The Relevancy of Ethnomusicology to
the Study of British Folk Music
Ethnomusicology has an image problem. Insofar as anyone has heard of ethnomusicologists at all, there is a fairly common feeling (and not unjustified, bearing in mind what ethnomusicologists collectively seem to do) that ethnomusicology is, exclusively, the study of non-Western musics. Actually, this isn't so. Ethnomusicologists study Western traditions also, albeit not in huge numbers in Britain – but even here, our sparseness in the study of local traditions is probably no more marked than our sparseness in the study of overseas traditions. (There are just two British ethnomusicologists who work on Chinese music, for instance, which means that we have something like 1/8 of the world's population each; I'm happy to let the other chap take on most of these.) As we shall see below, and although the international connections are important, where ethnomusicology differs from the other fields of music studies – and where it may offer ideas of potential utility to those studying British folk traditions – is not really a function of geographical scope at all.
Sometimes, the term ethnomusicology itself is perceived as pretentious. On a practical level, there seem too many syllables, an apt reminder of the word-spinning so enjoyed by us impractical academics, perhaps. Then there are those who sense in this term the essence of something unsavourily colonialist (that E-word prefix). In fact, and as far as I know, the original intention underlying the coining of this word was neither overly academic (quite the contrary, as we shall see in a moment) nor pejorative – this was not supposed to be the science of the sounds of 'ethnics'.
Instead, those who proposed and adopted this term (in preference to comparative musicology, which seemed to over-emphasize external comparison) in the early 1950s came from a background where several composite ethno-words were already in use: ethnopoetics,ethnomedicine, ethnohistory, etc ... The point of all these terms was that the investigator sought to understand the topic from the perspective of the native 'informant'. The ethnomusicologist was as interested in, say, an Egyptian's 'musicology' - i.e., his explanations and understandings of music - as in his music itself. Adoption of the term signalled a departure from previous research, where it had often been assumed that there was no native theory. The comparative musicologist (or at least his caricature) had simply (or not so simply,when we think of old recording technology) remained in his laboratory where he amassed an archive of wax cylinders and the like. Sitting down (in an armchair, according to most stereotypes) he (less often, she) then wrote out the music and studied the resulting notation in order to produce theories about what was going on.
The ethnomusicologist, on the other hand, is himself (and more and more, herself) a collector as well as an analyst. The model of collection,...