A musical ethnography is a piece of writing that explores some aspect of a particular music-culture through fieldwork. The main goal in doing musical ethnography is to come to an understanding of how an “insider” experiences their own music-culture and then to write up your findings in a way that communicates this perspective to your readers. To gain an “insider” perspective, ethnographers must seek out first-hand experience with their subject, usually by conducting interviews with musical “insiders” and by spending time participating and observing the music-culture.
For this assignment, you will have the opportunity to choose a music-culture that interests you and research it in two ways: first-hand (via an interview and/or fieldwork) and also via secondary sources (traditional library research). The first-hand information is the most valuable to an ethnographer, but library research will provide you with the necessary background information to design your project, formulate questions for your interviewee, and write up your findings.
– A one-paragraph to one-page proposal of the project (which must include the name of your interviewee, your subject, and your topic)
– A 6-8 page paper (double-spaced, 12 pt font) with properly formatted bibliography, which must include at least two outside sources, one of which must be a print source (book, journal article, newspaper or magazine article).
Step 1: Choose a Topic/Write a Proposal
Read the article “Doing Musical Ethnography” on BB—it provides excellent guidance for choosing a topic for your project. A good way to start is by brainstorming people that you know who are involved in music (musicians, teachers, producers, students, also active listeners and fans) or thinking of musical organizations (bands, clubs, radio stations, dance troupes, fan clubs) that you have some connection to. Consider your own family or group of friends, and don’t be shy about asking around. You might assume that no one in your family is musical, but a few questions can turn up some very interesting information that may lead you to your topic.
Once you choose your subject (the music-culture you want to explore, broadly speaking), you need to narrow down the topic that you want to study within that culture. For instance, let’s say you want to study the music-culture at your church, and decide to interview the choir conductor. You will soon discover that you could talk for hours with your interviewee about numerous things: what happens at a choir rehearsal? Who chooses the songs that will be performed? What is the relationship between the musical program and the religious service? Or you might ask the conductor biographical questions, or about their training, education, etc. Soon, you will have too much information and no way to organize it into a paper. The solution is to narrow down the scope before you conduct the interview, and let your questions relate to one particular theme. In some cases, the interview will go in a different direction, and you will later choose to change the focus of your paper, but the idea is to still keep a main theme or research question in sight. In the example of the choir director, you might choose to focus on the question of transmission, which is to say “how does this church choir learn new material, and what steps go into rehearsing for performance?” From your interview you can gain the insider’s perspective on how this works for this particular choir.
*For more on the difference between subject and topic see the reading “Doing Musical Ethnography.”
The proposal should include: a description of the music-culture you propose to explore, and one or two provisional topics related to it. It should also identify the person you want to interview, and the main research question you hope to find the answer to.
Step 2: Identify Interview Subject and Conduct Background Research
It is important to find and contact your interview subject early, so that you will be sure to have enough time to work with and write up the data you collect. (Also, in case you have trouble scheduling a convenient time for both of you to meet). Approach your interview subject, who will likely be someone you already know, and explain a little about your project and express your interest in learning about their music-culture. Schedule a time to conduct the interview.
Choosing a subject: For this project I strongly discourage you from choosing a peer/friend, a sibling/parent, or your boyfriend or girlfriend. If you think you have a compelling reason why you should work with someone like this, check with me before you turn in your proposal.
Before the interview you want to do some research in reference books, the library, or on the web, so that you are as well-informed as you can be before talking to your interviewee. Be sure to start your bibliography at this stage, so you don’t have to track down source info at the last minute.
Step 3: Conduct the Interview/Fieldwork
Prepare questions in advance that relate to the topic you have chosen. Refer to the reading “Doing Musical Ethnography” for tips on writing good questions. Record your interview but also take good notes. If you are doing fieldwork, such as attending a concert, rehearsal, etc., remember to take good notes there too and, if you choose, to document it by taking audio, video, or photographs (with permission of your subject!).
Step 4: Writing the Paper
You paper will include both primary and secondary sources. It should provide a healthy amount of background information about the music-culture you are studying, but draw mainly from your interview and fieldwork experience. Always keep your research question in mind, and place it prominently (as with a thesis statement) in the introduction to your paper. There are many ways to write up an ethnography, as we have already seen in class (think of the different styles of Ted Levin, Louis Sarno, Colin Turnbull, etc). Like these writers, you may feel free to write in the first-person, and to include your own experience of doing the ethnography as part of the paper.
Past Projects and Research Questions
-A study of an on-campus a cappella group that looked at how they composed their songs collectively. Research question: What is the process by which the group comes up with new material?
-Military drill chants. What is their function? Who makes them up?
-A paper based on an interview with a luthier (someone who builds and repairs violins), who shed light on how musicians relate to their instruments. Research question: What is the significance of the instrument to the person who plays it?
-A paper about a church music director that explored his views on the difference between sacred and secular performance. Research question: What are some of the factors that inform a decision to pursue a secular, rather than sacred music career?
-A paper about a local DJ that explored the interaction between him and his audience on the dance floor. Research question: In what way is DJ’ing an interactive art form?
-A study of vocal improvisation among Carnatic singers. Research question: What do singers think about as they improvise? Is there a difference between those singers trained in India and those raised in the U.S.?
-Bosnian folk music, people addicted to live band karaoke, the church organist, Nigerian wedding DJ in Chicago, Tabla students in the U.S., Indie rock band, jazz improvisation, Korean Choir music, salsa dancers, Sufi poetry, high school marching band, Bollywood Dance troupe…there are many, many possibilities
Academic honesty and plagiarism:
Plagiarism will not be tolerated under any circumstances. Students who plagiarize will automatically fail the class and it will be at the instructor’s discretion to report the student to the university. There is no such thing as “only plagiarizing a little.” Plagiarism includes stealing paper/ project topics and the ideas of others, as well as lifting specific language without giving proper credit. If you have any questions as to what constitutes plagiarism or how to properly cite your sources, see me and/ or turn to these helpful online resources: