Field Methods in Ethnomusicology (Fall 2017)

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This course centers on ethnographic fieldwork, as applied to the study of society and culture, with a focus on sound and music.

While the course is geared especially for ethnomusicologists, its broad coverage of theoretical and ethical issues, fieldwork techniques, inclusion of multimedia technology, and a pedagogy of learning-by-doing (from proposal writing, to fieldnotes, to shooting video) will prove useful to students in a wide variety of social science disciplines, including anthropology, sociology, education, and political science.

Ethnomusicology may be defined as "the meaningful social practice of studying music as a meaningful social practice" (Frishkopf 2011). Within music studies, ethnomusicology's most distinctive practical feature is fieldwork, the principal component of the ethnographic enterprise upon which most ethnomusicological (and cultural anthropological) research is based.

This course aims to provide you with strategies for the acquisition of field methods -- including theoretical, critical and practical dimensions (related to declarative, critical, and procedural (method) knowledge)-- enabling you to perform critical ethnographic fieldwork, to gather ethnomusicological data, and to develop musical ethnographies.

For the first few weeks, we take up theoretical and critical overviews of fieldwork and ethnography including – most importantly – issues of truth, power, and ethics. Subsequently, we begin to focus on acquisition of perspectives, facts, and procedures—technical and social—pertinent to critical ethnomusicological data collection via participant observation, interviewing, field notes, audio and video recording, and still photography.

Here the course shifts gears, from reading about fieldwork to actually doing it. You will learn to transcribe and edit field materials, and to analyze and code fieldwork data in preparation for ethnographic writing. We will discuss techniques and strategies for molding multimedia materials into presentable formats, including ethnographic and documentary film, and development of multimedia websites, blogs, wikis, and podcasts.

You will also learn to develop effective ethnographic research proposals centered on fieldwork (including preparation of budgets and timelines), suitable for funding and guiding your research project. Most students should consider this course as an initial step towards their MA or PhD thesis, and are encouraged to use projected the projected thesis topic in all assignments whenever possible.

Ethnomusicology is a diverse set of practices, and complete training in all field methods is not possible in the span of 13 sessions. In particular, we will not be able to study all technical subjects (audio recording/editing, photography, video recording/editing) in depth. Mastery of any one of these subjects requires an enormous investment of time - in both study and practice - and digital tools are constantly evolving. Rather the focus here is on a broad spectrum of introductions—methods for acquiring methods, learning how to learn—in the hopes that you will thereby be enabled and motivated to explore further on your own in the months and years to come.

Course outline

Click here for detailed course outline, including assignments

Science and technology underlying fieldwork recording

Physical concepts & demonstrations

Audio recording in theory

Making an audio recording

Light, vision, and photography

Equipment and tools for recording, editing, and analysis (hardware and software)

Ethnographic fieldwork is perforce very much a DIY enterprise, and for this reason I advocate use of free or inexpensive available tools whenever possible. However some investments (e.g. a good camera or audio recorder) are certainly justified and worthwhile, especially prior to embarking on long-term fieldwork.

Expensive items that hold their value are the signal collectors and transducers - lenses and microphones and speakers - everything else has a limited shelf-life.


Fieldwork hardware

Software for ethnomusicology

Multimedia (audio, image, video): editing, analysis, transcription

Multimedia editing and analysis software

Transcription (text)

For transcription, see Transcriva and f4transkript or Transcribe. Another possibility is Dragon, though accuracy is limited, depending on language and clarity.


Fieldnote software

A number of apps enable handy note-taking on your smartphone as well as computer or tablet, syncing across platforms. Some of them have many features, enabling photos, drawing, audio recording, and sharing in a team:

  • Evernote: all hardware platforms; very elaborate.
  • Keep: all hardware platforms; simpler, less capabilities than Evernote
  • Apple notes: works only on Apple devices
  • Onenote: for Windows

Score notation software

See Audio - Scorewriters.

Qualitative research analysis

Qualitative data - which is mostly what you'll be collecting in ethnographic fieldwork - requires a different sort of data analysis than quantitative data. This isn't so much because it's not numeric (though usually it's not) as because it's not systematic (which quantitative data is, even when not numeric).

You'll have fieldnotes and interviews, stored on paper or in digital files. And you'll have audio and video recordings, and still images. Perhaps scores as well! How to make sense of it all? The key is coding. Codes serve an intermediary function, between the richness of the data itself, and its use in your paper or thesis. You can code by hand, or you can use software to do the job more efficiently and to enable quick retrieval and search.

For the qualitative data analysis unit, we'll use the trial version of Hyperresearch, which is adequate for this course (the full version or equivalent may be necessary for your dissertation project).

Some of the other popular packages are:

Here is a thorough package comparison on Wikipedia

Readings and reserve

Reserve Click here to locate Library reserve list.

Click here for scanned online readings

Assigned readings for weeks 2-4

Please sign up for readings to present in class by clicking on the links, and editing as instructed.

Commentaries on the readings

Click on the above link to bring up a list of course readings. Click on a reading title to discuss the reading with your colleagues, adding your own summary, critique, and commentary.

Course bibliography