Sustainable Music


Thursday, June 28, 2018

Experiential Ethnomusicology (Phenomenology and Ethnomusicology, 1)

     In the last month I spent the better part of two weeks at academic conferences, one in California on cultural sustainabilities, the other in Newfoundland on phenomenology and ethnomusicology. Typical of academic conferences, those who gathered presented their research and exchanged ideas; but atypically, these were small conferences, with about twenty presenters at each one. Small conferences where academics gather over a single topic are more frequent in the humanities nowadays and, because they are focused on topics of special interest to those who participate, they can be more rewarding than the large, annual, professional disciplinary ones. On this blog I’ve had a lot to say in the last ten years about musical, sonic and cultural sustainabilities. I haven’t written much about phenomenology here, though, so perhaps it’s time to say something about it in connection with the history of ethnomusicology.
     Phenomenology is a word that sends most people to the dictionary. Seldom heard outside of academia, for decades it inhabited the discipline of philosophy, and then in the second half of the 20th century it escaped to other branches of the humanities. The key word in phenomenology is experience. Phenomenologists study experience, experience as presented to consciousness. More generally, phenomenology is the study of phenomena as presented to awareness. Physics, of course, studies phenomena—but as external objects, independent of personal observation. Experiences presented to my consciousness will differ from your experiences presented to your consciousness; but that table over there exists whether or not you and I are aware of it. When we are aware of it, it is present to our consciousnesses individually. You may be experiencing its shape while I may experience its shiny surface. Experience is personal and individual; and phenomenologists study it as it is present to consciousness. A phenomenological ethnomusicology emphasizes musical experience. Musical experience would appear an obvious direction for ethnomusicological inquiry; but according to Harris Berger, the convener of our conference in Newfoundland, and the editor of and a contributor to a book-in-progress, the Oxford Handbook of Phenomenology and Ethnomusicology, phenomenology didn’t enter ethnomusicology until fairly late in its history, the 1970s and 1980s. Why not?
     It wasn’t because ethnomusicologists were unconcerned with musical experience altogether. The early ones (the comparative musicologists, beginning in the 1880s) were most interested in comparing how music was structured—scales, rhythms, melodies—among different social groups throughout the world. A notable exception was Carl Stumpf, interested in music psychology; but let that be. In the 1920s comparative musicology began to take social and cultural context more seriously, as evidenced in the work of Constantin Brailloiu in Romania and George Herzog in the US. In the 1950s, two American anthropologists, David McAllester and Alan Merriam, were asking their Native American informants (Navajo and Flathead, respectively) about their ideas about music—what it was, what it was for, and how they felt about it. Asking how they felt was to ask about experience. McAllester told me his Navajo friends found those to be very odd questions; they just didn’t habitually think about those things.  And so the answers he got were brief and not very informative. In the 1960s, when as a blues musician I asked my blues-playing friends the same kinds of questions, I got pretty much the same kinds of answers—it wasn’t something they thought about. Happy to talk about their careers in blues, some going back to the 1930s, and willing to critique other (usually more famous) musicians, they had not developed what might be called a theory of blues experience. When I told them that the blues historians and jazz critics wrote that blues is a cathartic experience, they laughed. They were professional musicians, after all. Blues was a way to make a living, not personal drama. They wouldn’t last long as performers if they had to purge themselves of melancholy night after night. 
     What Merriam, McAllester, and I had in common, in addition, was ignorance of the phenomenological tradition—or at least, I was ignorant, and I’m not aware that Merriam or McAllester ever indicated their debt to it. But in the 1970s I stumbled onto it in connection with a new research project, where experience was at the center of authentic performance, and where a rich tradition of talk about that experience had developed. In fact, talk was expected, as a way of validating the experience’s authenticity. My research project began in the mid-1970s, around the same time or possibly somewhat earlier than two other research projects where musical experience also was at the center, one undertaken by Ruth Stone and the other by Tim Rice. Even though each of us did something a little different, what we all had in common was that in that decade we encountered phenomenology. When we wrote about this research, we acknowledged how phenomenological methods had guided it, and our interpretative conclusions. Stone employed classic phenomenology to study the experience of time among Kpelle musicians in Liberia. Rice, drawing on the phenomenology of bodily experience, wrote about how his fingers learned to play the Bulgarian bagpipe when his mind was unable to grasp the technique by means of musical analysis. And I employed what my friend and colleague Dan Dennett later termed heterophenomenology, after I had read Ninian Smart’s brief on behalf of phenomenology in the study of comparative religion. I should add that Berger writes that it was with this research and writing by Stone, Rice, and myself, that phenomenology entered ethnomusicology. I’m not sure where Stone encountered phenomenology but I would guess through Husserl. Rice may have found it through Merleau-Ponty, and possibly he also had read the work of David Sudnow; but like me, he soon moved into the field of interpretive, or hermeneutic, phenomenology. I only know for certain the details of how I stumbled onto it, and how helpful it was to me as I was doing my research and writing about sacred speech, chant, and song in the 1970s and 1980s. That will be the subject of my next blog entry.


  1. Professor Titon,

    I thoroughly enjoyed reading this post! The idea of exploring musical experiences is what led me to ethnomusicology in the first place.

    Last summer I conducted a short series of interviews with some senior residents of my college town to ask about their favorite music. It was clear that there were certain pieces of music that were more beloved than others, but it was difficult to talk with my interviewees about why that music was special to them and how it made them feel. Most answers were general statements about the music making them feel happy or good. Just like you said, it wasn't anything they really thought about. What I found to be curious were the many ways in which they experienced their favorite music. Although interviewees had a difficult time with the idea of favorites and rather distinguished the music that is dear to them as the music that "spoke" to them. Some of the music that spoke to them were associated with memories, singing in church or enjoying music with loved ones. They also recalled, unprompted by my questions, times where music came to them in times of stress or need. Though my research was not extensive enough to draw any certain conclusions, the music that the interviewees were most fond of pointed to musical experiences that they had throughout their life rather than the intrinsic value of the music itself. It’s certainly not ground-breaking research, but I am fascinated by the way musical experiences shape ourselves as individuals and as societies.

    I am looking forward to reading your next post! Would you be willing to recommend any literature on phenomenology? I'm curious to know more!


  2. Ellen, Your project may not have been very extensive, but you asked good questions and I think your interpretation makes a lot of sense. Musical experiences do seem to be grounded in, or associated with, particular memories; and when the music is heard or played again, the memory re-appears in consciousness. This is a phenomenological observation. No wonder you're interested in this subject.

    The literature on phenomenology is vast and much of it is difficult because its concepts and terminology are new to most people. Some say it's like learning a foreign language, but persistence will pay off. Because you're interested in its application to ethnomusicology, a good place to start might be with Harris Berger's article on that subject, in Oxford Handbooks Online, which should be accessible through your academic library if you search on Harris Berger, ethnomusicology, and phenomenology. For an introduction to phenomenology as a branch of philosophy, I would recommend the on line entry in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy; search for phenomenology once you arrive on the encyclopedia page. Another introduction to phenomenology that many beginners have found helpful is Don Ihde's book, which is titled Experimental Phenomenology. You may, also, wish to be in touch with Harris Berger himself; he teaches ethnomusicology at Memorial University of Newfoundland, in St. John's, Newfoundland, Canada.

  3. This blog post and the one that follow were really fascinating, Jeff. People come to the phenomenological tradition from a wide range of directions, and it was really interesting to see your entrance into this material. Ellen, I would be happy to give you some additional sources to supplement the one's that Jeff suggested. Feel free to email me at my Memorial University email address. I won't list it here for fear of spam and bots, but you can easily find it from my home page at Memorial; just google my name and Memorial University of Newfoundland.