January 26, 2023
Ithaca, NY | 29°F


Ethnomusicology adds new dimension to academia

The Anthropology of Music and the World Music Labs are two courses in the area of ethnomusicology (the study and practice of all musics) now offered in anthropology at Ithaca College. The newly created World Music Labs, based on experiential learning of music in culture focus primarily on Hindustani (north Indian) percussion where students become apprentices in the art of global tabla. These courses have been made possible by the support of the dean, the School of Humanities and Sciences and the Office of the Provost through the purchase of world percussion instruments. Developing The Anthropology of Music at the college has been a delight as it has also given me a chance to work with colleagues in the School of Music.

Ethnomusicologists study culture through music and sound. An ethnomusicological perspective is inherently interdisciplinary, drawing from the fields of musicology, anthropology, sociology, cultural studies, linguistics and elsewhere in order to examine the powerful connections between music and politics, economics, gender, identity, religion or spirituality, and aesthetics. Of central concern to our field are the questions: How do peoples everywhere discuss, create and give meaning to sound? What does it mean to “think” musically? What constitutes the everyday categories of music that we “live by” such as world music, ethnic music or others?  The larger Ithacan community provides a musically diverse, sophisticated world for the students to explore and answer such questions.

The ethnomusicology courses have had an overwhelming response from students across the campus. The Anthropology of Music speaks to us as members of the global community, whether our interest is in making films, creating ethnographies, teaching diversity or simply wanting to know more about ourselves and others through, by and with music. Ethnomusicology offers students an opportunity to experience, firsthand, the ways other cultures appreciate, make and listen to music and sound. In the study of anthropology of sound, we realize that the senses are ordered in unique ways in every cultural system.

While students in The Anthropology of Music think about and discuss issues such as these, Music Lab allows for the development of non-traditional ways of learning and teaching alongside our more conventional North American model. The labs focus on teaching Indian tabla and rhythms through oral tradition, requiring students to learn by doing. Here they must re-habituate their lifestyles to sit cross-legged on the floor, attempt to “catch” the rhythms and compositions without textual assistance so that they focus on what the hands of the teacher are doing and the sounds they should be imitating.

Pedagogically these classes allow for a meeting between traditional scholarly practices of the West and the nontraditional methods based in experiential learning. I view the music labs as anthropological “field sites” where students must learn to embody the art form as much as possible in the way it is taught in India as well as take exams (performance and textually based) and write papers on the content of the course and music theory in the Hindustani system. As one of the most complex, sophisticated percussion instruments in the world today, taking up the practice of tabla requires a significant commitment to the art form and to the cultural system from which it emerges.

I am pleased with the progress of my students, their patience and passion for learning tabla, and their ability to play through the pain of sitting on the floor for the past few months. And while not all ethnomusicologists learn to perform the art forms they study, these students are attempting to get as much as they can in this short course, and in my opinion, this makes them exceptional students.

Denise Nuttall is an assistant professor of anthropology. E-mail her at dnuttall@ithaca.edu.

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