Music Matters. Materiality, Knowings and Practices in Performing Arts


Perspectives from Ethnomusicology

Ursula Hemetek, Marko Kölbl

Ethnomusicology is about dealing with music in social context. As Bruno Nettl puts it: “…..ethnomusicology is the study of music in culture,… the study of the World’s Musics from a comparative and relativistic point of view, ….the study with the use of fieldwork – for the benefit of the people from whom we learn, ……the study of all the musical manifestations of a society with a special attention to minorities.” (Nettl 2005:10). Following this argument, any music can be studied; the scope is not limited. The topic of this interdisciplinary programme at mdw, however, guides the ways in which these musics should be approached by suggesting certain methodologies and theories. This call draws from emerging recent discourses which are reflected in the title. From an ethnomusicological perspective these terms could be interpreted in the following way:

Materiality could be seen in connection with embodiment and racial discourses, such as Minette Mans suggests in her article “The Changing Body in Southern Africa — A Perspective from Ethnomusicology” (Mans 2004). She draws from Radano and Bohlman’s racial discourses in music, a crucial publication on the topic. In their introduction they argue why the connection is so inevitable: “Race lives in the house of music because music is so saturated with racial stuff...” (Radano & Bohlman, 2000, p. 1). An article in this book by Deborah Wong discusses Roma music using the striking image of a community that is denied the right to be human: “The injury of race renders the Gypsy less than human” (Wong 2000:65). In the same text she writes:

The musicians who specialize in instrumental music [in Greece] are in fact Gypsies—not Greek, deeply Other—referred to by the Greek townspeople not as “the musicians” but as “the drums” or “the instruments.” In continuous dynamic interaction with the male dancers, these musicians are essential but held at arm’s length, necessary but despised (Wong 2000, 64).

This quotation points to another possible angle for understanding materiality and matter: “the relationship between discursive practices and material phenomena” (Barad 2003:818). Music and dance—sound and movement—create social and cultural meaning. Thus, a focus on “material constraints and exclusions” (Barad 2003:822) enables a stimulating understanding of human bodies and the “things” we make music with as discursive matter in its “ongoing historicity” (Barad 2003:821).

Knowings points to the many different knowledges that exist. By doing fieldwork in diverse communities, ethnomusicologists encounter many forms of knowledge, obviously differing from the hegemonic Western academic definition. To acknowledge these “knowledges” as equal and legitimate should be a guiding principle of the discipline. A meeting of knowledges as Carvalho (2018) suggests for university teaching by including “masters” from indigenous communities in Brazil in university staff is another level of decolonized knowledge production.  

Writing a dissertation is, of course, one way of knowledge production, following certain rules of academic integrity. The latest developments in ethnomusicology make a strong plea for  dialogical knowledge production (such as, for example, Samuel Araujo).

In this respect, the methodology of ethnomusicology is specific due to the double nature of its field: working with both people and their music in order to understand and produce knowledge. We see fieldwork as a process of involving different knowledges: those of the research partners as well as those of the researchers. In a collaborative approach all actors involved express their expectations from the research and what they are willing to contribute. The objective of these approaches is the blurring and ultimately dissolution of the elitist distinction between researchers and research “objects”. Following this line of thought, logically engaged ethnomusicology should also be considered to be a guiding principle of research: scholarship in close collaboration with activists and communities centered on oppressed and marginalized knowledge and giving it the same value that is attached to dominant and privileged knowledge.

Musical practice can be defined in many ways. The term “musicking” (Small 1998) seems to be very useful, as it means the engagement with music and dance as performative acts and is broad enough to cover the phenomena ethnomusicology is dealing with.

As I mentioned at the beginning, it is music in social context that we are looking at. Musical practice thus refers to a fundamental characteristic of ethnomusicology that does not investigate music and dance as mere text, nor merely from a history-related or style-related perspective, but views music and dance as human practice, particularly implying interpersonal relationships in fieldwork.

Needless to say that we are looking at contemporary phenomena of music, as fieldwork is involved here. This does not mean that historical awareness is neglected.

I will name just a few areas and topics of research that could be interesting (always involving musicking of course):

Music and/or dance in certain segments of a geographical area, like for example specific urban centres.

Music and/or dance and certain communities who identify themselves as “ethnic”, social, or by other markers.
Certain music and/or dance styles: how is this music/dance used, what meaning does it have for the people involved, what are the characteristics that make it attractive.
Music and politics: certain contemporary rituals and music involved, like for example political demonstrations.


Araujo, Samuel. 2019. Music, Research and Public Interest. A Dialogical Praxis for Social Justice. In print

Barad, Karen. 2003. “Posthumanist Performativity: Toward an Understanding of How Matter Comes to Matter.” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 28, no. 3: 801-831.

De Carvalho, Jose Jorge. 2019. Transculturality and the Meeting of Knowledges. In: Transkulturelle Erkundungen. Wissenschaftlich-künstlerische Perspektiven (eds. Ursula Hemetek Wien: Böhlau, 79-94

Mans, Minette. 2004. The Changing Body in Southern Africa – A Perspective from Ethnomusicology. In: Knowing Bodies, Moving Minds (ed. Liora Bresler), Kluwer Academic Publishers 77-96

Nettl, Bruno. 2005. The Study of Ethnomusicology. Thirty-One Issues and Concepts. Urbana and Chicago: Univ. of Illinois Press.

Radano, Ronald and Philip Bohlman (eds.) 2000. Music and the Racial Imagination. . Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press.

Small, Christopher. 1998. Musicking: The Meanings of Performing and Listening Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press

Wong, Deborah. 2000. “The Asian American Body in Performance.” In Music and the Racial Imagination, edited by Ronald Radano and Philip Bohlman, 57–94. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press.