A friend accompanied me to a meeting of the Society for Ethnomusicology. "Good Heavens, it certainly is colorful," was his comment upon seeing professorial-looking types delivering papers in one room, a group of dashiki-clad Africans giving their all to a set of drums, bells, and rattles before an obviously empathic audience in the next, some students in jeans looking at kits for making sitars at a table in the hall. A different sort of comment upon attending a panel discussion: "They're beautiful people, but each of them knows something different, and there doesn't seem to be anything that all of them know." Perhaps a bit of an overstatement.

At another meeting: "The development of ethnomusicology is the most significant thing that has happened in musicology since 1950." A statement made by a music historian.

And at a third meeting: "Should ethnomusicology be abolished?" Title of a panel.1 No one, I think, wanted to remove all ethnomusicologists from their teaching positions or relegate their publications—all of them, at any rate—to the memory hole. The idea was not to abolish the work that most ethnomusicologists do, but rather to see whether it wasn't time to call them, again, just plain musicologists, or anthropologists, or a name indicating from where they came. This panel resulted in an interesting and lively set of remarks in a recent issue of SYMPOSIUM.2 The intent of the question could perhaps be paraphrased: is there such a thing as ethnomusicology? Or are there not simply a lot of ethnomusicologies? Should Claude Palisca not perhaps have said, "vivent les differences?"3

If there is, legitimately, something like ethnomusicology, there ought to be some things that its practitioners share. Given the difficulty of finding agreement upon definition, as frequently and again recently discussed by Alan Merriam,4 one might look instead for shared beliefs and procedures, for findings whose significance and substance are accepted by the field.

In what has come to be the most popular published interpretation of the history of science, Thomas Kuhn describes the gradual development of paradigms, which he defines as "accepted examples of scientific practice—examples which include law, theory, application, and instrumentation together—[which] provide models from which spring particularly coherent traditions of scientific research."5 In the history of science such paradigms, once accepted, gradually turned out to be unsatisfactory, there resulted a recognition of anomalies between paradigm and further observation, a kind of crisis, and then followed the development of new paradigms which violate the old. The history of Western science is long and its nodes are revolutions which have caused the world's population to take new views of nature, revolutions that are centered about the persons and work of such giants in world history as Copernicus, Newton, Lavoisier, and Einstein. It is represented by Kuhn as a series of intellectual convulsions followed by periods of relative agreement.

No matter that Kuhn later goes on to revise his own paradigm of science history.6 The scheme he provides is suggestive and relevant to the problems raised by the panel discussing the "abolition" of ethnomusicology. The question is not, of course, whether ethnomusicology is a science. It is instructive to examine fields of human learning outside the scope of formal science to see whether they have similar kinds of history, and whether at various points they also exhibit phenomena similar to Kuhn's paradigms. The existence of such paradigms would be, it seems to me, one way of legitimizing the existence of a field. What we wish to know, therefore, is whether there are things that ethnomusicologists have developed that may be viewed as parallels to Kuhn's paradigms. Was there a time at which ethnomusicologists came to agree on some major truth which could constitute the core of their infant field? Were there then further points upon which all agreed in essence? Were there then also anomalies, did we find that that upon which we once agreed turned out to be false, an unsatisfactory explanation of culture and music, a poor approach to research and study, and did we then gradually turn to new paradigms? Are the nodes of the history of ethnomusicology the shifting and sometimes conflicting broad areas of agreement?

One could hardly find a group of scholars more contrastive to the community of physical and biological scientists. There have, for a century or more, been a great many scientists, many even in the subspecialties such as high energy physics or physical chemistry. On the other hand, there have always been very few ethnomusicologists. Scientists have rigorous and fairly unified kinds of training; ethnomusicologists on the other hand come from many disciplines, or from none. International and intercultural communication among scientists has turned out to be relatively easy; they speak more or less one language. Communication about music is mired in the "emic-etic" dichotomy.7 The fact that members of different societies speak differently about music, and that scholars coming from the societies may disagree in their relationship to the basic musical material is not something to be ignored but rather something of which one should take advantage. The difference between scientists and ethnomusicologists is obviously enormous. But still, it seems useful to me to look briefly at the history of ethnomusicology in Kuhn's terms, trying to identify points of stability and change. Let me turn briefly to three of these: first paradigms, the suggestion of revolutions, and recent moves toward consolidations.


The field of ethnomusicology came into existence when a number of scholars came to agree on certain points and to exhibit these in publications, and continues because these basic points of agreement are still with us. Our history is so short that our first paradigms are still intact. The first paradigms, then, are points of view that came into existence very early in the development of the field, appearing in the work of scholars working between 1880 and 1910, including, of course, A.J. Ellis,8 E.M. von Hornbostel, Carl Stumpf. They are primarily approaches and procedures, rather than concrete findings or analyses of music or musical culture. If the concept "paradigm" is appropriate here, it is certainly not quite like that of Kuhn. The ethnomusicological paradigms are broader, less specific, more general than, say, Ptolemy's computation of planetary position.9 And certainly we cannot try to find parallels to Kuhn's three types or levels of paradigm.10 But, it is the abiding acceptance of these first paradigms which give continuity to the field, and which, while not, in my view, making it necessarily a separate discipline, give it a special place, as Curt Sachs put it, "astride between anthropology and the history of music."11

Let me give some examples.

1) Comparison is possible. Our label was originally "comparative musicology," and the change of name did not imply abandonment of this component. A good many would like to consider a return to the old name.12 And those who object to a comparative approach do so only as a methodological, theoretical, or sometimes political caution. We are essentially a comparative field, and while a great deal of research in recent years has been extremely specialized and practically defied intercultural comparison, I would maintain that the most significant work at least admits the eventual desirability of comparison and the importance of insights gained from it. The most influential publications engage, in fact, explicitly or implicitly, in the comparison of musical systems around the world.

2) We have come to understand that we must study music to some extent in its cultural context, or in culture. Whether we focus on the music as something to be understood in a cultural context, or whether the aim is to study culture, through its musical domain, is an expression of the difference between the musical and anthropological backgrounds of ethnomusicologists. But to study music alone, without some appreciation of the culture from which it comes, is not, I think, accepted as proper ethnomusicology by anyone. And indeed, it never was.

3) From the beginning it was clear that field research was essential. The attitudes toward it changed from a sharp distinction between field work and desk work, as described by Sachs,13 to the thorough integration of field work with research design and interpretation. But ethnomusicology, from its beginnings, was an empirical field, not a speculative one (although, indeed, a good deal of speculation has always gone on in the publications of ethnomusicologists). Before the development of ethnomusicology in the period around 1890, statements about musics of the world were made on the basis of rational and logical speculation; but this was an era preceding the development of this field and naturally leading to it. Thus, statements such as those of Wundt14 which attribute numbers of tones in scales to a universally cosmological numerology should be seen as pre-ethnomusicological, and the contemporaneous ones of Baker15 about North American Indians combine speculation with the results of observation. A bit later, field collecting with the phonograph and the accompanying techniques of transcription and analysis changed the picture entirely to one reflecting the empirical essence of ethnomusicology.

4) While one can hardly expect in a short space to present a complete compendium of the major areas of agreement among ethnomusicologists throughout their history, I should like to speak to one more, presenting a view very substantially at variance with Eugene Helm's contribution in the recent panel.16 Helm maintains that not all music, Western or other, is equally worthy of study, at least in a humanistic context. Ethnomusicologists on the whole do believe, I am firmly convinced, that all musics are worthy of study. Perhaps many historians of Western music, Professor Helm notwithstanding, actually agree with this. That all music is worthy of study does not mean that all musics or all musical works are equal. We are able, I think, to distinguish musics of greater value; but when we do this, it is in accordance with some rather arbitrary and perhaps ethnocentric criteria such as complexity, subtlety, the ability to do the difficult on the part of composer and performer. This is an urban Western view of music, not an ancient one, but it is a view shared by a good many other cultures. Beyond that, there is no doubt that within any society, certain musical works and musical performances are regarded as superior, perhaps for strictly musical reasons, often for reasons involving religion, cosmology, social structure, politics. We know that each society has its criteria for what is good and beautiful, and we try to enter into the aesthetic of the musical culture which we study.

But most ethnomusicology is essentially the study of the music of large population groups. It is the musical experience of all humans which interests us, and we must recognize that sometimes this music is, in the view of any one person, and often even within its own cultural context, judged as not really superior. But it is worthy of study, because the job is to find out what is going on and why, and to a much lesser extent to engage in judgment. Beyond that, however, I firmly believe that there is a level of conceptualization somewhere at which all musics, not all pieces of music, but all musical systems or musical cultures, are equal. Only with this basic assumption is it possible to approach the various musics of the world and to study them, on their own terms, comparatively, and in their cultural contexts. And it is the only way in which we can adequately work in the field, properly giving respect to the people who produce the world's music. Just as all humans are in certain important respects equal simply because they are human, whatever their talents and abilities, all music is at some point equal because it is the product of humans, and because it is music. Thus, I don't believe one can accept Helm's implication that musicology, which he seems to define as the study of great music, accommodates ethnomusicology only if it is the study of great non-Western music, while the study of non-Western music at large is simply ethnology, or put in more modern terms, anthropology. A certain degree of egalitarianism, derived from the inevitable relativism of comparative study, has been with us since the beginning of our field, another first paradigm. A.J. Ellis,17 one of the founders of ethnomusicology, deserves this title because he showed that all systems of scales are equally distant from Nature, are artificial creations of humans; and thus he pointed the way to the relativistic core of ethnomusicological thought.


I have tried to state a few beliefs which brought ethnomusicologists together in the first place, and which so far are the constants. But there are important ways in which we have changed our view of music and its study. Of course I cannot in a short space comment on the many ways in which individual cultures have been studied, and in which their understanding and appreciation has changed among the scholars who are specialists. But there seem to me to be ways in which ethnomusicologists at large have changed their views, to have developed revolutions in their approaches to and their findings about world music. Let me mention just a very few.

One involves our view of the description and analysis of music. The early history of ethnomusicology indicates that there must be ways of analyzing and describing the music of diverse cultures which would make comparison possible, and that a single way of describing music would be reasonably adequate for all musics. A paradigm of this sort was established by the many studies of E.M. von Hornbostel working with his collaborator, Otto Abraham, as well as with many of his students, sometimes called the Berlin School. To characterize the paradigm roughly, it included a) emphasis analysis of scalar materials and an attempt to establish a tone system from a comparison of the actual scales used in songs or compositions; b) a generalized typology of melodic contours; c) some classification of meters—isometric, heterometric, etc.; d) a similarly generalized classification of forms eventually formalized to subsume three basic types—iterative, reverting, progressive—by George Herzog.18 Singing style is also described in general terms. Of course, Hornbostel and his colleagues often went considerably beyond this, but the approach mentioned is what most of the works of this group have in common.

Once generally adopted, the approach was subjected to criticism, largely implicit and not stated directly perhaps because of the great debt to Hornbostel which everyone wished to acknowledge, but evident in various publications. The trend of thought moved in several directions. Hornbostel's system was expanded and pushed to its limits by scholars such as Kolinski,19 who developed a single way of describing each parameter of music dealt with in a more cursory manner by his master, and establishing an enormously detailed scheme for each. More critical was an approach illustrated by Alan Lomax,20 who continued the "single-system" comparative view but added parameters, implying that those to which the "Berlin school" had given most attention were not perhaps the most important and had at any rate to be supplemented by ways of dealing with aspects of music subsumed under the rubric of performance practice and singing style. Even more critical, and perhaps bound to lead eventually to a revolution, was the gradual realization that a single analytical and descriptive system within which one could compare the most diverse musics left out an essential component of musical understanding, the way in which the people who themselves produced the music perceive, classify, and perhaps describe and analyze it.21 And so, while the approaches established by Hornbostel have by no means been abandoned, the idea that we must look at both the observers' and the producers' way of understanding, the "emic" and the "etic," can be seen perhaps as a new paradigm in the history of ethnomusicology, and thus in one respect we may have undergone the kind of revolution of which Kuhn speaks.

Another important change involves our way of seeing the music of the world. At one time, we were given to dichotomies. We distinguished rather sharply between folk music and art music,22 we made a special fetish about the difference between the behavior of musics in oral and in written traditions, we talked about the sharp distinction between composition and improvisation. We divided the world into high cultures and tribal cultures, once called primitive.23 The early literature in the field of ethnomusicology makes this kind of distinction relatively clear, and it also makes broad use of a sharp distinction between Western and non-Western musical cultures. The fact that African and European music may in fact have always been more similar to each other than, say, African and Japanese was not quickly recognized.24 The fact itself could easily have been understood by scholars at all times; the point is that they did not make use of it, did not bring up the question.

The tendency to look at the world of music in terms of dichotomies seems to have forced us to take the whole world to some extent into account, but it also provided room for grand misunderstandings, such as the one I have just mentioned. If the description of the ethnomusicologist's dichotomous view of world music that I have just given applies to the period up to around 1950 or a bit later, there certainly seems to have been a revolution of sorts since that time, for we now tend to think of the various components of musical culture that I have mentioned more in terms of continuums. We realize that there are folk cultures which in themselves include or contain types of music and musicianship to be regarded in the same light as art music. One might consider the singers of Yugoslav epics, in comparison with the singers of other Yugoslav folk songs, as a possible example; the singers of the epics are much closer to the kind of musician that is found in the art music world of Asia.25 Similarly, instrumentalists in folk cultures everywhere appear to occupy a position of greater expertise and specialization than vocalists; and thus, in certain folk cultures, one could divide musical endeavor into folk (vocal) and art (instrumental) components. The folk musicians of Northern Iran, highly specialized, satisfy the traditional criteria for art music more readily than the widely accepted definitions of folk music.26 At the same time, oral tradition, the hallmark of folk music, turns out of course to be the normal mode of transmission for all music outside the sphere of the Western fine art.

The distinction between oral tradition and written tradition is also not clear. All written traditions have substantial oral components, and at the same time we find that the world is full of many kinds of notation systems: some precise, others approximate; some used by musicians, others of mainly archival import; some actually written, others oral, simply giving verbal instructions; some tied to the words of music written down, others tied to the position of hands. The sharp break between oral and written tradition turns out instead to be a dotted line.

Even the once relatively solid distinction between improvisation and composition has had to recede in view of our understanding that the creative process in music is an extremely complicated one, and that a concept such as improvisation involves parameters including the handling of time, the taking of risks, the manipulation of material previously known, the need to develop personal styles, and the nature of given material from which the musician departs.27 If we say that the recognition of various types of music was once conveniently expressed in dichotomies, and that this was a paradigm arrived at by ethnomusicologists in their early history, then we can note that dissatisfaction with this paradigm led to a revolution resulting in a new paradigm in which the musics of the world were understood as points along various kinds of continuums.

There is one kind of continuum, however, which was among the very early beliefs of ethnomusicologists, the idea of unilineal evolution. This is the belief that the music of the world moves through various stages, and that the differences among the various cultures today simply reflect the particular stage at which each finds itself. It is stated explicitly and implicitly in many publications, and derives, of course, from various theories of cultural evolution. This approach has not been totally abandoned.28 Most ethnomusicologists today, however, either avoid considerations of development or evolution entirely, or take the view that musics develop along different lines (in ways which are somewhat related to Julian Steward's29 anthropological theory of multilinear evolution) and that each musical system develops in terms of its own musical, cultural, and even natural ecology. Again, our view of the world history of music seems to have undergone a revolution.


If there are beliefs which have always been with us, and if we can in the short history of ethnomusicology identify some changes which approximate revolutions, there are, finally, some viewpoints which have more recently come to the fore which are not yet shared sufficiently to be paradigms but which represent the stage of divergent search that characterizes paradigms in the making. In recent publications, one senses that we are on the road to coming to agreement on a number of issues. They are not new, but only in recent years has there been widespread agreement upon and to some extent articulation of their significance. Let me very briefly mention four.

1) Ethnomusicology is a field which works two sides of a coin. On the one side are the observations of the scholar, typically from another culture, which take their cue from the comparative approach which is at least a partial defense against the most prevalent pitfalls of subjectivism. At the same time, they view music as well as they can from the point of view of the culture which produces it. In the past, scholars espoused one or the other of these views, but they are beginning to see that the job is to balance the two views, gaining whatever insight one can from each.30 The recognition that there are two sides of the coin is, I would submit, a recent paradigm.

2) There are musical universals. The field of ethnomusicology began with the assumption that all musics are somehow alike; but then, in a period of greater specialization and refinement, came a time at which the unique character of each musical system was stressed. We began to be aware of our role as the people who showed how different all of the musics of the world actually were, who marveled at the incredible diversity of musical sounds, ideas, and functions. In recent years, however, we have again come to the conclusion that despite all of this diversity, musics have something in common. As usual, following the disciplines of linguistics and anthropology by a decade or two, we have become interested in universals, and by now feel that there are such things, and that it is important to study them.31 By saying that there are universals we mean that there are certain ways in which humans have chosen to make music, ways which are in fact narrower than one might expect, given merely any generally accepted definition of music. In other words, there are probably all kinds of sound that might be imaginable as music in the view of many populations, but which have simply not been selected for producing music in the various cultures of the world. Having decided that there is such a thing as music and circumscribed it to some extent, the societies of the world individually, but also as a whole, have chosen certain ones for the actual task of making music. That these are implications for psychology and history is obvious.32

3) Contrary to earlier views which relegated music to a relatively minor spot among the domains of culture, ethnomusicologists have become convinced that music is very important in all societies, and that almost everywhere, it is a significant emblem of cultural identity. It is something which validates the activities, social, ceremonial, religious, of a population, and just as people identify themselves by speaking the same language, they also do so by sharing a musical system.33

4) Related, and perhaps most important: while there is much disagreement about the precise connections between music and the rest of culture, I think it is fair to say that ethnomusicologists believe that the differences among the musical cultures of the world reflect differences in culture itself. It is the nature of culture, the way in which people live and relate to each other, that determines in the first instance the kind of music they have. While musical systems have histories that are self-contained, pieces modeled after extant ones, one style leading to another, the general character of the music of a society derives from something significant about that society. It may be economic system, social structure, a set of values, quality of relationship among people; but I have yet to find an ethnomusicologist who does not, in the end, agree that it must be the nature of a culture that determines its music. But if this is a paradigm, it is only one in the making because we today hardly agree on typologies for culture or for music.

This broad and very cursory sketch of some of the aspects of the growth of ethnomusicology seems to me to indicate that its intellectual history is in some ways not unlike the history of science. That does not mean, I repeat, that ethnomusicology is like science or is a science. On the contrary, I believe that Kuhn, in his tracing of the history of science, may have articulated characteristics of the history of learning at large; and it is a short period of this history, and a small corner of it, that ethnomusicology occupies.

The paradigms (or call them fundamental beliefs, procedures agreed upon, generalizations of findings) I have mentioned are illustrative, and I can only hope that most ethnomusicologists agree with my interpretations. The historian of science has the advantage of much greater hindsight. I suspect, indeed, that musicologists of all persuasions might find my paradigms acceptable. But their importance or significance in the scholarly world-view of historians of Western music would probably be quite different, and historians would no doubt place different beliefs at the top of their list. Because it has distinctive paradigms, ethnomusicology, whether a discipline, a field, or a subdivision of several disciplines, has made and continues to make distinctive contributions.

1Fredric Lieberman and others, "Should Ethnomusicology Be Abolished?" SYMPOSIUM 17, No. 2 (Fall, 1977), 198-206.

2Ibid. This paper is in part added commentary to the panel discussion.

3Ibid., p. 206.

4Alan P. Merriam, "Definitions of 'Comparative Musicology' and 'Ethnomusicology': an Historical-Theoretical Perspective," Ethnomusicology XXI (1977), 189-204.

5Thomas S. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 2nd ed., enl. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970), p. 10.

6Ibid., pp. 174-210.

7Derived from linguistics, these terms are often used to distinguish a culture's own statements about itself from those of the outside analyst. See Marvin Harris, The Rise of Anthropological Theory (New York: Crowell, 1968), pp. 568-96.

8Alexander J. Ellis, "On the Musical Scales of Various Nations," Journal of the Royal Society of Arts XXXIII (1885), 485-527; Carl Stumpf, "Lieder der Bellakula Indianer," Vierteljahrschrift für Musikwissenschaft II (1886), 405-26; for publications of works by Hornbostel and his collaborators, see Hornbostel Opera Omnia, vol. I, edited by K.P. Wachsmann, D. Christensen, and H.-P. Reinecke (The Hague: M. Nijhoff, 1975) and Sammelbände für vergleichende Musikwissenschaft I (1922).

9Kuhn, p. 23.

10Ibid., pp. 25-28.

11Curt Sachs, Our Musical Heritage (New York: Prentice-Hall, 1948), p. 2.

12It is still widely used. See, for example, Merriam (footnote 4) and Walter Wiora, Ergebnisse und Aufgaben vergleichender Musikforschung (Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 1975).

13Curt Sachs, The Wellsprings of Music (The Hague: M. Nijhoff, 1962), p. 16.

14Wilhelm Wundt, Völkerpsychologie, 2nd ed., vol. 4 (Leipzig: W. Engelmann, 1908), pp. 470-72.

15Theodore Baker, On the Music of the North American Indians, translated by Ann Buckley (Buren, Netherlands: F. Knuf, 1976), first published in 1882.

16"Response by E. Eugene Helm," SYMPOSIUM 17, No. 2 (Fall, 1977), 201-202.

17Ellis, op. cit. This work is sometimes regarded as the foundation of ethnomusicology. See Jaap Kunst, Ethnomusicology, 3rd ed. (The Hague: M. Nijhoff, 1959), p. 2.

18George Herzog, "Song," in Maria Leach, ed., Funk and Wagnall's Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology, and Legend, vol. 2 (New York: Funk and Wagnalls, 1950), p. 1044.

19See, for example, Mieczyslaw Kolinski, "The Evaluation of Tempo," Ethnomusicology III (1959), 45-57; "Consonance and Dissonance," Ethnomusicology VI (1962), 66-74; "The General Direction of Melodic Movement," Ethnomusicology IX (1965), 240-64; "Classification of Tonal Structure," Studies in Ethnomusicology I (1961), 38-76; "A Cross-Cultural Approach to Metro-Rhythmic Patterns," Ethnomusicology XVII (1973), 494-506.

20Alan Lomax, "Song Structure and Social Structure," Ethnology I (1962), 425-51; and Folk Song Style and Culture (Washington: American Association for the Advancement of Science, 1968).

21See, for example, John Blacking, How Musical Is Man? (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1973), pp. 17-18 and passim; Marcia Herndon, "Analysis: the Herding of Sacred Cows?" Ethnomusicology XVIII (1974), 219-62.

22Herzog, p. 1033.

23See Bruno Nettl, Music in Primitive Culture (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1956), which summarizes publications using this point of view.

24For a similar statement, comparing African, European, and North American Indian music, see Alan P. Merriam, "The Use of Music in the Study of a Problem of Acculturation," American Anthropologist LVII (1955), 28-34; Richard A. Waterman, "African Influence on the Music of the Americas," in Sol Tax, ed., Acculturation in the Americas (Chicago: Proceedings of the 29th International Congress of Americanists, vol. 2, 1952), pp. 207-18.

25Albert B. Lord, The Singer of Tales (New York: Atheneum, 1965), pp. 13-29.

26See Stephen Blum, "Persian Folksong in Meshhed, Iran, 1969," Yearbook of the International Folk Music Council VI (1975), 86.

27Bruno Nettl, "Thoughts on Improvisation," Musical Quarterly LX (1974), 19.

28For indirect evidence, see the sharp criticism of this view in Blacking, p. 56.

29Julian Steward, Theory of Culture Change (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1955), pp. 11-29.

30For a particularly effective statement of this view, see Mantle Hood, The Ethnomusicologist (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1971), p. 374.

31See, for example, the special issue on universals in The World of Music XIX, no. 1/2 (1977).

32See Blacking, pp. 21-25, for commentary on this point.

33Alan P. Merriam, in Ethnomusicology of the Flathead Indians (Chicago: Aldine, 1967), p. 158, says: "Music today functions importantly for the Flathead . . . as a means of expressing the fact that they remain Flathead no matter what changes in their way of life have occurred or how far-reaching these changes may be." For them, only music (and dance) appears to fill this important role.

5409 Last modified on November 9, 2018