Latest articles from "Yearbook for Traditional Music":

This is a Music! Reclaiming an Untouchable Drum(January 1, 2014)

We Have the Song, So We Have the Land: Song and Ceremony as Proof of Ownership in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Land Claims(January 1, 2014)



Nii Otoo Annan: Ghana Sea Blues(January 1, 2014)

Cineastas Indígenas Kisędję / Kisędję [Suyá] Filmmakers(January 1, 2014)

Ethnomusicology Review(January 1, 2014)

Other interesting articles:

Giving Permission To Be Fat? Examining the Impact of Body-Based Belief Systems
Canadian Journal of Education (October 1, 2014)

Counseling Military Veterans: Advocating for Culturally Competent and Holistic Interventions
Journal of Mental Health Counseling (January 1, 2015)

Supermax Showdown
In These Times (January 1, 2013)

Readers write
Canadian Mennonite (February 2, 2015)

Fetal Alcohol Syndrome Among Children Aged 7-9 Years - Arizona, Colorado, and New York, 2010
MMWR. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (January 30, 2015)

Interfaith Coalition to Counter Anti-lslamic Ads on SEPTA
Jewish Exponent (March 19, 2015)

Influence of HIV Testing on Knowledge of HIV/AIDS Prevention Practices and Transmission among Undergraduate Youths in North-West University, Mafikeng
Gender & Behaviour (December 1, 2014)

Publication: Yearbook for Traditional Music
Date published:
Language: English
PMID: 78656
ISSN: 07401558
Journal code: YRTM

"Ethnomusicological theory," despite its name and despite the fact that it in some ways permeates our field, has yet to take firm root in our disciplinary imagination.1 Indeed, the phrase appears to be used rarely, in comparison to references to an unmodified "theory" in or for ethnomusicology. Minimally, ethnomusicology today engages with three types of theory: social theory, music theory, and discipline-specific ethnomusicological theory. Unmodified references to theory have tended to obfuscate the nature of ethnomusicological theory and have left ethnomusicologists a bit unsure, and perhaps even insecure, about the relevance and place of theory, however understood, in their work.

Three recent publications by Mervyn McLean, Ruth Stone, and me illustrate the problem I have in mind. McLean (2006), in his book Pioneers of Ethnomusicology, laments that "American ethnomusicology is now awash with theory" (p. 337) "derived mostly from outside disciplines" (p. 259), when, in his view, more solid, straightforward description is what is really needed.2 On the contrary, my recent review of the literature in the journal Ethnomusicology on the theme of music and identity revealed virtually no references to theory from outside the discipline or indeed much in the way of intradisciplinary theorizing (Rice 2007). Viewed from this limited angle, ethnomusicology could hardly be said to be awash in theory. This small survey notwithstanding, it is probably fair to say that American ethnomusicologists today typically cite a wide range of theory from a variety of disciplines.

Against McLean's implication that treading water in theory from other disciplines distracts us from more important tasks. Stone (2008:225), in her book-length survey Theory for Ethnomusicology, argues that "theory is the essential complement to the rich ethnographic detail of ethnographic description." However, she points out that, though "many ethnomusicologists espouse the centrality of theory" to the field, "theoretical discussions are ... typically brief and cursory in most ethnomusicological accounts" (p. ix). If theory is central to the field, why is it only treated briefly? This is not a logical problem, but an accurate characterization of the discipline's treatment of theory. Without engaging in an extended critique of individual works, I think it is fair to say that ethnomusicologists often reference theory from outside the discipline for the authority and interdisciplinarity it appears to give to their work, but it is rarely the object of sustained argumentation.3 As Stone (2008:ix) puts it, "A very few ethnomusicologists engage in detailed theoretical discussion ... These ... ethnomusicologists are definitely in the minority."

What is this theory that McLean, Stone, and I are referring to? For the most part, it is theory from the social sciences and humanities that goes by various names: for example, social theory, cultural studies, critical theory, literary theory, linguistic theory, psychological theory, postcolonial theory, feminist theory, and philosophical theory (or simply philosophy). In these discursive domains, theory is associated both with ideas (deconstruction, hermeneutics, structuralism, feminism, embodiment, and so on) and with the names of "theorists": earlier writings with Theodor Adorno, Émile Durkheim, Claude Lévi-Strauss, Karl Marx, and Max Weber, for instance; more recently with Arjun Appadurai, Homi Babha, Pierre Bourdieu, Judith Butler, Néstor Garcia Canclini, Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault. Clifford Geertz, bell hooks, Jacques Lacan, Raymond Williams, and others.4

These theorists, and their theories, make bold claims about the social and cultural world, claims that have reoriented or changed much thinking about society and culture and that have implications for many fields of study. For the sake of simplicity I will call all these "social theory," regardless of their source in particular intellectual traditions. Social theories facilitate the "blurring of boundaries" between disciplines (Geertz 1973), because, while they may originate in anthropology, history, linguistics, literary studies, philosophy, psychology, or sociology, scholars in many disciplines have found their insights useful for a wide range of projects. Not always constrained, as scientific theories are, by the demands of formal methodologies for their demonstration, they nonetheless make novel and engaging claims about such fundamental human matters as how meaning is created and interpreted, how culture is inculcated and sustained, the nature of the self and subject, how power is exercised and resisted, and relationships between the mind and body, the public and the private, and the material and ideal worlds.

Although social theories may not demand to be "proven" through experimentation, they nonetheless guide, inform, and illuminate empirical, on-the-ground, often qualitative investigations that can be judged by the fit they propose between the theory and the data encountered in the study.5 Examples of this sort of productive theorization include Pierre Bourdieu's (1977) claim that nonverbal practice is as important in the transmission of culture as verbalized statements, and Michel Foucault's (1978) notion that some aspects of human life taken as "natural," such as sex, have been constructed through discourse tied to powerful institutions. These insights, generated in specific cultural, social, and disciplinary milieux, are then taken by scholars in other fields as potentially applicable to their own studies. Social theories are: (1) interdisciplinary in the sense that they exceed their disciplinary roots; (2) suggestive of new points of view, and so requiring application to particular cases but not proof per se; (3) generative of interpretations rather than scientific explanations; (4) critical of common-sense notions of what appears "natural" about human life; (5) open-ended and unbounded, in the sense that new ones come on the scene rather frequently; and (6) sometimes resisted for their discomfiting challenge to complete mastery of a discipline and for coming from outside the discipline or the culture to which they are applied.

The disagreement between McLean, on the one hand, and Stone and me, on the other, on the centrality of social theory to ethnomusicology speaks to differing notions of an inside and an outside to the field. McLean and others who resist social theory seem to view ethnomusicology, or their particular area of study, or indeed their culture, as bounded. Social theory then appears to be an intrusion that needs to be resisted. Those who advocate for its relevance and centrality seem to view ethnomusicology as unbounded in terms of its intellectual sources; they have accepted Geertz's notion of blurred boundaries between and among disciplines, and are anxious to participate in a common, shared, interdisciplinary conversation about the nature of human artistic, biological, cultural, and social life by contributing to it studies of music's importance and role in making those lives what they are.6 For such scholars social theory is within the field of ethnomusicology as they understand it.7

No matter whether one views the field as bounded or unbounded, however, the idea that ethnomusicology is a derivative discipline, dependent on borrowing theory from anthropology and other fields, and rather weak in generating its own theories, seems to persist. This view is difficult to demonstrate with citations since it surfaces mainly in discussions at conferences and in seminar rooms, but there may be a kind of inferiority complex about the discipline's relation to theory and our collective ability to theorize about music. One of the goals of this paper is to help us move beyond these feelings by understanding more clearly the theorizing we already do and, in the process, help us develop a more robust theoretical tradition.8

The first step in this process is for us to cease using the word "theory" in its unmodified form. In particular, ethnomusicological theory needs to be defined more clearly and treated to sustained consideration. If we are better able to recognize ethnomusicological theory when we see it and if we engage with it as well as with social theory, we should be able to generate more intellectual power in the discipline and contribute more cogently to the general, interdisciplinary conversations now animating the humanities and social sciences. It is my hope that attending to ethnomusicological theory will make it possible for every ethnomusicologist to engage in detailed and focused considerations of it and to regard such theorizing not as a borrowed imposition (welcome or unwelcome) on the field, but as a desirable, indeed necessary, part of each ethnomusicologist's contribution to it.

Theory in the history of ethnomusicology

Perhaps striking by its absence from my list of types of theory is scientific theory; this is because I believe that most ethnomusicologists no longer regularly employ it. In the early years of ethnomusicology, from 1950 to about 1980 (and before 1950, if we count comparative musicology), ethnomusicologists worked within the domains of scientific and music theory. Since the late 1970s, however, these forms of theory have been to a large extent supplanted by social theory, although to be sure, both scientific theory and music theory continue to have their advocates (see, e.g., Becker 2004, 2009, and Bakan 2009 for the former; Tenzer 2006 for the latter; and Arom 1985 for both).9 In the earlier period, some of the most influential figures in the field believed that ethnomusicologists worked within a scientific frame and that ethnomusicology was a science, indeed a comparative science. Jaap Kunst (1959:1) referred to ethnomusicology as "our science." Alan Merriam (1964:25) wrote, "The ethnomusicologist is, in effect, sciencing about music." Bruno Nettl (1983:11) defined ethnomusicology as "the science of music history." Mantle Hood (1971) created "hardness scales" that would allow ethnomusicologists to compare reliably and objectively music from around the world along many dimensions of musical sound. Around 1980, however, there was an "interpretive turn" in ethnomusicology away from science, a turn that responded to the attack by critical theory and continental philosophy on positivism in the social sciences. Today, we rarely write about hypotheses generated within a scientific theory; instead, we are concerned with the crisis of representation, multiple views of truth from different social and historical positions, interpretations of meaning, plumbing reflexively the depths of individual experience, and so on. This "paradigm shift," when it goes unnoticed, is probably one source of confusion about ethnomusicological theory.

McLean, one of Merriam's acolytes, wrote recently that "as a discipline, ethnomusicology is more concerned with science than with art. Appreciation of exotic forms of music, their intrinsic worth, and even a desire to promote them may play a small part, but it is not essential . . . [Science] provides the necessary frame of mind for scholarship" (McLean 2006:21). He criticizes the field of ethnomusicology for an unproductive shift "from the descriptive to the theoretical, from the 'what' and 'where' to the 'how' and 'why'" (p. 331). McLean fails to notice the paradigm shift from scientific to social theory, or, if he notices it, he decries it. Furthermore, he errs in his understanding of science. While description of the what and where is fundamental to science, it gains its power over human thought because of its well-tested theories about the how and why of the physical world. If ethnomusicology were truly based on science, as he claims, then we would all, with keen methodological precision, be observing, testing, and experimenting within theories about the hows and whys of musical behaviour and practices. If we ever did that, it would have been, with a few exceptions, in the past, not the present (see Becker 2009 and Bakan 2009 for the prospect of a "scientific (re)turn" in ethnomusicology). As we think about ethnomusicological theory, it is important to keep in mind this shift around 1980 from scientific theory and method toward hermeneutics and social theory, a shift marked by, indeed causing, a concomitant decline in publications devoted solely to the methods of music analysis, transcription, and fieldwork.

Stone's (2008) welcome review of "theory for ethnomusicology" is also not clear on the distinction between scientific and social theory. With a few exceptions she focuses on ethnomusicologists' use of social theory, although she doesn't call it that. Although these theories are interpretive rather than scientific in their orientation and claims, she describes them using the rhetorical apparatus of scientific theories (methods, methodology, explanatory power) and claims they all display to varying degrees a "scientific attitude and approach" (p. 220). On the contrary, it is useful to distinguish scientific from social theory, because each leads to different demands and expectations in terms of methods and procedures, on the one hand, and fact or truth claims, on the other. Scientific theories make claims that can be tested and verified through experimentation and observation; after repeated confirmation in observational and experimental settings, scientists regard the theory as a "fact," at least until future observations undermine it. Social theories, on the other hand and as Stone points out, provide us with "orientations" and "assumptions" that guide particular studies and help us ask interesting "research questions." A social theory "illuminates" some matters, while obscuring others. Rather than producing facts, it invites us to consider alternative interpretations. As the philosopher Paul Ricoeur (1981:193) put it, "Between absolute knowledge and hermeneutics it is necessary to choose."10

What is ethnomusicological theory?

Ethnomusicological theory involves the writing of descriptions, classifications, comparisons, interpretations, and generalizations about music (and possibly sound) in general, about particular musical traditions, about music in a set of related communities, or about music in relation to cognitive, artistic, experiential, social, cultural, political, and economic issues, themes, and processes. Ethnomusicological theory may have its roots in scientific, social, or music theory, but it is not fundamentally about borrowing ideas from other disciplines, though it may entail doing so as a starting point. It may also have its roots in our own and our predecessors' field observations. In other words, it may arise entirely from within the field of ethnomusicology with little or no reference to social theory. No matter its roots, however, ethnomusicological theory is integral and indispensable to the field and not optional window dressing."

One of the reasons we may not have a clear idea of the nature of ethnomusicological theory is that it too often remains hidden from view in our work. Part of the purpose of laying out the terrain of ethnomusicological theory in this article is to enable the writing of explicit ethnomusicological theories by all of us in all our work. Theory should not be an "an important mark of a distinguished ethnomusicologist" (Stone 2008:ix), but a taken-for-granted part of every ethnomusicologist's intellectual toolkit. Ethnomusicological theory in some form is always implicit in our particular research and is inescapable, but it contributes more effectively to the advancement of the field when made explicit. As Stone (p. xii) puts it, "Theory underlies ethnomusicological inquiry and even implicit theories have a bearing on the analyses that result from our fieldwork ... Theory should ultimately make ideas transparent and strengthen the quality of the intellectual conversation."

Writing ethnomusicological theory involves, at its minimum and as Stone suggests, conversations among ethnomusicologists. Such theorizing, in essence, takes one or another of the following forms (explicitly or implicitly): (1) I have read your work, I find it relevant to my own, and this is how I'm going to apply it; (2) I have read your work, I find it limited in certain ways, and its insights could be expanded if some new ideas or observations that I provide were taken into consideration; (3) I have read your work (and everybody else's who has written on this topic) and I think there is a significant gap in these studies that I propose to fill by taking a new approach. It is through conversations of this sort (theorizing in this manner, that is) that we build the intellectual capacity of ethnomusicology to make powerful, provocative, memorable, and insightful statements about the particular musical traditions we study and about music in general. When we neglect to have these conversations, the intellectual richness of the field is compromised. Without explicit ethnomusicological theory developed in conversations among ourselves, the field is in danger of being little more than the sum of a succession of idiographic reports from here and there, a kind of academic journalism of fleeting interest, but of little or no long-term consequence.

The field of ethnomusicological theory

What ethnomusicological theory has been for the last thirty years can perhaps best be understood by considering that it exists within a "field of ethnomusicological theory" (figure 1).12 Ethnomusicology today is, at its core, a discipline based on field research in one or more local environments, and so the centre of the field of ethnomusicological theory is occupied by what I take to be the centre of gravity of ethnomusicological research: local, idiographic, ethnographic (or historical), community-based, thematically focused studies.13 It is from these local, particular studies that we have built and presumably will continue to build the discipline, and it is the relationship between these studies and ethnomusicological theory that is elucidated here. The right side of the chart in figure 1 proposes that ethnomusicological theory exists in three conceptual locations: within local studies, beyond local studies, and beyond the bounds of our discipline, where it may contribute to more general social and scientific theories, to area studies, or to subjects such as media studies, gender studies, education, cognition, medicine, and so forth.14 The arrows indicate the movement that occurs within this theoretical field. Ethnomusicological theory within the local may, and in my view should, contribute to ethnomusicological theory beyond the local level and vice versa: ethnomusicological theory beyond the local will almost inevitably inform, either implicitly or explicitly, local studies and the theorizing we do in them.

The chart of the field of ethnomusicological theory does not suggest an obvious narrative order; it certainly should not be "read" from top left to bottom right. The chart is meant to be taken in as a whole, though it is difficult to do so at first sight. Writing, however, requires the imposition of narrative order. The various locations in the field are taken up in this order, beginning with the conceptual centre of the field: local, idiographic studies, and ending with general theories about the nature of human life:


1. local, idiographic studies;

2. general theories about the nature of music;

3. ethnomusicological theory within local ethnographic studies;

4. theory in relation to previous local studies;

5. interlocal theory about musical processes in related communities and their contribution to community and area studies;

6. cross-cultural theories about music in relation to the many themes of interest to ethnomusicologists and their contribution beyond the discipline to general studies of those themes; and

7. general theories about the nature of social, cultural, and human (cognitive and biological) life.

Local, idiographic studies

Our local, idiographic studies can be understood to have, minimally, two dimensions: first, they are based in some form of society or community; second, they tackle one or more of the themes or issues around which research in ethnomusicology has historically crystallized.

Ethnomusicology, as a kind of social science, tends to focus on communities of people as the starting point for study; this contrasts with an emphasis in some other music disciplines on the individual, the musical work, the repertoire, or the genre as the starting point. For example, even when we focus on individuals, as many have done, we tend to examine them in relation to a community: Virginia Danielson's (1997) study of Umm Kulthum in relation to nationalism in Egypt; Steven Loza's (1999) study of Tito Puente in relation to a musical genre popular in the Latino community; Charlotte Frisbie and David McAllester's autobiography of Frank Mitchell in relation to Navajo culture (Mitchell 1978), and so forth.15 Stone (2008:20) lists communities alongside other "study objects," such as individuals, song, repertories, events, musical processes like improvisation, and musical genres, but I prefer to argue that ethnomusicologists tend to embed each of these study objects within an overarching concept of community or society.16

Four types of community are fundamental to the organization of our community-based studies: (1) communities defined geographically, such as nations, regions, cities, towns, and villages; (2) communities defined by ethnic, racial, religious, and kinship (family) groups; (3) communities formed around a shared style, affinity, taste, or practice such as punk rock, surfing, motorcycle racing, or Barbie Dolls (see Slobin 1993 for affinity groups and Caudron 2006); and (4) communities organized as, or within, institutions, such as musical ensembles, schools and conservatories, recording and broadcast companies, places of worship, the military, prisons, and clubs and bars. When ethnomusicological theory is written within local community studies, that theory can in turn contribute to broader, beyond-the-local theorizing about music in the same or similar communities.

The second dimension of local, idiographic studies is populated by the major themes around which ethnomusicologists organize their work, themes such as music and identity, the teaching and learning of music, the politics of music, gender and music, and many more. By my count ethnomusicologists currently deal with more than forty different themes.17 Alan Merriam created the first comprehensive list of such themes (twelve of them) in his 1964 book, The Anthropology of Music. Most are to one degree or another still with us, including native concepts about music, the social behaviour of musicians, the meaning of music, and music learning. In the 1970s, event analysis, urban and popular music, individual musicians, emotion, euphoria, and trance as responses to music, and a number of others emerged. In the 1980s, gender, the history of music, individual agency, identity, and media and technology came along. In the 1990s, politics and power, diaspora, and globalization made the list. In the first decade of this century, tourism, music in relation to war, violence, and conflict, and the use of music in relation to illness and the HIV/AIDS epidemic became prominent.

Stone (2008) points out that some scholars refer to these themes as theory and perhaps for that reason she includes consideration of a number of them in her survey of theory for ethnomusicology. She calls gender, ethnicity, and identity "theoretical orientations" and "issues," and acknowledges that they are "of a somewhat different order than other [social] theories we have previously considered" (p. 145). Indeed, they are of a different order; they are not theories at all. It is important to distinguish these themes from the social theory that is the principal focus of her book and that forms the general intellectual environment in which most ethnomusicologists work today. Each of these themes or problematics may have social theory associated with it (e.g., Stuart Hall 1996 on identity, Jean Piaget and Bärbel Inhelder 1969 on learning theory, and Arjun Appadurai 1996 on globalization), but identity, learning, and globalization are not theories. They are themes to which social theory can be applied and which generate discipline-specific ethnomusicological theories to illuminate the issues particular to each local study.

These two dimensions, community and themes, inform all our local studies. With this in mind we can now examine how theory enters these studies. The first and most obvious way is through general theories that ethnomusicologists have created about the nature of music.

General theories about the nature of music

Ethnomusicology has made extraordinarily important contributions to understanding the nature of music through the writing of ethnomusicological theory beyond the local. Its principal and most important intervention has been a sustained argument over more than a half century against the notion, purveyed in most Western scholarship, that music is only or primarily an art form made for its own sake, mystically transcendent in its effects, and with little or no "social or civic significance."18 By employing social theory from other fields and connecting it to what ethnomusicologists have learned about the nature of music as a human behaviour and practice in hundreds, perhaps thousands, of particular studies, we have created a far different, and I dare say, richer picture of the nature of music and its significance for human life than that created, until recently, by historical musicologists studying Western art music. Among other things, ethnomusicologists have taught us that it demeans music to regard it only, or perhaps even primarily, as an art.

One form of ethnomusicological theory consists of metaphors about the essential nature of music (Rice 2003). Against the metaphorical claim that music is an art, a theory buttressed by reference to certain streams in the Western philosophical tradition, ethnomusicologists have proposed many other competing metaphors to capture their understanding of the nature of music.

* Music is a form of entertainment, a theory that probably originates in Western common sense, but then has been transformed into a theory embedded within structural-functionalist social theory (Merriam 1964).

* Music is a system of signs capable of bearing meaning, from philosophical semiotics and linguistic semiology (Turino 1999; Nattiez 1990).

* Music is a social behaviour and thus its structures may be homologous to or iconic of other social structures and behaviours, from Marx, Weber, and Lévi-Straussian structuralism among others (Lomax 1968; A. Seeger 1980).

* Music is a nonverbal practice that can, outside verbal discourse, create gendered individuals and other socially constructed subjectivities, from Bourdieu's practice theory (Sugarman 1997).

* Music is a text that can be read for meaning, from Ricoeur's phenomenological hermeneutics and Geertz's interpretive anthropology (Roseman 1991).

Making metaphors is not the only way ethnomusicologists write general theory about the nature of music. Sometimes ethnomusicological theory tells us what music does or how it came to be the way it appears to be. Here are some examples.

* Music's particular form and effects depend on its means of production, from Marxism (Manuel 1993).

* "Large-scale economic and political structures articulate with and broadly condition the localized microprocesses of musical performance" (Waterman 1990a:3), a claim perhaps influenced by Marxist thought and by Immanuel Wallerstein's (2004) world-system theory.

* Music, when performed, creates community, from Durkheim, Bourdieu, Giddens, and others (Askew 2002).

* Musical structures reflect cultural and social structures, from Lévi-Straussian structuralism and others (Becker and Becker 1981).

* Musical performances construct and produce social structures and cultural values, from Durkheim, Bourdieu, and others (A. Seeger 1987).

* "Jazz (and ... music generally) ... [is] always already directed toward power relationships" (Wong 2004:318-19), from Amiri Baraka, Harold Cruse, Cornel West, and others, and the musicians with whom the author worked.

Ethnomusicologists do not need to apologize, as they sometimes do, for borrowing social theory to help them make these general claims about the nature of music. By applying social theories in a careful way, grounded in detailed ethnographic and historical research, ethnomusicologists engage in discipline-specific ethnomusicological theory of potentially great importance. Certainly our colleagues in other disciplines are doing pretty much the same thing: borrowing social theories that may come from outside their original disciplinary home to help them ask new questions and see the objects of their studies in novel and fruitful ways.

Sometimes ethnomusicologists make claims about the nature of music that seem to be discipline specific and not obviously indebted to a particular social theory. An example is Benjamin Brinner's extensive theorization of musical competence in his book on Javanese gamelan musicians (1995). In it, he makes the general claim that "excitement may be one of the more widespread goals of musical interaction" (p. 206). The interaction may be "positive or negative in nature, a goal to be achieved or failure to be averted" (p. 207). This is not the most important theoretical work he does in this book, but for those interested in interaction between and among musicians in particular cases, this might be an interesting general theory about the nature of music to be examined and applied to other particular cases. In any case, it is an example of ethnomusicological theory, which, in order to build our discipline, it would be a good idea to watch for.

Obviously there is no shortage of ethnomusicological theory about the general nature of music. The principal weaknesses in this part of the field of ethnomusicological theory may be the unasked and unanswered questions that arise from a consideration of these theories. For example, how do we understand our ethnomusicological theories about the nature of music? Are they taken as "facts" in the way, for example, biological scientists take the theory of evolution as a fact demonstrated by repeated observations over a century or more?19 Are they theories that are still in need of demonstration through application to more local, particular contexts or do we take them as assumptions no longer in need of demonstration? Do they need to be fleshed out and critiqued? What issues do they raise? Are they worth bothering with? Have they been superseded and are no longer relevant? We might answer these questions differently for each of the ethnomusicological theories mentioned above. Ethnomusicological theory is weak not in the existence of theories of this type, which are legion, but in our critical examination of them. We have not engaged in rich enough conversations with these ethnomusicological theories, either from the perspective of our particular, local studies or by putting them in conversation with one another. More theoretical conversations about each of them and their implications for the discipline and for our local, particular studies would surely put ethnomusicological theory about the general nature of music on more stable ground and give us more confidence in the power and importance of our own theorizing.

Ethnomusicological theory within local ethnographic studies

Ethnomusicological theory about the nature of music is created at the intersection of our local musical studies with social theory and ethnomusicological theory beyond the local. The issue, which remains ambiguous in Stone's (2008) account, is whether we regard theory and ethnographic descriptions as distinct from theory and "complementary" to it or whether we believe that theory inescapably suffuses description and that description without theory is impossible. In my view, ethnomusicological theory, whether widely shared or idiosyncratic to the investigator, inevitably guides and frames the production of what Stone (2008:225) calls "the rich ethnographic detail of ethnographic description." This view is expressed in figure 1 by placing ethnographic descriptions within the field of ethnomusicological theory. I will illustrate the way ethnomusicological theory suffuses ethnographic description with examples from my own work.20

Ethnomusicological description comes in three forms: particular, normative, and interpretive.21 Each of these descriptions engages explicitly or implicitly with ethnomusicological theory.22 The theoretical nature of description can be hidden from view when not made explicit. Explicit use of theory, often in the form of self-reflection, opens up the possibility of theoretical conversations, which are at the core of how effective theorizing works.23

Particular musical descriptions are attempts to characterize the nature of a single item, for example, a musical performance, a musical work, a musical instrument, a musical event, and so on. For my doctoral dissertation I worked on what Bulgarian scholars called "two-voiced singing," a style that attracted me, I have to admit, for its "strangeness" compared to Western norms, especially of harmony (Rice 1977). Using Western music theory, the theoretical framework I brought with me into the field, I could describe one aspect of a particular song in this tradition like this: This song was performed in two parts; one woman sang the melody, and two women performed an accompanying part that alternated between the tonal centre and a pitch one step below it, creating a rich texture of frequently sounding harmonic seconds.

The research problem I set myself was to try to understand (not to explain) how nonliterate or barely literate Bulgarian village singers thought about and understood their own tradition. To gain these understandings, I turned to a social theory, in this case, an approach in cultural anthropology called cognitive anthropology, which is concerned with how people in a culture perceive, organize, and think about the world and how they express that cognition and knowledge in language. This approach, widely used by ethnomusicologists in the late 1970s and early 1980s, gave us the emic-etic dichotomy, which is now a largely taken-for-granted part of the ethnomusicologist's theoretical toolkit (Zemp 1979; Rice 1980; Feld 1981; Koskoff 1982; Sakata 1983). Using interview techniques suggested by this theory of culture, I learned that singers had their own ways of describing these parts, and I could write a particular description based on "native" or "emic" theory. Interviews with singers revealed that they do not appear to have a native concept of melody; one singer said that she was "crying out," not "singing a melody." The two other singers said they "followed" the woman who "cried out." This verb pointed both to their position behind the woman crying out and to how they followed her lead rhythmically. Using social theory I was able to move beyond Western music theory into the musical culture of these singers, a culture that was, according to the tenets of the theory, in their minds and expressed in language.

Normative descriptions apply not to single items but to a collection of items: how musical performances characteristically are organized, how a musical instrument is typically made, the musical style of a collection of pieces or performances, and so on. Bulgarian scholars (e.g., Kaufman 1968) had created a normative label for an important tradition of singing in southwest Bulgaria: "two-voiced singing" (dvuglasno peene). The notion that this label represented anything other than a relatively straightforward, accurate, normative description never occurred to me until I ran into an exception during my fieldwork (Rice 1988, 2004). In one village the singer who cried out ascended one step, while the singers who followed descended one step, creating the interval of a third, a type of "voice-leading" not normative for this style. Even worse, while my transcription of the two voices showed a third, I was hearing a second. I was deeply confused. Eventually, some singers in a nearby village told me that they didn't just sing in two voices, as the normative description of the style suggested. They sang in three voices: one singer "cries out" (izvikva); one of them "follows straight" (pravo buchi, lit., "roars"), that is, sings a single pitch on the tonal centre; and the other one "follows crookedly" (krivo buchi) moving between the tonal centre and the note below (figure 2). The singing from these two villages contradicted the normative description of two-voiced singing and taught me that normative descriptions always are theories about the regularities of a collection of musical works or practices. Most of the time repeated observation allows us to take normative description for granted as "facts," but their facticity becomes complicated and problematic when observation proves them to be false or incomplete in some way.


My findings provided an opportunity to enter into a theoretical conversation with Bulgarian scholars who had studied this tradition. When I showed them this example, they used their theory of the style to describe it as a haphazard, insignificant variation from its norms; this particular instance was not enough to dislodge their musical theory of the style. The singers' own words, which I took to be an expression of their musical culture, contradicted Bulgarian scholars' explanation and theory: this performance clearly was not a haphazard, accidental variation on a norm, but a fully conscious, well-understood practice, expressed in language. This is an example of how a social theory, namely that culture involves the cognitive, mental organization of phenomena expressed in language, can help in the creation of a new ethnomusicological theory of the musical culture that structures a musical practice.24

Interpretive musical descriptions, which Clifford Geertz (1973) called "thick descriptions," involve the reading of musical practices for their social and cultural meaning, and more recently for the sorts of power relationships they express or challenge. The language-elicitation techniques of cognitive anthropology allowed me some insights into the meanings of musical practices. I discovered that Bulgarian villagers did not seem to have a cover term for what I called "music," an indication among other things that taking for granted a term can conceal a whole world of ethnomusicological theory (see, e.g., Nzewi 1997 on "rhythm" and the symbolic violence it may do to African musical concepts). Instead they split up what I had taken to be their musical practices into many domains: song/sings/singer (pesen/pee/pevitsa); play-thing (tune)/plays/player (svirnya/sviri/svirach); drum/drums/drummer (tupan/tupa/tupandzhia); and so forth. Viewing their musical practices from the inside or in their terms allowed me to understand for the first time the social meanings embedded in their practices: singing and song were the domain primarily of women; men were the players of musical instruments with few exceptions; and drummers came principally from the Rom minority. I began to interpret or read these practices as gendered and as marking ethnic boundaries, that is, as having social and cultural meaning (Rice 1980).25

A particular social theory like cognitive anthropology helped me to understand Bulgarian music in new and productive ways, but each social theory has its limitations. It provides one perspective among many that could be applied helpfully to the description of a musical culture. I ran into the limitations of cognitive anthropology when I tried to learn to play the Bulgarian bagpipe (Rice 1994). Using Western music theory, I could describe rather easily the scalar, melodic, rhythmic, and metrical structures of the dance music played on the instrument. But two aspects of the style eluded me. One was the rhythm of nonmetrical "slow songs" (bavni pesni). To this day I have never written a particular or normative description of the rhythm of these songs nor am I confident that my transcriptions of particular slow songs have any explanatory power whatsoever; they certainly do not capture an insider, emic, culturally informed view of this practice. My evasion of such a description illustrates how description is driven by theory, or, more to the point in this case, how description is avoided because of the lack of a theory or framework to guide it.

The other problematic aspect of the style was the dense ornamentation on the instrument. In this case deploying the techniques of cognitive anthropology was unhelpful. My principal teacher lacked a vocabulary to describe many of the structural features of his performances, including the ornamentation. The problem for me was that I didn't just want to understand his cognition; I wanted to be able to play the ornamentation as he did. Eventually I learned to do so and in the process gained new understandings of the tradition that I could express in words but that he could not. At that moment I realized that cognitive anthropology was a relatively blunt instrument for understanding musical culture. Cognitive anthropology depends on language to study cognition, whereas much of music cognition within culture is language-free (see C. Seeger 1977 for the "linguocentric predicament" and the "musicological juncture"). So whereas much ethnomusicological writing at the time emphasized the difference between etic or outsider analyses and emic or insider understandings, I was forced from musical experience to theorize a new ethnomusicological space between those poles, a space neither completely inside nor completely outside, but a space in which, through self-reflection, I could claim to think about Bulgarian music in a way that yielded adequate performances within the style (Rice 1995).

This theory of a space between emic and etic represents an ethnomusicological challenge, or at least an alternative, to a basic tenet of cognitive anthropology: important aspects of musical culture are not expressed in words by natives, but are knowable and can be expressed accurately in words and performed by outsiders who move within natives' cultural horizons. If culture is to be understood as cognitive knowledge of the phenomena in a world, then it appears that music culture may be fundamentally different from at least some other aspects of culture, such as the residence rules about where a couple goes to live after they get married. To my knowledge, my theoretical intervention, which I expressed many years ago and which might be part of an ethnomusicological theory of the nature of music culture, has never been taken up by other scholars and become part of an ethnomusicological conversation.26 I don't feel myself alone in this. It seems to me that too much ethnomusicological theory goes unrecognized, undiscussed, and unanswered. We have not yet built a strong tradition of theoretical conversations about our ideas of what music is, what it does, and how it comes into being.

Learning to play dance melodies on the bagpipe opened up a conversation with my teachers that I could not previously participate in and that created the possibility for further interpretive descriptions. Once I had acquired what my teacher called "bagpiper's fingers," we could converse in finger motions: moving his hands in the air or on the instrument, he could now say to me, "do it this way" or "don't do it that way" and, watching his fingers with the practice-based knowledge of my own bagpiper's fingers, I could understand what he meant. We were working in what Pierre Bourdieu (1977) calls the domain of practice.

It turned out that these tiny ornaments, which were now the object of detailed consideration in our lessons, were the bearer of social and cultural meaning. My principal teacher was a middle-aged, former villager, but when I studied with him he was a very prominent, urban professional musician (Rice 1994). His manner of ornamentation featured frequent use of complex mordents (moving from the melody note up one tone and back again). When his nephew, a prominent bagpiper of the next generation, taught me to play a few tunes, his ornamentation featured many more inverted mordents (moving from the melody note down one tone and back) than did his uncle's. When I played what I had learned from the nephew for the uncle, the latter demanded that I play these tunes with mordents, claiming that playing inverted mordents in certain parts of the melody was aesthetically "empty." Playing inverted mordents was clearly incapable of, as some Bulgarians put it, "filling his soul," perhaps because it was no longer an index of his past life in his native village. On the other hand, his nephew told me that playing inverted mordents was more complex (even though the same number or even fewer notes were actually played) and indicative of a more modern, progressive, and pan-Bulgarian (rather than regional) approach to playing the bagpipe in tune, as it were, with modern times.

This local ethnographic example illustrates the general ethnomusicological theory, borrowed from interpretive anthropology, that musical practices and gestures can bear, and be read for, their social and cultural meaning. Does it have any implications for that theory? For example, are there any limitations on what aspects of musical style or practice can bear meaning? I think it is fascinating to realize that meaning in this case is borne in some of the smallest details of musical style, in contrast to those who have shown such a connection at grosser levels performance practice, for example, Alan Lomax's cantometrics (1968) or Daniel Neuman's demonstration of the relationship between social status and the amount of solo performance time in a concert of North Indian classical music (1980). We will learn more about this in the next local study I consider.

Theory in relation to previous local studies

Central Javanese gamelan music is practised by a community in a region on the island of Java within the nation of Indonesia. This type of music has presented analysts with fascinating problems when it comes to trying to pin down very precisely the nature of modality, called pathet in this tradition. R. Anderson Sutton (1998:637) outlines the history of these theoretical conversations, beginning with Jaap Kunst's De toonkunst van Java (Music in Java) (1934) and continuing with Mantle Hood's 1954 study of "the nuclear theme [played on the single-octave metallophone saron] as a determinant of pathet." Judith Becker (1972) expands the analysis to include a multioctave treatment of the pathet concept. Vincent McDermott and Sumarsam (1975) look at the quasi-improvisatory "elaborating parts" played on the metallophone called gender for their role in defining pathet. Susan Walton (1987) adds vocal music into the mix. Despite the fact that this theoretical thread is generated more by music theory than by social theory, I still find it significant as ethnomusicological theory for a number of reasons. First of all, it is theoretical. That is, the work in this thread is trying to figure out the "what" of pathet, which is apparently a complex, not a simple, matter. What is it? How is it defined? How are particular pathets brought to performative life? How can we recognize a particular pathet when we hear it? These are discipline-specific theoretical questions at what Ruth Stone (2008) calls the jeweller's eye view; they go beyond particular description to posit a normative idea about an important concept in Javanese music. Answering these questions surely gets at some important things about the culture of Javanese gamelan music. Second, they build on each other. One of the most important features of ethnomusicological theory is that new work responds to previous work to create a more sophisticated, fine-grained understanding of musical practice, whether local or broadly comparative. For those interested in Javanese music, I can only imagine that they find this sort of theoretical conversation exciting and engaging, and, as a consequence, are perhaps challenged to take the next step in theorizing pathet.

In 1998, Marc Perlman did just that in an article on "the social meaning of modal practice" in this music. He contributes to the conversation about pathet by adding some social theory into the music-theory mix. Citing studies of music in many other parts of the world, he begins with the general ethnomusicological theory that "musical elements and practices are remarkably versatile carriers of social meaning" (Perlman 1998:45). The gendčr player must balance between a performance governed by the idea of the particular pathet and one governed by melodic considerations. If the performance "privileges" pathet, then Perlman reads it as signifying a mainstream, central, courtly, and male style. If the performance privileges a closer adherence to the melody, then it signifies two marginal positions in society: "the peripheral (geographically marginal) and the female" (p. 46).

As ethnomusicological theory, this article does three important things. First, it builds on and expands the theory of pathet developed in previous studies-the progress of the discipline of ethnomusicology depends on new studies extending and challenging older studies.27 Second, it adds another theory, the general ethnomusicological theory that music is a sign system capable of carrying meaning, to flesh out and extend our understanding of pathet. It claims that pathet is not only a device for structuring music, but a signifier of the players' social position. Third, Perlman's theorizing in this case moves the study of pathet from the jeweller's eye view, that is, a parochial study of a feature of Javanese music, to a position beyond the local. He contributes to and provides an ethnographic example of a general ethnomusicological theory, the theory that music can bear social meaning even in the fine details of musical performance. Perlman concludes with the theoretical claim that "the more detailed our technical analyses, the more opportunities we will have to show how sounds and context are subtly intertwined" (p. 68). This claim or theory has broad implications for the entire field of ethnomusicology by transcending its source in a particular local community study and contributing beyond the local to the general ethnomusicological theory that he employed in the first place.

Interlocal theory about musical processes in related communities

Returning to ethnomusicological theory beyond local musical ethnographies, comparing musical processes in related communities should yield ethnomusicological theory about, for example, the cultural work different musical genres do: within a geographically bounded culture; in a particular ethnic, racial, religious, or kinship group; in nations within a particular area of the world; or in a set of historically or socially related institutions, such as prisons in the US.28 Such interlocal ethnomusicological theorizing has the potential to inform future local musical studies of the region, group, genre, or institution. Probably the best stimulant for such ethnomusicological theory is shared musical, historical, and social experience within and among these communities, for example: African-American history and experience and the "origins" or "Africanisms" debate about the African roots of various genres of music performed by African Americans (Maultsby and Burnim 2001); punk rock around the world; maqam as a structural principle in the Middle East and its extensions; and problems of musical notation in East Asia.

The music performed in Bulgaria today clearly shares a history with that of many other nations and could be understood and theorized from many beyond-the-local perspectives: (1) in relation to music of other nations in the Balkans, in the former Soviet "bloc," in Europe, or in the former Ottoman Empire; (2) the music of its Rom minority in relation to Rom minority music in many other countries, as an example of transnational music-making, or as minority music within a nation-state, and many others. The shared experience of communism in Central, Eastern, and Southeastern Europe and its fall between 1989 and 1991 has generated a plethora of local studies of music's role in and response to the transition from totalitarianism to democracy and from a command to a market economy and in ameliorating or exacerbating tensions around the EU-nification of Europe. Along the way some useful interlocal ethnomusicological theorizing has emerged about this region of the world. Edited volumes, in this case by Mark Slobin (1996) and Donna Buchanan (2007a), seem to be ideal media for initiating such community-based interlocal conversations.

In the introduction to his edited collection Retuning Culture: Musical Changes in Central and Eastern Europe, Slobin makes a number of trenchant theoretical suggestions. He points out that, after the revolutions of 1989-91, music played a vital role in new forms of public ritual (song contests, parades, stadium rallies) that contributed to the formation of new communities and political alliances (Slobin 1996:7). He claims that "music is layered into consciousness in three strata: current, recent, and long-term-all of which occur simultaneously in the present" (p. 11). Individuals calling on different memories, different parts of their memory, or their "collective memory" give to music competing interpretations, some of which are able "to sustain nonnational forms of identity," even as communist and some postcommunist governments tried, and continue to try, to erase them (p. 8). He argues that the local studies in his volume can be understood from three perspectives, or in relation to what I would call themes (modernity, identity, and continuity), and he makes a few comparisons in each of them. Finally, writing about communist regimes' desire to control and order virtually every aspect of life, from practical action to ideation, he writes that "it is impossible to cleanse the spontaneous from music. Music's social and cultural role is always that of shape-shifter" (Slobin 2008:4), even under the pressure of totalitarianism. Each of these suggestions has a slightly different theoretical burden, but they are good examples of ethnomusicological theory that could inspire further beyond-the-local theorizing along these lines and that could inform the questions asked in future local ethnographic studies.

In the preface to her edited collection Balkan Popular Culture and the Ottoman Ecumene: Music, Image, and Regional Political Discourse, Buchanan reports that the project was inspired by the comments of a scholar of Slavic literature and culture who wrote that "he did not discern 'a deep Balkan cultural identity shared by the cultures of these highly disparate nations'" (2007b:xviii, quoting Wachtel 1998:7). Buchanan, on the contrary, wondered how this claim comported with the "remarkable, intraregional confluences of style in the instrumental music, song, and dance of local ethnopop artists" (p. xviii), similarities that might augur a "Balkan cosmopolitanism." The articles in the volume take up this point, including two of her own contributions. One is about a nineteenth-century Turkish popular song, "Üsküdara gider iden" (On the way to Üsküdar), which is also found in the "national" repertoire of many nations and ethnic groups that emerged from the Ottoman Empire (Buchanan 2007c). The other is about contemporary Bulgarian ethnopop music (chalga), which, because of its shared features with similar forms in the region (muzica orientala in Romania, turbofolk in Serbia, "commercial folk music" in Albania), may be an "illustration of an emergent Balkan cosmopolitanism" (ibid. 2007d:260).

What her articles and the others reveal, however, is that, while all these genres are compiled, often by Romani musicians, from a mix of ostensibly Ottoman, localtraditional, and modern-Western musical elements and are perhaps cosmopolitan in that sense, the meanings associated with each genre are rather different: for example, ethnonationalism in Serbia, but a potential embrace of multiculturalism in Bulgaria. Jane Sugarman, in a section of her article in the collection called "A Common 'Balkan' Music?," claims that ethnopop music performed by Albanians in Kosovo and Macedonia may not participate in the creation of an emergent Balkan identity, but rather it works out local issues of identity (2007:300). Pointing out that Muslim groups in the Balkans (Roma, Albanians, Bosnians, Pomaks, Torbesi, Turks) may have a different attitude to the Ottoman legacy sounded in these songs than do Christian groups (Slobin's notions of memory strata and collective memory might be useful here), she writes:

What these performances often share is a continuity of practice that dates back to an era when a Muslim identity overrode a national one. For most of these groups, the period since 1990 has involved a protracted effort, often a bloody one, to gain legitimacy or even an acknowledgement of one's existence. I thus see their similar musical performances as assertions of cultural distinctiveness addressed in large part to neighbors who simultaneously stigmatize them and appropriate their identities. (Sugarman 2007:302-3)

Productive ethnomusicological theory about musical processes in interlocal community-based studies can only occur when someone, in this case Buchanan, makes a theoretical proposal and someone else, in this case Sugarman, takes it seriously and engages in conversation with it. This exchange certainly doesn't settle the matter; rather it suggests its complexity and the value of further ethnomusicological theorizing along these lines.

Both Slobin and Buchanan, in these edited collections and in their introductions to them, are creating ethnomusicological theory that has implications beyond our discipline, in this case in area studies. Slobin's notion that music is in some ways uncontrollable, even by totalitarian states, suggests that music may contribute something unique to the social, cultural, and political processes that have animated this part of the world for many years. Studying musical practice, Buchanan suggests, might give ethnomusicologists a special, perhaps even privileged, window through which to understand what may be a move in this new era from Balkanization to "a potential Balkan cosmopolitanism" (Buchanan 2007b:xx). If European area-studies specialists ignore these ethnomusicological theories, their analyses are surely the weaker for it.29 But on the other hand, to be influential, the implications of such ethnomusicological theories need to be refined and supported by yet more subtle interlocal, intradisciplinary conversations.

Cross-cultural theories about themes and issues

Since we all organize our local studies around one or more of the many themes that have interested ethnomusicologists since its inception, such themes ought to be especially fruitful for the writing of ethnomusicological theory beyond the local or at what Stone (2008) calls the bird's eye or satellite view. We often organize conference sessions around themes, and the ICTM sponsors many theme-based study groups, as if we believed that cross-cultural theoretical conversations, rather than simply the sharing of stories, were possible, desirable, and important. Perhaps the most ubiquitous theme in our field today concerns the relationship between music and identity (Rice 2007). Authors of journal articles and book chapters on this theme provide a number of potentially fruitful examples of ethnomusicological theory, each illustrating a different source of theory.30 Here are three examples.

Christopher Waterman's (1990a) "social history and ethnography" of Yoruba popular music contains an idea that might be fruitful for an ethnomusicological theory of how music and social identity are related. He points out that the identity label "Yoruba" was invented in Nigeria sometime in the early twentieth century, and Yoruba identity is continually being constructed in the language-based discourses of politics, journalism, and education. Music's contribution to Yoruba identity formation seems to be different from those couched in linguistic terms. Waterman (1990b:376) argues that "an effective performance of jůjú ... predicates not only the structure of the ideal society, but also its interactive ethos or 'feel': intensive, vibrant, buzzing, and fluid." This idea seems to be based on the anthropological idea that culture "allow[s] people to see, feel, imagine [and] understand" things in particular ways (Ortner 2006:14). His application of that idea to his particular study is an example of ethnomusicological theory within the local. But this theory might be applicable to many other cases. Ethnomusicology could extend its theoretical reach if authors made explicit the potential ramifications beyond the local of their ethnographic studies and if readers recognized such implications, whether implicit or explicit, and took them seriously.

Martin Stokes (1994) borrows from the work of social anthropologist Fredrik Barth (1969) to make a general argument for music's role in ethnic, class, and gender identity formation, not as a representative or constituent part of an "essence," but through "the construction, maintenance and negotiation of boundaries" (p. 6). Barth's social theory has been broadly influential in a number of disciplines concerned with questions of social identity, and Stokes uses it to create an ethnomusicological theory of music's role in the formation of social identity. Making Barth's theory particular to music and quoting Simon Frith (1987:149), Stokes suggests that music might play a role different from other cultural practices in boundary formation: "What music (pop) can do is put into play a sense of identity that may or may not fit the way we are placed by other social facts" (p. 24). Music, Stokes points out, can also be an especially effective, if highly coded, "means by which people recognise identities and places, and the boundaries which separate them" (p. 5), and a playing field on which the powerful and powerless struggle for control of how and where the boundaries are marked and defined. Such a beyond-the-local ethnomusicological theory has great potential to guide the design of our local, ethnographic studies and to illuminate the particular, normative, and interpretive descriptions we eventually write.

Folklorist Giovanna Del Negro and ethnomusicologist Harris Berger (2004:156), drawing on communications theory, the ethnography of performance, and the folklorist Richard Bauman's (1989) notion of the performance of self, suggest that musical performances in some contexts can be used not to connect the self to a larger social entity with an ethnic, national, gender, or class identity, but to construct the self as an aesthetic object, an object of enjoyment for an audience watching a performance of self. Musicians and singers, they argue, in certain contexts may be "artists of identity," in addition to whatever artistic skills they possess. This is an ethnomusicological theory about music and identity pregnant with possibilities for local musical ethnographies, for thinking comparatively about music's role in constructing the self as a subject, and for the understanding of other selves in our world.

All these ethnomusicological theories (that music is an important practice for negotiating boundaries between ethnic groups, that music provides an ethnic identity with its feel, that musical performance is a way to construct an aestheticized self-identity) are potentially important contributions to the discipline. However, their "brief and cursory" citation will leave ethnomusicology still undertheorized unless we engage in conversation with them and put them into conversation with each another. We have, in other words, plenty of ethnomusicological theorizing about music's contribution to individual and social identity, but we need noisier and more frequent theoretical conversations that flesh them out, critique them, and move them toward more sophisticated, fine-grained explanations and understandings of music's importance in human life. If repeated observation under different circumstances and convincing, subtle argumentation support these theories, then they may become part of theories of identity beyond our discipline.31

General theories about the nature of human life

The best chance for ethnomusicology to contribute to theories of the nature of human cultural, social, and biological life lies in our ethnomusicological theories of the general nature of music and in the theories we develop through the consideration of the many themes that interest us. Although we may worry that we have not made such contributions, I think that some of our theorizing has that potential. Here are two examples.

In Anthony Seeger's (1987) study of the Suyá Indians of the Amazon basin, he makes explicit his intent to contribute to social theory in the very first sentence of the preface: "This is a book about singing in a native South American community ... and the role of music in social processes" (p. xiii). He argues that musical performance is not a reflection or result of the material and physical world in which the Suyá live. Rather, "each performance re-creates, re-establishes, or alters the significance of ... the persons, times, places, and audiences involved" (p. 65). Two instances illustrate this point. The Suyá year is divided into rainy and dry seasons, but he argues that these seasons are established not by changes in the weather, but by changes in the ceremonies performed and the songs that are sung. "Seasonal songs did not simply follow the vagaries of rainfall and drought, but rather established the changing season. When the new season's song had begun, it really was that season-whether or not the rains suddenly stopped or began to fall once again" (p. 70). Singing had a similar effect on the age-grade status of individuals. Age-grade changes were not the inevitable result of the ticking of one's biological clock, but were sung into being.

Each time a person sang he or she reaffirmed (or established for the first time) a certain age status. A young boy might learn a long shout song for the first time. An adult man might begin not to force his voice as high as before. An older man might begin to clown before he had more than a single grandchild, or an old woman might retain the sober demeanor characteristic of a younger woman. Every ceremony was the opportunity to reaffirm not only what one was (a male and a member of certain groups) but what one believed one was or wanted to be. (A. Seeger 1987:78)

This ethnomusicological theory of what music does in human societies has important implications for our local studies. Just as important, it challenges social scientists to rethink their understanding of how societies understand themselves and of music's contribution to that understanding. Social scientists ignore our insights into the role of music in human life at their peril, but whether they do so or not is their problem, not ours.32 Our job remains, however, to make our ethnomusicological theory as convincing and as strongly argued as possible.

Thomas Turino (1999) takes up, implicitly, the possibility raised by Waterman that the significance of music for identity has to do with the feelings it generates and expresses. He does so by considering a social theory rather than by writing a local ethnography. Working with the semiotic theory of the American philosopher Charles S. Peirce, he argues that music is such a powerful sign of identity because it is a sign of "direct feeling and experience," unmediated by language (p. 250). "Music involves signs of feeling and experience rather than the types of mediational signs that are about something else," for example, language signs (p. 224). Peirce's work represents the sort of social theory (in the broad sense in which I am using that term) that has transcended its disciplinary roots in philosophy to influence thinkers in a number of fields, including the social sciences. Turino has used it to create an ethnomusicological theory. His argument may be understood as in conversation with the claim that musical practice can be considered a text (symbol) with meaning. Turino, following Peirce, seems to be arguing that, while music may be read for meaning as language can be, it is after all a different kind of sign system from language signs. Music does something else for humankind besides creating meaning, something just as or even more important:

When people shift to symbolic thinking and discourse [as in language] to communicate about deep feelings and experiences, the feeling and reality of those experiences disappear and we are not satisfied. This is because we have moved to a more highly mediated, generalized mode of discourse, away from signs of direct feeling and experience. Symbols ... fall short in the realm of feeling and experience. That is why we need music. (Turino 1999:250; emphasis in original)

This argument about what music may contribute to human existence is an example of ethnomusicological theory with important implications for our understanding of human being in the world. Whether it should be treated as a fact, an assumption, or a claim in need of further demonstration in local studies might be the locus of an important intradisciplinary conversation about the nature of music.

Turino returns us to what may be a set of root questions that ethnomusicology should be capable of addressing based on our broad-ranging ethnographic and historical studies. What does music do for humankind? Is music unique in this regard or, if not unique, how is it positioned in relation to other human behaviours? Suzel Reily (pers. comm.) wondered whether questions like these might constitute a "common project," if one were still desirable in our postmodern age. Acknowledging her debt to her teacher John Blacking, she wrote, "Ultimately, I think our goal still is to determine how musical humans are: how did humans become musical beings, why are they musical beings, and how do they use this capacity in the world?" Our collective engagement with these questions, including a conversation with Turino's ideas along this line, might help ethnomusicological theory escape from its disciplinary frame to make a significant contribution to the social and life sciences.


It is my hope that this explication of the field of ethnomusicological theory will aid in the emergence of a richer intellectual landscape in our field, especially if we keep in mind the following points.

First, the field of ethnomusicological theory covers every aspect of the research enterprise from our local ethnographic descriptions to our general claims about the nature of music. Ethnomusicological theory is inescapable.

Second, ethnomusicological theory everywhere in this field can be understood as conversations among ethnomusicologists about a question that arises from particular community-based studies, from our interest in a common theme, such as music and identity, or from our interest in general questions about the nature of music and the many roles it plays in human life. We have generated a significant number of ethnomusicological theories over the years, but when we neglect to have conversations with each other about them, our theoretical claims remain thin and insufficiently subtle, textured, and grounded in observation, and the intellectual richness of our field is compromised.

Third, if ethnomusicological theory pervades our field from local, particular descriptions to ambitious claims about the nature of music and its importance in social and cultural life, and if ethnomusicological theory is about conversations between and among ourselves that serve to advance our theoretical claims, then ethnomusicologists must ask themselves this question: In this particular study, with whom do I want to engage in a theoretical conversation?

* Do I want to have it with myself by examining critically the assumptions (ethnomusicological theories) I bring with me to my research project?

* Do I want to have it principally with those in the community I am studying and writing about?

* Do I want to have it with those who have previously studied the community I am studying?

* Do I want to have it with those interested in the same themes and issues that I am interested in?

* Do I want to have it with those who have made general claims about the nature of music?

* Do I want to have it with non-ethnomusicologists who study communities similar to the one I am studying?

* Do I want to have it with scholars outside the discipline who work on themes that interest me?

* Do I want to have it with other humanists and social and life scientists concerned with the nature of human social, cultural, and biological life?

We cannot demand that we all answer these questions in the same way, but we can demand that we all ask and answer them for each of our local studies. Doing so explicitly will ensure the intellectual growth of our discipline.

Fourth, ethnomusicological theory sometimes depends on insights borrowed from social theory, but often it is generated from within our field, in the context of our particular, local studies. It is important to recognize, acknowledge, and take seriously the theory we have written even as some champion the insights about music gained from the social theories we read.

Fifth, ethnomusicological theory is easier to find, criticize, and develop when: (a) authors make it explicit in their work; (b) they tell us how their idiographic study fits into the literature on similar communities; (c) they tell us how the themes that are central to their study have been treated in the past by other authors writing on those themes in other communities; or (d) they propose, for us all to consider, a general theory that arises from their particular local study about the nature of music.

Sixth, if we hope to contribute to social theory and not just borrow from it, then intradisciplinary conversations about our own theories need to be more frequent, explicit, and pointed. We also need to take them more vigorously than we seem to do now into the conversational arenas beyond our field where they might be influential: journals and conferences of academic societies devoted to community studies, thematic studies, or the humanities and social and life sciences.

Seventh, it is through ethnomusicological theory that we engage with each other's work and create and build the discipline of ethnomusicology. We will not build our discipline solely through our idiographic studies, as rich, detailed, and fascinating as they may be. We will not build our discipline solely through our methods, as precise, refined, culturally sensitive, and replicable as they may be. We will not build our discipline solely through reading and appropriating social theory. To build our discipline, we must, in addition to all this, write ethnomusicological theory within and beyond our local studies and within the general field of the human sciences.


This paper was first presented at the 2009 40th World Conference of the International Council for Traditional Music in Durban, South Africa, and was entitled "What and Where Is Theory in Ethnomusicology?" Subsequently I presented it at the Universities of California in Berkeley, Los Angeles, Riverside, and Santa Barbara, and at Istanbul Technical University. I am grateful to the faculty and students at those universities for the ideas they shared with me in the discussions that followed. Many of the issues they raised helped to reshape the article into its present form. In addition, I want to thank Michael Bakan, Judith Becker, Harris Berger, J. Martin Daughtry, Juniper Hill, Steven Loza, Daniel Neuman, Sherry Ortner, Helen Rees, Suzel Reily, Anthony Seeger, Jane Sugarman, Timothy Taylor, Michael Tenzer, Louise Wrazen, and two anonymous referees, whose comments and suggestions on previous drafts helped me reconsider and develop my ideas, and eventually to retitle the paper.

1. I cannot resist the use of "our" here and elsewhere in this paper, because I regard a discipline as, among other things, constituted by conversations among a community of scholars. But I want to be careful, particularly in this forum, to point out that the disciplinary conversations I am speaking about are expressed in English, which, perhaps unfortunately, dominates not only conversations in the US, UK, Canada, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, and parts of Africa, but in international forums as well. Meetings of the ICTM illustrate productively the extent to which different national and language traditions, and thus different ethnomusicologies, exist all over the world. The ICTM is an ideal body for creating interdisciplinary conversations among them. Attempts by the US Society for Ethnomusicology to encourage such conversations include its 2005 fiftieth anniversary meeting (see Ethnomusicology 50/2 (2006)) and its 2008 annual meeting in Mexico City, which used the slogan "Borderless Ethnomusicologies," simultaneous translations of some sessions, and papers delivered in Spanish to signal the desire of many to broaden the conversation to all corners of the world.

2. In this narrative, McLean, a distinguished ethnomusicologist from New Zealand, is a stand-in for others who argue against the importation of social theory into the discipline of ethnomusicology. Such arguments rarely appear in print and, in my experience, are more typically voiced in interpersonal and casual communications. He is an excellent ethnomusicological theorist in the sense proposed here (e.g., McLean 1979, 1986).

3. The practical, if tawdry, function of "brief and cursory" references to social theory for the purpose of establishing intellectual authority was brought home to me when, some years ago, I applied for a small grant to do some very basic, pedestrian, but necessary follow-up field research in Bulgaria for a project I was working on. My application was honest in its depiction of the rather prosaic nature of the research task, even as the broader topic was, I thought, worthy of investigation. The application was denied. The next year I infused it with some not irrelevant, but not really necessary, references to social theory, and I was given the award. Clearly scholars in other fields who review grant applications in the United States think ethnomusicologists should be participating with them in, and contributing to, a broad, interdisciplinary discussion of themes and issues of common interest.

4. I am aware that this list, with a few exceptions, may appear to reinscribe a system that has been called white or high or Eurocentric theory, a system that has been critiqued by many scholars, including ethnomusicologists (see, e.g., Loza 2006). In doing so, I describe ethnomusicology's past, not my and others' hopes for its future. No ethnomusicologist would object to Loza's call for a broader, more inclusive vision of social theory, with special consideration of theories created in the particular culture or culture area that an ethnomusicologist studies. But to implement that vision, each of us has not only to champion (and perhaps translate, as others have the French theorists) our favorite neglected social theorists, but to use their theories for the writing of what I call "ethnomusicological theory." Merely to advocate for the relevance of social theory from outside the Eurocentric canon may unwittingly reproduce the "brief and cursory" arguments from authority that characterize much of ethnomusicology's treatment of even that canon.

5. I use "empirical" in the broad sense advocated by Tyler Bickford (2010) to refer to any research, such as ethnographic fieldwork, based on observation and experience, rather than in the narrow sense of research based on experimentation.

6. What I am calling the common conversation raises critical issues of inclusion and exclusion (Jackson 2006). Deborah Wong (2004:304) has also pointed to the distance that can exist between these conversations and the struggles of intellectuals and musicians (themselves intellectuals) from the communities we study to be heard and to contribute to "political action, social responsibility, and intellectual thought." In a related vein, Harris Berger (pers. comm.) suggested "a distinction ... between theoretical work that seeks only to produce general insights into social life and those forms of theory that ... go further to engage in social criticism or pursue an activist agenda."

7. Conversations with Anthony Seeger and Timothy Taylor helped me articulate this point.

8. Many of the principal overviews of our field (Kunst 1959; Netti 1964; Hood 1971; Myers 1992) have contributed to the confusion about the nature of ethnomusicological theory by privileging method over theory to an extraordinary extent, leaving theory certainly underdiscussed, if not largely undiscussed. Even what these authors call theory is often simply a theme or an issue around which some of our work has crystallized (gender and music, urban music, teaching and learning of music, for example) without much reference to the theories we have developed ourselves or borrowed from other disciplines to help us understand these processes. Merriam (1964), Netti (1983), and Stone (2008) are exceptions.

9. I am grateful to Michael Tenzer for reminding me that Simha Arom's work is relevant here. In a personal communication, Tenzer wrote, "He has been adamant about using rigorous methodology to generate scientific, social, and music theory inductively. In this way he systematically rules out possibilities one by one to confirm conclusions that are explicitly validated by the music-makers."

10. This shorthand characterization of differences between scientific and social theory flies over many subtleties. One of the more interesting is the conflict in science between foundationism, associated with Karl Popper's injunction to attempt to falsify theories rather than to prove them through repeated observation, and naturalism, associated with Thomas Kuhn's view that "falsification applies to logic and not to empirical studies" and does not comport with the way science is actually practised (Proctor and Capaldi 2006). I am grateful to UCLA professor of earth and space science, physics and astronomy, and mathematics William I. Newman, for our discussions of "fact" and "truth" in science and for referring me to this source, which contains a very useful review of the philosophy of science, especially as it applies to qualitative studies in psychology and, by extension perhaps, to musical-ethnographic studies.

11. The label "ethnomusicological theory" does not imply that "ethnomusicology" is, for all time, an adequate or appropriate name for our discipline. Some are seriously troubled by the label. A discussion that I hosted at the 2005 annual meeting of the Society for Ethnomusicology ended in a contradiction: some would like to change the name of our discipline, but not at this moment when the relatively recent widespread understanding and adoption of the term "ethnomusicology" in the academy in the United States has given us a brand identity and thus a practical advantage in the marketplace of ideas and academic jobs. Those readers unhappy with the locution "ethnomusicological theory" can get to the idea I am driving at by calling it "anthropology-of-music theory" or "world-music theory" or "cultural-musicology theory" or something similar.

12. I use the "field" metaphor in its common sense of a field of study, a fertile ground for intellectual inquiry. Having laid it out in this way, it probably could be analysed as a "field of cultural production" (Bourdieu 1993), that is, a social space with agents, rules, hierarchies, orthodox/heterodox opinions, and doxic practices. That would be fascinating, but I have not undertaken that project here.

13. Historical research has increasingly become important in our field, and yet, I would argue, its core principles have arisen from synchronic, ethnographic research. This core practice then seeps into the kind of history we write. That is. historical studies tend to be community-based and thematically focused. Someday it may become more difficult to make this argument confidently, but one of the signs of the ascendance of historical study in ethnomusicology will be graduate curricula with courses on historical, as well as on fieldwork, methods.

14. Although I situate ethnomusicological theory within a general field of social, cultural, cognitive, and biological theory, music theory, in everything from terminology to detailed musical analyses and explanations, remains an important method in developing ethnomusicological theory. Music theory tries to explain how music is structured and, in the most engaging work for humanists and social scientists, to uncover the cognitive, psychological, biological, and creative processes that bring those structures into existence and allow them to be perceived and acted on.

15. I may seem to be arguing against myself here. In Rice (2003) I tried to define the parameters of "subject-centered" musical ethnography. But the self or subject referred to in that paper is a thoroughly social self as it emerges from and reattaches itself to an emergent array of social units and communities.

16. In this paper I argue at a number of points with Ruth Stone's account of "theory for ethnomusicology." I do so with the greatest respect, because hers is arguably the first serious, extended attempt in a quarter of a century to take on ethnomusicological theory in a systematic way. The most important previous discussions are by Alan Merriam (1964) and Bruno Nettl (1983). I do so in the spirit of the kind of friendly, but productive, disciplinary conversations we both advocate. Her arguments are, to echo Claude Lévi-Strauss, good to think with.

17. The Society for Ethnomusicology website ( lists more than ninety "subjects and theoretical categories." The International Council for Traditional Music website ( lists ten study groups devoted to themes, six devoted to communities (areas of the world), and two that combine both.

18. The phrase "social or civic significance" comes from F. E. Sparshott's delightful article on the aesthetics of music in the 1980 edition of the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians. He continues laconically, "When an art claims autonomy, it may be a sign that it accepts a peripheral place in the culture of its day" (Sparshott 1980:123).

19. Evolutionary biologist Ernst Mayr (2001:264) writes: "It is very questionable whether the term 'evolutionary theory' should be used any longer. That evolution occurred and takes place all the time is a fact so overwhelmingly established that it has become irrational to call it a theory ... Scientific arguments about [common descent, speciation, and natural selection] ... do not in any way affect the basic conclusion that evolution as such is a fact."

20. The division between those who separate description from theory and those who prefer to understand description as embedded in theory is well known in sociology. Robert Emerson (1988:96) writes: "Grounded theorists tend to view data and theory as distinct phenomena: theory ... may suggest where to collect data and what kinds of data to collect, but [theory] is not seen as inherent in the very notion of data in the first place. Field data, however, are never theoretically 'pure,' but are always products of prior interpretive and conceptual decisions made by the fieldworker." I am grateful to UCLA sociology professor Gail Kligman for referring me to this source, which raises many issues of potential interest to ethnomusicologists.

21. An excellent example of the productive mix of particular, normative, and interpretive description to create a richly theoretical local ethnography is Jane Sugarman's account of singing at weddings among Albanians from the Lake Prespa region of the central Balkans (1997). Beginning each chapter with a particular description before passing on to normative descriptions of how men and women sing at these community social events, she is able, combining her ethnographic observations with ideas from social theorists Pierre Bourdieu and Michel Foucault, to arrive at an interpretation of how singing, and the community's evaluations of particular performances, "penetrated to the bedrock of the community's social ideology ... [Their singing] techniques contribute to the community's ongoing formulation of its notions of society and morality" (pp. 21-22). including patriarchy, gender, personhood, male honour, female modesty, reciprocity, hierarchy, and equality. This is ethnomusicological theorizing of a high order about musical and social processes in a particular culture with significant implications for those wishing to engage in a conversation about how music helps to construct social ideology in another culture or cross-culturally.

22. As Harris Berger and Juniper Hill reminded me in personal communications, in arguing for the theoretical underpinnings of particular, normative, and interpretive descriptions, I am eliding distinctions that some may still wish to draw between local-level "descriptions" and "interpretations" on the one hand, and "theory" about general or cross-cultural processes in human life on the other. These two views are not contradictory and can be held together by those who wish to do so.

23. Stone (1982, 2008) provides excellent examples of laying out one's assumptions (theories) explicitly before beginning a local ethnographic study.

24. As Juniper Hill reminded me, Lila Abu-Lughod's (1991) article "Writing against Culture" speaks forcefully of how certain generalizing practices associated with the culture concept exercise power over others. Abu-Lughod advocates writing "ethnographies of the particular" and argues that "generalization, the characteristic mode of operation and writing of the social sciences, can no longer be regarded as neutral" (1991:149-50). She is not, however, speaking against all forms of beyond-the-local theorizing, just in favour of better forms of writing to convey it, specifically writing devoted to the particulars of peoples' "everyday lives" and actions (p. 155). It is a subtle argument with many twists and turns between particularity and generality, and well worth reading in counterpoint to the writing of ethnomusicological theory.

25. Questions like this one about the nature and boundaries of the music concept have been with us at least since Merriam (1964). But clearly whether we ask this question, and how we answer it, can guide the structure of our research and the questions we ask. In that way they constitute an ethnomusicological theory. Attempts to broaden our field of inquiry to "sound" illustrate the theoretical burden of our concepts of music and the boundaries we impose between it and other sounds in our environment (see, e.g., Feld 1982, 2009, and Erlmann 2004.)

26. Meki Nzewi (1997) discovered this space between emic and etic coming from the opposite direction I did, moving from the inside to the outside of the African music tradition. He even gave the space a name, "emetic," with apparently no pun intended. I am grateful to Jacqueline Cogdell DjeDje for suggesting this source.

27. In a personal communication, Judith Becker pointed out that Sarah Weiss has taken the argument even further in her book Listening to an Earlier Java (2006).

28. To fit clearly in the category of community-based studies in the field of ethnomusicological theory, institutions probably need to be directly comparable on the basis of imputed shared experience, for example, music in US schools and conservatories of music (compare, e.g., Kingsbury 1988 and Nettl 1995). When an interlocal study of musical institutions expands to include, say, conservatories in Finland (Hill 2005), Uzbekistan (Merchant Henson 2006), and Kazakhstan (Rancier 2009), then such comparisons may take on more of the character of a theme-based study (see below).

29. Turning a blind eye (or deaf ear) to music may be endemic to area and community studies. Edwin Seroussi (2009) offers such a critique of Jewish studies in his ironically titled essay, "Music: The 'Jew' of Jewish Studies." Seroussi acts strategically by, like Daniel, taking the argument into the lion's den, publishing his critique in a journal of Jewish studies. Tellingly, he begins by summarizing for nonexperts some of ethnomusicology's principal insights about music's central and special role in human life and ipso facto its relevance for Jewish life and Jewish studies. This is a strategy more of us should employ if we hope to contribute to theory beyond our discipline.

30. In addition to journal articles and book chapters, the last decade has seen a remarkable efflorescence of beyond-the-local, theme-based single-authored books and collections of essays. Here, for example, are ten from the last ten years: Judith Becker (2004), Berger (2009), Greene and Porcello (2005), Lysloff and Gay (2003), Moisala and Diamond (2000), Qureshi (2002), Ritter and Daughtry (2007), Slobin (2008), Turino (2008), and Weintraub and Yung (2009). These books can undoubtedly be mined for both ethnomusicological theories and conversations about them, but I leave that as an exercise for the reader.

31. In a conversation in 2010 with a professor from the Department of Women's Studies at UCLA, she professed herself completely puzzled by the idea that music (or sound for that matter) might be relevant to gender or feminist theory.

32. Martin Stokes (1994:1) comments on this problem in a somewhat ironic tone, writing, "In accordance with the highly pervasive fiction of an earlier musicology, music is still ... considered [by anthropologists] a domain of a special, almost extra-social, autonomous experience. What ethnomusicologists deal with in the societies they study is-anthropologists are residually inclined to assume-either the diversionary or the arcane. By definition they cannot be dealing with the kinds of events and processes that make up the predominantly verbal and visual 'real life' of which social reality is assumed to consist."


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Author affiliation:

Timothy Rice is director of the UCLA Herb Alpert School of Music and professor of ethnomusicology there. His publications include May It Fill Your Soul: Experiencing Bulgarian Music (University of Chicago Press, 1994) and Music in Bulgaria: Experiencing Music, Expressing Culture (Oxford University Press, 2004). He was the co-founding editor of the ten-volume Garland Encyclopedia of World Music, editor from 1981 to 1984 of Ethnomusicology, and president of the Society for Ethnomusicology from 2003 to 2005.

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