An Undergraduate Curriculum in Ethnomusicology at Brown University

  • PDF: https://www.jstor.org/stable/40373276

In 1968 Brown University initiated a program in ethnomusicology with three main goals: 1. to develop strength in the area of East Asian musical cultures, thus complementing the University's East Asian Language and Area Center, 2. to balance the area commitment with an equal commitment to the study and development of theory and method in this youthful discipline, and 3. to create a strong undergraduate program.

The ethnomusicology program is part of a larger educational environment that merits consideration in its own right; I shall first of all describe, therefore, some of the curricular innovations instituted at Brown in the past few years. The general trend is to increase the scope of student responsibility and initiative in curricular matters, and to decrease or eliminate inflexible requirements. Formal distribution requirements have been totally eliminated; graduation requires the satisfactory completion of twenty-eight courses including an approved concentration program. Students are encouraged to design their own concentration pattern around a topic of particular interest to them. They may, however, elect to follow a departmentally-designed pattern. For example, before the music department designed a standard ethnomusicology concentration, several students devised their own independently; other students are currently considering independent concentrations combining music and sociology, music and engineering, and so forth.

Students may initiate two types of courses: independent study, in which the student works individually with a faculty advisor; and group independent study (GISP) in which a group of students work together on a topic of common interest, taking most of the responsibility for course content and method, and calling on the faculty sponsor when necessary. GISP's have ranged in content and format from relatively standard courses not otherwise available departmentally (e.g., Swahili), to intensive, highly specialized seminars (e.g., Novels of Hesse), or broad, experimental topics of current interest (e.g., Law in Society, Rock and Roll, Comparative Comic Books).

The pressure of grades has been largely eliminated. Students may elect to be graded satisfactory/no credit or ABC/no credit, and in either case "no credit" is not entered on the student's permanent record. Students accordingly feel less need to gravitate in large numbers to so-called "gut" courses, and are more willing to experiment with difficult and potentially more rewarding ones. As a side effect, the relaxed classroom atmosphere permits the establishment of more natural human relationships between student and teacher, which can only have a positive effect on motivation and learning. At the same time, it forces the teacher to re-evaluate his goals, methods, and role; he can no longer rely on the overt or implied threat of grades.

Under the old curriculum, the freshman and sophomore years were largely devoted to completing distribution requirements and beginning studies in a major field by taking survey courses in various disciplines. These survey courses are typically large lecture classes, not qualitatively different from high school classes—just larger and more impersonal. This is probably not the best way to begin a college experience. In the new curriculum, a group of courses dubbed "Modes of Thought" (MOT) have been introduced to replace distribution requirements. To qualify for the MOT program a course must: have no prerequisites, not be in itself a prerequisite to other courses or requirement for concentration, not be a survey-type course, be limited to twenty students, be devoted to a topic of current interest to the professor, and be designed to introduce the students not only to the kinds of subject matter in a discipline but also (as the name implies) to the modes of thought, ways of thinking, problems, methods, approaches, and concepts which characterize a discipline.

Several ethnomusicological MOT courses have been offered, and more are being developed. (There is a tendency not to repeat MOT courses but rather to develop new ones continuously.) Topics include Aspects of Time (investigation of time perception in the performing arts vs. time concepts in science, philosophy, and religion), Conceptions of Music (ideas about the nature and function of music from writers of varied cultural and academic background), and Music, Self, and Society (on the social relations of musicians and audience in contrasting cultures).

THE ETHNOMUSICOLOGY PROGRAM. The serious study of ethnomusicology in American colleges today is by and large considered a graduate discipline and not generally available to undergraduate students. Numerous reasons are given for this, usually predicated on the assumption that ethnomusicology is a sub-branch of some other discipline, and hence a refinement for the advanced student—much like neurosurgery or radiology for the physician. It is my contention, however, that ethnomusicology is a self-sufficient field of study, distinct from (but allied with) both anthropology and music history; and, further, I believe that its full potential will not be realized until coherent, liberal programs of undergraduate instruction are generally available.

The core of Brown's ethnomusicology curriculum is a group of five semester-courses comprising a three-course survey of world music cultures, and a two-course introduction to ethnomusicological skills.

WORLD MUSIC CULTURES. Courses surveying world music cultures are the most commonly available undergraduate offerings in ethnomusicology. Typically, they run for a full academic year, though occasionally a single semester is made to suffice. Organizing this course is a chronic problem, and one finds oneself continually experimenting with new formats. The reason is simple: the task implied, that of familiarizing students with all of the multi-faceted musics and musical systems of the world's cultures, is impossible. If one tries to cover too much ground, the resulting superficiality is acutely felt by both students and teacher; and leaving countries or cultures out of the roster can be equally frustrating.

The three-semester format we have devised helps to ameliorate the problem of superficiality, and has several interesting side benefits. Semester One covers musics of Africa and the Indians of the Americas; Semester Two covers the art musics of Asia including China, Japan, India, Indonesia, and Arabia-Persia; Semester Three deals with folk idioms of Eastern and Western Europe, and the Americas. All three semesters place primary emphasis on the music itself; students are expected to do significant amounts of listening to prepared tapes outside of class: one goal here is to universalize ears. Four kinds of information are included for each area (when applicable): 1. historical, social, and cultural context; 2. musical instruments; 3. theoretical systems, form, and aesthetics; 4. major representative musical and theatrical genres. Beyond these shared elements, each semester focuses on different ways of approaching music, each exemplifies a different set of values or mode of thought.

Semester One focuses on the point of view of cultural anthropology, considering the roles of music in tribal societies, relations between music and language, epic and ritual, musical instruments, and relevant musical factors in anthropological theories (origin theories, Kulturkreislehre, diffusion, acculturation, functionalism, etc.). Semester Two highlights musicological concerns: history of art music traditions, notation systems, scales, modes, form, style, operatic and lyric vocal genres, native aesthetic and music-theoretical concepts. Semester Three approaches its material from the folklorist's viewpoint. Attention is paid to text and tune variants through transmission in oral tradition; folklore concepts such as the motif and tale-type are introduced, and relations between folk-music forms (narrative ballad, lyric, work songs, dance songs, etc.) and other forms of folklore (proverbs, riddles, games, folk tales, chante-fable) are discussed.

Thus students in allied fields (for example, anthropology or Asian studies) can specialize more precisely in the music area relevant to their major interest, and not only be exposed to the musics of that area, but also to the approaches and methods most appropriate to its study. For the student who wishes a wider knowledge of world musics, the full three-semester sequence will hopefully provide an appreciation of both the musics themselves and the various ways of validly understanding and using music in differing intellectual contexts and academic disciplines.

BASIC ETHNOMUSICOLOGICAL SKILLS. The course in basic ethnomusicological skills can be compared to a beginning course in Western music theory and analysis. In the first semester each parameter of music is studied separately on a cross-cultural basis: rhythm, tempo, meter, loudness, pitch, melody, polyphony, timbre. Methods of measuring, transcribing, comparing, and reporting objectively are tested and practiced for each parameter. Also in the first semester the history and main problems of the discipline are explored.

The second semester is largely devoted to preparing, carrying out, and reporting on a guided field-work project. To the skills learned in the first semester are added the technical skills needed to produce competent recordings and photographic documentation. By immersing the students immediately into a field collection project, one is almost certain to generate a string of failures and crises as equipment refuses to work properly and informants prove troublesome; this is, of course, the only way to learn anything about the process of field work. With a little imagination, a never-ending catalogue of field projects can be easily found within a short bus ride of any university; projects thus far have ranged from children's jump rope songs collected at a Brownie troop, to Vedic chanting recorded at a local Vedanta center.

AREA AND TOPIC SEMINARS. Beyond the five-course core curriculum is a series of problem-oriented seminars designed for advanced undergraduates or graduates. These courses are not simply more detailed surveys of areas already covered in the world music cultures course, but rather are intensive studies of specific questions. Area seminars on China, Japan, India, Indonesia, and topic seminars for organology and musical acoustics, and comparative music aesthetics are offered on a rotating basis.

PERFORMANCE. Learning how to perform the music of a culture under study is essential if one wants to achieve musical literacy. This is accepted as a matter of course for students majoring in Western music, and some degree of performing skill is nearly always requisite for graduation. We strongly feel that performance is also requisite in ethnomusicology, and provide instruction in Balinese gamelan, Chinese zithers ch'in and cheng, Japanese koto, and Indian tabla. This instruction is normally given on a non-credit, extra-curricular basis, but students concentrating in ethnomusicology are strongly urged to attain basic performance skills in at least one non-Western tradition.

CONCENTRATION IN ETHNOMUSICOLOGY. In addition to the core curriculum, a student of ethnomusicology will normally divide his time between courses in the history and theory of Western music, and courses in anthropology. If the student plans to continue on to graduate work in ethnomusicology, he is urged to use his electives to complete the requirements for full majors in both music and anthropology. More frequently, however, students concentrating in ethnomusicology plan other careers (whether in secondary music education, media, or unrelated fields) and choose their electives accordingly. One of the problems in teaching ethnomusicology exclusively at the graduate level is that every student is a budding ethnomusicologist. Just as one does not expect every undergraduate music major to become (or even desire to become) a professional musician, one should not expect anything different from undergraduate ethnomusicology majors. This refreshing, if unforeseen, state of affairs forces the teacher to view his discipline not just as a profession enlisting apprentices, but as a valid and vital component of a liberal education.

Finally, I would like to stress that all of the courses and programs described are experimental; they are constantly being evaluated and modified, and we welcome comments and criticism. Thus far our experience with undergraduate ethnomusicology at Brown has been most heartening; I hope that discussions on curricular development in ethnomusicology will be included in future CMS meetings. Particularly challenging is the concept of international musicianship and its integration into all music programs; as the world quickly is becoming unified in one great transistor culture, perhaps all music students should begin their studies by stretching their ears to accept without prejudice and with understanding the whole world of music, and perhaps, as Frank Harrison* suggested eight years ago, all musicology will in fact become ethnomusicology.


*Harrison, Frank Ll., Mantle Hood, and Claude Palisca. Musicology (Englewood Cliffs, N.J. 1963).

Read 2146 times

Last modified on Tuesday, 13/11/2018

Go to top