15 minute read

Anthropology of Music

The Anthropology Of Music

Many musicologists maintain a Western aesthetic ideology of autonomous art. Against this backdrop, scholars with an anthropology of music orientation were faced with the challenge of finding theoretical approaches that would help them explain, or at least link, musical style with broader patterns of cultural and social processes. Ethnomusicologists frequently turned to the prominent anthropological theories and problems of any given period for this purpose. Social evolutionism, diffusionism, mapping culture areas, functionalism, problems of acculturation and culture change, structuralism, semiotics, "ethnoscience," feminist theory, theories of social power, practice theory, and problems of nationalism and globalization, prominently form the historical strata of ideas guiding work in the anthropology of music. Some scholars explicitly combined a variety of theoretical approaches in single publications. While it sometimes appears as if the newest problem or body of theory negates earlier approaches as faulty or outmoded, it is more accurate to view each as a theoretical layer that continues to inform later thinking.

Hornbostel, Curt Sachs, and the widely dispersed scholars influenced by this group (e.g., Carlos Vega in Argentina), are often associated with a social-evolutionist anthropological orientation. This is an oversimplification in that Hornbostel and Sachs, to cite but two examples, contributed to a variety of theoretical discussions and problems, for example, cultural diffusion, music perception, approaches to musical analysis, and the classification of musical instruments, among others. It is probably fairer to say that evolutionist ideas were part of common sense for this generation of scholars. Thus as a reason to study "foreign [contemporary] music" Hornbostel states that "we would like to uncover the remotest, darkest past and unveil, in the wealth of the present, the ageless universal in music; in other words: we want to understand the evolution and common aesthetic foundation of the art of music" (p. 269). In The Wellsprings of Music, Sachs views contemporary tribal peoples as "archaic" and as "the surviving tribes of palaeolithic culture" that provide a window to "early music," yet he also questions evolutionist ideas: "People do not stick to shallow secondal patterns because they stand on the lowest rung of the cultural ladder.… Often a person's sex appears to be the shaping power; women seem to prefer a smaller step [melodic interval], just as they do in dancing, while men proceed in larger strides and leaps" (p. 62). While social-evolutionism and such broad generalizing became largely discredited after the first part of the twentieth century, it might be argued that the evolutionist "primitive–civilized" contrast served as the paradigmatic background for the "traditional–modern" dichotomy that remains in currency, with many of the same problems.

Several ethnomusicologists followed the American anthropological trend of grouping different societies into culture areas. Bruno Nettl created a map of Native North American musical styles following the cultural mapping of anthropologists such as A. L. Kroeber; and Alan P. Merriam created a map of African musical culture areas following Herskovits. Later Alan Lomax attempted to map the world's musical areas. The musical areas that form the basis of Lomax's canto-metrics project, especially, have been questioned for creating an overly homogenized view of constituent musical cultures based on rather thin data. Nonetheless, in practice the culture area idea, writ large, forms a fundamental basis for organizing courses in ethnomusicology, for defining scholars' specializations, and in the writing of textbooks and reference works—all typically organized according to geographical units.

During the 1950s and 1960s, practitioners of the anthropology of music embraced functionalism as a way to link music-making to social life. More akin to Malinowski's approach than A. R. Radcliffe-Brown's "structural-functionalism," ethnomusicologists began to emphasize what certain types of music contributed to certain realms of activity—healing, labor, political structure, family life, social cohesion. In The Anthropology of Music, Merriam states, "The uses and functions of music represent one of the most important problems in ethnomusicology" (p. 209). In contrast to Kantian ideas that the "aesthetic" and "functional" realms preclude each other, McAllester's Enemy Way study demonstrated that for many Navajo, the musically "good" or "beautiful" was defined according to its effectiveness for healing, that is, a performance was judged importantly in terms of how well it fulfilled its function. Although few ethnomusicologists after the 1960s would consider themselves functionalists, describing the deeper purposes that music serves remains a basic part of music ethnographies.

During this same time period and through the late twentieth century, an interest in musical change and acculturation echoed anthropological interests. One of the most widely accepted theories of musical acculturation, advocated by Merriam, Richard Waterman, and derived directly from Herskovits, held that musical cultures were more likely to blend together or influence each other if they shared a number of similar traits. Nettl and Margaret J. Kartomi created typologies for the different effects of culture contact. John Blacking published an influential article advocating the search for a unified theory of musical change emphasizing a distinction between change within a musical system and change of the system. Robert Kauffman argued that culture change or acculturation could not be read off surface forms, such as the adaptation of a foreign musical instrument, but rather, that modes of musical practice, organization, and aesthetics were the key variables for assessing culture change.

Practitioners of the anthropology of music loosely adapted Lévi-Straussian structuralism as a key approach in the 1970s and 1980s. Typically, ethnomusicologists were not concerned with Claude Lévi-Strauss's starting point, the common structure of the human mind. Rather, working on a culture-specific basis, they assumed that there would be deep structural patterns that would shape (surface) cultural practices and forms, creating homologies across different domains of social life. Thus, Charles Keil identified patterns involving circles and angles, in roof designs, visual arts, and in music, and Adrienne Kaeppler found homologies across different realms of Tongan art and society. Combining the earlier interest in homologies with the Peircian concept of iconicity, Judith Becker and Anton Becker found similar structures in Indonesian calendrical concepts and gamelan music; Steven Feld documented the iconicity of aesthetics, practices, and style across a number of domains of Kaluli social life; and Thomas Turino observed a series of symmetrical structures organized around a centerline in Aymara panpipe and flute ensembles, in Andean weaving, in the conceptualization of agricultural niches, and in the organization of space during festival celebrations.

During the same period, some ethnomusicologists took an interest in the premises and methods of structural linguistics for musical analysis; this represents a different trajectory than Lévi-Straussian structuralism, and the scholars involved tended to hail from the musicological rather than the anthropological side of the discipline. Other ethnomusicological approaches related (sometimes through opposition) to structuralism and linguistics involved "the ethnography of performance," following sociolinguistics and the "ethnography of speaking," and the "ethnoscience" approach.

Frequently, the early discussions of "culture contact" and acculturation did not take power relations between the groups into account as a primary variable. Beginning in the 1980s, younger scholars influenced by Marxian ideas, and especially the work of Antonio Gramsci, began to study the effects of asymmetrical power relations and identity politics on musical values and practices. During the 1990s, the study of music in relation to identity politics became a central topic in the anthropology of music. Since social identities are fundamental to political life, and public expressive cultural practices such as music and dance are key to formulating and representing social identities, ethnomusicologists have made major contributions to understanding the dynamics involved—often from a valuable grassroots perspective.

Jane Sugarman's work documents the fundamental ways musical performance functions in processes of socialization shaping conceptions of gendered identities and roles, and Christopher Ballantine provides an insightful essay on gendered power dynamics in South African popular music. Many others have studied the intersection of ethnicity, race, and class in relation to popular music practices and aesthetics. State intervention in indigenous and popular music has received significant attention. Another prominent ethnomusicological topic has been the effects of political nationalism on music. Finally, the study of transnational or "global" economic processes in relation to the production and reception of music—especially popular musics and styles within the "world music" rubric—has become a central focus in the anthropology of music.

Whereas European classical music was once deemed the primary type worthy of study, over the last three decades of the twentieth century "world music" classes and textbooks proliferated in response to several intersecting trends. The discourse of multiculturalism has certainly supported the growth of the interest in "non-Western" music. Multiculturalism itself may be seen as a liberal trend that is partially the result of anthropologists and ethnomusicologists advocating cultural relativism for over a century. It is also partially the result of the women's and civil rights movements' demand that artistic canons be expanded to include a variety of groups. Simultaneously, multiculturalism also functions as a new type of state strategy (e.g., in contrast to the "melting pot") to incorporate the variety of immigrant groups into nation-states and to mitigate challenges to the image of national unity.

Commercial music trends have intersected with the work of ethnomusicologists to expand the interest in, and familiarity with, a variety of musics from around the world. A fascination with the "exotic" has long been part of American and cosmopolitan popular culture—examples include nineteenth-century minstrelsy, "Latin" dance crazes and stars like Carmen Miranda throughout the twentieth century, and hippie (and the Beatles') interest in "Eastern" religion and sitar music. Following the international commercial success of Bob Marley and reggae, new marketing rubrics—"world beat" and "world music"—were adopted in the 1980s to sell a variety of musics from around the world. The more enterprising "world music" fans have turned to the work of ethnomusicologists to expand their knowledge of different styles, and ethnomusicologists have sometimes collaborated in commercial "world music" projects.

Finally, the contemporary discourse of globalism—which might be interpreted as ideologically supporting the expansion and control of trans-state capitalist interests and institutions in the post-Soviet era—has brought new recognition to the work of ethnomusicologists. The discipline has had a global perspective since its inception, but ethnomusicologists' detailed studies of the wealth of human creativity as well as the profound musical and aesthetic differences among social groups do not support views of an emerging "global culture," or its likelihood in the near future.


Adler, Guido. "Umfang, Methode und Ziel der Musikwissenschaft." Vierteljahrschrift für Musikwissenschaft 1 (1885): 5–20.

Appadurai, Arjun. "Anthropology of Globalization." In International Encyclopedia of the Social and Behavioral Sciences, vol. 9, edited by Neil J. Smelser and Paul Baltes. Oxford: Elsevier Science, 2001.

Arguedas, Jose María. Formación de una cultura nacional indoamericana. Mexico: Siglo Veintiuno Editores S.A., 1977.

Armstrong, Robert Plant. The Affecting Presence: An Essay in Humanistic Anthropology. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1971.

Ballantine, Christopher. "Gender, Migrancy, and South African Popular Music in the Late 1940s and the 1950s." Ethnomusicology 44 (2000): 376–407.

Basso, Ellen. A Musical View of the Universe. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1985.

Becker, Judith and Anton. "A Musical Icon: Power and Meaning in Javanese Gamelan Music." In The Sign in Music and Literature, edited by Wendy Steiner. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1981.

Béhague, Gerard, ed. Performance Practice: Ethnomusicological Perspectives. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood, 1984.

Benedict, Ruth. Patterns of Culture. New York: Penguin Books, 1934.

Besmer, Fremont E. Horses, Musicians, and Gods: The Hausa Cult of Possession-Trance. Zaria, Nigeria: Ahmadu Bello University Press, 1983.

Blacking, John. The Anthropology of the Body. London: Academic Press, 1977.

——. "Some Problems of Theory and Method in the Study of Musical Change." Yearbook of the International Folk Music Council 9 (1978): 1–26.

——. Venda Children's Songs: A Study in Ethnomusicological Analysis. Johannesburg: Witwatersrand University Press, 1967.

Boas, Franz. The Central Eskimo. Washington: Bureau of American Ethnology, 1888.

——. "The Limitations of the Comparative Method of Anthropology." Science 4, no. 103 (December 18, 1896).

Buechler, Hans C. The Masked Media: Aymara Fiestas and Social Iteraction in the Bolivian Highlands. The Hague: Mouton, 1980.

Burnett, Robert. The Global Jukebox: The International Music Industry. London: Routledge, 1996.

Christensen, Dieter. "Erich M. von Hornbostel, Carl Stumpf, and the Institutionalization of Comparative Musicology." In Comparative Musicology and Anthropology of Music: Essays on the History of Ethnomusicology, edited by Bruno Nettl and Philip V. Bohlman. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991.

Ellis, Alexander J. "On the Musicial Scales of Various Nations." Journal of the Society of Arts, xxxiii (1885), 3/27: 485-527; 10/30: 1102–1111.

Erlmann, Veit. Music, Modernity, and the Global Imagination: South Africa and the West. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.

——. "The Politics and Aesthetics of Transnational Musics." The World of Music 35, no. 2 (1993): 3–15. Feld, Steven. "Linguistic Models in Ethnomusicology." Ethnomusicology 15 (1974): 353–362.

——. Sound and Sentiment. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1982.

——. "Aesthetics as Iconicity of Style, or 'Lit-Up-Over Sounding': Getting into the Kaluli Groove." Yearbook for Traditional Music 20 (1988): 74–114.

Fried, Morton H., ed. Readings in Anthropology, Vol. 2 of Cultural Anthropology. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Company, 1968.

Frith, Simon. World Music, Politics, and Social Change. Manchester, U.K.: Manchester University Press, 1989.

Fry, Peter. Spirits of Protest: Spirit Mediums and the Articulation of Consensus among the Zezuru of Southern Rhodesia (Zimbabwe). Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1976.

Herskovits, Melville J. "The Culture Areas of Africa." Africa 3 (1930): 59–76.

——. "Problem, Method and Theory in AfroAmerican Studies." Afroamericana 1 (1945): 5–24.

Herzog, George. "A Comparison of Pueblo and Pima Musical Styles." Journal of American Folk-lore 49, no. 194 (1936): 284–417.

Hornbostel, Erich M. von. "The Problems of Comparative Musicology." In Opera Omnia I, edited by Klaus P. Wachsmann, Dieter Christensen, and Hans-Peter Reinecke. The Hague: Nijhoff, 1905 [1975].

Kaeppler, Adrienne L. "Melody, Drone and Decoration: Underlying Structures and Surface Manifestations in Tongan Art and Society." In Art in Society: Studies in Style, Culture and Aesthetics, edited by Michael Greenhalgh and Vincent Megaw. London: Gerald Duckworth, 1978.

Kartomi, Margaret J. "The Processes and Results of Musical Culture Contact: A Discussion of Terminology and Concepts." Ethnomusicology 25 (1981): 227–250.

Kauffman, Robert. "Shona Urban Music: A Process which Maintains Traditional Values." In Urban Man in Southern Africa, edited by Clive Kileff and Wade C. Pendleton. Gweru: Mambo Press, 1975.

Keil, Charles. Tiv Song. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979.

Kolinski, Mieczyslaw. "Recent Trends in Ethnomusicology." Ethnomusicology 11 (1967): 1–24.

Koskoff, Ellen, ed. Women and Music in Cross-Cultural Perspective. New York: Greenwood, 1987.

Kroeber, A. L. Cultural and Natural Areas of Native North America. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1947.

Kunst, Jaap. Ethno-musicology: A Study of its Nature, its Problems, Methods and Representative Personalities to which Is Added a Bibliography. The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1955.

Lomax, Alan. Folk Song Style and Culture. Washington, D.C.: American Association for the Advancement of Science, 1968.

Lowie, Robert H. The Crow Indians. New York: Rinehart, 1935.

Malinowski, Bronislaw. The Sexual Life of Savages. London: Routledge, 1929.

Mangin, William. "The Role of Regional Associations in the Adaptation of Rural Populations in Peru." Sociologus 9 (1959): 23–35.

Mannheim, Bruce. "Popular Song and Popular Grammar: Poetry and Metalanguage." Word 37 (1986): 45–75.

McAllester, David P. Enemy Way Music: A Study of Social and Esthetic Values as Seen in Navaho Music. Cambridge, Mass.: Peabody Museum, 1954.

McLeod, Norma, and Marcia Herndon. The Ethnography of Musical Performance. Norwood, Pa.: Norwood, 1980.

Mead, Margaret. Coming of Age in Samoa. New York: Mentor Books, 1928 [1949].

Merriam, Alan P. The Anthropology of Music. Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 1964.

——. "Definitions of 'Comparative Musicology' and 'Ethnomusicology': An Historical-Theoretical Perspective." Ethnomusicology 21 (1977): 189–204.

——. "The Use of Music in the Study of a Problem of Acculturation." American Anthropologist 57 (1955): 28–34.

Moore, Robin. Nationalizing Blackness: Afrocubanismo and Artistic Revolution in Havana, 19201940. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1997.

Myers, Helen. Ethnomusicology: An Introduction. New York: Norton, 1992.

Nettl, Bruno. Encounters in Ethnomusicology. Warren, Mich.: Harmonie Park, 2002.

——. North American Indian Musical Styles. Philadelphia: American Folklore Society, 1954.

Nettl, Bruno, and Philip V. Bohlman, eds. Comparative Musicology and Anthropology of Music: Essays on the History of Ethnomusicology. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991.

Noll, William. "Music Institutions and National Consciousness among Polish and Ukrainian Peasants." In Ethnomusicology and Modern Music History, edited by Stephen Blum, Philip V. Bohlman, and Daniel M. Neuman. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1991.

Peña, Manuel. "From Ranchero to Jaitón: Ethnicity and Class in Texas-Mexican Music (Two Styles in the Form of a Pair)." Ethnomusicology 29 (1985): 29–55.

Perrone, Charles A., and Christopher Dunn, eds. Brazilian Popular Music and Globalization. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2001.

Powers, Harold S. "Language Models and Musical Analysis." Ethnomusicology 24 (1980): 1–60.

Radano, Ronald, and Philip V. Bohlman, eds. Music and the Racial Imagination. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000.

Sachs, Curt. The Wellsprings of Music. Edited by Jaap Kunst. The Hague: Nijhoff, 1962.

Seeger, Anthony. Why Suyá Sing: A Musical Anthropology of an Amazonian People. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1987.

Stempfle, Stephen. The Steelband Movement: The Forging of a National Art in Trinidad and Tobago. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1995.

Stokes, Martin, ed. Ethnicity, Identity, and Music: The Musical Construction of Place. Oxford: Berg, 1994.

Sugarman, Jane. Engendering Song: Singing and Subjectivity at Prespa Albanian Weddings. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997.

Turnbull, Colin M. The Forest People. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1961.

Turner, Victor, and Edward M. Bruner, eds. The Anthropology of Experience. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1986.

Turino, Thomas. Nationalists, Cosmopolitans, and Popular Music in Zimbabwe. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000.

——. "The State and Andean Musical Production in Peru." In Nation-State and Indian in Latin America, edited by Joel Sherzer and Greg Urban. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1990.

Tylor, Edward Burnett. Religion in Primitive Culture, Part II of Primitive Culture. New York: Harper and Brothers, 1871 [1958].

Wade, Peter. Music, Race, and Nation: Musica Tropical in Colombia. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000.

Waterman, Richard. "African Influence on the Music of the Americas." In Acculturation in the Americas, edited by Sol Tax. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1952.

Waxer, Lise A. The City of Musical Memory: Salsa, Record Grooves, and Popular Culture in Cali, Colombia. Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 2002.

Whitten, Norman. Black Frontiersmen: A South American Case. 2nd ed. Prospect Heights, Ill.: Waveland Press, 1974 [1986].

Zemp, Hugo. "'Are'are Classification of Musical Types and Instruments." Ethnomusicology (1978) 22: 37–67.

——. "Aspects of 'Are'are Musical Theory." Ethnomusicology 23 (1979): 5–48.

Thomas Turino

Additional topics

Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Molecular distillation to My station and its duties:Anthropology of Music - Musical Anthropology, Comparative Musicology And Ethnomusicology, The Anthropology Of Music, Bibliography