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Anthropology of Music

Musical Anthropology, Comparative Musicology And Ethnomusicology, The Anthropology Of Music, Bibliography

The phrase anthropology of music is most closely associated with Alan P. Merriam's 1964 landmark book bearing this title. In this prescriptive text, influential through the 1980s, Merriam defines ethnomusicology as the study of music in culture in relation to the mutual interactions of sound, behavior, and concepts. In consonance with many ethnomusicologists to this day, Mieczyslaw Kolinski (1967) responded that anthropological considerations should not dwarf an emphasis on the study of musical sound, per se, and he took Merriam to task for being too dogmatically anthropological. Kolinski argued that ethnomusicology is, in fact, a field at the juncture of two distinct disciplines: comparative musicology, which is the study of musical styles and systems from different societies, an integral part of general musicology; and musical anthropology, the study of the role music plays in human societies, an integral part of general anthropology. In 1987 Anthony Seeger described his book Why Suyá Sing as "a kind of musical anthropology as distinct from an anthropology of music—a study of society from the perspective of musical performance, rather than simply the application of anthropological methods and concerns to music" (p. xiii).

From these statements three general orientations emerge: (a) an emphasis on musical sound, styles, and performance in non-Western societies described in their cultural context; (b) an emphasis on analyzing musical sound and style in dialectic with social processes through the application of anthropological methods and concerns; and (c) an emphasis on social life and processes as studied through musical styles and performance ("musical anthropology"). Ethnomusicology emerged as an independent discipline in the 1950s, and the first two orientations characterize the majority of ethnomusicological work. The third orientation, that which uses musical data to understand social processes, might be identified with the disciplines of ethnomusicology and/or anthropology, often depending on the disciplinary identity of the scholar.

Anthropologists who focus on music represent a small minority within the discipline and, Bruno Nettl writes, "the practitioners of the types of study labeled as the 'anthropology of music' … have accounted, I reckon, for less than one-fifth of all ethnomusicologists, but among them have been many of the field's great leaders" (p. 62). Since the 1980s, the anthropology of music approach probably represents a larger portion of ethnomusicological work, and anthropological methods and theories have provided an important basis for the discipline as a whole throughout its development.

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