Sustainable Music


Sunday, April 24, 2011

The Curry Lecture: Applied Ethnomusicology

(Note as of June 29, 2015: The Oxford Handbook of Applied Ethnomusicology, edited by Svanibor Pettan and Jeff Todd Titon, has just been published by Oxford University Press. My section of the Introduction to that book is an updated and far more extensive review of applied ethnomusicology and its history than what I wrote below. The Handbook itself contains essays by more than 20  international contributors.)

Having just now returned (in late April 2011) from a stimulating trip to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and now finished with the last of my guest lectures this semester on music and sustainability, I’d like to catch the blog up on them here, beginning with the Curry Lecture which I delivered at the University of Michigan last March 18. Soon I will post about my talk at Indiana University a week later, and then about the ones at Chapel Hill. The Ethel V. Curry Distinguished Lecture in Musicology is an endowed lecture series created for the University of Michigan by H. Robert Reynolds in honor of his mother. Now retired and living in California, he was for many years a professor in the School of Music at the University of Michigan; he returned to Ann Arbor for this lecture. I had the pleasure of meeting Mr. Reynolds at the lecture and thanking him as we spoke for some minutes before the lecture.

My lecture had been advertised at as follows, in the generic descriptive paragraph that I gave them last fall when I wasn’t yet sure which aspect of the project I would emphasize: “While sustainability is in vogue today, musical and cultural sustainability have yet to be fully theorized. If ethnomusicology is the study of people making music, and applied ethnomusicology is the application of that study in the public interest, Professor Jeff Todd Titon asks how cultural policy regarding music may be informed by the most powerful contemporary discourses in sustainability, those coming from ecology and economics.” The advertisement concludes with a link to this blog.

As usual with descriptions like this given well in advance, they represent the project as it then exists; predictably, it turned out that during my fall presentations at the conferences of the Society for Ethnomusicology and the American Folklore Society I continued exploring the sustainability discourses in ecology and economics, seeking complementarity between them in the concept of “Nature’s economy.” I’ve already written about those presentations on this blog, and also offered the papers themselves. In my lecture at the University of Texas I concentrated on the cultural policy aspects of the project, working with (and against) David Throsby's ideas concerning the economics of cultural policy. And so in the Curry Lecture I turned to a different aspect of the project, in response to requests from professors and students there who wanted to know more about applied ethnomusicology. That is, in addition to offering an overview of the project, I spent the first third of the talk on a definition and explanation of applied ethnomusicology, along with some illustrations. For when an ethnomusicologist gets involved with a project like this, which involves theorizing towards a public policy implementation, it falls under the heading of applied ethnomusicology. And so that will be the subject of this blog entry, expanded somewhat from what I said in Ann Arbor.

In 1992, when I was editor of Ethnomusicology, the Journal of the Society for Ethnomusicology, I solicited articles for a special issue on applied ethnomusicology. At that time there was no single word for this field: it was either called public sector ethnomusicology (after public sector folklore), or applied ethnomusicology (after applied anthropology). Other terms in use were practice ethnomusicology, action ethnomusicology, and active ethnomusicology. In recognition that the name had not yet been settled, I called the special issue “ethnomusicology in the public interest,” a working definition of applied ethnomusicology that appealed to me because it suggested a recognition of civic responsibility in all that we are about, a view that our work ought to engage with public discourse beyond university walls. “This work,” I wrote, “involves and empowers music-makers and music-cultures in collaborative projects that present, represent, and affect the cultural flow of music throughout the world” (“Music, the Public Interest, and the Practice of Ethnomusicology,” Ethnomusicology, Vol. 36, no. 3 [1992], p. 315).

In my introductory essay for that special issue, I emphasized the differences between practice and theory, and between the ivory tower of the university and the world of practice outside of it, far more than I do today, and more than I did in 2003 in an article that appeared in a special issue of Folklore Forum devoted to applied ethnomusicology. This article, "A Conversation with Jeff Todd Titon," was an interview that John Fenn conducted with me, in which he asked me to define applied ethnomusicology, offer some instances of it, discuss my involvement with it going back to the nineteen-sixties, and say where I thought applied ethnomusicology was headed and why so many graduate students were interested in it at that time. This article may be downloaded for free at

But in the period from 1950-1990 there was a good deal of opposition, chiefly among senior ethnomusicologists (I was not quite so senior at the time), to applied ethnomusicology. Some agreed with Alan Merriam that ethnomusicology ought to be a pure science, not an applied one; for in the early 1950s the founders of the Society for Ethnomusicology had, after all, rejected overtures from the International Folk Music Council to ally their work with theirs, on account of a perceived bias at the IFMC towards “salvage” work—a romantic preoccupation with dead and dying musics and musical cultures. According to the founders, ethnomusicologists were meant to study all music as objectively and scientifically as possible; romantic bias had no place in the discipline. Merriam had, also, publicly ridiculed applied ethnomusicology in K-12 education as “sandbox ethnomusicology,” taking a swipe at the direction Society for Ethnomusicology co-founder David McAllester had gone since about 1970. Other prominent ethnomusicologists put it more mildly: applied ethnomusicology surely was a good thing for society, but was the practice of music in the public interest really ethnomusicology?

In the 1980s another model (besides applied anthropology) for applied ethnomusicology became available in the US: public sector folklore. Three federal institutions--the Smithsonian Institution's Folklife Office, the Library of Congress's American Folklife Center, and the Folk Arts Division of the National Endowment for the Arts became involved in various applied folklore projects whose aim was what was called cultural conservation. The Smithsonian's major project was their annual folklife festival; the American Folklife Center, which housed the Archive of Folk Song, began to do folk cultural surveys in various parts of the US, resulting in exhibits and other interventions in the public sector; and the Folk Arts Division distributed some $3 million annually to organizations who were identifying, documenting, and presenting folk artists to the general public. Further, Folk Arts established the position of "state folklorist" on state arts councils and other state and local organizations, to the point that by the end of the decade a network of public sector folklorists was operating in nearly every state of the union. As traditional music was considered a folk art, a few ethnomusicologists were hired by the Smithsonian and the American Folklife Center both for particular projects and as permanent staff; meanwhile, two or three ethnomusicologists could usually be found on the Folk Arts panels. (I served from 1980 to 1984 and again in 1989 and 1993). Folklorists attended the Society for Ethnomusicology conferences and led workshops that helped ethnomusicologists see how they might get involved in public folklore. Many were attracted by the possibility that they could obtain grants for their organizations.

Applied ethnomusicology topics and projects appeared increasingly on the SEM conference programs in the 1990s, and eventually a special interest group (committee) on applied ethnomusicology was founded, by myself and twenty-six others, in 1997. In 2002 two of the leaders of that group, Doris Dyen and Martha Ellen Davis, turned it into a “section,” a more permanent designation. Today the section, of which I am currently a co-chair, has more than 100 members and is the largest section in the Society. The first conference devoted to applied ethnomusicology, held at Brown in 2003 and organized by two of our doctoral candidates, Erica Haskell and Maureen Loughran, was called "Invested in Community." In addition to the kinds of scholarly exchange that take place at conferences, it was an attempt to show that applied ethnomusicology is both an international effort (a number of invited presenters were from Europe) and also that applied ethnomusicologists worked both inside and outside the university world. All the conference presentations are on line at

Most ethnomusicologists, today, have adopted a live and let live attitude; applied ethnomusicology is fine for those who want to do it, and not required for those ethnomusicologists who do not. Some applied ethnomusicologists, though, carry forward out of habit the incorrect assumption that applied ethnomusicology is something that exists apart from universities, while others express animosities toward academics. And, to be sure, some academics remain suspicious of applied work. These divisions are not helpful. To think of applied ethnomusicology as an "alternative career" immediately marginalizes it as "alternative" and erects barriers between academic and applied ethnomusicology. One can just as easily imagine the academic career as an alternative to a career in the public sphere; indeed, some non-academics think of universities as ivory towers that are out of touch with the mainstream. Most important, it is a false dichotomy because many ethnomusicologists employed by colleges and universities do applied work, while many applied workers employed outside of universities do academic research.

In the Curry Lecture, I defined applied ethnomusicology as the process of putting ethnomusicological research to practical use. It is not the same as putting music to use; many people put music to use without the benefit of ethnomusicological research. Nonetheless, this definition that I favor now is, like my earlier notion of ethnomusicology in the public interest, more inclusive than some other current definitions, emanating particularly from my European colleagues, which ally applied ethnomusicology to a desire to intervene with music on behalf of peace and social justice. While it’s true that many applied ethnomusicologists do this work for that reason, one with which my own history with activism aligns, this is too narrow a definition to accommodate much that goes on in this field, such as medical ethnomusicology, which includes music therapy as well as education for HIV/AIDS. Other examples of applied ethnomusicology include public programming involving documentation and presentation of under-represented music at museums and festivals; participatory action research, involving partnerships with community scholars to work toward mutual community music goals such as encouraging conditions under which music will flourish; music, peace studies, and conflict resolution, particularly with regard to ethnic rivalries in the Balkans and Middle East; education, enabling multicultural initiatives such as a diversity of music in the curriculum; and cultural policy regarding music, including sustainability initiatives.

None of these examples is out of harmony with pluralism and social justice goals and most are, in fact, very much in the same spirit; and yet one can imagine ethnomusicological research put to use in the service of other ideologies. For example, some Christian missionaries do engage in what they call applied ethnomusicology, the application of ethnomusicological knowledge to fieldwork and musical partnerships with various groups, with conversion and education a principal goal. One group, led by Brian Schrag, who received his PhD in ethnomusicology from UCLA, has worked out a methodology and has presented examples of their work in Africa at the annual conferences of the Society for Ethnomusicology. Brian and his group do seek social justice for the Africans they work with, but within an explicit Christian framework. And unlike some other missionaries, they are respectful of the Africans' traditional ways. The argument could continue: one might say that in introducing the Christian framework they are elevating a particular world view. Against that, it could be pointed out that the ideology of cultural equity that underpins applied ethnomusicology (and public folklore) also elevates a particular world view that values diversity and pluralism. And so on. Still, that missionary work is different from the work of ethnomusicologist Rabbi Jeffrey Summit with a group of Ugandan Jews. Rabbi Summit’s goal is not conversion; it is musical and cultural conservation. These Africans are already Jewish. My own work with various religious musical cultures (all Christian) is the same: the goals have been documentation and conservation, as well as interpretation.

One could say that the musical relativism on which ethnomusicology was founded (in response to the perceived absolutism of older musicologists whose subject was the tradition of Western art music aka classical music, and who considered it to be the best, the most rewarding, most stimulating, most complex, most civilizing musical achievement of humankind) should not, to be consistent in principle, exclude applied ethnomusicologies with varying ideological agendas. On the other hand, one might argue that there is a difference between musical relativism and ideological relativism.

It is an old argument. Should the definition include, for example, ethnomusicological research put to use in torturing political prisoners? The United States bombards Muslim “detainees” with loud music, in their efforts to break their resistance and obtain information. Evidently hip-hop is especially loathed, especially Eminem. The Society for Ethnomusicology’s Executive Board, on the recommendation from the Society’s Ethics Committee, put out a statement on the SEM website publicly condemning the use of music for torture. (Go to:

It so happens that I was the one who brought the matter before the Ethics Committee in the first place, and I found nothing but strong support for my position all the way through to the publication of the statement—the first time that SEM has taken such a public political stand, be it said. But can I find an ethical principle that will exclude this appalling use of ethnomusicological research (I don’t know that any ethnomusicologists were directly involved in the government’s decision to use hip-hop to torture political prisoners, of course; my guess is that they consulted the literature of music psychology primarily) and not exclude ideologies that embrace social justice? This is more than a technical question. For the moment applied ethnomusicology can afford, in my view, to be inclusive and expansive. I can imagine a time when it may not be so easy for me to take this view.

Having worked through a definition of applied ethnomusicology, though not with all of this background, I went on to give examples of it, such as the ones above, and to speak at length about my longitudinal study and partnership with the Old Regular Baptists, in southeastern Kentucky, who were and are keen to conserve their traditional sound, embodied in their lined-out hymnody. Neither proselytizing nor conversion was at stake here; it was a matter of improving the musical and cultural conditions under which this group could conserve their musical tradition, the oldest continuous English-language sacred song tradition in the United States. This is, for example, the way that the Massachusetts Bay Puritans sang; the first book published in Colonial America was theirs, the Bay Psalm Book. I have written extensively about this work elsewhere, but the effects of the project were summarized by Elwood Cornett, the moderator (elected head) of the Indian Bottom Association of Old Regular Baptists, in the program "Radio-Gram: Religion" thus:

In the Curry Lecture I also discussed the dichotomy between “pure” and “applied” with ethnomusicology in mind. My view is that they are two sides of the same coin, and that the distinction is not helpful. The pure versus applied distinction is borrowed from the natural sciences, where “pure” science means research aimed primarily at offering analysis, explanation, and understanding and at increasing knowledge about the natural world. So-called “applied” science means research aimed primarily at finding practical uses for pure research in order to meet human goals. In other words, applied science involves applying theoretical knowledge gained in pure research to make interventions in the natural world that meet human needs and desires.

The classic distinction is often made between the pure science of mathematics and the applied science of engineering. How might this distinction work in the discipline of ethnomusicology? Not very well, I believe. For not only are the pure and applied interdependent, as are the theoretical and practical; but academic and public ethnomusicology are interconnected as well. Most pure ethnomusicologists do applied work. We think, perhaps, of the pure ethnomusicologist in the university doing research. But even the most six-ply, steel-belted, fully tenured ethnomusicologists do applied work when they teach, and when they do fieldwork. They may also theorize applied ethnomusicology from within the academic world, as I am doing now. And they may engage in applied projects from their secure base in the university.

At the same time, applied ethnomusicologists, even when working outside the universities, not only employ ethnomusicology theory but advance our knowledge of people making music through the practice of ethnomusicology. In doing fieldwork aimed at presenting music in various settings such as artists in the schools, museums, concerts, and ethnic festivals, they identify, document, and interpret the music they are becoming acquainted with and add to the storehouse of pure ethnomusicological knowledge. The same could be said about ethnomusicologists involved in medical ethnomusicology, for example, insofar as they contribute to our knowledge about the physiology and psychology of music; and about ethnomusicologists doing participatory action research, insofar as they learn ethnographic information which contributes to our knowledge of particular music cultures. And so forth, but you get the drift: applied contributes to pure, pure to applied, and the categories spin and merge in what is called practice theory, or theory grounded in practice: the finest kind of each.

For the rest of the Curry Lecture, I gave the assembled group—perhaps 200 of them—an overview of the music and sustainability project. I’ve worked out some Keynote (the Apple version of Microsoft’s Powerpoint) slides that help me present it, and I found them useful at the University of Texas and again just recently at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. After the lecture, there was a question-answer session for about an hour, and then we broke up. I went to supper with a group of professors, ethnomusicologists and musicologists, and we talked well into the night, past 11 p.m. One of the wonderful things about giving these invited lectures this semester has been the chance to listen to questions and critique, some of which carry on in email, as I try to work these ideas into a book manuscript. At the same time, I hope that something I say at these talks will affect each of the listeners, for I want to leave them with an idea or two that may prove useful and helpful in their own work, for ultimately it is not my work or theirs but it is our work after all.

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