unilinear evolutionism is a classical example of primitive ethnocentric reasoning. Sadly, even some of my contemporary colleagues entertain such views.

Over the course of my career, I challenged this binary in our department and proposed that there can and should be only one musicology, a musicology that can study any music, from anywhere or any time, as Charles Seeger had argued in the SEM meeting of 1958 (Notes 1959). One of my colleagues pointed out that the fundamental difference between ‘western’ music and all other music lay in the prominence of writing, that the study of ‘western’ music was consequently primarily the study of scores. He had a point, but there were two enormous problems with it. First, there is so much more to ‘western’ music than scores, and it was the pursuance of this “more” which eventually gave rise to a ‘new musicology’. Secondly, every music has its own uniqueness and whatever is the nature of that uniqueness cannot be a basis for claiming a hegemonic position owing to the fact that no particular uniqueness is more unique than other uniquenesses. In the case of musicology this idea of hegemony has led to the appropriation of the general term musicology by the ‘ethnic’ domain of European music. In Seeger’s word, ‘western’ musicology hijacked the term (Notes 1959). Interestingly, the uniqueness of Hindustani classical music may lie especially in its development of melodic proliferation, the infinite wealth of music between the notes, which cannot be caught by any kind of notation or transcription. In fact, we can argue that ‘western’ music lost its potential for melodic refinement as it became more and more dependent on writing and concurrent sounds (harmony/polyphony). But that is not very relevant to the issue of burying ethnomusicology.

It was not only in the department of musicology that this debate flourished – it was even more heated in Bake society. The Arnold Bake society was founded in 1984 as an  counterpoint to the (then) ethnomusicological centre “Jaap Kunst”. By the 1980s prominent members suggested that the name ‘ethnomusicology’ was stale, and so the board of the society informally changed the name to ‘society for ethnomusicology and world music’. In 2006 the president Frank Kouwenhoven, felt the society was no longer functioning and proposed a shut down. In a lively meeting of its members that idea was rejected and I became the new president, with a new board.  The first thing we did was to get rid of ethnomusicology in the name of the society. Though there was a large support for that change there were also a few die-hard ethno-fans. The main problem, however, was to find an acceptable alternative, which after years was finally formalised as ‘Bake Society for the Study of the Performing Arts World Wide’.

In the department of musicology at the University of Amsterdam, meanwhile,  I was not so much looking for a new label as for a new way of looking at music and musicology. In the course of my search I had started out with the paradigm of Adler (1885, transl. 1981).

  1. HISTORICAL (History of music according to epochs, peoples, empires, nations, regions, cities, schools of art, artists)
    1. paleography (notations)
    2. categories of forms
    3. historical sequence of laws
    4. musical instruments
  2. SYSTEMATIC (Establishing of the highest laws in the individual branches of tonal art)
    1. laws of harmony, melody and rhythm
    2. aesthetics
    3. pedagogics
    4. musicology (comparison for ethnographic purposes)

The description of the last subdivision is quite interesting:

A new and very rewarding adjacent field of study to the systematic subdivision is ‘musicology’, that is, comparative musicology. This takes as its task the comparing of tonal products, in particular the folk songs of various peoples, countries, and territories, with an ethnographic purpose in mind, grouping and ordering these according to the variety of [differences] in their characteristics. (Adler & Mugglestone 1885, transl. 1981)

Adler’s outline makes a lot of sense, especially when it was complemented by Seeger’s idea of orientations, insisting that the historical and the systematical cannot be separated – that they work together. What seems to be missing or at best implicit in his scheme is the ecology of music, the cultural and social dimensions. Ethnomusicology, the anthropology (and sociology) of music, and later ‘new’ musicology have all contributed enormously to the contemporary understanding that apart from the historical and systematic orientations we also need to consider and account for a cultural dimension. This approach thus came to be called the cultural analysis of music, or in short, cultural musicology. Kerman (1985) referred to cultural musicology as the invention of Chase (1972: a ‘better’ name for ethnomusicology–in the same way Jaap Kunst (1950) had proposed ethno-musicology as a ‘better’ name for comparative musicology). Kramer (2002/3) coined the term again as a ‘better’ name for new musicology. None of them (pace google) had come across Fidelis Smith’ article (1959) in which the term and discipline was first – and very elegantly – proposed.

It felt like home to me, this “cultural musicology”, not only as a member of the Amsterdam School of Cultural Analysis, but also as a cultural anthropologist and I strongly felt that this could supersede the colonial legacy promulgated by the practices of certain branches of musicology being only engaged in the study of certain types of music. Surely, any musicologist can (and probably should) specialise in a particular music, but the methodological approach of the study would be  independent from the specialization.

Since I have retired there has been a regression to the neo-colonial Anglo-American/North Atlantic/Germanic (NATO) model, and the department now offers musicology, ethnomusicology and cognitive musicology.  Not only has ethnomusicology been exhumed, but cultural musicology has become its own vanished history. My successor, in her guise as Dr. Temperance Brennan, will soon discover who killed ethnomusicology. It wasn’t me, I just buried the subject. But the saddest part of this development is the resurrection of musicology as a distinct subject. It suggests that ethnomusicology is something outside of musicology, something else. And what would that else be? I’m sure we all know it is about real music versus ethnic music.

Obviously, this is a very disappointing alteration, and I’m sure many of the ethnofans and ethnopimps will be delighted at such a return. In Amsterdam University, professors do not choose their successors – this is done by a committee of which the departing teacher is not a member or consultant. As such, is it not surprising or uncommon to see a departure from traditions that have been established, but in this case, to revert to an old and highly debatable model seems to evince a lack of creativity and innovation.

My successor argues that this is only predicated upon a marketing strategy, that ethnomusicology is a known entity while cultural musicology is not. I will grant that ethnomusicology gets 15 times more hits on Google than “cultural musicology” [2] (and since we are speaking about Google; “cultural musicology” gets three times the number of hits of “cognitive musicology”). But I will deny that ethnomusicology is more clearly defined and understandable than cultural musicology. To start with, ethnomusicology has the unpleasant duality of being the study of ethnic music(s) and the ethnography of (world?) music.  Confused? You won’t be after looking at the site of Hugo Ribeiro. It is also rather evident that the qualifier “cultural” is more common than “ethno” (50 times in Google). Frankly, to this day, I still do not know what ethno actually signifies (if not ethnic, and what does that mean?). Furthermore, if cultural musicology, as a musicological orientation, is less known than ethnomusicology there is always the option of marketing it as new! But there is no evidence on which these marketing ideas are based – it is mere guesswork, or rather a preference based on preconception.

As a concluding remark I must add that the idea of an ethnography of music does not appeal to me any more than ethnomusicology. As Michel de Certeau argued so eloquently, the ethnological project is profoundly imperialistic, and the ethnographic project is subsidiary to it (1974). And Walter Mignolo defined ethnicity as the rationalisation of racism (Mignolo 2012). On this subject an article will appear soon at this website.


  • Adler, G. (1885). Umfang, Methode und Ziel der Musikwissenschaft. Vierteljahrschrift Für Musikwissenschaft, 1, 5-20.
  • Adler, G., & Mugglestone, E. (1981). Guido Adler’s” the Scope, Method, and Aim of Musicology”(1885): An english translation with an historico-analytical commentary. Yearbook for Traditional Music, 13, 1-21.
  • Certeau, M. de (1974). La Culture au Pluriel. Paris: Union Générale d’Éditions.
  • Chase, G. (1975). American Musicology and the Social Sciences. In B. S. Brook, E. O. Downes, & S. v. Solkema (Eds.), Perspectives in Musicology (pp. 202-26). New York: W.W.Norton. (Original work published 1972).
  • Kerman, J. (1985). Musicology. London: Fontana.
  • Kramer, L. . (2003). Musicology and Meaning. The Musical Times, 144 No. 1883, 6-12.
  • Kunst, J. (1950). Musicologica: A Study of the Nature of Ethno-musicology, its Problems, Methods, and Representative Personalities. Indisch Instituut.
  • Mignolo, Walter D.  “Decolonial Voice Lending— Interview with Dr. Walter Mignolo.” Vimeo. Accessed February 17, 2015.
  • Notes and News. (1959). Ethnomusicology, 3(2), 98-105. (transcript of the SEM meeting of 1958)
  • Ribeiro, H. L. (n.d.). Definitions of Ethnomusicology [].
  • Seeger, C. (1939). Systematic and Historical Orientations in Musicology, Acta Musicologica, Vol. 11(4), pp.121-128.
  • Smith, F. (1959). The Place of Music in a Franciscan Vocation and Apostolate. Franciscan Studies, 19, 150-168.
  • Footnotes

[1] Actually the term world music is considerably older than the term ethno-musicology, but the term only became popular in the 1980s, and that time it also took on a different meaning.

[2] I am using quotation marks as the search term, obviously without the quotation marks the number of hits is vastly greater.

Last updated on March 21, 2015


1 Comment

  1. […] field of study, which resonates with many of his colleagues and students (his response can be read here). I fully recognise the necessity of debating the disciplinary terminology that is being used, both […]

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