Music and Dance

Shayna Silverstein. 21st Century Anthropology: A Reference Handbook. Editor: H James Birx. Volume 2. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Reference, 2010.

Ethnographic approaches to music and dance in the 21st century explore how modes of expression and performance practices are involved in the making of lifeworlds. Cultural production is situated in specific contexts that generate meaning as particular sonic and kinesthetic phenomena relate to discursive processes and social structures. Scholars of music and dance engage with cultural flow through dialogic encounters and interpretative analyses. These studies help illustrate how performance practices produce meanings, mediate socialities, and configure political relations.

Ethnomusicology, which generally encompasses anthropology, dance ethnology, folklore, musicology, and sociology, situates specific theoretical issues in comparative social and historical contexts. Up to the late 1960s, the discipline explored and indexed the musical phenomena of non-Western cultures in ways that resonated with concurrent anthropological trends in area studies. Critical analysis of these approaches led to a rethinking of music in which music became not the object of culture, but rather the product and expression of human experience. In his writings on the relations between music and society, anthropologist John Blacking (1995) proposed:

We need to know what sounds and what kinds of behavior different societies have chosen to call “musical;” and until we know more about this we cannot begin to answer the question, “How musical is man?” As “humanly organized sound,” music is a bearer of meanings insofar as it exhibits and necessarily demonstrates a set of values that the society that generates it would otherwise lack. (p. 5)

Relations between music, dance, and society are thus viewed as complex networks of interdependence through which a given act embodies temporal and emplaced experiences that structure social processes. Contemporary ethnomusicology pursues a rigorous analysis of how cultural production generates social significance by positioning the individual as the agent of social change through historical encounter.

Theoretical Approaches

The Meaning of Music and Dance

Musical and social structures mutually constitute each other through human interaction. This cultural-studies approach derives from the seminal work of Raymond Williams, who claimed that culture is not fixed as a bounded work or elite mode of production, but is instead embedded in everyday experience and activity. As a cultural materialist who challenged orthodox Marxist accounts of historical epochs or phases, Williams framed cultural practices as sites of political contestation through which groups reproduce and resist modes of domination, particularly those that critique industrial capitalism (Williams, 1977). Critical to his work are structures of feeling that configure the ways in which particular generations and social classes experience difference among social relations. These feelings beget a lived experience of a particular moment in society and history that brings meaning into the lives of individuals and the lifeworlds that they constitute. The production of cultural meaning is a fluid and dynamic process that emerges as a necessary process in which “new meanings and values, new practices, new relationships, and kinds of relationship are continually being created” (Williams, 1977, pp. 122-23).

Musical meaning is not itself generated through aesthetic critique, nor by reference to something extramusical, such as an emotion, landscape, or harmonic figure. Rather, musical elements and structures discursively relate to lived experience by an act of representation that fixes musical experiences to metaphoric and metonymic structures, forms, and works. These bounded entities are placed in a network of complex relations that can be explained through systems of representation in which musical ontologies serve as interpretive frameworks for diverse musical systems, whether Western symphonic music, Hindustani classical music, or Japanese gagaku court theater, or for categorization of musical cultures as classical, folk, popular, and traditional. Categories, however, do not necessarily correlate to an intrinsic value, but more productively relate to “how they are used and embodied in community relations to become structuring forces in musical life” (Holt, 2007, p. 29).

Ethnomusicologists today explore the discursive production of musical meaning as a contemporary response to what comparative musicologist Charles Seeger (1977) problematized as the “musicological juncture” (p. 16), or the gap of representation that occurs when communicating about one system of human communication (music) through another (speech). To redress claims that music is “untranslatable and irreducible to the verbal mode” (Feld, 1982, p. 91), ethno-musicology suggests that musical practice is less a latent mode of (artistic) representation but rather a (socially) active and engaged mode of producing reality. If speech is the communication of “worldview as the intellection of reality,” then music is the communication of “worldview as the feeling of reality” (Seeger, 1977, p. 7). What we perceive as “feelingful” occurs through the “generality and multiplicity of possible messages and interpretations… that unite the material and mental dimensions of musical experience as fully embodied” (Seeger, 1977, p. 91). As suggested by interpretive approaches to cultural anthropology, ethnographers study not experience, per se, but the feelingful and discursive structures through which experience occurs.

Musical experience is constituted as meaningful when social structures conjoin with individual consciousness through structures of feeling. Whereas structures suggest fixed relationships that are rigid and determined, feeling inflects the intense and personal experience of what is “believed, felt, and acted upon” (Frith, 1996, p. 252). This becomes important with regard to the construction of cultural forms, whether musical genres and styles or social categories and spaces. How people behave with regard to sound relates to what they perceive and think about such behavior. Anthropologist Alan Merriam (1964) proposed a model of musical anthropology that triangulates these axes of sound, concept, and behavior. This tripartite structure has been redressed by an interpretive analysis of dialectical processes that consist of historical construction, social maintenance, and individual adaptation and experience; in other words, an agency-centered inquiry into how people create, experience, and use music (Rice, 1987).


Feelingful experiences occur through culturally specific processes that produce and perceive sound. Recent directions in the phenomenology of acoustic phenomena argue that sound is not the property of a musical object separated from its origin, but rather, sonic significance lies in the encounter of sound as musical. Sensory dimensions of experience suggest that sonorities may be heard as affective, feelingful, and emotional when perceived as musical patterns in specific cultural contexts. Phenomenological studies suggest the ways in which people relate to each other through senses of hearing. A hearing culture may make it “possible to conceptualize new ways of knowing a culture and of gaining a deepened understanding of how the members of a society know each other” (Erlmann, 2004, p. 3). In turn, individual and social processes perceive musical encounter “not through layers of cognitive categories and symbolic associations, but with a trained and responsive body, through habits copied from others and strictly reinforced, by means of musical skills” (Downey, 2002, p. 490). Listeners’ acquired habits of assimilating sensory experience to musical systems affect them viscerally, and lived bodies are fashioned by patterns of acting in relation to music at the same time that they are responsive to sonic textures.


Performance emerges through the interaction of corporeal gestures, discursive tropes, and performative utterances in social settings that situate these actions as musical or extramusical, verbal or nonverbal, cognitive or affective, sacred or secular. These actions are held together by aesthetic principles that are represented in the social and material world, just as the social and material world is imbued with extraordinary value. Performance and listening are intersubjectively and physiologically experienced in a trained and socialized set of artistic bodily movements that reflect values and ideas (Meintjes, 2003, p. 176).

Embodied realms of experience situate cultural practices in the physiological and expressive body and the social forces that operate through those bodies. Performativity asserts the materiality of nonverbal communication and expression and the presence of the body as it is mediated by the production of sound. Whether sound is produced by a singer, a musician, or mediated by technology, the presence of the medium leaves a material trace that regulates its origin (Barthes, 1978). For example, analyses of timbre consider the grain of the voice in recording—in addition to elements of texture, attack, delay, and pitch—and interpret studio techniques as signifying practices that are deeply connected to the discursive production of style and genre (Théberge, 1997).


Embodied performance by a socialized musician or dancer suggests how bodies may be regulated or may resist forces of power (Comaroff, 1991). The discourse of bodies in motion at Greek weddings, for instance, produces the dialectical relationships and mutual dependencies that are also regulated and constrained by their repetitive power as a body politic, or collective unit. By introducing non-Greek Roma musicians at wedding parties as daulia, or drums (Cowan, 1990, p. 102), Greek townspeople exert power over the materiality of both resonant and outside bodies. As sites of reception and agency, bodies bear narratives of time and place that coalesce into corporeal memories. The ways individuals perform these narratives construct identity and differences that endow sound and movement with the capacity to represent lived experience.

As forms of social action and as meaningful activity, music and dance create and give expression to human and social experience. Epistemological concerns have critically responded to the ways in which a kinetic body and a sound dialogically compose form through performance events, structured practices, and representational strategies. Rather than treat music and dance as objects of discourse that possess meaning in and of themselves, or frame body movement techniques and sonic phenomena as abstract properties that may be reconfigured according to context, ethnographers seek to localize the very terms by which understanding and knowledge of these performative dynamics are produced.

Research Topics and Issues

Sacred Performance

Music plays a significant role in preserving and transmitting the world’s religions in terms of history, culture, and practice. The study of music in religious practices considers the ways in which music transforms experience into sacred meanings, narrates religious myths, and structures religious ritual and communities. The performative conditions associated with religious practice consider sacred sound not as the taxonomy of a particular belief system, but rather as a sensory spectacle through which experiences become enchanted. The sacred nature mediates by sonic utterances that may induce a phantasmagoric state of being, encode sacred language, or embody affective experience. Sound indexes religious experience through the presence of sacred instruments and the act of listening to liturgical chant. Sound also marks sacred spaces through pilgrimages and festival rituals, among other religious practices (Beck, 2006; Berliner, 1993).

The efficacy of music in sacred spaces suggests the ways in which sound may be sacred and how this sacred nature may be mediated through sonic practices. How sound conveys sacred meaning and experience in specific contexts raises ontological distinctions in that what is often perceived as musical in European and North American contexts may be considered nonmusical and sacred in other sacred spaces. Contexts may determine how sound is received and interpreted and in what ways sound may be ontologically separate from music. Interpretation of sound also structures power relations, in which religious authority is maintained by ideological boundaries of sound seeking to differentiate between sacred practices and secular forms of expression (Baily, 2003).

Ethnographies of sacred performance practices have tended to focus on the capacity of music, dance, and ritual drama to organize religious activity through modes of social interaction that produce webs of associative meaning (Reily, 2002). Performance has been conceptualized as a medium through which participants demonstrate religious conviction and commitment; as a means to structure time, narrative, and symbolic systems; and as a mode of interaction that codifies organizational patterns and the conditions of participation in religious activity. For example, the sacred voice is a medium that binds individuals communally in religious activity. How these experiences shape and are shaped by musical practice is determined by the theological ways in which individuals engage with music and music making. More recently, ethnographers have considered ways in which religious-ritual activity depends on the act of performance in order to be perceived as sacred and, in particular, how sound and movements are mediums that frame a ritual act as sacred. As individuals negotiate moral boundaries between the sacred and the profane in contemporary contexts, the act of producing sound and movement becomes a contested arena where religious authorities judge the ethics of cultural production. Performance through music and dance may allow departure from the profane and entrance into the sacred, mark the aesthetic boundaries of secular space, or itself articulate the boundaries between the sacred and the profane by which religious practices acquired enchanted and sacred meaning.

Several bodies of scholarship have addressed musical change, religious renewal, soteriological potential, musico-religious orthodoxy, and other related issues. These different forms of religious practice, or syncretism, may be marked through distinct genres and styles that expose moments of encounter and uneven relations of power. In colonial spaces, religious repertory may occupy cultural spaces in ways that reproduce a hegemonic religious order and erase subaltern religious practices (Comaroff, 1991). Folkloric ensembles typically relate to historical or contemporary religious practices through complex processes of aestheticization that problematically blur distinctions between sacred worship, cultural traditions, and popular culture. These distinctions are in part based on a collective memory of the sacred that is translated through aesthetic ideals. The embodiment of these ideals demonstrates how religious ideologies are manifested through bodily practices that themselves produce sacred sound, movement, and performance.

Chant and Recitation

The power of sound embodied in speech patterns, or chant, may preserve and transmit knowledge and religious authority as well as mark historical change. For example, the Rigvedic texts of the Harappan in Pakistan and northwestern India are considered sacred when correctly rendered through transmission and pronunciation of Vedic hymns. Recitation of these hymns occurs through three types of spoken accent with a melodic contour dependent on the succession of accent in the sung syllables, as well as the duration of each relative pitch. The consideration of Vedic chant as the foundation of contemporary Hindustani music in South Asia is, in part, attributed to its preservation through Brahman recitation. Codification of early performance practices, such as Gregorian chant in southern Europe, began when clergy notated plainchant in order to correlate its liturgical function with the medieval Roman liturgical calendar. Compositional practices that developed from these notations are widely considered to be the conceptual and historical basis for Renaissance and late European courtly arts (Bergeron, 1998).

Some religious cultures regard practices of recitation, or the sounding of religious text, as the divine act that makes speech patterns sacred by mediating the transmission of sacred texts through the vocal performance. The significance of such performances is governed not only by the syntactic conditions such as pitch and duration, but also by audition, or the appropriate response, performed by the ethical listener (Hirschkind, 2006).


Instruments embody religious experience when endowed with the capacity to produce sacred sound. In some ritual practices, performance on a particular instrument, such as batá percussion ensembles in Cuban Santería, realizes the divine potential of the ritual event and produces religious transformation. Instrumental-performance practice marks the shift from secular to sacred contexts; produces the appropriate performance conditions for trance, ecstasy, possession, and other states of heightened sacrality; symbolizes tropes of religious narrative and function; and transfers knowledge and participation among believers (Hagedorn, 2001; Rouget, 1985; Wong, 2001).


Sacred musical practices are often narrative—telling stories and relating myths to generate a sense of historical and religious meaning. Narrative may be considered musical through, for example, the ways in which music marks the passage of time in ritual performance and in the narrative sequence of events, or through the juxtaposition of different musical genres that layer and texture religious stories. Instruments often play a significant role in narrating epic myths with sacred content, such as within bardic traditions or Sufi mysticism. One way in which narrative components of sacred music may shape a religious community is by mediating a sense of place. The act of recalling an original event, such as an act of martyrdom or a miracle, links the event to a specific site. When enacted through song and other musicopoetic genres, the act of recall layers subsequent events to that site in ways that parse history as locally meaningful in religious communities.

Critical Musicology

During the early 1990s, musicologists readjusted paradigms in which musical performance expresses a natural mode of human existence or formalizes a universal set of aesthetic ideals (Solie, 1993). The critical inquiry espoused by “new musicology” advocated for the deconstruction of ideologies into iconicities of style that are reproduced and transformed by acts of performance. Performance practices now produce social relations that are represented in different categories of gender and sexuality, race and ethnicity, generation, class and nation, and other forms of identity. Cultural meaning is discursively constructed by specific practices of signification, and links between signifier and signified are not fixed but arbitrary. These practices may construct meaningful experience in ways that depend on conventions of taste and class that are situated in a particular time and place.


Studies of place tend to be located in everyday life and explore the tactics by which people interact and engage with their environment. Gatherings, such as rehearsals among English rock musicians, are not only mediated by these practices, but also produce affective relationships to the settings in which social activities take place. Yet, as conditions of modernity separate space from place in lived experience, the physical settings of social activities are “thoroughly penetrated by and shaped in terms of social influences quite distant from them” (Giddens, as cited in Stokes, 1994, p. 1). Therefore, approaches to place, music, and dance seek to relocate cultural geographies within specific social, economic, and political spaces by addressing how individuals produce sound and movement in order “to reestablish their presence, situate events in a fixed place and time, and re-embed actions within social structures” (Stokes, 1994, p. 3). Place becomes meaningful through affective processes that recognize and enable different experiences, mediate emotional relations to an environment, or produce nostalgia through acts of memory that bestow music and dance “with an intensity, power and simplicity unmatched by any other social activity” (Stokes, 1994, p. 3).

As individuals perceive what takes shape around them, they participate in the construction of a soundscape, or an environment structured by the perception and reception of sound. Soundscapes are differentiated not only by dynamics of power, class, and difference, but also by sentimentality, or the emotional and affective relationships that constitute a sense of place (Feld & Basso, 1996). An acoustemology of sound analyzes the sentimental relations to place that are embodied by sound production and reception among, for instance, Kaluli people in Papua New Guinea. Through interlocking, overlapping, and alternating singing that mimics bird calls in the rainforests, Kaluli voices index the natural environment; mediate places as sites of memory; and express an ecological sense of self, place, and time (Feld, 1982). Acoustic environments have also been critical to the historical progression of musical form in bourgeoisie European society and the displacement of instrumentalists to the role of musical interpreters. Early performance practices were comprised of extramusical, literary, or narrative material that was, in part, marked by a musician’s individualized embellishment of musical material.

In the 19th century, the concert room emerged as a performance setting that aestheticized the impression of immediate contact with the music as a listening ideal. Musical practices shifted to uphold universalist aesthetic ideals not only through listening appreciation, but also in celebration of a composer’s genius. Dramatic structures were communicated by composers such as Beethoven through “the abstract logic of pure form” and the formal properties of the music itself in ways that privileged structural-listening practices in European art music. Thus, the commodification of musical knowledge and musical emplacement fetishized sonata form in the historical development of instrumental Western art music (Leyshon, Matless, & Revill, 1998).


The commodification of musical place in a globalized world has induced a certain anxiety among critical musicologists over the ways that disembedding music and dance practices stimulates desires for authenticity by late-capital consumers in a hegemonic economic order. While the capacity for music to travel has augmented an appreciation for place and dismantled cultural borders, the poetics and politics of this have problematically differentiated relations between self and other. World music, and related configurations of art music, ritual, folk and ethnic genres, and world beat and roots music (Aubert, 2007), are authenticated by conditions of place. By privileging the geographically local as authentic, the particular can be naturalized in ways that fetishize locality through terms of belonging. The act of splitting sound from its source and reproducing it depends on uneven processes of representation that contest cultural rights and negotiate various modes of ownership (Feld & Basso, 1996). Styles associated with world music then demarcate community by linking dispersed places and allegiances that, through subjective identity, allow the strategies by which individuals register difference (Erlmann, 1999).

The globalization of world music has also been critiqued as a pastiche, or a process of reconfiguring time and space that detemporalizes the encounter between self and ethnographic others into an event beyond history, or perhaps at the horizon of a certain historical moment. For instance, the production and consumption of alternative folk rock links different historical moments into one bounded cultural space, while world-dance music may layer disparate local styles into a repetitive, temporal sequence (Erlmann, 1999). Cultural interchange and interaction in popular music thus depends upon a concept of culture that binds territory to groups in ways that demand the political engagement of cultural critique. Whereas narratives of cultural interchange such as hybridity, creolism, and syncretism tend to privilege myths of origin, postcolonial analyses encourage new approaches that no longer engender forms of being by binaries of self (self and ethnographic other), place (here and there), and time (then and now), but rather by a third space that is constituted by these boundaries. The circulatory relations of cultural flow have furthered understandings of how historical consciousness may undermine essentializing cultural strategies. Studies of the black Atlantic (Gilroy, 1993) address how black popular music and dance styles shape and are shaped by particular African retentions and situate the Atlantic as a site of crossings, mediations, and exchanges that continually reconsider the cultural flow of African and African American expressive forms.

In response to large-scale processes of migration, globalization, and transnationalism that destabilize structures of belonging, critical approaches to place have also emphasized the production of locality through cultural practices. Tropes of place may uneasily mark displacement from an imagined structure of belonging, for instance when tropes of the crowd and the machine in the South African vocal genre of isicathamiya signify a sense of nostalgia for rural agricultural economies among populations who migrated to cities in search of labor opportunities. Another example can be found in how the mapping of memory fragments onto musical events, instruments, and kinship narratives of a retired Jewish community in Liverpool, England, shapes collective relations that in turn construct an immigrant neighborhood whose identity is nurtured by newly mediated and localized imaginaries of home and community. Locality may also be produced by sound-engineering practices that index a particular place and authenticate a musical style through the technological reproduction of sound in specific performance conditions such as “live” Austin country music (Greene & Porcello, 2005).

Gender and Sexuality

Gender and sexuality analyses situate performers and their texts within specific musical worlds and examine how these worlds produce gendered ideologies through performance practice, singing style, repertory, performance events and occasions, lyrics and elaborations, and instrumental practice. Thus, gender and sexuality are mutually constitutive of cultural experiences, and also mutually construct processes of subjectivity and alterity in ways that have been binarily opposed to biological explanations of lived experience. As a method of cultural critique, gender and sexuality studies analyze the ways in which ideology is maintained and transformed through the performance of a gendered self. These studies also examine the ways that musical practices mediate social relations as variously gendered—masculine, feminine, and perhaps hyperreal. Because gender theorists have understood sexuality as constitutive of gendered norms, distinctions between gender and sexuality have been largely premised on identity construction as theorized in psychoanalytic discourse. Lacanian theory argues that linguistic signs triangulate the enlightened self from its other in ways that destabilize a sense of identity by the desire for an object that might represent such identity. By reading social and cultural texts for hidden and repressed desires, critical theorists reveal conditions of heteronormativity that hape and are shaped by cultural practices. Ultimately, gender and sexuality studies suggest how social distinctions may be magnified rather than ameliorated by the performative act of music making and structured movement.

A substantial body of literature has been devoted to highlighting and documenting women’s contribution and women’s roles in musical performance. As professional entertainers, as dramatic personalities, and as audiences, women convey social values and transmit cultural meanings in ways that may be different from those performed by men. The expression of sentimentality by women through forms and repertoires, such as sung poetry among Bedouin women in upper Egypt, resist, maneuver, and maintain patriarchal norms of modesty, honor, and shame that have been typified in Mediterranean studies (Abu-Lughod, 1986), whereas songs sung by Berber women in northern Morocco strategically empower potentialities of marital life (Magrini, 2003). Performance events and contexts have been analyzed with discourses surrounding these practices through elements of lyrics, style, technology, and appropriate behavior. These suggest how identity may be encoded and performed as masculine, feminine, or ambiguously gendered. Postmodernist approaches to the paradigmatic relations between musical and social structures have produced seminal readings of the gendered hierarchies in composition, such as immanent relations between the masculine and the feminine in sonata form (McClary, 1991), formulations of the Western music canon, constructions of ontological difference through gender (Solie, 1993), and the potential of music itself—as a performance rather than as text, to disrupt the masculine musicological narratives within which it is often contained (Abbate, 1991).

The broad compass of vocal performance in different registers constructs gendered and sexualized identities by embracing some, and refusing other, conventions of style and genre. Voice may characterize a range of erotic and emotional relationships among women who sing and women who listen in ways that “resonate in sonic space as lesbian difference and desire” (Brett, Wood, & Thomas, 1994, p. 28). This sapphonicvoice is found in operatic practices by female singers who assume “pants” roles, or castrato male roles sung by women, as well as other singers and singing personalities (Brett et al., 1994). Koestenbaum (1994) argued that the brea between registers is a gendered split that emplaces a voice between male and female. The ways in which the brea is negotiated may be “fatal to the act of natural voice production” (p. 220) when gender and sexuality are transferred beyond normativity, such as the sapphonicvoice’s synthesis of register; this replaces its splitting, or the falsetto register’s failure to disguise this break. The combination of different registers may refuse vocal categories and polarities of natural and unnatural, and may establish interpretations of female desire, male desire, and the relations of class, age, sexual status, and identity through vocal performance (Koestenbaum, 1994).

The performance of gender engages with the kinds of subjects that musical and dance performances engender, both onstage and among audiences, and the ways that such performance relates to everyday life as lived, embodied, and theorized. For instance, a feminized atmosphere at a wedding in Morocco is not dependent on the presence of female dancers, but rather on the performance of femininity among communal relations that may differentiate between gender, sexuality, and class. Perceptions and representations of Asian American femininity have shifted due to North Americantaiko performance that represents social space through gesture, movement, and the presence of women in drumming practices. In post-Apartheid South Africa, Zulu ngoma song and dance is critical to the performance of masculinity and the anxieties of retaining the presence of individualized expression and stylized body movement in the midst of unemployment, an AIDS epidemic, and a history of violence in KwaZulu-Natal (Meintjes, 2003).

Race and Ethnicity

Critical race studies examine how constructions of difference on the basis of body type and color are perpetuated by the representation of essentialized metaphysical conditions. Concepts of race are linked to the emergence of modern scientific inquiry into the natural world and are largely considered a product of Enlightenment thought and observation. The late 18th century produced a world “observed, processed and remapped on the imagination of Europe” (Radano & Bohlman, 2000, p. 13) in which race and music constituted logics of difference that categorized the natural world and sought to make it understandable. Moreover, racial discourse contributed to the formation of musical difference as human difference was mapped onto musical difference, that is, to the object of music itself. The epistemic model that measured harmonic relations on a mathematically proportionate scale and unified differences in pitch influenced Enlightenment thought on the structure and substance of not only resonating, but also racialized bodies. How music participates in the construction of race and racial imaginaries ultimately raises ontological questions of whether music itself represents these qualities, or whether our understandings of music are shaped by and through racial relations.

Racial constructs are connected to music through structures of understandability, that is, the capacity of sound to signify and communicate meaning, and through materiality, or the technologies, objects, and bodies that represent music and musical histories through particular ideologies (Brown, 2007). For example, the 19th-century German composer Richard Wagner claimed that the language of European opera and vocal music was degraded through the inability of European Jewish composers to fully control the language of music, which Wagner instantiated in terms of 19th-century German universalism that was first and foremost predicated on language and an assumption that music instantiates comparative linguistic properties. Elsewhere, race interacts with other systemic hierarchies, such as the historic provision of wedding and court entertainment by Jewish musicians in predominantly Muslim worlds situated along the Silk Road, from Bukharan weddings in central Asia to the Abbasid and Omayad caliphates of the 11th century. Categories in which instruments function as a racial mapping of power relations may be critiqued by participants themselves, such as Karnatak and Hindustani musicians who negotiate caste systems in South Asia that distinguish between the permissibility of Brahmin performance on the Karnatic vinalute and the delegation of instrumental performance on untouchable leather-skinned drums to less privileged castes. Conditions of difference, shaped by cultural practices, help to better understand relations of power in systems based on class, caste, kinship, religion, and other forms of belonging and ownership.

Racial conventions of blackness, whiteness, and other morphologies play a critical role in ideological distinctions of music as rational and intellectual, or as orally transmitted, communal, and embodied. The naturalization of certain structures as African retentions, such as improvised movement, antiphonal oppositions, and repeated cycles of interlocking rhythmic patterns, reinforces the putative inseparability of music and dance in the African diaspora (Meintjes, 2003). This becomes problematic when what is musical and universal is defined against conceptions of blackness as physical and embodied. Yet, performance practice and histories may join as lived experience in ways that affirm how blues practices in African American working-class communities in the southern United States influenced the emergence of jazz, gospel, soul, R&B, rock, hip-hop, and other black vernacular music. The problem of race translates into a cultural critique in which creative strategies destabilize the tropes through which they emerge by means of intertextuality, subversion, and other signifying techniques (Radano & Bohlman, 2000).

Ethnicity, like other forms of difference that participate in processes of exclusion and inclusion, is constructed on the basis of shared beliefs in a “common ancestry, memories of a shared historical past, and elements in common, such as kinship patterns, physical continuity, religious affiliation, language, or some combination of these” (Shelemay, 2001, p. 249). Musical and dance practices instantiate ethnic relations by performing social boundaries that reproduce and subvert ideologies; these relations simultaneously also produce meanings, that is, “a patterned context in which other things happen” (Waterman, 1990, p. 214). Ethnic identity is often discussed in terms of minority relations and population movements that are themselves predicated on political difference. Often, ethnic boundaries “define and maintain social identities which can only exist in context of oppositions and relativities”; thus, ethnography can engage with how “actors use music in specific local situations to erect boundaries, maintain distinctions between us and them, and use terms such as ‘authentic’ to justify these boundaries” (Stokes, 1994, p. 6).


Cultural nationalism is a complex process by which institutions and actors integrate diverse populations into structures of national belonging. Ethnography investigates the ways in which music and dance practices—and the discursive spaces that are dialogically created and inhabited by such practices—generate national imaginaries in local contexts. Early forms of nationalism celebrated the universal claim to a single shared language and a set of particular customs and traditions situated in an ethnonational framework. Scholars have since criticized collective national identity as a product of state apparatuses that seek to reify lived experience into internationally recognized forms. Thus, the invention of tradition has been linked with nation-building projects in which state power emerges through the performance of national imaginaries and the efficacy of imagined communities (Askew, 2002). The extent to which symbolic production produces and sustains state hegemony through particular genres suggests whether these processes might be “multivalent, multivocal, and polyphonic” (Askew, 2002, p. 273) and how agents and institutions are involved in negotiating, defining, and contesting that which constitutes the nation. Musical ethnographies reveal the strategic shifts that characterize nationalist projects, ask whether events coincide with or interrupt official ideologies, illustrate why specific forms are chosen to represent the nation, and address how issues of authenticity and preservation are managed in these endeavors. Though global capital flow, access to electronic media, and transnational migration of people have decentered and deter-ritorialized processes of nationalism, the mediating structure of the nation continues to relate how people cross lines of difference through local transactions and cultural production.

Representation of the nation through music depends on a belief in the representational potential of music, that is, music’s capacity to embody a cultural whole that exists prior to its mediation. The production of national symbols, therefore, depends upon a modern discourse that is represented by cultural mediation. This discourse emerged from Johann Gottfried Herder’s claim that based national identity on the common narratives and histories of a given people and, in particular, on the capacity of language and folksong to represent such shared experiences. Herder’s proto-nationalist theory is comprised of a geographic model where music marks a place, such as the landscape of the nation, an acoustic model whereby sound distinguishes the nation as a whole, and a narrative model in which music encodes stories that represent the history of the nation (see Bohlman, 2004). The quintessential image of the nation, or a “preexisting entity that is more indefinite than definite,” is reflected by national music, “for whom it becomes the task to bring out as much of the definition as possible” (Bohlman, 2004, p. 83).

Conversely, nationalistic music does not harbor relations among a nationalized people, but rather services competition between nation-states. Nationalistic music secures the geographic identity of the nation-state by marking borders and producing alterity through the production of national difference. Alterity may be differentiated on the basis of class, race, ethnicity, and gender dynamics that exclude those whose presence prescribes the need to regulate desires and who trigger ambivalence as a condition of modernity. The marking of borders is instantiated by a presentation of the nation that embeds power in performance, or through a means of communicative interaction in which the act itself is privileged over that which it mediates. Thus, nonverbal performance may communicate messages whose meaning is located in elements of sound and movement and in dialogic interaction between performers and audiences, or between modes of modernity—contingent on the specifics of the temporal and spatial moment.


Early studies of population movement addressed patterns of assimilation and acculturation through theories of culture-contact that failed to engage with political disparities and the contradictions of multiculturalism in modern societies. More recent approaches redressed these patterns as a postmodern condition that negotiates instantiations of nationalism, transnationalism, and displacement through the appropriation of expressive culture and the making of political alliances among transnational populations (Garofalo, 1992). However, the rigidities and essentialisms of diasporic identity created by multiculturalism may articulate or contradict the politics of national, postcolonial, and minority identities even as they stress emergent forms of culture, uneven relations of cultural hybridity, and ambivalent relations to national homelands (Ramnarine, 2007). Contemporary diaspora studies thus emphasize the “newness” of the diasporic experience, and address political belongings and further substitutions as historically specific and shaped by a historical consciousness. Fragments of this consciousness are inscribed within an in-between space by which immigrants may register a sense of loss, exile, and rupture through cultural production. Diasporic music making may thus be a practice of everyday life in local communities by individuals making strategic choices through music festivals, individual biographies, song texts, musical instruments, and intellectual movements. Politically articulated readings of these social relations and creative processes reveal economies of desire in colonial encounters, performances that mourn and remember ancestors, intercultural borrowings in African-Peruvian theater, or state interventions in the creation of broader diasporic groups (Ramnarine, 2007).

Studies of popular culture and music have helped to differentiate between experiences of voluntary and forced migration. The actions and behavior of refugees affect how groups produce and give meaning to their music as they negotiate loss and trauma, and pursue a state of stability that is represented by resettlement. For instance, Vietnamese refugee communities in the United States tend to display a preference for love songs and Western-oriented popular music that convey anticommunist nostalgia for a pre-1975 period of French, U.S., and Japanese colonial influence in Vietnam (Reyes, 1999). Other histories of dispossession and violence have prompted ethnographers to consider the social construction of place, self, and other through aesthetic experience as a means for understanding the performative capacities of particular histories and repertories of violence and “the ensuing meanings violent performances carry for victims, perpetrators, and witnesses alike” (McDonald, 2009, p. 59).

Future Directions

Medical Ethnomusicology

Medical ethnomusicology seeks to integrate disciplines of music; health sciences; integrative, complementary and alternative medicine (ICAM); the physical and social sciences; medical humanities; and the healing arts through integrative research and applied practice. Research in music, medicine, and culture recognizes the dynamic and diverse practices by which specialized music and sound phenomena function as therapeutic strategies and as a means to cure illness and disease. Ethnomusicological discourse has demonstrated the extent to which specialized music emerges from a spiritual or religious ontology and is practiced in ritual or ceremonial events. When music combines with or functions as prayer or meditation, it may constitute preventive and/or curative practices that can be situated among a set of local medical practices. Medical ethnomusicology focuses on the performance of healing and the culture of health in order to better understand disease and illness, health and healing, as well as the performative nature of diagnosis, treatment, and healing. Recent studies and interventions include locating sites of ritual healing in ngoma practice among disparate communities; correlating beliefs about spirit possession to the intricacies of indigenous health care systems in Tumbuka communities; advocating and critiquing how the decline of HIV infection rates in Uganda correspond to the use of local musical traditions that support medical initiatives; engaging with science and religion through a focus on music, prayer, meditation, and healing; and the ways that these processes intimately link with transformational cognitive states in Tajikistan (Koen, 2008).

Applied Ethnomusicology

Applied ethnomusicology refers to work in the public sector that encourages the advocacy, curation, documentation, education, and performance of music and dance. These efforts apply the perspectives, principles, theories, and methods of ethnomusicology to encourage public awareness and participation in broadly defined fields of cultural practice. Advocacy engages with public-policy issues, such as arts access and participation, artists’ rights, censorship, intellectual property, and cultural heritage through institutional and noninstitutional efforts. The Society for Ethnomusicology debates and assumes positions on the ethics of music and fair use, music and torture, and the rights of human subjects in scholarly research. Cultural initiatives facilitate opportunities for performers and performance practices through festival and concert organization, recording and documentary film production, and museum exhibitions.

Efforts to document and archive materials are encouraged through the acquisition and digitalization of archives, collaboration between institutions, improved access, and the support of scholarship, publications, and public programs. Public education and outreach develop curriculum at the primary and secondary levels; establish performance ensembles and programs to nurture skills; and foster audiences and public awareness through the promotion and distribution of related events, productions, and publications. Performance of music and dance by specialists is encouraged not only as a research method in observing participants, but also as a means to preserve, transmit, and produce communities based on knowledge production and creative expression.