Compare Ethnomusicology and Folklore – 3 critical distinctions.

 Compare ethnomusicology and folklore.

Ethnomusicology and Folklore

How do they differ?

Ethnomusicology and folklore share a lineage, but they are not the same thing.

A folklorist learns and plays a tune. The ethnomusicologist takes note of the melody, compiles details about its background, past, and surroundings, and subsequently includes it in a curated assortment of comparable or distinct tunes to be examined more extensively.

3 Difference between ethnomusicology and folklore

The three critical distinctions are:

  1. Ethnomusicology uses recording equipment to preserve, catalog and later analyze songs. It is an anthropological approach to music.
  2. Ethnomusicology studies non-Western music, or music originally composed without transcription. Folklore can include music from all cultures and countries, including Western folk songs.
  3. Folklore comprises music, dance, poetry, and other art forms. Ethnomusicology focuses only on music.


What is ethnomusicology?

In an earlier post, I shared the Merriam-Webster definition:

1. The study of music that is outside the European art tradition 2: The study of music in a sociocultural context

However, I now understand that it is specifically the academic study of music in an anthropological context. Béla Bartók is seen as the founder of the discipline, although the term did not exist when he was alive.

Starting in 1905, Bartók and his friend Zoltán Kodály collected more than 10,000 folk songs. They also analyzed the songs’ form and structure. Check out the title of Zodály’s 1907 thesis paper: “Strophic Construction in Hungarian Folksong. Here is a further quote from Bartók that proves his study of ethno-music was academic in nature, not merely compilation:

“Thus, it became proven that the old scales that are no longer used in our art music have not lost their vitality. Their renewed application made possible a new kind of harmonic combination. The employment of the diatonic scale in this manner led to a liberation from the petrified major and minor systems with the end result that today every step of the chromatic 12-tone system can be freely utilized on its own.”

Recording devices marked the beginning of musicology, according to Encyclopedia Britannica. The recording of music allows for its preservation and analysis, enhancing the study of music in an academic context.

Here is a charming photo of Bartók recording a singer on a wax cylinder gramophone.

The audio recorder enabled travelers to collect sounds in distant locations and bring them to specialists who analyzed and preserved them in museum-like settings using specialized equipment in ways that resembled the data and artifact collections of anthropologists.

What is folklore?

According to Merriam-Webster, folklore refers to traditional customs, tales, sayings, dances, or art forms preserved among a people.

Folklorists may collect, anthologize, perform, and record the material that they collect. But the nature of folklore is not academic. Collecting or compiling material can serve various purposes, such as preserving, appreciating, disseminating, or reiterating the material. But its nature is not to analyze and compare.

A folklorist like Vasily Trutovsky may use modern musical notation to transcribe the tune. A popular folk musician like Pete Seeger, whose father, Charles Seeger, was a founding member of the SEM used folk music to speak up for the masses.

Is one better than the other?

After grasping the three fundamental distinctions between ethnomusicology and folklore, an inevitable question arises: Is one superior to the other?

Compare ethnomusicology and folklore.

I am not expert enough to answer that. In my opinion, they are different enough to occupy separate spaces in the cultural context. While one may be more systematic and rigorous, the other is more organic and freewheeling. I think that this is like music itself. We admire symphony composers, but we also find joy in self-taught electronic musicians.

Ethnomusicology is an absolutely intriguing realm of study, one that captivates me. Nevertheless, it is crucial that in this journey of exploration, we keep sight of the sheer delight that accompanies the process of discovering, exchanging, and deciphering melodies.

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Ethnomusicologists: of the 20th Century: Badass Béla Bartók & beyond.

Ethnomusicologists: of the 20th Century: Badass Béla Bartók & beyond.

Ethnomusicologists – what do they study, and why?

Ethnomusicologists study the anthropology of music. They study how music develops and evolves in non-Western cultures in order to better understand the culture of the people.

I talked about the general aspects of the discipline in my previous post on the anthropology of music, titled “Ethnomusicology: the mysterious evolution of language, music, and the human brain.”

The term “Ethnomusicology”

In 1950, Dutch musicologist Jaap Kunst coined the term “ethnomusicology,” combining two disciplines: musicology (the study of music) and ethnology (the comparative study of different cultures).

Kunst published a paper in 1955 titled “Ethno-musicology: A study of its nature, problems, method, and notable figures, with a Bibliography.” However, in 1951, Alan Merriam had already used the term “Ethnomusicological” in the title of his doctoral thesis.

Whoever came first, prior to 1950, ethnomusicology was known as “comparative musicology”. Comparative musicology originated from early musicology studies. Guido Adler, of Austria, presented an essay in 1885 which laid out a basis for musicology.

Where is ethnomusicology studied?

Ethnomusicology is by nature a field study. This means that the researcher(s) must travel to the place whose music they are studying, in order to see it performed in situ.

However, there are a number of distinguished centers of higher learning where the scholarly study of ethnomusicology takes place. For the sake of simplicity, I will just leave a few links here. A more exhaustive list of centers of ethnomusicology can be found on the SEM website.

Ethnomusicology Centers

Who are the most famous ethnomusicologists?

(This is far from an exhaustive list…)

Béla Bartók

Béla Bartók: The Father of Ethnomusicology

Béla Bartók is considered by many to be the father of ethnomusicology. Béla Bartók was born in Hungary, and grew up during the final years of the Ottoman Empire (1299-1922). He was not only a skilled classical pianist, but also a passionate explorer of his homeland, embarking on challenging journeys to gather and preserve the rich tapestry of Hungarian folk songs.

As far as I am concerned, traipsing around Bohemia, Transylvania, and the Carpathian Mountains collecting folk songs is pretty badass. Go Béla!

Béla Bartók birthed the field of ethnomusicology as an academic discipline through his tireless pursuits of folk music, his exposition of the sound of the rural people, and his incorporation of folk-style into his own personal compositions. His work revealed to the world that folk music exists, is important, and stands as an independent academic discipline.

David Taylor Nelson :”Béla Bartók, the Father of Ethnomusicology”

Jaap Kunst

Kunst has a typically interesting “ethnomusicologist” biography. He studied the violin as a youngster. After finishing Law School in the Netherlands, he grabbed his instrument and joined a string trio and set off for Java. As you do, when you’re a badass. He stayed there for about fifteen years. Upon his return to the Netherlands, he was recognized as an expert in his field. In 1950, he coined the term “ethnomusicology”.

Alan Merriam

Alan Merriam was an American ethnomusicologist. His 1964 book, “The Anthropology of Music”, is credited with uniting the academic study of anthropology with that of music.

Alan Merriam published his Doctoral Thesis (Anthropology) in 1951. Songs of the Afro-Bahian Cults: An Ethnomusicological Analysis. Here are some of the field recordings made by him and his wife Barbara Merriam. They traveled around central Belgian Congo (later Zaire, and now the Democratic Republic of Congo) with an early “portable” reel-to-reel magnetophone . If that is not badass, then I don’t know what is!

Barbara Merriam – the forgotten ethnomusicologist

Women are almost always often erased from history. Alan Merriam was accompanied by his wife, Barbara, on his travels in Africa. I have spent some time searching the Internet for any biographical information on Barbara, or even a photo. So far, I have not had any luck, but I am sure that she was one badass researcher. Watch this space.

Bruno Nettl

Bruno Nettl was a former President of the SEM. He studied Native American music, and established the musicology program at the University of Illinois. Nettl conducted fieldwork in both Iran (in 1966, and I bet that it was both groovy and badass) and southern India.

The Language WithoutMusic

Before I leave you, I shall share with you an interesting documentary, “The Language With No Word For Music”. I found it on Reddit.

Summing up

The more I read and research Ethnomusicology and ethnomusicologists, the more my ind boggles. It is truly an expansive and enormous field. I will keep on writing. If you like what you read, please let me know. A little encouragement goes a long way!

Ethnomusicology: the enigmatic 50,000-year evolution of language, music, & the beautiful human brain

Ethnomusicology: language, music, & 50,000 years of evolution

Ethnomusicology and Neuromusic

Ethnomusicology: language, music, & 50,000 years of evolution
Ethnomusicology: language, music, & 50,000 years of evolution

As you know by now, I am studying for a Masters in Neuromusic. This week’s class dealt with the topic of Anthropology of Music.

Music exists in all civilizations and cultures on Earth. We don’t know much about the evolution of music and how it may have influenced our evolution.

The questions that I will address in this post are:

  • What is Ethnomusicology?
  • Can we use the study of ethnomusicology to better understand the development of the human brain?
  • When did language and/or music evolve in human beings?
  • Did music or language develop first?
  • Language has a clear evolutionary purpose. Does music?
  • How does ethnomusicology relate to music?

It’s hard to cover this broad and complex field in a one-hour class or in a single post. I’m using class topics to delve into the subject more, but I’m somewhat overwhelmed by the amount of information and the different paths to explore. For the time being, this is the result. I am sure that there will be more. Read on – I hope that you’ll like it.

Music, Language, & the Human Brain

Music and language share much of the brain’s neural circuitry. Both engage many different areas of the brain and numerous neural circuits. The temporal lobe, near the ear, is strongly activated. The limbic system, which deals with emotion and arousal, is also engaged. Motor neurons are called upon to activate the movements of the mouth, hands, and lungs, amongst other things.

There is no agreement on which one developed first and if their development influenced each other. By studying the development of music in different world cultures, we may glean valuable information about how the human brain manages the vast store of information that it compiles over a lifetime. Both music and language are tools of communication. Language is more descriptive and functional, while music is more emotional and amorphous.

Given the obvious similarities between music and language, it is not surprising that there has been a running debate for more than two hundred years as to whether they evolved in tandem or independently – and, if the latter, which came first.

Oliver Sacks “Musicophilia”, page x

Ethnomusicology Definition

The Merriam-Webster online dictionary defines ethnomusicology as:

1. The study of music that is outside the European art tradition 2: The study of music in a sociocultural context

Can the study of Ethnomusicology help us to understand our evolution?

Probably, yes. Music and language are fundamental to all human societies, even if their origins are still not fully understood. Exploring the anthropology of music provides valuable insights into the fundamental aspects of our existence.

We humans wonder about the reasons for our existence, our purpose here on Earth. We wonder why life is so hard, and painful, and death so ever-present. We create all sorts of stories about creation, souls, and Gods, but the hard truth is that nobody really knows. Even faced with the nihilism of not knowing, we skirt around it using humor and art.

By knowing our history, we can know where we are going. Studying ethno-music may help us to chart the uncertain waters of the future.

When did language and/or music evolve in human beings?

The first archaeological evidence of music making using instruments dates from about 50,000 years ago. Before people started using femoral bones to make flutes, they most likely used stones, sticks, and seeds as percussion instruments.

Did music or language develop first?

The human voice is certainly the most primitive instrument of all: singing probably pre-dates spoken language. Evidence from the Upper Paleolithic Era suggests that both language and musical instruments evolved around 50,000 years ago.

…fully human speech anatomy first appears in the fossil record in the Upper Paleolithic (about 50,000 years ago) and is absent in both Neanderthals and earlier humans.

Philip Lieberman “the Evolution of Human Speech

The ‘syntax’ of music is simpler, less highly evolved than that of language, suggesting an earlier origin.

Larry S. Sherman and Dennis Plies “Every Brain Needs Music”, page 18,
quoting Ian McGilchrist “The Master and His Emissary”

Language has a clear evolutionary purpose. Does music?

Human beings possess a unique ability on this planet: the power to articulate ideas using words that symbolize objects, concepts, timelines, and emotions. I believe there is intelligent life in the Universe and that advanced societies might use telepathic communication. Still, even with telepathy, there would have to be some lexicon, some words, to communicate telepathically. (But, I digress.)

Language is a fundamental tool for functioning in communal societies. Humans are social animals, but our conviviality means that we must be able to communicate. Not only do we communicate for necessity, we also communicate for fun. Think of jokes, poems, songs and riddles.

Both language and music bind us together in groups, families, and societies. Both are absolutely necessary for our survival, but in different ways.

“In ancient languages, the sound of a word contained the energy and essence of the thing signified by that word.  The earliest forms of communication were probably grunts, groans, screams and laughter – sounds that transparently expressed how one felt in the moment.  Andcient languages evolved out of those sounds.  Gradually, words were formed to capture the essence of other things that helpd form the matrix of life:  the presence of trees, rocks, animals, and birds.  In this sense, all ancient languages were originally mantric because their words embodied the essence of what they signified.”

Russill Paul “The Yoga of Sound” page 68

Language development

Humans are unique because we can talk, sing, play instruments, and use tools to make instruments.

The human throat differs from that of other animals. The larynx sits lower in the throat. There is more space in the mouth cavity, so we can make different sounds.

Our large brain has powerful cognitive abilities that many other mammals simply do not possess. IMHO, that does not make us better than other animals. They possess highly refined sensory organs that make them amazing creatures. But, they don’t have language, or music. We do. By understanding how we acquired them, we understand ourselves a little more.

I will leave you with two interesting links.

The Larynx

First, a NPR report on how humans acquired the ability to speak. This 6-minute clip is called “From Grunting to Gabbing: Why Humans Can Talk“. It explains the structure of the larynx, also known as the “voice box”, and discusses how the human throat may have evolved. Thanks for reading and stay tuned.

Medical Ethnomusicology

Next, an article about a modern-day Ethnomusicologist who is studying medical ethnomusicology: UF School of Music Ethnomusicologist studies rhythm and the aging brain.

The anthropology of music and how it related to language and the brain.
The anthropology of music and how it related to language and the brain.