Ecology and Ethno/musicology: The Metaphorical, the Representational, and the Literal

By Marc Perlman


Ecology, which has long functioned as a metaphor in musical scholarship, seems to be becoming a focus of attention in its own right. Advocates for threatened musical traditions frequently compare them to threatened species, urging us to protect the musical ecosystem. Now, however, scholars are beginning to investigate the connections between music and the world’s actual ecosystem, both to broaden the reach of musical scholarship and to recruit it into the environmentalist cause.

In this short essay I will briefly discuss a few of the links scholars are tracing between music and ecological phenomena. While my intentions are primarily descriptive rather than analytical, and my focus is on the state of existing scholarship rather than the trajectory of future studies, I will also note some paths not taken and some promising new developments.


The State of the Art: Ecology as Metaphor

Since at least the 1970s, scholars concerned about a possible decline in the diversity of the world’s musical traditions have drawn an analogy with biology. Just as ecologists argue that biodiversity increases the robustness of an ecosystem, we have argued that musical diversity will strengthen human culture, rendering it less vulnerable to future threats. Alan Lomax was, if not the first, then surely the best-known of the early exponents of this view. As he wrote (Lomax 1972:4-5):

… each communicative system (whether verbal, visual, musical, or even culinary) … is a treasure of unknown potential, a collective creation in which some branch of the human species invested its genius across the centuries. With the loss of each of these systems, the human species not only loses a way of viewing, thinking and feeling but also a way of adjusting to some zone on the planet which fits it and makes it livable. In addition we lose a system of interaction, of fantasy and symbolizing which, in the future, the human race may sorely need.

This analogy has itself been quite successful in the cognitive struggle for existence: it has surfaced regularly in the decades since Lomax wrote,1 and has blossomed again in the recent concern for “sustainable music” (Titon 2009a:6): “… just as the argument for species conservation is made on the grounds of the future, unforeseen advantages of biodiversity, the utilitarian argument [for supporting a variety of musical traditions] may be made in terms of cultural diversity.”2

To my knowledge, no one has explained exactly what “future, unforeseen advantages” musical diversity might provide. Granted, by hypothesis we are dealing with unforeseeable threats, so how could anyone foresee how musical diversity will save us from them? Yet ecologists have not been content to wager the earth’s future on possible but unspecifiable advantages, and they are making a great deal of progress in understanding what biodiversity can and cannot do. On one hand, we appreciate the value of intraspecies diversity: it has long been known that the genetic uniformity of many major crops leaves them vulnerable to epidemics, hence we do well to maintain a diverse gene pool “to be thrown into the breach as needed” (Vulnerability 1972:2). On the other hand, we are learning to appreciate interspecies diversity: for example, scientists recently discovered that diverse communities of plants or algae are more efficient at extracting nutrients from soil or water than are more homogeneous communities. Ecologists are trying to quantify these effects in order to estimate how much biodiversity must be preserved to maintain any given ecological function (Cardinale et al 2011).

It is hard to imagine that we would ever have equally specific data on the benefits of musical diversity; still, Lomax’s assertion would be more convincing if we could point to a historical example, a moment when the existence of a great plurality of musical traditions has provided the human species with a way of “viewing, thinking and feeling,” a mode of adaptation to the environment, that has helped it survive.


Beyond Metaphor: Introducing Ecomusicology

The ecology metaphor used in the ethno/musicological discourse of the late 20th century was rarely elaborated beyond the simple juxtaposition of species diversity with musical diversity. It was not until the new millennium that music scholars began engaging with the subject of ecology in depth and in detail. Rather than using an ecological metaphor to argue for the preservation of musical diversity, we are increasingly asking what music can tell us about the natural environment (and vice versa).

Of course, interest in the environment is hardly unprecedented in the musical disciplines. Indeed, it is well known in ethnomusicology through the work of Steven Feld. Feld went to Papua New Guinea to discover “how the ecology of natural sounds is central to a local musical ecology” (Feld 1994:10). His work with the Kaluli revealed a music-culture sensitive to “the sensuality of soundscape” (1994:13), finding inspiration in the “pattern of sounding in the natural environment” (1994:12), and basing its musical conceptualizations on natural phenomena. But while Feld’s “anthropology of sound” embraces the environmental as well as the human, it focuses on the sonic environment: the link between the natural and the cultural is made through sound. To that extent it is in the tradition of R. Murray Schafer’s soundscape project, which combines appreciation for environmental sound (and opposition to noise pollution) with human musical creativity.

Today scholars are starting to seek other connections between music and natural phenomena, connections that don’t necessarily privilege the environment’s audible aspects. This new way of thinking about the environment can’t really be considered as a movement, with a plan of action and a manifesto. It is more like a popular uprising, springing up here and there in both musicology and ethnomusicology.

Consequently it embraces a very heterogeneous mix of approaches. For some, it is a continuation of the study of music and place (where ‘place’ refers to both the natural and built environments); for others, it is the latest stage of ideology critique (Rehding 2002). This heterogeneity is perhaps reflected in the absence of a universally-recognized name: different writers refer to “ecocriticism,” “green scholarship,” “musical ecology,” “acoustemology,” “ecocritical musicology,” “environmental ethnomusicology,” and perhaps other terms. Without prejudice to any of them, I shall speak here of ecomusicology.

The spontaneous emergence of ecomusicology is doubtless part of a broader trend towards direct engagement with social problems. (Among the themes of recent conference panels and publications we find “music and violence,” “music and HIV/AIDS,” “music and sustainability,” “music and healing,” “music and 9/11,” “music and disability,” and others.) And it has also been inspired by the development of ecocriticism in literary studies, a field that continues to maintain the role of intellectual trailblazer for the humanities it has held since at least the days of Structuralism.

Insofar as ecomusicology is a response to pressing social problems, it will naturally bear a certain sense of mission, and many scholars have doubtless been drawn to it by their commitment to environmentalism. Just as ecocriticism has been motivated by more than purely intellectual curiosity, ecomusicology seems also to be a way we can give expression to our concerns about the present and future state of Earth’s ecosystem.3 Consequently, distinguishing ‘theoretical’ or ‘descriptive’ ecomusicology from ‘applied’ ecomusicology may be more difficult than making the corresponding distinctions in musicology or ethnomusicology. In some cases our work might have direct relevance to environmental problems, in other cases the relevance could be very indirect, or indeed conjectural; but I suspect that in most cases our ultimate concerns are environmentalist ones.

I have already intimated that ecomusicological scholarship is too diverse to fit under a single rubric. Its raison d’être has been described in a variety of (not necessarily incompatible) ways. Some of its proponents see ecology as of service to musicology, helping to wean it from its reliance on certain parochial assumptions (e.g. “absolute music,” Kantian aesthetics, the romantic conception of the musical work; Rehding 2002:315, 320). Others, starting with the premise that “the environmental crisis is a failure of culture,” advance the idea that the musical disciplines can help in “understanding and addressing this crisis of culture” (Allen 2011:414). Ecomusicology has also been praised for its methodological value: music scholarship is claimed to be a useful way to train activists in ecological thinking (thinking “in connected ways that follow and allow for complex interdependencies”; Allen 2012). I don’t want to dwell on these programmatic statements, however, since I want to focus on actually existing ecomusicology, on its accomplishments rather than its aspirations. I will therefore concentrate on specific examples of ecomusicological scholarship—in particular, those that treat the relationship between musical texts (or practices) and the natural environment as one of representation.


Ecologies Represented

I have chosen three case studies, each of which employs what is arguably the central humanist method: cultural interpretation, i.e. the reading and contextualizing of values, practices, or artifacts (such as literary or musical texts). Ecomusicological readings could show how natural phenomena are represented musically in different cultures or eras. On a more abstract level, they could help disclose how the concept of nature functions in the ideological underpinning of a music-culture.

My first example, by Brooks Toliver, is a close reading of Ferde Grofé’s 1931 tone poem, the Grand Canyon Suite. This musical portrait of a wilderness preserve, according to Toliver, displays an attitude of reverent appreciation for unspoiled nature, but also betrays the intent to dominate it: “the fantasy of a wilderness seemingly enhanced, rather than diminished, by the act of controlling it” (2004:340). Toliver finds subtle reminders of human presence in the music’s reflexivity and its evocations of human artifice (e.g. a cowboy song; a music box, represented by the celeste), and hears the domestication of nature in the first-movement dialogue between a canyon wren and a man, in which the song fragments of the former are assembled into melodies by the latter—melodies which the bird then imitates. The suite ends with the triumph of the human, as the cowboy melody from the third movement reappears in a brass fanfare (2004:346, 355).

For Toliver, these hints of conquest amidst the celebration of untrammeled nature not only reveal Grofé’s “complicated stance in regard to wilderness,” but also an ambivalence that was shared by his contemporaries (2004:330). They admired both the wilderness and the rapidly growing industrial forces that would tame it. They were in awe of the sublime vastness of the Grand Canyon just as they were carefully delineating it on maps and drawing up management plans for its wildness (2004:359).

My second example, an article by Nancy Guy about Taiwan’s Tamsui River (2009) also takes an interpretive approach. In the early 20th century, the river provided much recreation for the community (boating, fishing, swimming), and its banks, surrounded by verdant hills, were a favorite spot for romantic rendezvous and scenic walks. Later in the century it fell victim to Taiwan’s “economic miracle,” as untreated human waste, and industrial and agricultural chemicals were dumped into it. Despite various cleanup attempts, the Tamsui remains polluted.

Considering over a dozen songs about the river from 1932 to the present, Guy reads them as traces of the “Taiwanese environmental imagination” (2009:220), documents of the affective ties binding the people to the river. The early songs associate the Tamsui with romance; many of them are about longing and unrequited love. They are filled with descriptions of scenery and first-person sensory images (feeling the mist and rain, seeing the flowers and moonlight, listening to the flowing water). By the 1990s, songs of unsuccessful love still mention the river, but the descriptions of scenery and the sense images have mostly vanished. Meanwhile, however, along with Taiwan’s nascent environmental movement in the early 1980s, songwriters started taking up pollution as a theme, and several of them portray the Tamsui as horribly violated: instead of praise for the beautiful landscape, we now have mock paeans to floating trash or the smoke of a garbage incinerator (2009:233).

Toliver’s and Guy’s subjects contrast along several dimensions (single work/composer, synchronic perspective, untexted instrumental music vs. multiple works/composers, diachronic perspective, songs with lyrics). But both are comparable in that they present, and contextualize, readings of particular compositions. Juxtaposing them as I have also brings out a theme latent in each: the historical and cultural specificity of conceptions of the environment.

It is perhaps not entirely coincidental that Toliver’s American case study concerns a wilderness preserve, while Guy’s Taiwanese example is of a river traversing a landscape that has been heavily settled for centuries. As numerous writers have observed, the idea of untouched wilderness—Nature standing apart from Man—has been very important in American history, due in part to the role of the frontier in the American imaginary (e.g. Cronon 1995). By contrast, in Chinese cosmologies a recurrent theme is that “there is no fundamental distinction between the human and physical worlds, or between culture and nature” (Weller 2006:40). While a typical Western landscape painting shows nature in its solitary splendor, the typical Chinese landscape included human figures, if only small, unobtrusive ones (2006:22). Thus it is possible that the traces of humanity Toliver hears in the Grand Canyon Suite would seem anomalous only to a specifically American environmentalist ear.

Though neither Toliver nor Guy calls attention to the particular conceptions of nature relevant to their analyses, this is precisely what my next example does. Like my first two examples, it interprets a musical composition; but it also goes further, ‘reading’ an entire genre. And while it is primarily a contribution to scholarship, it explicitly calls attention to the political implications of its findings.

Ramnarine (2009) focuses on a type of singing practiced by the Saami (Sámi), known as joik (pronounced ‘yoik’).4 But it is not so much the joik repertoire as the Saami conception of the joik on which she concentrates. “To joik” is used as a transitive verb that requires a direct object: one does not joik about something, one joiks the thing itself. (Most anything can be joiked—the aurora borealis, a snowmobile—but most commonly the object is a living creature: animals, and especially humans.) A person’s joik is not (or not only) a musical description of the person, but serves to invoke or evoke him or her: the performance of the joik seems to somehow implicate the presence of the person.

This attitude of non-duality between music and person also applies to the relations between persons and animals. Ramnarine (2009:209) quotes Ande Somby, an expert on joik, to illustrate this point:

It is not easy even for the trained ear to hear the differences between an animal’s yoik, a landscape’s yoik or a person's yoik. That perhaps emphasises that you don’t differ so much between the human-creature, the animal-creature and the landscape-creature as you regularly do in a western European context.

Ramnarine also finds this attitude exemplified musically in a recent joik-based composition, Nils-Aslak Valkeapää's Bird Symphony. This hour-long work starts with thirty minutes of natural sounds (wind, water, birdsong) before the first human sound (a brief joik) is heard.

The sense of human/nature relations that Ramnarine foregrounds is utterly unlike the American conception I mentioned earlier (for which nature is truly nature only when it is entirely separate from the human). She is also at pains to distinguish the Saami view of the human and the natural from superficially similar views that have been reported in the literature. “This is not sound as mediation between people and environments, to which acoustic ecology alerts us, but a different understanding of the environment in which humans are a part” (2009:205). It is even distinct from the Kaluli view, at least as it is portrayed by Feld, who demonstrates “how an ecosystem shapes human musical concepts and creativities” (2009:205). It is not a matter of the relationship between sound and environment: rather, “the joiker, the joiked, and the joik are one and the same.” In the Saami universe, “human musical expression is an aspect of a sonic ecosystem” (2009:205).

Ramnarine’s description of this remarkable musical universe is interesting in itself, but she clearly intends it to be more than just a contribution to scholarship. She feels that these “Nordic Arctic acoustemologies” also offer us “important perspectives on environmental issues” (2009:192) by “critiquing perceptions of nature as removed from humans” (2009:209). She hopes that they might “generate new understandings of nature-human relations” (2009:189), leading perhaps to “a politics of understanding an environment that is not external to the human agent” (2009:212).

Thus Ramnarine goes beyond description and interpretation to suggest why we should pay attention to the musical world of the Saami: because it embodies an exemplary understanding of the place of the human in nature, an understanding from which we can and should learn. The intent behind this article is not simply to contribute to our general stock of knowledge, then, but also to point the way to a new social consciousness and politics.

Admittedly, this call to action is neither foregrounded nor explained in detail. It is perhaps unfair, then, for us to dwell too long on it; but it would be a shame to ignore it, since in contemplating a possible use for her ecomusicological research, Ramnarine may be making explicit what other scholars leave implicit. It’s worth our while to pause briefly here and ask what, exactly, such a use could be.

Ramnarine’s article invites us to view the Saami as bringing to the music-making act a sense of non-separation between music, performer, and the natural world.5 While she does not specify exactly what positive moral, social, and political effects flow from this outlook, Ande Somby (quoted above) explains the moral psychology of this feeling of connection (2009:209):

Your behaviour will therefore maybe be more inclusive towards animals and landscapes. In some respects this also emphasises that we can have ethical spheres not just towards fellow humans but also to our fellow earth and our fellow animals. Can you own some of your fellows?

Let us pause for a moment to consider the ethic of care for nature expressed in this quotation in the light of Alan Lomax’s call for “cultural equity” with which I began. It would seem that the consciousness of non-separation embodied in the Saami joik is a way of “viewing, thinking and feeling,” a system of “interaction,” “fantasy and symbolizing,” of the type Lomax was afraid of losing: a “treasure of unknown potential … which, in the future, the human race may sorely need.”

But assuming for the sake of discussion that this is so, what did Lomax expect us to do with this treasure? How are we to unlock its potential? Presumably the feeling of kinship with the earth and other living creatures that Somby expresses would revolutionize politics if it were felt by all people of all nations. But how can the joik tradition plant that feeling of kinship in their hearts? Surely it wouldn’t be enough for them to simply listen to a joik? Suppose, then, that they were to learn to joik themselves? Or would it be enough for them to understand what the joik means to the Saami, even if they themselves couldn’t appreciate joik in the same way—for example, would it be enough for them to read Ramnarine’s article?6

It is no doubt unrealistic to expect ecomusicology to spell out precisely how it can aid the environmentalist cause when it is still in the process of being born. After all, scholars can’t always foresee the most productive applications of their ideas. Ecomusicological findings might possibly recruit music-lovers to the environmentalist cause, or inspire them when they become discouraged. But beyond that, it’s not at all clear what the activist implications of ecomusicology might be.


Beyond Representation

In my mini-survey of publications in ecomusicology above, I focused on cultural interpretations of musical texts and practices. But interpretation is not the sole ecomusicological method; there are other, more concrete ways of tracing the connections between music and ecology. I am by no means suggesting that we have had enough interpretation and can now dispense with it. It is only in the interest of letting a thousand methodologies bloom that I end this essay with another type of connection between music and the environment: the musical instruments made from plant or animal substances.

There are in fact scholars who have been studying the effects of ecological change on instrument-making (and vice versa). I excluded their fascinating and important work from my survey solely because (the contingencies of publishing being what they are) their writings are only just beginning to appear in print (e.g. Allen 2012; Dawe 2010, 2011; Post 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011). Were I to preview them here in any detail I would be “stealing a jump” on these scholars by discussing their material before they had a chance to represent themselves.

These studies will add a crucial new item to the ecomusicological agenda. The study of musical instruments is a well-established field—organology—with many distinguished practitioners. In their monographs one can find scattered references to natural materials once used in instrument construction but now unavailable. (If the pace of environmental degradation accelerates, these references may multiply.) But to my knowledge the ecological impact on instrument-making has not been addressed comprehensively, as a distinct topic, nor do we have a census of materials that have fallen victim (or may soon succumb) to environmental pressures. Documenting the effect of these pressures on instrument construction will take us to surprising places (the history of communal forestry, the stratagems of smugglers, the minutiae of international trade regulations). The scope of the topic is as wide as the reach of ecological deterioration itself, which (unfortunately) is global.

But the stories are not all grim. They also feature resourceful builders who devise ingenious makeshifts, or who have become activists themselves to protect the materials on which their livelihoods depend. We need to uncover these stories and publicize them (as appropriate). By doing so we will not only contribute to ecomusicological scholarship, making it more diverse and relevant; we will be building a record of challenges, experiences, successes and failures from which future generations of activists may draw insight or inspiration.7



Allen, Aaron S. 2011. “Prospects and Problems for Ecomusicology in Confronting a Crisis of Culture.” Journal of the American Musicological Society 64(2):414-424.

---------- 2012. “Ecomusicology: Bridging the Sciences, Arts, and Humanities.” Pp. 373-381 in Environmental Leadership: A Reference Handbook. SAGE.

---------- ‘Fatto di Fiemme’: Stradivari’s Violins and the Musical Trees of the Paneveggio.” Pp. 301-315 in Laura Auricchio, Elizabeth Heckendorn Cook, and Giulia Pacini (eds.), Invaluable Trees: Cultures of Nature, 1660-1830 Oxford: Voltaire Foundation.

Cardinale, Bradley J., Kristin L. Matulich, David U. Hooper, Jarrett E. Byrnes, Emmett Duffy, Lars Gamfeldt, Patricia Balvanera, Mary I. O’Connor, and Andrew Gonzalez. 2011. “The Functional Role of Producer Diversity in Ecosystems.” American Journal of Botany 98(3): 572–592.

Cronon, William. 1995. “The Trouble with Wilderness; or, Getting Back to the Wrong Nature.” Pp. 69-90 in W. Cronon (ed.), Uncommon Ground: Rethinking the Human Place in Nature. New York: W. W. Norton & Co.

Dawe, Kevin. 2010. The New Guitarscape in Critical Theory, Cultural Practice, and Musical Performance. Farnham, Surrey: Ashgate.

---------- 2011. “The Green Guitar: Ecology and Criticism in a Study of Global Lutherie.” Presented to the conference “Listening For a Change: Environment, Music, Action.” British Forum for Ethnomusicology and Institue of Music Research, London. 5 November 2011.

Feld, Steven. 1994. “From Ethnomusicology to Echo-muse-ecology: Reading R. Murray Schafer in the Papua New Guinea Rainforest.” Soundscape Newsletter 8:9-13 (June).

Garfias, Robert. 1982. “Looking to the Future of World Music.” Asian Music 14(1):1-8.

Guy, Nancy. 2009. "Flowing down Taiwan's Tamsui River: Towards an Ecomusicology of the Environmental Imagination." Ethnomusicology 53(2):218-48.

Keesing, Roger M. 1985. “Conventional Metaphors and Anthropological Metaphysics: The Problematic of Cultural Translation.” Journal of Anthropological Research 41(2):201-217.

Lomax, Alan. 1972. “Appeal for Cultural Equity.” World of Music 14(2):3-17.

Post, Jennifer. 2008. “Instruments for Local, National and Global Consumption: Musical Instrument Making in South and Central Asia.” MS.

--------- 2009. “Land Management, Musical Instrument Construction, and Evolving Local Sounds: Ecology and Instrument-Making Industries in South, East, and Central Asia.” Presented to the annual meeting of the Society for Ethnomusicology, Mexico City.

---------- 2010. “Ecological Change and Musical Instrument Construction in the Turkic World.” MS.

--------- 2011. “Sharing Rosewood, Smuggling Ivory: The Global and Local Politics of Resource Use and Distribution in Musical Instrument Making.” Presented to the Centre for Music Studies Research Seminar, City University, London. 9 November 2011.

Ramnarine, Tina K. 2009. “Acoustemology, Indigeneity and Joik in Valkeapää’s Symphonic Activism: Views from Europe’s Arctic Fringes for Environmental Ethnomusicology.” Ethnomusicology 53(2):187-217.

Rehding, Alexander. 2002. “Eco-Musicology.” Journal of the Royal Musical Association 127(2):305-320.

Titon, Jeff Todd. 2009a. “Economy, Ecology, and Music: An Introduction.” World of Music 51(1):5-15.

---------- 2009b. “Music and Sustainability: An Ecological Viewpoint.” World of Music 51(1):119-137.

Toliver, Brooks. 2004. “Eco-ing in the Canyon: Ferde Grofé's Grand Canyon Suite and the Transformation of Wilderness.” Journal of the American Musicological Society 57(2):325-368.

Vulnerability. 1972. Genetic Vulnerability of Major Crops. Report of the Committee on Genetic Vulnerability of Major Crops, Agricultural Board, Division of Biology and Agriculture, National Research Council. Washington, DC: National Academy of Sciences.

Weller, Robert P. 2006. Discovering Nature: Globalization and Environmental Culture in China and Taiwan. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


1 E.g. cf. Garfias (1982:8): Perhaps we need to concern ourselves with the growing uniformity which is affecting both language and music … The very stability and health of the species may be linked to this disappearing diversity.

2 This is not the only analogy that could be drawn between ecology and music. For example, based on the shift in ecology from a focus on individual species to a “holistic” approach to entire habitats, one could argue that we should aim to sustain musical traditions by addressing the conditions under which people make music (Titon 2009b:129). 

3 While it’s possible that some might take up ecomusicology simply as an intellectual challenge, or to position themselves in the academic spotlight for reasons of career advancement, the ecomusicologists I have met strike me as committed environmentalists.

4 As I do not have enough space to do justice to Ramnarine’s rich article, I have chosen to summarize only those aspects of it most relevant to my larger themes. This has unfortunately meant that the central figure in her article, Nils-Aslak Valkeapää, appears to play only a supporting role.

5 In a thorough treatment of this question, we would not, of course, want to refer to “the Saami” as if a single attitude or profile could be attributed to all members of the group. We would also want to know if the explicit verbal formulations Ramnarine quotes correspond to feelings that are widely shared, even if unexpressed, or if they represent the “personal synthesis or extrapolation” of an individual Saami “folk philosopher” (Keesing 1985:202). But for the purposes of the current discussion we can ignore these considerations: if this non-differentiated Saami outlook is valuable in itself, it should not matter to us how few or many Sammi subscribe to it.

6 If the answer to this last question is “yes,” it would seem that the maintenance of joik as a living tradition is not necessary for the attitude of non-separation within it to benefit humanity!

7 I am grateful to Aaron Allen for the invitation that occasioned this essay—an essay about a subject on which I would not otherwise have written. I also thank him along with Jennifer Post and Kevin Dawe for allowing me access to their unpublished writings.


[Our Sounding Board post this week comes from the Ecomusicology Newsletter's archive; this article originally appeared in the October 2012 issue of that publication (Vol. 1, Issue 2).]


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