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MUS 307: World Music: Researching cultures

Library research guide for Fall 2020 World Music, taught by Dr. Katherine Hickey

Learning outcomes

After reviewing this module and attending our in-class session, you will understand:

  • Principles for ethically researching music from other cultures

And you will be able to:

  • Identify scholars, community leaders, and cultural heritage organizations that provide context for the folk songs you are collecting

Fieldwork and traditional music

Western scholars have used fieldwork to study traditional music-making since the 19th century.

Researchers receive graduate-level training in research methods related to structured observation, interviewing, and recording. They visit communities of interest and gather firsthand observations of musicians.

Researchers produce primary source recordings of music, interviews, and field notes.

They communicate the results of their research as secondary sources including conference presentations, peer-reviewed scholarly articles, and scholarly monographs.

For a brief introduction to folklife research, read pp. 1-5 of this open textbook from the American Folklife Center.

Ethical considerations

Western scholars and musicians have not always engaged with traditional cultures in ethically sound ways. Researchers have sometimes exploited communities for commercial or reputational gain while giving little back in return.

In response, the main scholarly societies have developed ethical principles for researching traditional cultures, reflecting shared standards within the disciplines of folklife, folk culture and ethnomusicology.

In research, folklorists' primary responsibility is to those they study. When there is a conflict of interest, these individuals must come first. Folklorists must do everything in their power to protect the physical, social, and psychological welfare of their informants and to honor the dignity and privacy of those studied.

- AFS Statement on Ethics, approved October 1987

Kareem Roustom offers some excellent guidelines for approaching the study of traditional music as a cultural outsider in this blog post.

Roustom writes that learning about another culture requires an openness to being transformed by what we learn. Beyond simply collecting the music, Roustom adds that it is essential to do background research to understand:

  • In what context is the music traditionally performed?
  • What do the melody and lyrics mean to people within the tradition?
  • How might taking the music out of its context affect the meaning?

Finding context on your folk songs

Scholarly books and articles on folk music may contain examples of folk songs along with discussion of their social and historical meaning. Other sources (such as popular music anthologies and general-audience blogs or websites) may lack this context, but you can adapt your research strategy accordingly to tap into scholarship on your folk songs. Consider some of these attributes:

  • The history of the people group that produced your folksong
  • The role of musicians, storytellers and other performers in this culture
  • Your song's musical genre
  • Activities or customs described in the lyrics

Try searching the library catalog and article databases such as Proquest Research Library for scholarly information on the cultural context of your folksong.

You may also want to run online searches, looking for websites or social media created by members of the communities you are studying, or look for cultural heritage organizations dedicated to preserving and sharing traditional knowledge.