What is ethnomusicology, and why does it matter

Peter MosaferiadisMusic of the world

Have you ever wondered why Beethoven’s Für Elise is often associated with romance, while Mozart music is often associated with intellect? Why do so many countries decide to establish national anthems?

Ethnomusicology studies ‘how people make and experience music’ (Bakan, 2015, p.117), and on the flip side, aims ‘to understand humanity through our musicality’ (Rice, 2013, p. 1). At the same time, it studies how musical tones and the music-making process differ across the world (Rice, 2013, p.10).

Today, ethnomusicologists are applying their findings to improve multiple facets of modern society.

For example, Croatian ethnomusicologist Svanibor Pettan has been pioneering programmes to bridge cultural differences between native Norwegians and Bosnian war refugees since 1994 in a project named Azra. In the project, Bosnian and Norwegian musicians teamed up to perform music for an audience that is composed of both Bosnians and Norwegians. Lectures were also held in a university to inform the native Norwegian population of the specifics of Bosnian culture and music. These cultural programmes help foster a sense of intercultural understanding and partnership among groups of people with different cultural identities (Pettan, 2008).

In another study, Florida State University ethnomusicology professor Michael Bakan (2015) and his colleagues looked into the potential of world instruments in addressing Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD). This study involved a highly personalized program with five children diagnosed with autism spectrum conditions. During the study, the children, parents and staff musicians are invited to roam through a large area filled with percussion instruments that are sourced from a diverse set of cultural origins. Through this encounter, the researchers discovered that these children were able to connect with others better, and were able to transfer these skills to school environments and back to their homes.

Ethnomusicological knowledge can therefore help inform policy-makers and educators worldwide, potentially leading to solutions that address a wide variety of contemporary problems.



Bakan, M. (2015). “Don’t Go Changing to Try and Please Me”: Combating Essentialism through Ethnography in the Ethnomusicology of Autism. Ethnomusicology, 59(1), 116-144. doi:1. Retrieved on 1 Jun 2016 from JSTOR

Pettan, S. (2008). Applied Ethnomusicology and Empowerment Strategies: Views from across the Atlantic. Musicological Annual, special issue on applied ethnomusicology. Vol. 44, no. 1 (2008): 85-99.

Rice, T. (2013). Ethnomusicology : a very short introduction. New York : Oxford University Press, 2013.