World Music and Ethnomusicology - Understanding the Differences

April 30, 1992


Many Music Departments and Schools of Music in the United States have increasingly been expanding their curricula by developing ensembles, 'courses, and even programs that emphasize non-Western musics. Thankfully, to my knowledge no such emphases have been officially termed "non-Western"-to do so would be to divide the world into two unequally- proportioned parts meaning, essentially, .'us" and "them." Rather, the choices have been to use the terms "world music" and/or "ethnomusicology" when referring to musics outside the European and European-derived art music traditions. Often, however, these terms have also been misunderstood and misused. It is the purpose of this brief essay to explain the differences between world music and ethnomusicology and to discuss the position of different types of multicultural musical studies in college and university programs.

World Musics

World music is, ideally, the music of the whole earth, including music of European art traditions. University programs in world music are generally performance-oriented, and their objective is to render as faithfully as possible the musics of particular traditions found throughout the world. Dance is naturally included in such programs, as are courses in the history and culture of the regions studied. Programs in world music are closely hinged to the humanities, because the musical (and dance) products are given emphasis over the cultural processes that produce them.

Another type of world music, more correctly termed "World Music Pop," is East-West- North-South fusion music; it is essentially non-European-influenced jazz and/or pop music. John Shaefer writes in his book New Sounds: A Listener's Guide to New Music (New York: Harper & Row, 1987) about this type of world music:

East is East and West is West . . . but sometimes the twain do meet. The merging of Orient and Occident, one of the most consequential developments in new music, is a direct product of the technology of recordings and jet-age travel. The results, depending on to whom you talk, are known by such labels as "World Music," "One-World music," "Fourth World Music," "Earth Music," or any number of other terms . . . (113).

Some of these results that Schaefer discusses are the musical styles of former and present popular music and jazz groups or performers, including the Beatles, Paul Winter Consort, John Coltrane, David Amram, Mickey Hart, and others. Schaefer concludes,

For the average listener, the real value of World Music is ultimately the exposure it gives to non-Western sounds. Most of us have little contact with the music and instruments of Brazil, or India, or Ghana, as part of our daily routines. But like the Europeans in the time of the Crusades, many Westerners are now discovering, to their considerable surprise, that a number of other highly developed musical cultures do exist, and that some of them are more ancient, and, in the case of rhythm, even more complex than Western music . . . . Of all the new styles that have appeared recently, World Music is perhaps the most successful at crossing@r ignoring-musical and cultural boundaries (122).

While both types of world music are valid for study and promotion in colleges and universities, the former, emphasizing older and more traditional forms of expression, are more frequently espoused.

Yet another type of world music, one that should receive more attention in American colleges and universities, is pop music that originates in countries outside the United States and Europe. For example, pop music groups from Japan, Nigeria, Tunisia, Bolivia, and other countries often make extensive use of their own traditional instruments, rhythms, scales, and timbres, creating complex music expressions that go far beyond the experimentations of American and European pop music groups.


Ideally, ethnomusicology is a way to study about world music and world music pop. The study generally emphasizes music as a process and product of culture. While ethnomusicology tends to focus on music outside the European art traditions, it should not be defined as "the study of non-Western music" as Schaefer has written (I 19), even though most of its emphasis has been on music outside the European-derived world of art music.

Likewise, ethnomusicology should not be limited to the music of our present time but rather should be applied to musics of all times; it should not be limited to music of the folk but rather include musics of all people. It should study all music, from popular to art music.

The term ethnomusicology is inspired by ethnology, which is the comparative study of cultures. But ethnomusicology is more than the comparative study of music cultures. It is a discipline for which its name should no longer apply. A far better term is Musicology (with a capital M). Since musicology has been appropriated for so long in a very narrow sense by historical musicologists, however, it would perhaps be better to restore a term Gilbert Chase once used -- cultural musicology ("American Musicology and Perspectives in the Social Sciences," in Musicology, ed. by Barry S. Brook [New York: Norton, 1972], 202-206 and to try to convince musicologists to use the term historical musicology when that is the discipline they mean.

Programs in ethnomusicology, or cultural musicology, are closely hinged to the social sciences, because the behavioral/cultural processes that produce the musical (and dance) products are given emphasis over the products themselves. Joined with ethnomusicology are research methodologies common to systematic musicology, folklore, anthropology, multicultural music education, organology, and other scientific disciplines that study cross- cultural phenomena.


An ideal program of cross-cultural studies would be one that would join all four of the musical worlds of study described above: world music, world music pop, historical musicology, and ethnomusicology/cultural musicology. Once again, all of them should fall under the term Musicology (with a capital M), which is "the study of music in all its ramifications."

World Music -- Past, Present, and Future

Robert E. Brown, San Diego State University


Origin and Background of the Terminology

To my knowledge, the origin of the term world music dates to the early 1960s at Wesleyan University, when I thought it up in order to distinguish a new Ph.D. program there from ethnomusicology programs already in existence. I still recall the shyness I felt at a meeting with our small faculty of four, when I proposed this fairly grandiose terminology for what was, in its beginning stages at least, a program of quite modest size. Nothing else, how ever, seemed to suit the approach we were taking. Although the other academic programs mentioned above included performance as part of the plan of study, their primary concern was, and still is, the "-ology" of ethnomusicology, that is, investigative research with the ultimate goal of writing about music.

The Wesleyan program was conceived from a rather different philosophical base (see Robert E. Brown, "World Music: The Voyager Enigma," Music in the Dialogue of Cultures: Traditional Music and Cultural Policy, ed. by Max Peter Baumann Wilhelmshaven: Florial Noetzel, 1991], 365-74). To summarize it briefly, the concept of world music anticipates a world culture of the future, in which, through greatly accelerated communications technology, all music might be said to belong to all people. It recognizes that music precedes theory-that without music as sound there is nothing to write about It treats music as an art, with all of the human value judgments this implies. Finally, it recognizes the need to preserve a wide diversity of music in the human environment The basic idea is to view music, derived from many disparate cultures, from a vantage point beyond culture (see Edward T. Hall, Beyond Culture [Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor, 1977]), with the entire world as the receptacle and the human race as a whole the instigator responsible for the phenomenon of music.

At the outset, none of the other three members of the Wesleyan University Music Department -- a pianist, a theorist, and a composer -- and a member of the Anthropology Department, David McAllester, open though they were, had any idea that we were going to try to create a Utopia named The World Music Program, but that is what it grew to be in the decade that followed. I began to bring in musicians from Asia -- South India, Indonesia, and Japan -- and then from Africa. The Western music side eventually expanded to include a historian, but it remained proportionately small by choice, in order to maintain the idea of a microcosm of the world of music. Indian, Indonesian, and African dancers and a shadow-play puppeteer were gradually added to the roster of visiting artists, and David McAllester brought a native American performer, as the department increased from four to about twenty-five.

To those who were at Wesleyan during that decade, world music sprang to life as a vibrant and exciting reality. Brilliant performers emerged, and others sought careers as composers or writers or, indeed, as ethnomusicologists. Traditional ethnomusicology seemed to be just one possibility among a great variety of possibilities under the umbrella of world music. Musical events at Wesleyan and by the Wesleyan artists in New York started to spread the terminology and, indeed, the idea of world music to a wider public.

New Interpretations

Unfortunately, somewhere along the way, the concept has been narrowed down, or distorted away from, its original meaning. It is often used now to refer only to non-Western music (a term, incidentally, which I abhor). How could world music exclude any music in the world? 'Me Wesleyan program was, and perhaps still is, unique, in that it tried to give equal time to representatives of six large musical/cultural areas: South Asia, East Asia, Southeast Asia, Africa, Europe, and North America. Later on, the inclusion of world music activities in other academic Music Departments around the country almost inevitably took place in the context of an established (and frequently hostile) Euro/American constituency. World music in such an atmosphere is frequently perceived as somehow threatening to the status quo, the opening of Pandora's box, or even one of those "kooky beatnik ideas" from the 1960s. Today, many institutions include a course or two and perhaps hire a part-time or even full-time faculty member, who is then expected to represent the music of the great majority of humanity as a kind of academic multicultural tokenism within the Eurocentric bias. While the rest of the world rushed headlong toward world culture, most members of the academic musical community shut out that reality. In this reactionary climate many ethnomusicologists who have become part of the traditional establishment continue to tilt their field toward the academically more respectable field of anthropology.

The term world beat has emerged to cover the pop cultural context, and some people confuse this with world music. Most of the international sections in record stores, at least on the west coast, are now marked "world music" and are growing in size and diversity. However, the large majority of recordings available in these commercial establishments are still in the rock, pop, and classical categories, probably in that order of magnitude. Presumable these belong to some other world. Some specialists prefer to use the narrower term traditional music, the conceptualization of which, more usually than not, appears to exist in what anthropologists refer to as the ethnographic present; that is, a music described in the books and monographs of the past is treated as though it is alive. Of course, these books frequently represent realities that have long since disappeared.

Where Are We Headed?

If we are to prepare ourselves adequately for music in a future world context, we need first of all to answer three simple question, none of which has simple answers: What is music? What is culture? and What is world culture? Let me suggest a few possible answers:

  1. Music, of course, is what any human being calls music. Lots of music is detachable from its cultural context; otherwise we could not enjoy Ali Akbar Khan or, for that matter, Johann Sebastian Bach. Some music is so highly integrated into its original cultural context that it will probably die if the cultural context dies -- certain religious chants of tribal cult music, for instance.
  2. Culture is a human product and includes everything that humans do to themselves and to nature. At the same time, paradoxically, if we look at the world from outer space, human beings, with everything they do, are really a part of nature. What is frequently misunderstood is that the idea of monolithic cultures, which served the early anthropologists so well, is on its way out fast almost everywhere. Put in its most dismal terms, the whole world now wants to sit in McDonalds and drink a coke while listening to Madonna on MTV. Seeing this, some people bemoan the loss of a cultural purity that was seldom all that pure anyhow.
  3. World culture is coming about because of the human itch to have a better life. If there are those who doubt that at this point, they must have been sealed in a cave while the Berlin Wall was still in place. If your favorite pianist or violinist is Japanese, your favorite conductor from Manchuria, your favorite cellist Chinese; if you play in one of the two hundred or so American gamelans; if you are one of the several concertizing American sarod players; or even if your CD collection includes something from the World Music section of Tower Records, you are already a part of the diffusion of musical traditions around the world. If you wish to shut out this fact, it won't matter -- it is going to continue to happen anyway.

If, on the contrary, as a professional musician, musicologist, or ethnomusicologist, you wish to take some personal responsibility in the context of this phenomenon, you might want to give some thought to the idea of musical ecology. The professionals in the Sierra Club are helping the rest of us to raise our consciences and consciousnesses in terms of the destruction of the natural environment, and the professionals at the San Diego Zoo are saving some of the endangered animal species. A sense of responsibility to the global environment is fast spreading worldwide. If we do manage to save the globe as a whole, it will be a much less livable place by the time that happens if all the thousands of varieties of world music continue to disappear at their present alarming rate. We don't want to throw away Shakespeare or Rembrandt -- why should we not also preserve the diverse sound creations of rapidly changing cultures until we have had a chance to evaluate their usefulness to humanity as a whole? Few people are thinking about this. In a recent major cover article about the loss of tribal cultures and the unique knowledge which they possess, Time magazine never once mentioned their music (see Eugene Linden, "Lost Tribes, Lost Knowledge," Time 138/12 (23 September 1991), 4656).

The Big Issues

I believe that a new world order is, indeed, well on the way. Politics will never be the same. English is already the world language, and this need not necessarily obliterate others. Time magazine, however, informs us that of the six thousand extant languages three thousand have no children who speak them and will therefore die (Linden, 48). That's half of the world's languages on the way out. Traditional religion still exists in relative diversity, but it is more often than not replaced now with a new brand of humanism among the intellectuals around the world who are leading us into the future. Science is providing great technological benefits, but within relatively narrow, self-imposed limitations. I once ended a paper with the phrase "never forget why Albert Einstein played the violin" (Robert E. Brown, "Intercultural Exchange and the Future of Traditional Music in India," read at the Congres des Societes Savantes, Quebec, 1976, and published in Contributions to Asian Studies 12 (1978), 20-28). Whatever else it is going to be, science is not the music of the future.

Architecture, sculpture, and, to a great extent, painting are fast becoming internationalized. The performing arts follow the trend more slowly, but in dance and music, at least, an increasingly international roster of artists presents the artifacts of ethnic culture, including European art music, in their original form. Most people, for instance, would rather hear a performance of the Brandenburg concertos on period instruments than on a synthesizer, no matter how sophisticated the equipment might be. The same could be said for Rokudan played on the koto, or Rag Marwa on the sarod.

This brings me to my final thoughts about world music, a small contribution to a philosophy worthy of the future potential. We can now think about the advisability of any decision involving value, including decisions about music, by following a new hierarchical approach: first, hold it up to the world; second, hold it up to yourself-, third, hold it up to your community.

This implies, of course, that the demands of community appear to be receding in favor of a loftier global responsibility. You no longer cut down the rain forest in order to have wood paneling in your Tokyo office. I believe that the struggle for minority rights that is going on in this country and around the world is of highest importance in the evolution of the right to dignity and personal freedom for the individual within the larger community, but I also believe that it is transitional and a part of the process that will eventually lead us to a situation where many aspects of culture are shared worldwide. Anyone who has done cross- cultural fieldwork almost anywhere around the globe during the past thirty years or so can perhaps accept such a view of the future. The positive aspects of individual cultures could someday soon become an interesting diversity in a world where all cultures smaller than the global one are, by definition, in the minority. World music is ready for that even when ethnomusicology has outlived its usefulness, because it represents, in the final analysis, a philosophical modality for perception of the whole of music, starting from the largest possible area, the whole earth. In so doing, it goes beyond the essentially dualistic philosophy of ethnomusicology, which, after all, began as comparative musicology in Europe during the age of colonialism. Jaap Kunst, himself a colonial administrator, is responsible for replacing the old term with ethnomusicology.

The term world music suggests a holistic approach to music and draws attention to the need for a total world view, rather than suggesting the more limiting concepts of ethnography and musicology enshrined in the term ethnomusicology. The need for a nomenclature to express an all-encompassing philosophical approach provided the reason behind my search for new terminology thirty years ago. An unconscious but apparently universal need for such a new term, one that would in itself reflect a comprehensive approach, may well be responsible for the relatively rapid acceptance and diffusion of the term world music among many differing social strata throughout the world over the last few years.

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