In the previous blog entry I noted Anthony Seeger’s observation that ethnomusicologists who write histories of their discipline construct their own ancestors. Seeger’s point was that mainstream history leaves out certain “lost lineages,” in this case the lineage of applied ethnomusicology, those who were concerned with music and what we now call sustainability. In the graduate seminar in the history of ethnomusicological thought that I taught at Brown from 1987 until 2012, I asked students to think about other lost lineages, and whether they contained ancestors worth wanting. One of these included missionaries and travelers, notably the 16th-century Calvinist Jean de Léry, whose observations about Native American music in the Bay of Rio de Janeiro in 1557 had something in common with today’s experimental ethnographies: a first person narrative and, in addition to reporting on the music overheard, a description of its affect—on them, and on him as well. “I was captivated” by their music, de Léry admitted, even though he believed that these natives were savage heathens. Besides affect as experienced by the ethnographer—a postmodern, if not modern, concern—de Léry offered ethnographic information, and musical notation. His approach was racist, grounds for not wanting him as an ancestor; but in other aspects his approach is notable. Now comes a British musicologist, Bennett Zon, who considers another lost lineage, three 19th-century British scholars he believes ought to be considered not merely ethnomusicological precursors or ancestors, as mainstream history has it, but true ethnomusicologists.
Before getting to Zon, though, it’s worth asking what that mainstream history is, the one that neglects or misconstrues those lost lineages. Ethnomusicology per se didn’t appear until the word was coined (in 1950, by the Dutch scholar Jaap Kunst) and the Society for Ethnomusicology (SEM) was formed, in the US in 1955. Because it is still a relatively young discipline, only a few have considered its history. In its first few decades, many of its major US practitioners proposed definitions and methodologies. One among them—Bruno Nettl—wrote its history, and although several others have made useful observations about its history over the years, it is Nettl’s that has become mainstream, taught to ethnomusicologists in North American graduate schools (and elsewhere). His concern for history was manifest in his second book (Music in Primitive Culture, 1956), was enlarged in Theory and Method in Ethnomusicology (1964), elaborated in The Study of Ethnomusicology (1983, revised in 2005), and nuanced in a series of essays and memoirs since then. His history includes some early travel writers, encyclopedists such as Rousseau, and those 19th-century scholars Zon identifies; but they belong to a period prior to the formation, early in the 20th century, of the so-called Berlin School of comparative musicology, which Nettl has viewed as the direct ancestor of ethnomusicology. Nettl is widely read in this literature and takes great pains to be comprehensive in representing those scholars who researched and wrote about musics outside the Western classical tradition. On reading him, graduate students in my seminars sometimes expressed impatience with his efforts at inclusiveness and his generous treatment even of ideas that seemed far-fetched. Yet, his own preferences may be gleaned from the shape of his narrative, with its focus on the Berlin School. In addition, in emphasizing academic scholarship he has neglected applied ethnomusicology, though in a recent interview he acknowledged its appeal to the current generation of ethnomusicologists. In his histories, his attitudes toward applied work—on those few occasions when he writes about it, usually in the context of attempts to help third-world, indigenous music cultures—are skeptical, perhaps because of the 20th-century legacy of social engineering in Europe that employed music and other arts for such ends as nationalism and ethnic cleansing.
Following the previous historical sketches of Glen Haydon and Jaap Kunst, Nettl views the comparative musicological enterprise as a science that came together in the late 19th century with the invention of the phonograph and the possibility of more or less objective procedures in data-gathering, measuring musical intervals, transcribing them into Western staff-scale notation, structural descriptions and analyses of individual musical performances, descriptions and analyses of repertoires, and comparisons of those repertoires cross-culturally. The sciences of comparative linguistics and comparative anatomy had yielded impressive results and profound theories such as evolution; surely these should also be applied to music. By those standards, the early travelers like de Léry (as well as later ones), and thinkers like Rousseau who wrote about “foreign” musics, were unscientific, as were some of the prolific 19th-century collectors and writers such as Alice Cunningham Fletcher (who, unhappily, was persuaded that she heard hidden Western harmonies in Native American melodies. Yet in other ways, such as collaborative ethnography, she seems an ancestor contemporaries ought to consider seriously). In Nettl’s history (and mine also), the European experimental scientists of the late 19th century such as Helmholtz, Ellis, and Stumpf, are ancestors worth wanting. Theories of hearing, questions about whether Western ideas of harmonic consonance and dissonance were universal in the musical scales of all the world’s peoples (they were not), what Stumpf called tone-psychology (why, for example, do Western musicians hear consonant intervals comprised of two tones, such as a perfect fifth, as one blended tone?)—these were the kinds of issues science could deal with. Soon, with Adler’s idea of a musicology that included comparison—comparative musicology—at the turn of the century a comparative science of music was underway.
Although this comparative science had its practitioners in Hungary (Bartok) and elsewhere in the UK and Europe at this time, Nettl locates the main life of ancestors worth wanting in the comparative musicology of the Berlin School, associated with Stumpf, his student and successor Hornbostel, and Hornbostel’s colleagues Sachs and Herzog. Herzog emigrated to the US in the 1920s, took his PhD with Franz Boas at Columbia, and brought the Berlin School and its comparative scientific procedures to the US, adding the gathering and interpretation of ethnographic data which he learned from his anthropological studies with Boas. From the early 1930s until the early 1950s Herzog wrote numerous monographs about music (chiefly Native American), taught at Yale, Columbia, and Indiana Universities, and was regarded as the leading expert on what at the time was called “primitive music.” Not coincidentally, Herzog was Nettl’s teacher (at Indiana); but he also taught McAllester and Rhodes at Columbia, and was a colleague of Merriam’s at Indiana. In 1955 McAllester, Rhodes, Merriam, and Charles Seeger founded the Society for Ethnomusicology.
The founders of SEM thought, at that time, that they were on to something different from comparative musicology. Herzog, sadly, was showing signs of mental illness in that period and was not in a position to be of much help. What was different about ethnomusicology? In Kunst's version, not much besides the name. Kunst though the term he coined was better than comparative musicology because the latter somehow implied a comparison of musicologies, whereas its purpose was the comparison of the characteristic musical expressions of different peoples in the world. Secondly, Kunst argued that all sciences were comparative (e.g., comparative anatomy, comparative linguistics) and that insofar as these had dropped the "comparative" part of their names, it was not necessary for ethnomusicologists either. Both of these arguments are weak. No one except perhaps Kunst thought that comparative musicology's purpose was to compare musicologies or music histories. Moreover, many of the sciences (e.g., physics) do not feature comparison. Examination of Kunst's book, Ethnomusicology, which went through three editions and was last published in 1969, reveals an old wine in a new bottle.
On the other hand, the ethnomusicology that developed in North America with the founding of SEM was different, in two important ways. First, the subject was enlarged to include all musical expression rather than to focus on the older layers of traditional music that were thought to be more characteristic. Second, it brought ethnographic fieldwork on the longitudinal anthropological model to the forefront of the enterprise, with the result that writing ethnographies of musical expression among particular social groups, rather than transcription, analysis, and comparisons of musical structures among many groups, came to dominate the scholarship in the discipline. Regarding the first, it was important for these US scholars to distance themselves from any residual social Darwinism and cultural evolutionism, as well as nationalist folk heritage, that had characterized European comparative musicology and musical folklore. When the European-based International Folk Music Council wondered why the Americans felt they must form their own separate society, Merriam responded that the IFMC was not scientific enough: its project of salvage work, concentrating on endangered, older layers of music, neglected the whole of music, which included popular and acculturated music, that was the proper subject of a scientific ethnomusicology. Regarding the second, many North American scholars considered the “ethno” part an invitation to anthropological fieldwork, which ought to result in more accurate musical and cultural data. Although some comparative musicologists had done fieldwork, it had been of the visiting and collecting nature rather than the holistic ethnographic studies based on long-term residence that Malinowski pioneered at the turn of the 20th century, and that cultural anthropologists had come to favor. North American ethnomusicology since the 1960s has been characterized by this long-term fieldwork, usually resulting in monographs derived from dissertation research after residence in a musical community for at least a year.
The SEM founders did not represent all of the scholars researching music outside the Western art music tradition, of course. Some, such as Kolinski, continued to work as comparative musicologists. Others, such as Nettl, tended to follow Herzog, adding anthropological methods (including more modern ones) to an orientation that remained grounded in comparative work. Some, such as Hood, broke new ground, emphasizing musicianship and fluency in “other” musics as a pathway to knowledge, proclaiming music's importance in fostering international cooperation and understanding, and simultaneously seeking objective precision in scientific devices that would transcribe music without introducing the possibility of human error. In 1985, reflecting a then-prevailing view, the musicologist Joseph Kerman characterized ethnomusicology as divided between anthropological ethnomusicologists who, following Merriam and McAllester, were interested primarily in music as culture; and the musicological anthropologists whose interests lay chiefly in musical structures and comparative work.
In the past decade Nettl (the only one of that generation still active) has written about the founding of SEM, saying that in retrospect ethnomusicology has had more continuities with comparative musicology than it has differences. In this belief, Nettl gently debunks what he terms the “origin myth” of SEM, which shows the founders to have been moving in a distinctly new direction. He asks how people at the time felt about a new organization (SEM), and offers his observation that most of those doing that work didn’t think it represented a new direction. As such, his experiences are of great interest; but he is most likely speaking chiefly for those scholars like himself, such as Herzog and Kolinski, whose orientation at that time was toward comparative musicology rather than the anthropology of music. These scholars must have regarded SEM primarily as a means for communication among working scholars in the field, rather than as an opportunity for a new direction. Indeed, in a strict sense, Nettl is correct: the group formed initally as a correspondence society keeping track of member news and compiling bibliographies and curricular surveys in its SEM Newsletter during its first few years of existence. But then the Society's newsletter became a journal (Ethnomusicology), and there most of its major figures debated the definition and future of the discipline. Nettl may also be reflecting the long view which tends to recognize continuities and minimize differences that seemed to matter more long ago. Certainly they mattered greatly to Merriam and Hood; probably they mattered to McAllester, who was glad to become more of a modern anthropologist and less of a comparative musicologist. When asked who suggested an anthropological direction for his dissertation research, he credited a conversation with Margaret Mead, rather than any influence from Herzog (who, after all, had studied with Mead's teacher, Boas, but whose idea of anthropology had not modernized). And I would add that these differences mattered to the next generation of ethnomusicologists, myself among them, as we ourselves sought to move in new directions, which have seemed significantly different, to us, from early ethnomusicology, not to mention comparative musicology. Indeed, most of the students in my graduate seminar in the history of ethnomusicological thought, given the opportunity to write their history of the field, begin in 1950; comparative musicology appears remote from their concerns, although it is not so remote from my own.
The possibility that multiple histories may be valid derives, of course, from the influx of post-structural relativism in the 1980s popularized by literary critic Stanley Fish and phiosopher Richard Rorty, their point being that validity in interpretation depends not upon correspondence to some fixed, essential truth but upon the agreement of a particular interpretative community that this history, or that scientific theory, or this meaning, is correct. Multiple perspectives resulted in varying truths, an unsettling proposition but one that was exciting for me and for other ethnomusicologists at that time. My definition of ethnomusicology as “the study of people making music,” which I introduced in 1988, and which has come into wide use in the period since, turned on the proposition that different peoples made and interpreted music (what it was, and what it meant) according to different cultural principles. Music was to be understood not as something given in this world, but as a cultural domain, made by humans, which must vary as cultures themselves do. In 2010 Nettl himself admitted the possibility of multiple histories of ethnomusicology, citing Blum’s 1991 characterization of ethnomusicology in 19th-century Europe, a tradition which Zon’s work follows.
Zon’s book looks for British ancestors. Zon elevates the “lost lineage” of Ellis, Myers, and Fox-Strangways to take its place with Nettl’s “Berlin School” of comparative musicology, all as part of a more inclusive history of ethnomusicology. Zon argues that these early British scholars were “more than mere antecedents in a progression toward modern ethnomusicology.” He claims that many of the issues that concerned them “are, arguably, more or less the same as those of the 1950s and later.” These include the cultural study of music and the “heavily ‘problematizing’ discourse” that have characterized ethnomusicology ever since the founding of the Society for Ethnomusicology in 1955. The same might be said of the Berlin School, but Zon does not go there. He uses a recent essay of mine as a foil for his broad definition, quoting me in describing comparative ethnomusicology as “a forerunner of ethnomusicology . . . [and] the first academic discipline to undertake a systematic cultural study of music. The founders asked grand questions: How did music originate, and how did it spread among the world’s peoples? How could musical affinities among varied human groups reveal the paths of migrations and diffusions? What did the variety of musical instruments found throughout the world signify, and how could they be classified and compared?” Zon, however, is having none of this. After quoting me again, to the effect that modern ethnomusicology is different from comparative musicology because it “asks different questions, ones that bear on the relation of music to region, race, class, gender, politics, ethnicity, belief, identity, money, power, and the production of knowledge,” he maintains that I “may as well have been summarizing some of the principal concerns” of the 19th-century British scholars he discusses in his book.
If subject matter is the deciding factor in determining histories of ethnomusicology, then a broad definition such as Zon’s is indeed the most useful. Yet those members of Zon’s ethnomusicology lineage surely did not approach power and the cultural production of knowledge from the ideological standpoint of, say, contemporary critical theory, as many do today. If not only subject matter but also attitude, application and methodology is important, then I believe the differences among the scholars become critical in constructing ethnomusicological histories. Without intending to question Zon’s noble intentions, I did wonder how much difference it finally makes to him that by 21st-century standards his 19th-century scholars are colonialist, racist, and sexist—perhaps no more so than most other social scientists of that day and time; but nevertheless, are these representatives of the British empire the ancestors worth wanting? Maybe so; for if contemporary relativism can excuse de Léry’s racism while applauding his reflexivity, why not make allowances for these, as well as for the comparative musicologists who were to some extent captive of the cultural evolutionism of their day? Surely 100 years from now our ethnomusicological descendants will be judging us for assumptions we accept without reflection. Yet, the mere fact that they are concerned to some degree with a similar subject matter—namely, the cultural study of music—begs the question of how those concerns were made manifest in their time, and how ours are in ours. It is well worth holding on to that distinction. Reading Zon’s argument, I could not help caricaturing it, in my mind, and comparing it to a claim that biblical fundamentalists really are humanists because they are concerned with some of the same issues, such as morals and ethics and the nature and purpose of human life. Or, equally preposterous, that biblical fundamentalists really are scientists because they are concerned with the origins of the world, the workings of the nature, and the fate of the universe. Nor would biblical fundamentalists agree with those claims. To be sure, Zon also argues for similarities in methodology, but I remain unconvinced.
A narrow definition, one which has seemed increasingly useful to me, reserves the term ethnomusicology for those whose work was impacted by the ideas embodied in that word since its coinage in 1950, and by the movement exemplified by the members of the Society for Ethnomusicology. What to call those earlier scholars concerned with the same subject is easily resolved by using the cover terms that most of them used, chiefly comparative musicology, musical folklore, and the like. This narrower definition conforms to Nettl’s earlier construction of the discipline, in which comparative musicology figures prominently; but the extent to which ethnomusicology represented (and represents) something significantly different from comparative musicology is, for Nettl, increasingly debatable. In his most recent work, Nettl at last puts the definition of ethnomusicology into a social constructivist context; but whereas relativism leads me to construct a narrow definition, it has led Nettl towards Zon's position, in which all of this work is ethnomusicology, so long as it meets the scholarly standards of its day. My preference for the narrower definition preserves the finer distinctions between ethnomusicology and its predecessors, while it also preserves the identities of the predecessors themselves.
I would draw an analogy here with the term scientist, which achieved its modern meaning only in 1834 when the word was coined (by the Englishman William Whewell), eclipsing natural historian and natural philosopher (the two earlier terms). In the 20th century, most historians of science operated with a broad definition, extending science back as far as the 14th century, while considering natural history and natural philosophy as obsolete relics of the past. This made it possible to discuss the work of Gallileo, Copernicus, and Newton as a "scientific revolution." To do so, they had to ignore the facts that these men considered themselves to be natural philosophers, and that Darwin considered himself a natural historian. In the 21st century, historians of science are resurrecting the older terms so as to understand history as it was experienced by those who lived through it, while pointing out that the term science is but another socially constructed category for the study of nature, and not the inevitable replacement of earlier error with truth. In this analogy, ethnomusicology is to comparative musicology and musical folklore (the European tradition of the comparative study of folk music) as science is to natural philosophy and natural history--not a cover term, but a successor concept for something similar but different.
What these histories of ethnomusicology suggest for music and sustainability is that it’s likely, as the next generation accords increasing importance to applied work, that more of the ancestors Anthony Seeger looked for will be found, and their work made part of a lineage no longer “lost.” Early travelers, 19th-century psychophysical musicologists and comparative musicologists, musical folklorists, and others interested in applied themes such as preservation, conservation, safeguarding, resilience, conflict resolution, music and justice (social, economic, and environmental), and participatory music communities will continue to become ancestors worth wanting, in part if not in whole, while the next generation inevitably rewrites the intellectual histories of the field.
. Excerpts from de Léry's writings on music are reprinted in Frank Harrison, ed., Time, Place, and Music. Amsterdam: Fritz Knuf, 1973, pp. 6-24.
. Bruno Nettl, “Fifty Years of Changes and Challenges in the Ethnomusicological Field.” Interviewed by Héctor Founce. El Oido Pensante, Vol. 2., No. 1 (2014), n.p.
. Japp Kunst, Ethnomusicology: A study of its nature, its problems, methods and representative personalities to which is added a bibliography. Third edition. The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1958.
. Joseph Kerman, Contemplating Music. New York: Oxford, 1985.
. Bruno Nettl, Nettl’s Elephant (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2010), pp. 160-162.
. See, e.g., the Wikipedia entry for Ethnomusicology, where my definition is quoted. Having written in 1980 about life stories as fictions rather than histories (things made or constructed, rather than discovered), I first applied that insight to a definition of ethnomusicology as the study of people making music in a 1988 presentation before the Northeast Chapter of SEM.
. Nettl's Elephant, pp. 22-32.
 Bennett Zon, Representing Non-Western Music in Nineteenth-Century Britain (Rochester, NY: University of Rochester Press, 2007), pp. 291-301. His quotations from me are from my essay “Textual Analysis or Thick Description?,” in The Cultural Study of Music, ed. Martin Clayton et al. (London: Routledge, 2003), pp. 171-180. I revised and expanded this essay (and the portion quoted) for the 2nd edition of this book, published in 2011 (same publisher), pp. 75-85, but I did not see Zon’s book until 2012.