UNIV 203

Cross-Cultural Studies in Music: Ethnomusicology in the 21st century

Hugh Blackmer


Catalogue description:

This course will explore the intersection of the disciplines of anthropology and ethnomusicology with the technologies of sound reproduction and ubiquitous computing. Students will use multimedia resources to investigate music as cultural expression in selected societies, and will undertake analytical projects in areas of geographical or topical interest.

Music is a human universal: all cultures make and value music, and a substantial minority in any society think of themselves as musicians. Although musicologists and students of society attend to different modalities in the study of music, they can agree that music is a domain of Information, and a potent medium for delivery of narrative and expressive content, accompanying and underwriting a vast array of culturally significant events, including weddings, funerals, mating rituals, sports, wars, and political movements. The musical genres in which people participate reflect, and may even define, their social and temporal subcultural identities.

In anthropology and ethnomusicology, technologies of sound recording (along with photography and cinematography) made possible the capture, storage, and replay of ephemeral moments of cultural expression, including the musics of the world's peoples. Throughout the last century there has been a fruitful tension between music as academic subject and music as commercial product, and from the very first recordings, sound reproduction technologies have fed mass media channels that commodify and distribute sound and images to growing (and now global) markets. The genres now found under the "world music" rubric offer one window into the contemporary intersection of academic and commercial interests.

21st century developments in digital encoding and broadband access change the accessibility of archived music of the past, and offer global audiences a greatly enhanced palette of sounds and messages. Synthesizer and sampling technologies allow the repurposing of sonic resources, and styles and genres of music continue to bend and blend, as the younger generation of musicians creates new musics from the enhanced palette. Local traditions and regional styles continue to develop, and the supply of virtuoso performers continues to enrich and extend traditional forms and genres.

The study of the interaction of mainstream Western musics with exotic strains of "other peoples' musics" can be undertaken from many perspectives, including social, cultural, political, and economic as well as musicological. It is these emergent complexities --the chronotopes and architectonics of music-- that make this arena interesting as a subject for undergraduate exploration, and especially appropriate to a University Scholars course.

The primary emphasis will be on musics that are not (usually) written --'folk', 'popular', improvised, and generally not primarily produced for or subsidized by elite audiences.

The course will require students to listen to examples from a broad range of musical traditions and styles, to read widely in materials on background to traditions and emerging genres, and to explore technologies for analysis and manipulation of music as a form of information. The course will also include consideration of the politics, economics, and ethics of creation and distribution of music.

I draw upon more than 30 years of study, collecting, and teaching in this subject area, and will base the course in my own library of recordings, readings, instruments and video resources, augmented by the now-plentiful resources of the Internet and the holdings of Leyburn Library.

Further details (including bibliography and a general outline of topics and musical genres) can be found here


The content of the course places it squarely in GE6:

Students will acquire knowledge about human beings and their economic, political and social institutions; become familiar with the analytical skills employed in any one of these disciplines; and acquire knowledge useful in discussing and evaluating anthropological, economic, political, psychological and sociological issues.