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Home » Laudan Nooshin – ‘A rose by any other name …’: ‘Cultural Musicology’ and its Premises

Laudan Nooshin – ‘A rose by any other name …’: ‘Cultural Musicology’ and its Premises

Laudan Nooshin

This paper focuses on the premise of a cultural musicology, offering an admittedly personal response to some of the questions set out on the conference website, and playing the role of devil’s advocate to some extent. A central theme is that of alterity – the relationship between self and other: how do those of us engaged in seeking to understand music conceptualise sameness and difference? What do we share and what distinguishes or even divides us? And what are the implications for the broad domain of music studies? This was prompted in part by my recent re-reading of the chapter entitled ‘Ethnomusicology and “Cultural Musicology”’ in Joseph Kerman’s 1985 book Contemplating Music, the ways in which he understood and characterised these areas of study, and his assertion that ‘Western music [not an unproblematic category, of course] is just too different from other musics and its cultural contexts too different from other cultural contexts’ for musicologists ‘to adopt ethnomusicological methods to their own work’ (page 175). Setting aside for the moment the somewhat essentialised view of both ‘western’ and ‘other’ musics, there were interesting resonances for me with a piece of writing published almost 20 years later by Iranian scholar Azin Movahed to which I will return. Certainly I say nothing new by pointing to the central tension between the universalist aspirations of a ‘cultural musicology’ and the idea that individual musics – assuming we could agree on what a ‘music’ constitutes – demand culturally-specific approaches, methodologies and even ideologies.

Of course, Kerman was writing on the eve of the emergence of the ‘new’ musicology (or critical musicology in the UK) in which ideas drawn from ethnomusicology, critical theory, cultural studies, and so on, transformed much of what we know as ‘musicology’. Nicholas Cook has described this process as the ‘ethnomusicologization of musicology’ (2008:65), the ‘shift[ed,] in the closing decades of the twentieth century, towards the understanding of music in its multiple cultural contexts, embracing production, performance, reception, and all other activities by virtue of which music is constructed as a significant cultural practice’ (2008:49); greater scholarly reflexivity; increased attention to performance (away from the notated score); and a move towards understanding ‘music as an agent of meaning rather than just a reflection of it’, such that ‘music’s meanings … [are understood] as something constantly renewed and regenerated through social usage’ (56-7). As distinctions of ‘insider’/‘outsider’ and self/other, on which the musicology/ethnomusicology divide was initially founded, become increasingly blurred and perhaps redundant, Cook concludes that ‘distinguishing between musicology and ethnomusicology seems to me as hopeless as it is pointless’ (2008:64).

One thing is how we perceive the relationship between different areas of music study; another is what we call them. As we know, labels are bothersome. By their nature, they tend to flatten out complexity and create defined conceptual boundaries from fluid and blurred actualities. They will almost always be inadequate. And yet we can’t seem to operate without them: we need disciplinary labels to indicate what it is we do, how we do it, and how that differs from those who are not part of our scholarly ‘family’. Of course, ethnomusicologists have expended much energy seeking to define their field and its relationship with other scholarly domains. In part at least this definitional anxiety stems from fact that the named space which might by rights have been theirs – the study of music or ‘musicology’ – was already occupied; and occupied but those who for a long time were unwilling to share it. As I have suggested elsewhere, this shared historical experience of alterity arguably helped shape a contemporary disciplinary identity which endures regardless of whether the name itself – that historical residue – continues to accurately describe what ethnomusicologists do.

Perhaps as the conference website suggests, we do need a new name: after all, it would not be the first time; clearly, the field has changed a great deal since the 1950s. At its most benign the name seems to speak to an earlier age; at its least benign it arguably represents ‘a remnant of a (neo-)colonial heritage and those who call themselves ethnomusicologists wittingly subscribe to this elitist, racist and sexist ideology’ (Wim der Meer and Rebecca Erikson). And yet, and yet … even though I dislike the ‘-ethno’ prefix as much as I do the term ‘world music’, or even ‘western music’, I have to confess that it bothers me less than it used to: after all, we use terms everyday that poorly fit what they purportedly describe: for instance, the adjectives black and white to refer to people who are neither. Further, I feel no contradiction between thinking of myself as both a musicologist – in the sense of musicology as I believe it should be: a universal space for all music studies – and what I still think of as my disciplinary home of ethnomusicology (regardless of the problematic name). For others, of course, disciplinary allegiances will cut in different directions and may draw in area studies, the social sciences, and so on. That’s partly what makes the sense of belonging that many still ethnomusicologists have so interesting and I often wonder what it is that brings us together. I tend to agree with Kerman that one’s disciplinary leanings may have less to do with methodology or the specific object of study, and more with ideological sympathies. For myself, growing up as a subaltern ‘other’, it was perhaps natural to be drawn to a branch of music studies which more than any other, I believe, gives voice to those who make and experience music but have tended to be marginalised or silenced within the central narratives of musicology-as-was; and, significantly, offered a sympathetic scholarly home where I did not feel ‘othered’ through my gender or cultural background. And it is this intriguing sense – almost of loyalty – I suspect, that prompted the sharp response to Cook’s suggestion that ‘we are all musicologists now’ (addressed to a conference of the British Forum for Ethnomusicology in 2001, with an audience comprised mainly of ethnomusicologists) and which led to a re-formulation in the published version of his paper to: ‘we are all ethnomusicologists now’ (echoing Frank Harrison’s 1963 assertion that ‘it is the function of all musicology to be in fact ethnomusicology’, cited by Cook from Lieberman 1997:200).

Whilst music scholars continue – for whatever reasons, be they personal or other – to feel a sense of allegiance to particular disciplinary ‘homes’, the fact is that the work itself has become increasingly difficult to categorise according to current disciplinary boundaries. At the same time, in contrast to the dominant discourse of convergence, Georgina Born suggests that we have perhaps been overly concerned with achieving an affable consensus (she describes Cook as acting as a ‘marriage broker’, 2010:215) and asks whether, in ‘the wished-for rapprochement between the subdisciplines of music scholarship (209) … Do we perhaps give up too much of the rich and idiosyncratic patchwork of subdisciplinary histories …? Do we suppress the agonistic pleasures of continuing inter-subdisciplinary dialogues?’ (2010:206). Born proposes a ‘relational musicology’ which draws on the productive tension of what she calls the ‘agonistic-antagonistic’ mode of interdisciplinarity.

What, then does the idea of a cultural musicology – a formulation seemingly more widely used and accepted in mainland Europe than in the UK or the US – bring to this debate? Is it, as the conference website asks, a better term than ethnomusicology, and if so, does it render the latter redundant (‘are we burying ethnomusicology?’ they ask) – if indeed it refers to the same thing. In their article ‘Resonating Cultural Musicology’ der Meer and Erikson are insistent that they are not the same thing, arguing the urgency of reorganising ‘musicology entirely and in that process cultural musicology will prove to be something quite different from either ethno- or new musicology’ ( And yet their list of ‘the main underlying ideas of a cultural musicology’ are precisely those that I would recognise as central to ethnomusicology (see powerpoint); and similarly, reading the abstracts and papers for this conference there is little that I would hesitate to describe as ethnomusicological. So is it simply a matter of shedding our ‘ethno-‘ and replacing it with ‘cultural’? (I would add that we might also do well to ditch our ‘ology’ along the way). Before doing so, however, we should perhaps consider further the implications of such a move, and in particular the explanatory power of the culture concept for the study of music, a concept that has been much problematized in recent years. One perspective could be to view cultural musicology simply as a branch of music studies whose engagement with the ideas of Cultural Studies is absolutely central.

Thinking about the implications of a ‘cultural musicology’, it is interesting to consider the proliferation of adjectival qualifiers for different areas of musicology in recent years – from empirical and systematic to critical and relational. Coming back to the question of alterity, such areas of study are perhaps defined as much by what they exclude as what they include. The descriptor ‘systematic’, for instance, whilst deployed to indicate a certain area of music studies implicitly suggests that other musicologies aren’t (systematic). And the same could be said of ‘cultural musicology’; but I would argue that even the least ‘culturally-engaged’ musical analysis operates within a broad cultural framework which determines many things, including the kinds of questions that are asked, how the analysis is undertaken, and so on. Indeed, if one takes Gary Tomlinson’s anthropologically-informed understanding of culture (incidentally quoted by Kerman) as:

a construction of the historian, taking shape and gaining coherence from the reciprocal (and rich and haphazard) interaction of his evolving assumptions with his increasingly meaningful data, the events he selects for inclusion in the context. In this the cultural anthropologist and historian are exactly alike: just as there is no culture of Bali except for the anthropologists’ construal – his thick description – of it, so there is no culture of sixteenth-century Mantua apart from our interpretation … As Collingwood put it, speaking only of history: ‘There is no past, except for a person involved in the historical mode of experience; and for him the past is what he carefully and critically thinks it to be.’ It is clear as well that the artifacts of culture exist for us only insofar as we perceive meaning in them in a cultural web. And this holds alike for Balinese shadow-plays, the puppets used in them, the poem that Monteverdi set to music, and Mozart’s G-minor Symphony. (1984:357)

then arguably all musicology is cultural and the descriptor redundant. Even if one doesn’t subscribe to such a highly constructionist and interpretivist understanding of culture, certainly the extensive scholarly debate on what the cultural constitutes should perhaps give us pause before too easily adopting this adjective for a whole area of music studies.

For me a central question remains whether we need to – or indeed should – qualify our work either with an ‘ethno-’ or a ‘cultural’. Or do simply do more to reclaim the unmarked ‘musicology’ as the terrain of all music studies, cultural and – I was going to say otherwise – except that I don’t believe there is such a thing.

A final reflection on the meanings of ‘cultural’ brings me back to the opening and to my work on Iranian music. As well as asserting that Western music requires its own musicology, Kerman made the pertinent observation that ‘Though the musics of different part of the world have been studied extensively, the musicologies have remained under-exposed’. To what extent do our ongoing discussions about the relationship between the various kinds of – primarily Euro- and Anglophone musicology – take into account culturally-specific musicologies and their relationship with a universalist cultural or ethno-musicology? In a somewhat polemical attack on what she calls ‘the western hegemonic tradition of musicology’ (2003/4:86), and heavily informed by nationalist and postcolonial discourses, former University of Tehran music lecturer Azin Movahed suggests that after the 1979 revolution, Iranian musicology sought to:

… establish its own norms of scholarship and scientific enquiry (86) … on grounds free from the influence of western views, Iranian musicians are now challenging the intensive imposition of western musical thought upon their music and … helping the development of indigenous musicology and scholarship … (2003/4:88)

Reviewing literature produced in Iran between 1979 and 2001, Movahed sets up a divide between scholars in Iran and ‘western ethnomusicologists and Iranian musicologists trained in the west’ (107), claiming that the latter are:

Unable to unfold the magnitude of layers necessary in the study of Persian music. Many indigenous musicians share a common concern that western methodologies are incompatible with eastern philosophical interpretations and ignore the sophisticated expressive dimensions entwined in Persian music. (107-8)

Thus dismissing a whole body of literature, including valuable work by local scholars such as Mohammad Taghi Massoudieh who studied outside Iran. Exactly what an ‘anti-imperialist’ musicology based on ‘alternative concepts that deviate[d] from the western methodologies of research’ (85) might constitute is unclear. A perusal of recent work shows that scholars in Iran continue to use similar methodologies to those outside – if still largely rooted in positivist and structuralist paradigms – whilst also developing their own approaches. Whilst I concur entirely with the need for Iranian musicology to develop its own identity – something which is starting to happen – the idea that this can only come about through the wholesale rejection of western methods is certainly not universally shared by local scholars who variously describe their work as ‘a combination of Western musicological and analytical study with Iranian musicology’ (Mohammad Azadehfar 2006:8; he doesn’t elaborate on what the latter might comprise); others are keen to stress that their analytical methods are ‘compatible with international principles [montabeq bar osool-e beynolmelali]’ (Jalal Zolfonoun 2001:24).

Clearly, the debate is about far more than scholarly method: for Movahed, the development of local ‘ethnomethodologies’ represents a stand against the hegemony of the West; for Kerman, asserting essential differences between ‘western’ and ‘other’ musics depends on a certain understanding of power relations between ‘the West and the rest’. Both effectively argue for a partitioning of musicology in contrast to the universalist aspirations of a cultural musicology whose approaches and methodologies are applicable to all musics. This is not a new tension, of course. Charles Seeger was writing about it in the 1950s and 60s; and more recently Kofi Agawu has suggested that:

The idea that, beyond certain superficial modes of expression, European and African knowledge exist in separate radically different spheres originated in European thought, not in African thinking. It was (and continues to be) produced in European discourse and sold to Africans, a number of whom have bought it, just as they have internalized the colonizer’s image of themselves. (2003:180-1)

From this perspective, Movahed’s essentialising of scholarly difference – whilst presented as anti-imperialist by herself – could in fact be interpreted as part of a colonial mindset.

In the context of this tug of war between universalist and culturally-relative musicologies, I find myself in an interesting position. My recent work on Iranian music is heavily informed by postcolonial studies and cultural theory and fits easily within the purview of ethnomusicology/cultural musicology. In this work, I seek to disrupt some of the accepted scholarly discourses around Iranian classical music, in part by examining the relationships of authority invested in the central canonic repertoire known as radif. Among other things I examine how, in the course of the 20th century, the radif became transformed from a simple musical repertoire and starting point for creative performance into a conceptual entity and iconic emblem evoking notions of purity, authenticity, tradition and identity. As with processes of canon-formation – the privileging of one body of repertoire over others – elsewhere, the radif has arguably acted ‘as an instrument of exclusion, one which legitimates and reinforces the identities and values of those who exercise cultural power’ (Samson 2001:7); to paraphrase from Bohlman and Bergeron, the radif serves to ‘discipline’Iranian music. One of the ways in which it does this, I suggest, is through the inscription of difference: as a system of knowledge, the radif depends on a series of binary positionings according to which the normative is urban (vs rural), male (vs female), high-art (vs popular), (originally/authentically) court music (vs public), Persian-centric (vs regional ethnicities; also Iranian vs ‘foreign’), spiritual (vs corporeal), and so on. But this subsuming of Others, whether in terms of class, gender, ethnicity, and so on, takes place in what is presented as a complete, all-embracing repertoire, even expressing notions of nationhood. Whilst Iran’s geographic, cultural and religious diversity is indexed through the names of individual pieces, these are contained within and domesticated on the terms of, the dominant (Persian) culture. In other words, whilst the radif is presented as operating ‘outside power’, it arguably constitutes a kind of power which helps perpetuate such discourses.

I believe that such consideration of issues of power opens up important areas of enquiry; but these have been almost entirely neglected within Iranian music studies. Such ideas are discussed by musicians but not usually framed in terms of power relations; and never – to my knowledge – by scholars, with the sole exception of Mohammad Reza Fayaz, a music sociologist whose work I have benefitted from immensely. According to Movahed’s logic, my work would fall under the broad umbrella of a hegemonic ‘imperialist musicology’ because it is undertaken outside Iran using ‘western methodologies of research’ (85); which is ironic given my focus on seeking to understand the hegemony of the radif and its mechanisms of exclusion and silencing. What I am suggesting here is that for Movahed, a cultural musicology might well be understood as one which is culturally-relative and relevant; and certainly not the kind of musicology that I’m engaged in.

So, to conclude briefly: for me, the ‘cultural’ in cultural musicology raises many questions, both in relation to the various meanings of the term; and to questions of universality vs cultural relativism. Is the very idea of universalism at best a Euro-American/Anglophone conceit, at worst an exercise of power in itself? Or, as Agawu might argue, is it the other way round? No doubt these healthy debates around the changing landscape of music studies will continue, but any reconfiguration of that landscape should be attentive not just to labels, methodologies and scope, but to the operations of power and the relationship between self and other.


Agawu, Kofi (2003) Representing African Music. Postcolonial Notes, Queries, Positions. Routledge: New York and London.

Azadehfar, Mohammad Reza (2006) Rhythmic Structure in Iranian Music. Tehran: University of Art.

Born, Georgina (2010) ‘For a Relational Musicology: Music and Interdisciplinarity, Beyond the Practice Turn’, Journal of the Royal Musical Association 135(2):205-43.

Cook, Nicholas (2008) ‘We Are All (Ethno)musicologists Now’. In The New (Ethno)musicologies, edited by Henry Stobart, 48-67. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press.

der Meer, Wim and Rebecca Erikson (date?) ’Resonating Cultural Musicology’,

Kerman, Joseph (1985) Contemplating Music: Challenges to Musicology. Harvard University Press.

Movahed, Azin (2003/4) ‘Religious Supremacy, Anti-Imperialist Nationhood and Persian Musicology After the 1979 Revolution’, Asian Music 35(1):85-113.

Samson, Jim (2001) ‘Canon (iii)’, The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, ed. Stanley Sadie (2nd edn). Volume 5: 6-7. London: Macmillan.

Tomlinson, Gary (1984) ‘The Web of Culture. A Context for Musicology’, 19th-Century Music, 7(3): 350-62.

Zolfonoon, Jalal (1980) ‘Characteristics of Iranian Classical Music’, in Musical Voices of Asia. Report of ‘Asian Traditional Performing Arts 1978’, ed. Richard Emmert and Minegishi Yuki. pgs.29-31. Tokyo: Heibonsha Limited Publishers.

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