Successful Strategies for the Ethno-novice

September 30, 1999

This era of budgetary accountability has led to the assignment of many World Musics courses to non-specialists. Most musicologists, theorists, and performance instructors have had contact with non Western-produced music only as examples of exoticism employed in solidly Western art music frameworks. Few music educators have experienced more than watered-down "children's versions," and only rarely genuine multicultural examples.

The contents of introductory World Music courses are dictated by the cultures and recorded musical examples of the chosen textbook. The non-ethno specialist is well-advised to rely on the text's bibliography, filmography, and discography, for other supplementary materials may not be either authentic or traditional.

There is an additional content problem common to both World and Western music pedagogy: the inclusion of contemporary art musics and popular musics. Particularly, but not exclusively, senior professors may have trouble treating these new musics in their respective fields.

Classroom Strategies

Textbooks in world musics have different emphases on musical analyses, historical facts and trends, organology, performance, and socio-cultural influences. Each of these has appropriate methods of research and presentation.

The lecture method, once thought to be the most efficient method of conveying information, is considered by many to be the least effective. To appreciate the occupation of the musicologist, ethnomusicologist, etc., one must experience the occupation. (This is sometimes referred to as "social reconstructionism".)

The interest in musical analysis of both Western Art music and the many other musics of the world is waning. This approach, long hailed as the epitome of rational, scientific study of music, is now considered "bean counting." Yet it is still the only way to discover rhythmic and melodic relationships.

Non-Western musics sometimes are part of cultures that may have histories extending millennia before the Western historical era. The gathering of information regarding contemporary music is the common problem. Oral histories, the backbone of many ethnomusicological studies, are being embraced by Western historians of newer musics.

Developmental studies done by musicologists within Western art music seldom venture into studies of the foreign "roots" of Western music, for this would tend to depreciate Western music and raise examples of persecution and enforced acculturation, due to Western "superiority" in political, economic, and military realms.

Organology, whether of the Medieval Western or the ethnomusicological variety, often borrows techniques from Archaeology: locating, excavating, measuring, photographing, and recording the object or a modern copy. Physical analyses of the materials of construction are appropriate for both disciplines.

The approach of learning-by-doing is common to performance teachers, some musicologists, and virtually all ethnomusicologists. Musicology papers on popular musics often venture into the bimusical arena, and ethnomusicologists strive for polymusicality.

Studies of social roles and influences which shaped certain musics are clearly in the domain of ethnomusicology. Recent studies of Haydn and Mozart, using contextual methodology, stress the social influences of individuals, conditions, and organizations.

Attitudes don't change through lectures. The use of role-playing is more effective: "To walk a mile in someone else's cultural moccasins. . . ."

One of the greatest obstructions to innovation in classroom strategies is caused by students who have more conservative expectations than the dedicated educator who is looking for approaches which convey the subject matter efficiently and memorably and who excites the students about the study of music.

Specific Examples

Much of world musics relates to cultural beliefs that are foreign to our students who need guidance in examining their own beliefs and in acquiring objective attitudes. They will exhibit three possible reactions: Acceptance, Rejection, or Non-Disbelief. The Acceptance stance is when students become so enamored with some aspects of a culture that they accept all elements, including all traditional beliefs. Rejection is frequently the stance of the student coming from a culture considered peerless. One may adopt the objective position of Non-Disbelief or Scientific Method. Many traditional behaviors have been held for millennia and reinforced within the particular culture.

Since attitudes govern our choice of vocabulary, our students need to experience how to (and not to) discuss the music of another culture. Construct three artificial cultures, known as "Cultures X, Y, and Z," each based on elements of several real civilizations; include climate, abundance of food, social organization, and a restricted palate of musical media and formal elements. Each group practices its music in separate rooms, then they present their musical culture and related rituals. The other students evaluate the presentation in terms of their assumed (X, Y, or Z) cultures. When they hear castigations coming from their own mouths, based on assumed culture pre-prejudices, they realize that they are part of several sub-cultures, with strong cultural preferences (values). Through role-playing they learn to describe musical events more objectively.

An oral history assignment, emphasizing music, uses students' eldest relatives or a musician from their cultural group. They learn interviewing skills, recording techniques (audio and/or video), and the process of editing.

Dissemination of results is taught through an on-campus conference with the standard 20-minute presentation and question period. The more promising students are encouraged to submit an abstract of their paper to a regional or state conference. Supporting these activities, their professor may submit a paper and provide transportation.


Good teaching is good teaching whether or not music is the subject or the course is Music History or World Musics. To attain some pedagogical goals, lecture techniques must be abandoned in favor of those specifically designed for the educational goals at hand. Instructors must be open to trends in their fields and be willing to experiment with various strategies.

1770 Last modified on May 1, 2013
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