Expanding earlier definitions of the field as the study of non-Western musics, ‘ethnic music’ or ‘world music’, ethnomusicology is the anthropological study of music as a culture-specific phenomenon and a universal aspect of human social behaviour. It developed out of late 19th-century studies of ‘exotic’ Asian scales in Europe and studies of American Indian music in the USA. Since the 1950s there has been a gradual process of incorporation of the insights offered by comparative musicology, with its emphasis on collection, documentation, systematization, classification, transcription, and analysis with the anthropology of music, with its emphasis on extended periods of field work, participant observation, the learning of vocal and instrumental performance skills by researchers, and the search for the social functions of music.
Ethnomusicologists attempt to describe music cultures as whole systems or ‘music cultures’ but the general trend has been towards studies focused on specific theoretical problems, such as the role of music in healing, the cultural role and symbolism of musical instruments, and the relationship of musical aesthetics, values, and social power. Ethnomusicologists find themselves increasingly concerned with the ethics of fieldwork and the politics of representation, the music of migrant populations, the relationship between music, ethnicity, and identity in the construction of place, and a study of popular musics worldwide.
See: comparative musicology, organology, cantometrics.
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