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What Does an Ethnomusicologist Do?

By Gregory Hanson
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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An ethnomusicologist studies and analyzes music in specific cultural contexts. Ethnomusicology is an interdisciplinary field and weaves together methods and approaches from several different fields in the humanities, although the study of music and anthropology are often central to this work, and this discipline typically involves a mixture of fieldwork and publication. Many ethnomusicologists are affiliated with institutions of higher learning, but some also work in the music and culture industries.

Fieldwork is at the heart of most work in this area. An ethnomusicologist will attempt to observe musical traditions being acted out in their original and typical cultural contexts. In the course of this observation, an ethnomusicologist will pay particular attention both to the structure of the music and to the meanings that are attached to the music as it is performed, listened to, and experienced.

In many cases, an ethnomusicologist will approach fieldwork as a participant observer and become a participant in the musical culture that is the object of study. One of the most important ethnomusicologist job duties during this sort of fieldwork is to refrain from shifting the meaning of the cultural experience more than absolutely necessary. All observation produces some sort of change in the system being studied, but an ethical ethnomusicologist attempts to have the smallest impact possible.

Information collected during fieldwork provides the raw material that an ethnomusicologist uses to create a scholarly analysis of a particular musical tradition or community. Members of this discipline often draw on the theoretical tools of several different fields, such as the thick description used to convey meaning by certain anthropologists or the careful attention to details of class and status, wealth and power that are used by some sociologists. Cultural theory is also commonly used to contextualize and explain the role of music in given circumstances.

Most often, an ethnomusicologist will pursue his work while affiliated with a college or university. This entails a certain amount of teaching. Graduate students in the field will typically serve as teaching assistants and provide grading services and other support for more senior ethnomusicologists. Professors of ethnomusicology tend to teach a mix of graduate and undergraduate classes and will often be expected to directly supervise graduate students and take on other managerial responsibilities within their departments.

Many practicing ethnomusicologists are employed in academia, but some positions in the field do exist outside of the ivory tower. Ethnomusicologists may work for the music industry and use their skills to locate new artists suitable for wider promotion. They may also find work as music critics or independent scholars.

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Discussion Comments
By anon977833 — On Nov 13, 2014

There are some links on this site that deal with the issue! Outreach Ethnomusicology was set up to share some of the work that masters students have been doing in ethnomusicology. Hope it gives a good idea of what the discipline has been and what it is now becoming!

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