Ethnomusicology – Study of People Making Music

Legendary reggae musician Bob Marley has been quoted as saying “One good thing about music, when it hits you, you feel no pain.” Certainly, many would agree that music has enormous potential to influence emotions and behavior – and this has been the case for centuries. Defined as the study of social and cultural aspects of music and dance, both in a local and global context, the term ethnomusicology was created by Dutch scholar Jaap Kunst (1891-1960) as a more precise term for his research into the gamelan music of Indonesia. Taken from the Greek words for “nation” and “music”, ethnomusicology is, in a nutshell, the study of “people making music” – as noted by Brown University professor of music, Jeff Todd Titon. Although originally referring to non-Western music, ethnomusicology has expanded to include the anthropological and sociological aspects of Western music traditions.


Emerging in the late 19th to early 20th century, “comparative musicology” was the precursor to ethnomusicology, with scholars specializing in this fascinating field including Hungarian composer and pianist Béla Viktor János Bartók; Hungarian composer, linguist and philosopher Zoltán Kodály; American folklorist and musician Alan Lomax; Romanian composer Constantin Brăiloiu; Croatian composer Vinko Žganec; Croatian composer, choral conductor and pianist Franjo Ksaver Kuhač; German philosopher and folklorist Carl Stumpf; Austrian anthropologist Erich Hornbostel; and German-born founder of organology Curt Sachs.

Ethnomusicology embraces aspects of cultural studies, sociology and cultural anthropology, with some scholars specializing in the impact of music on past societies, while others conduct ongoing and long-term studies involving participation and observation. Characteristics of ethnomusicology may also be incorporated into research carried out by linguists and anthropologists.

UNESCO-recognized NGO the International Council for Traditional Music (ICTM) was established in London in 1947 and continues to publish the annual Yearbook for Traditional Music. The Society for Ethnomusicology based in Bloomington, Indiana, works with ICTM and the British Forum for Ethnomusicology to promote ethnomusicology as a field of study. In addition to its quarterly journal – Ethnomusicology – the society publishes bibliographies, discographies, videographies and filmographies. It hosts an internationally supported annual conference and presents numerous awards recognizing outstanding achievements in scholarship and service, including an award in honor of Jaap Kunst – one of the noteworthy pioneers in the field of ethnomusicology.