Preview | Theory and Method in Historical Ethnomusicology by Jonathan McCollum and David G. Hebert (eds.)

The Ethnomusicology Review Sounding Board is pleased to offer an overview from Jonathan McCollum and David G. Hebert of their forthcoming edited volume Theory and Method in Historical Ethnomusicology (Rowman and Littlefield/Lexington Books).


Historical ethnomusicology is increasingly acknowledged as a significant emerging subfield of ethnomusicology due to the fact that historical research requires a different set of theories and methods than studies of contemporary practices, and many historiographic techniques are rapidly transforming as a result of new technologies. In 2005, Bruno Nettl observed that “the term ‘historical ethnomusicology’ has begun to appear in programs of conferences and in publications” (Nettl 2005, 274), and as recently as 2012 scholars similarly noted “an increasing concern with the writing of musical histories in ethnomusicology” (Ruskin and Rice 2012, 318). Relevant positions recently advanced by other authors include that historical musicologists are “all ethnomusicologists now” and that “all ethnomusicology is historical” (Stobart, 2008), yet we sense that such arguments —while useful, and theoretically correct—may ultimately distract from careful consideration of the kinds of contemporary theories and rigorous methods uniquely suited to historical inquiry in the field of music. In the forthcoming book Theory and Method in Historical Ethnomusicology (Rowman and Littlefield/Lexington Books), editors Jonathan McCollum and David Hebert, along with contributors Judah Cohen, Chris Goertzen, Keith Howard, Ann Lucas, Daniel Neuman, and Diane Thram systematically demonstrate various ways that new approaches to historiography­­­––and the related application of new technologies––impact the work of ethnomusicologists who seek to meaningfully represent music traditions across barriers of both time and space. Contributors specializing in historical musics of Armenia, Iran, India, Japan, southern Africa, American Jews, and southern fiddling traditions of the USA describe the opening of new theoretical approaches and methodologies for research on global music history. In the Foreword, Keith Howard offers his perspective on historical ethnomusicology and the importance of reconsidering theories and methods applicable to this field for the enhancement of musical understandings in the present and future.

In Chapter 1, “Introduction: Foundations for Historical Ethnomusicology,” Jonathan McCollum and David G. Hebert address both the scholarly agenda and foundations of the field of historical ethnomusicology via description of its antecedents and relations to other disciplines, as well as the historical contributions of notable scholars.

In Chapter 2, “Methodologies for Historical Ethnomusicology in the Twenty-First Century,” David G. Hebert and Jonathan McCollum discuss various methodologies of historical research in ethnomusicology. This chapter emphasizes two fundamental issues: 1) how the use of primary documents may corroborate or refute what traditional ethnography determines about the musical past from oral accounts and 2) how an array of data, including preexisting recordings of performances and interviews, notation manuscripts, newspaper articles, letters, and other primary sources held in archives enable the expansion of knowledge when robust analytical strategies are used. The discussion includes detailed comparison of approaches found in some prominent examples of both early and recent scholarship in historical ethnomusicology, and the chapter also discusses recent technological developments in the twenty-first century that transform the possibilities for research into the musical past, including for the development of comprehensive bibliographic and discographic reference works.

In Chapter 3, “Implications of Current Debates in Philosophy of History for the Study of Historical Ethnomusicology,” David G. Hebert and Jonathan McCollum discuss how historical ethnomusicology has been increasingly identified as a significant emerging subfield of ethnomusicology, and how its scholarship may be enriched through awareness of contemporary debates in the philosophy of history. They note that progressive historians are increasingly interested in rich accounts of the accumulation of data and evolution of its interpretations as opposed to direct assertions regarding past events. As music production and consumption have shifted to online digital distribution platforms, the quality and range of instantly accessible musical sounds, experiences and knowledge have rapidly altered worldwide, with profound implications for contemporary musicianship as well as research and pedagogy. It follows that moving from a critical to a speculative approach, the authors suggest humanity has recently transitioned from digital prehistory to an era of information saturation due to the popularization of social media and digital surveillance, and that some musicological analyses would therefore benefit from viewing music as data. Increasingly, records of music consumption and music-related discourse are captured and permanently stored, accessible via social media, both corporate and national security “data mining”, and hacking. Hebert and McCollum assert that in addition to enabling a robust reconsideration of practices associated with collection, storage, analysis (and leaking) of digital files, philosophy of history enables insights into how musicologists may more effectively respond to such challenges as the role of cognitive dissonance in cultural memory, and the teleological distortion of narrative schema. Finally, they call for wider discussion of ethical issues in the field, including judicious approaches to the exposure of inaccurate claims and unbalanced interpretations, issues of repatriation and cultural translation, and the extent to which both living and deceased musicians might be afforded certain rights to privacy in an age of global digitization, information saturation, and mass surveillance.

In Chapter 4, “Hearing Echoes, Sensing History: The Challenges of Musical Diaspora,” Judah M. Cohen begins by illustrating some highly personal and even visceral dimensions of historical understanding through rich autobiographical reflections. Upon introducing the concept of diaspora, Cohen identifies his focus: an investigation of interdiasporic discourse in the musical exchanges between two populations that represent classic paradigms for diaspora theory: Jews and the African diaspora. Cohen’s analysis covers examples from across a broad range of genres, from klezmer and folk music to even reggae and hip hop. Specifically, the cases in his discussion illustrate how Passover’s symbolic capital has been used in musical contexts to engender diverse forms of interdiasporic exploration: “one employs the holiday celebration itself as a platform for joint performance, a second takes the basis of the holiday as a conceptual starting point for broader exploration, and the third uses broader ‘meanings’ derived from the holiday to develop cross-diasporic themes for presentation.”

In Chapter 5, “Ancient Music, Modern Myth: Persian Music and the Pursuit of Methodology in Historical Ethnomusicology,” Ann Lucas discusses how both ethnomusicologists and Iranian musicologists hold up the system of traditional Iranian music that emerged in the twentieth century as an evolutionary product of music systems used by Persian-speaking people since at least the eleventh century. Indeed, much research produced in Iran over the past thirty years has focused on demonstrating exactly how the modern modal complexes known as dastgah evolved out of previous modal concepts used in the Middle East after the rise of Islam. Yet there is a temporal gap between the modern system of traditional Iranian music and the historic modality described in Persian treatises. This gap is marked by past musical systems’ complete dependence on predetermined modal structure, and traditional Iranian music’s application of modal structure after the original practice of the tradition was established at the turn of the twentieth century. The purpose of Lucas’s chapter is to demonstrate the modernity of modality in the contemporary practice of traditional Iranian music. Thus, this chapter explores how a strong synergy between modern Iranian nationalism and European Orientalism in the twentieth century led to a variety of different modal structures being superimposed onto traditional Iranian music in order to make this modern system of music fit with new notions of Iran’s perennial Persian history and past cultural glory. This situation demonstrates that Iranian modernity fostered its own forms of modality, and that far from being a meme from the musical past, these forms of modality were created by modern forces to meet the demands of the modern era.

In Chapter 6, “Analysis of Notation in Music Historiography: Armenian Nuematic Khaz from the Ninth through Early Twentieth Centuries,” Jonathan McCollum notes how the study of music from the past is challenging for a variety of reasons—namely the scarcity of information that we have about the music of the past and the challenges of recreating the past from what known documents and fragments that do exist. This chapter delves into the complexities of two aspects of historical ethnomusicology—analysis of notation in primary manuscripts and historiographic analysis of critical secondary resources. This chapter’s purpose is to offer an introspective view into how historical ethnomusicology may reveal nuances that have, until this time, not been thoroughly explored. McCollum focuses specifically on khaz, a form of musical notation of the early Armenian Church, and traces its development from the ninth century to its eventual decline in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In addition to presenting a historical account of the development of Armenian khaz notation, he also analyzes the historiography of the Armenian neumatic system through a critical review of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century khaz studies from both Armenian and Western scholars. Broadly speaking, McCollum reflects on historiography’s ability to potentially deconstruct written history’s potential subjectivity.

In Chapter 7, “Southern American Fiddling Through the Mid-Nineteenth Century: Three Snapshots,” Chris Goertzen considers how the composite repertoire of southern U.S. fiddling came into being in multiple historical layers, in each case with the bulk of activity in oral tradition, but always with at least a toehold in the world of publication (and to a lesser degree of manuscripts).  His chapter consists of a trio of snapshots of fiddling: in late eighteenth-century Scotland, in early nineteenth-century England (and the young U.S.), and in the mid-nineteenth century American south, trying to evaluate the historical remains (the notations, testimony from letters and travel reports, etc.) and also invoking the refractive evidence offered by modern practice. Fashions, cultural politics, relative ease of travel, technology of publishing, among other factors in flux, interacted visibly and invisibly to constantly reshape the culture of fiddling and its aesthetic materials. Some things we can we truly know, while others seem permanently out of reach, but his emphasis is on what we can intelligently suspect about the history of southern U.S. fiddling.

In Chapter 8, “A Tale of Two Sensibilities: Hindustani Music and its Histories,” Daniel Neuman contrasts two “sensibilities” as orientations for the conceptualization of Indian music history: the Khandani (literally, “of the lineage”), who are predominantly Muslim hereditary musicians, and the Pandit, being typically Hindu scholarly Brahmans that emerged toward the end of the nineteenth century as a dominant force in Indian music. As Neuman notes, the Khandani focus on “performance and practice,” while the main interests of the Pandit lies in “theory and education.” Consequently, these two groups have very different historical agendas and interpretations. Neuman draws upon his wealth of experience from having studied Indian music across four decades to develop a compelling and richly detailed narrative that traces the biographies of notable Indian musicians.

In Chapter 9, “The Legacy of Music Archives for Engaged Historical Ethnomusicology,” Diane Thram’s chapter discusses the evolution of sound archives as important resources for ethnomusicological research. Following discussion of the history of sound archives in Europe and the United States, she turns to a broad examination of contemporary challenges arising from digitization. This chapter describes important insights from Thram’s experience managing an array of projects as Director of the International Library of African Music, the largest African music collection in the world today. Thram’s discussion covers practical issues of great interest to music archivist, scholars conducting research in archives, and anyone interested in either developing a new music archive or strengthening a preexisting one.

In Chapter 10, Keith Howard explores the legacy of historical studies of East Asian music, contrasting the approaches of East Asian musicologists with that of the “Picken school” in the latter half of the twentieth century, which comprised the Cambridge University-based scholar Laurence Picken and his students and associates. To situate his account, Howard first contextualizes what Ruth Stone referred to as the “dearth of historical perspectives” in ethnomusicology through to the 1980s, finding parallels in anthropology’s troubled relationship with history, and identifying in the post-war appeal for equity and equality a rejection of the “sciencing” of comparative musicology. He then, with some trepidation given the robust defences that have been mounted by members of the “Picken school,” challenges criticisms made of East Asian musicologists by Picken and his former student Jonathan Condit. In respect to Korea, he shows how their accounts are respectfully studied but ultimately sidelined in local scholarly discourse. By exploring and contrasting Korean perspectives, and then taking as example the music and dance of extant state sacrificial rituals, Howard illustrates how history is used selectively to serve and justify both a discourse of identity and contemporary performance practice.

In Chapter 11, “Conclusion: Advancing Historical Ethnomusicology,” David G. Hebert and Jonathan McCollum summarize essential points from the entire book and indicate specific ways that music scholarship may move forward with new approaches. This chapter also illustrates how theories and methods of historical ethnomusicology may be relevant to scholarly work across an array of music subfields, including historical musicology, ethnomusicology, jazz studies, popular music studies, early music performance practice, and music education history.

The book ends with an Index to enable convenient browsing and searching. We are hopeful that this book will stimulate greater interest in historical ethnomusicology and enhance the production of robust scholarship on all music, regardless of when the music has taken place. We are fortunate and thankful to have had the opportunity to collaborate with an outstanding group of contributing authors who collectively offer expertise on an array of musical traditions throughout this book. Through a rigorous editorial review process, entailing multiple revisions guided by critical peer-reviews, we have endeavored to ensure the quality of the book’s contents. It is our hope that the discussion of musical practices, theories, and methods in this book will prove useful for graduate seminars and upper-level undergraduate courses, and especially serve as an inspiration to the next generation of historical ethnomusicologists.



Nettl, Bruno. The Study of Ethnomusicology: Thirty-one Issues and Concepts. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2005.

Ruskin, Jesse D. and Timothy Rice. "The Individual in Musical Ethnography." Ethnomusicology 56 (2012):299-327.

Stobart, Henry, Ed. The New (Ethno)musicologies. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow, 2008.


Jonathan McCollum is Associate Professor of Music and Chair of the Humanities Division at Washington College.

David G. Hebert is Professor of Music at Bergen University College.


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