Difference between musicology and ethnomusicology: 5 aspects to consider

difference between musicology and ethnomusicology 5 aspects
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Mario Friscia

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Musicology and ethnomusicology: so far, so close

There was much debate among the scholars over the specific elements that make musicology different from ethnomusicology and, I have to admit, the amount of literature covering this topic is too large to be summarized appropriately in the limited space offered by a blog post.

However, this doesn’t mean that we cannot outline some of the major aspects that will help us meditate on the difference between musicology and ethnomusicology.

To me, there are at least five aspects we need to examine:

  1. object of study
  2. methodology of research and data collection
  3. scientific journals
  4. university departments and graduate programs
  5. career paths


Let’s get started!


Difference between musicology and ethnomusicology: the object of study

Musicology takes into consideration Western art music; more precisely, it deals primarily with the study of the European music of the past, while ethnomusicology is more interested in non-Western musical cultures, their instruments, beliefs, notation systems and those codes of behavior connected to the act of making music.

In other words, musicologists tend to focus almost exclusively on those music repertories created by composers throughout the various periods of Western music history, while ethnomusicologists prefer to examine those musical traditions that still play a key role in the socio-cultural practices of today’s non-Western civilizations.

Now, let me emphasize a point:

contemporary ethnomusicology is not confined anymore to the study of those musical traditions and behaviors coming from the non-Western world.

Nowadays, ethnomusicologists have adopted a global perspective on sound and music-making, which means that they are open to research any type of music, regardless of its geographical origin, period or social stratum.

Regarding instead the object of study in the area of competence of Musicology, we can say this:

musicologists have developed a highly diversified range of interests that go, for example, from music history, theory and organology to aesthetics, pedagogy and psicology, not to mention musical acoustics, iconography and archaeology.

Musicology has traditionally been divided into two different but highly correlated sectors:

historical musicology focuses on musical phenomena as products of a specific historical and socio-cultural context, while systematic musicology is more interested in analyzing those characteristics of music that can be objectively measured.

Today, there are musicologists that have moved beyond this rigid dichotomy and others that continue to strictly adhere to it.


Differences in methodology: the role of fieldwork and observant participation

One of the main differences between musicology and ethnomusicology can be found in the way in which data are collected.

While musicology makes use of preexisting sources such as music scores, literary, archaeological and iconographical materials, ethnomusicology collects data through fieldwork.

In addition, ethnomusicologists often are used to derive other important data by taking an active role into the musical traditions they analyze.

Basically, they participate in the socio-cultural life of the communities they study by learning a musical instrument, a type of dance or a singing style.

This methodology is called participant observation and represents an important point of contact between ethnomusicology and other disciplines, like ethnography and cultural anthropology.


Scientific Journals

Both musicology and ethnomusicology have developed scientific journals and academic societies to better organize and share the huge body of knowledge resulting from the research endeavors carried out by researchers over the decades.

Here I’m going to provide you with a general overview of the topic areas covered by these publications, so as to better understand the difference between musicology and ethnomusicology when it comes to the dissemination of information.

Let’s dive into the world of ethnomusicological periodicals.

While some ethnomusicological journals specialize in the musical practices pertaining to specific geographical areas, such as African Music, American Music and Asian Music, there are other publications, like Ethnomusicology Forum, Yearbook for Traditional Music and Journal of World Popular Music, that are broader in nature and tend to encompass a wider range of topics.

Let us now turn to mention some of the most important musicology journals.

We have publications centered on the study of music theory, such as Journal of Music Theory and Music Theory Spectrum, journals dealing with a specific period of Western music history, like Early Music History and periodicals that embrace all topics covered by musicology: Acta Musicologica, The Journal of Musicology and The Journal of the American Musicological Society.

To get a more detailed list of the main journals focused on musicology and ethnomusicology you can visit these two websites: Society for Ethnomusicology and Oxford University Press.

As you may have noticed, musicologists and ethnomusicologists tend to share and showcase their ideas and research reports using separate channels of publications as additional confirmation of the underlying difference between musicology and ethnomusicology.


Departments and academic programmes

Musicology and Ethnomusicology are generally taught as two different courses and the experts who teach them are usually located within the same department: the Faculty of Music.

There are universities, though, where Ethnomusicology is separated from Musicology and gets associated with the departments of Anthropology or Social Sciences.

Let’s face it: if you want to study musicology you have a wider range of opportunities at your disposal.

Every modern university has created its own degree course in Musicology because students seem more attracted to exploring Western music than non-Western musical traditions and this is understandable.

There are so many universities offering programs in musicology that it is almost impossible to summarize them within a single blog post.

The best online resource to check some of the most renown and currently active musicology departments is this web page by the American Musicological Society.

As regards ethnomusicology, the situation is completely different.

I cannot say that world universities have been supporting this field of study with the same degree of emphasis shown towards musicology.

In fact, we have much less departments and programs focused specifically on ethnomusicology.

Two of the world’s leading centres for the study of Ethnomusicology are found in America.

I’m referring to the University of Berkeley and UCLA, which offer their students the possibility of earning both an MA and a Ph.D in Ethnomusicology.

Another prestigious faculty that is currently offering a program in ethnomusicology is SOAS.

If you want to have a look at the other faculties where ethnomusicology is taught you can click here.


Career paths

There is no big difference between Musicology and Ethnomusicology in terms of the career paths these fields of study are able to offer to their specialists.

The most sought-after position is usually one allowing the researcher to teach and continue his or her research work within a well established university environment.

However, there some musicologists and ethnomusicologists that opt for jobs outside the world of academia.

These specialists are commonly hired by museums, music archives, theatres, concert halls, libraries and private companies dealing with all the different aspects of music industry and administration.

It is also important to remember that people with either a degree or a Ph.D in musicology and ethnomusicology work for public and private schools as classroom teachers, to provide general music education to primary and secondary students.

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Mario Friscia

Anthropologist of sound
music teacher

“Open your doorway to music cultures and listen to the world with gentler ears”

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