Is cultural musicology a new term for ethnomusicology?

That was the proposal of Gilbert Chase in 1972, and he had some good reasons. He thought ethnomusicology was very much focussed on “non-western” musics, and felt that many musics were not being studies by either ‘musicologists’ or ‘ethnomusicologists’.

The term “ethnomusicology” seems rather restrictive in the context of its wide geographical, temporal, and cultural scope. It may be entirely appropriate, for example, to the musical study of an American Indian tribal culture. But why should it be applied to the study of Japanese court music or to the art music of India? I agree in principle with Seeger’s statement that we should extend “the techniques of ethnomusicology to the music of the Occident–its fine, popular, and folk arts, regarded as one integrated unit.” I favor the idea of an “ethnomusicology” of Western music; but I do not favor the terminology: it is too narrow and inappropriate for the intended purpose (conversely, it is good and useful for other purposes). What we need is a term of larger scope that will contain the same idea–namely, the sociocultural approach to musicology. For this I propose the term “cultural musicology” –by analogy with “cultural anthropology.” (220)

In 1974 Michel de Certeau characterised ethnology as a profoundly colonial and imperialist endeavour and many cultural anthropologists wanted to have nothing to do with ethnology. But cultural musicology is not just a new name for ethnomusicology. For one thing, cultural musicology certainly does not stay away from the European tradition of music. But also, there are many new directions (check the page on cultural musicology).

Is cultural musicology a new term for new musicology?

Lawrence Kramer proposed this in his 2003 article in which he suggested the “fast ageing” new musicology would better be named cultural musicology.

The name best suited for the fast-ageing ‘new musicology’ is probably ‘cultural musicology’. But the term ‘cultural’ here should not be taken in its traditional sense. Cultural musicology often draws largely on postmodernist models of knowledge that take a sceptical (but not dismissive) view of conceptual synthesis and aesthetic autonomy. (6)

Kramer has later suggested he prefers the designation “critical musicology”, though he considers them more or less interchangeable. It is interesting that “cultural musicology” has been claimed from both the new musicological and the ethnomusicological sides, which in a way is not surprising given the interaction between ethnomusicology and ‘musicology’ that Claude Palisca had prophesied in 1963 (quoted in Cook 2008: 48).

Is cultural musicology the confluence or sum of ethnomusicology and new musicology?

New musicology is rooted in the study of the history of ‘the European tradition’, and ethnomusicology has focussed on the music of ‘most of the world’. Cultural musicology wants to transcend this binary of ‘west/rest’, especially in view of the developments in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

Is cultural musicology a new branch of musicology?

No, the term exists in English since 1959 (Smith), in French even since 1936 (Revue des Sciences Philosophiques et Théologiques). But the antecedents and the ethos of cultural musicology go back to ancient times. Plato and Confucius formulated ideas between the relation between culture, society and music. Cosmologies based on musical theories are even much older.

Can I study cultural musicology somewhere?

The music department of Göttingen University (Birgit Abels) has a two-year MA program of cultural musicology. In Amsterdam (Barbara Titus) the one year MA program can be fully tailored to cultural musicology. There is also a two year ‘research master’ in cultural analysis, which can be focussed on cultural musicology. In Finland the musicology programs of Turku University (John Richardson, Yrjö Heinonen) and Jyväskylä University (also John Richardson) have a distinct cultural musicology flavour. Newcastle University in the UK has a pathway in Theoretical and Cultural Musicology. The University of Cambridge (Nicholas Cook, Ruth Davis a.o.) has a research area in cultural musicology.

So what’s new about cultural musicology anyway?

There are so many unexplored aspects of thinking about music that cultural musicology would like to investigate. Musicology in all its manifestations in European academia is really very limited. Thinking about music in different cultures has hardly been a topic of serious enquiry. Often it has been dismissed as dogmatic gibberish, repetitions of ancient lore that has sacred authority. This is a colonial approach and a corollary of it has been to study and analyse musics around the world in terms of and with the descriptive tools of the European tradition. This was the method of comparative musicology and has also remained predominant in ethnomusicology.

Is cultural musicology related to world music studies?

The terminology world music and world music studies was current among scholars, impresarios and musicians of all music other than European art music and  North Atlantic jazz and pop. In the last decades of the 20th century it was the bin in record shops for music they couldn’t categorise. It has generally focussed on musical practice rather than reflection, especially in the conservatoires and music departments (see for instance Bor 1995, 2008). World music can include all music from everywhere (except the genres mentioned before), but sometimes it is also used in a more narrow sense, referring to various types of fusion. In that case we also come across the term world beat. World music scholars generally do not consider themselves to be ethnomusicologists. As Bor put it: ethnomusicology studies music in context, whereas world music studies focusses on music out of context. Cultural musicology is really quite unrelated to world music studies, as it takes interest in all music without exception and has a strong emphasis on reflection.

Is intercultural musicology related to cultural musicology?

Not really. Intercultural musicology was an idea proposed by Akin Euba, who is currently director of the Centre for Intercultural Musicology at Churchill College, with as its credo:

The movements of people around the world and the cultural contacts arising therefrom have always resulted in the mixing of musics. One can hardly find any “authentic” music existing in the world today and even the so-called traditional types have in historical times been subjected to innovation through cultural contact. It can therefore be said that interculturalism in music is likely to be as old as music itself.

The perspective of intercultural musicology is therefore quite specific, while cultural musicology aims to be much wider. That said, it should also be added that many of the ideas put forth by Euba are quite pertinent to the contemporary music scene. In passing, it may be remarked that the very term ‘intercultural’ is often considered vague. Many scholars prefer Fernando Ortiz’  transcultural which implies a stronger engagement, but perhaps we’re getting too doxographical now.
Wim van der Meer


Bor, J. (1995). Studying world music: The next phase. In A. Gutzwiller & M. Lieth-Philipp (Eds.), Teaching musics of the world: The second international symposium, basel, 14-17 october 1993 (pp. 61-81). Affalterbach, Germany: Philipp Verlag.

Bor. J. (2008). En toen was wereldmuziek en werelddans. [And then there was world music and world dance]. Leiden: Universiteit Leiden, inaugural speech, Dutch and English text.

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)

Cook, Nicholas. (2008). We are all (ethno)musicologists now. In Stobart, Henry (Ed.), The new (ethno)musicologies (pp. 48-70). Lanham, Md.: Scarecrow Press.

Kramer, L. (2003). Musicology and meaning. The Musical Times, 144 No. 1883, 6-12.

Revue des Sciences Philosophiques et Théologiques. (1936). , 25(2), index “musicologie culturelle”.

Smith, F. (1959). The place of music in a franciscan vocation and apostolate’. Franciscan Studies, 19, 150-168.

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