What is ethnomusicology all about?
July 23, 2008 11:58 PM   Subscribe

What topics are covered in ethnomusicology? What sorts of courses do ethnomusicology majors usually require? What do people with ethnomusicology degrees usually end up doing? (Much more inside)

I have a pretty strong interest in music theory (particularly tuning systems, temperaments, and their development) and in anthropology. So it seems like ethnomusicology might be a good field of study for me to dive into. But I'm still not sure what ethnomusicology really is. The definitions I have encountered seem hazy and very generalized (although I guess that's usually the case in anthropological topics), and I would like to know if there are specific topics that are always covered in the study of ethnomusicology, whether you end up researching Russian hip-hop or gamelan music or the evolution of church modes. I'd also like to know what you do with a major like that once you've actually gotten a degree. When I get a better idea of this, I hope I will get a better idea of what I want to study and how to study it most effectively (i.e. with a major, a minor, an 'undergaduate thesis' or directed study program, etc).

PS: I am 20 years old. I spent one very bad freshman year at a college I would rather not have to go back to, ending with a GPA just under 2.0. I've spent the year since then working at a low-income grind of a job, which -- while good for my character and such -- is about to make me tear my hair out. In other words, I finally feel eager to actually study and learn the topics that interest me, but I will have a tough time convincing any college of that with my current transcript. Any advice you might have about all that is welcome.
posted by Vic Morrow's Personal Vietnam to Education (8 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
I recommend looking up schools with the program you are interested in and looking at the courses they have to offer. Contact alumni from those departments and ask what they are doing now. From UCLA's website:
The undergraduate major in Ethnomusicology is offered with two concentrations: one in jazz studies and one in world music with emphases in general world music, performance composition, public ethnomusicology, and scholarly research. Admissions requires an audition/interview. The major provides students with a wide-ranging liberal arts education in music. At its core, this includes (1) comprehensive knowledge of music cultures of the world, (2) understanding of the interrelationship of music, society, and culture, (3) grounding in the basics of Western music theory and musicianship, and (4) the experience of playing in one or several musical ensembles from various traditions around the world.
Beyond the core and emphasis requirements, students in the world music concentration may, through elective courses, prepare for a variety of career goals, including the study of ethnomusicology in graduate school, composing and performing music, working in the music industry, serving society in the nonprofit section, or becoming a K-12 music teacher.

posted by greta simone at 12:29 AM on July 24, 2008

Of my friends who received degrees in ethnomusicology, one is now in law school and the other is getting a Ph.d; so it would be best to contact the schools you are interested in and seeing what types of jobs their alumni have.

For your second question, you may consider attending a local community college for a year or so to get your GPA up. Besides demonstrating that you are interested and capable in attending school, it would also be a good way to get some of your general education courses finished provided that you would be able to transfer the course credit.
posted by mcroft at 4:09 AM on July 24, 2008

I took one very good course in ethnomusicology when I was in graduate school (at a music conservatory). It wasn't "today we learn about African instruments, next week we learn about Tibetan." It was more like anthropology with a focus on music -- in other words, it was more about the people than about the sounds.

We read a lot of field research and discussed its implications, the ethics of studying a group of people, the relationship / definition of music in different cultures, etc. We also did field study with local groups.

It was really quite fascinating but not what I expected, and I didn't leave the class with an encyclopedic knowledge of "world instruments," which is what I had anticipated. In my opinion, it was better than that, but your own expectations may differ.

Off the top of my head I can't remember all of the field studies we read, but I remember being fascinated by the work of Steven Feld, who studied a South American tribe. You might want to see if you can find any of his work online and read it to get a sense of what you can do as an ethnomusicologist (but as with any career, it's probably not always this exotic / exciting).
posted by Alabaster at 5:00 AM on July 24, 2008

Most of your job options in the field will be in academia, so you may consider that you will have to get a PhD.

Irrelevant data point, but at U of MD it was referred to as the Lesbomusicology Department.
posted by electroboy at 5:09 AM on July 24, 2008

I dated a guy for 3 years while he was doing a PhD in ethnomusicology at SOAS in London. He'd done his BA in music, so I don't know much about undergrad ethnomusicology programs.

He was specifically studying Javanese gamelan [percussion orchestra], and even more specifically writing his thesis on the accompaniments of songs within shadow-puppet theatre. While doing the PhD he studied in Java for a bit, learning Malay and some Javanese, and becoming proficient in various Javanese instruments. He also trained as a shadow-puppeteer-- one of the first people in Britain to do so.

While doing the PhD and since finishing it, he taught music, conducted choirs, taught EFL, taught Malay and Javanese, and performed with gamelan groups (as well as in pubs, on the fiddle and keyboards.) It was all good work, but he was deep in debt by the time he finished. (Then again, he didn't really look for a day-job to fill in the gaps; instead he relied on his parents-- and, increasingly, on me, which was one of the factors leading to the breakup.)

I'm not in touch with him now, but I think he works for the BBC off and on-- those Malay language skills helped get him the job.

My guess is that at an undergrad level, you'll study lots of different types of music, and maybe in your final year-and-a-half you'll get specific about one field. When/if you choose that field, make sure it's something you love wholeheartedly.

This is only anecdotal, but I hope it's at least slightly helpful.
posted by Pallas Athena at 5:16 AM on July 24, 2008

I took a ethnomusicology course as an undergrad, all about Caribbean music. It dealt with the intertwined relationship of culture, politics, race, and music across the various islands. It was fantastic, largely because it was the professor's specific field of study.

As for applicability, I'd say about the same as any other liberal arts degree (I have a history degree and work in software).
posted by mkultra at 5:28 AM on July 24, 2008

I have a PhD in ethnomusicology, and I came to it through a music degree. I've always understood Ethno to be the study of how and why people make music. You want to know something about the mechanics of the music-making itself, but you want to situate that within the broader societal and global context. Music is one of the ways people make sense of their world, interact with their world, connect with others, etc. It's a thread woven through people's lives, experiences and histories. It's one of the lenses through which they see the future, the past, and the present. An ethnomusicologist is the person who follows this thread, looking for both similarities and differences between different cultures and groups, and the ways music features in the lives of people. Those similarities and differences give us an opportunity to look at music through a different lens, maybe seeing and understanding things about human music making in a new and fresh way.

Fourcheesemac will likely be here shortly to disagree with me on this. :)

What others have noted above is true; I don't work in my field, however much I may want to. The field is uber competitive, and unless your research is something that makes the eyes of the hiring committee as big as dinner plates, you need to have a plan B in your back pocket. I work at an NGO promoting the humanities and social sciences, and that's not a bad thing. The research skills sure help in this job.
posted by LN at 7:36 AM on July 24, 2008

I should note that one of the reasons why a definition of Ethnomusicology is so vague is because human music-making is so bloody all pervasive.
posted by LN at 7:47 AM on July 24, 2008

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