What is an ethnomusicologist, and what do they do? This is a question we’re often asked from musically-inclined individuals who want a fun and exciting career in an academic profession.
In this article, we’ll discuss everything there is to know about ethnomusicology and what kinds of jobs are available to those with a background in this area of study.
We'll also cover the salaries and wages as well as everything involved in education to get you ready.
Ethnomusicology is the academic study of the socio-cultural aspects of music. In other words, ethnomusicologists look critically at the social and cultural roots of music and the people who make it.
Therefore, professionals in this field take a broad view of music and don’t merely study the sound of music. Instead, they take their study a step further by examining the cognitive, biological, and people-centered dimensions of music creation. In short, you can think of ethnomusicology as the study of the people who make music.
Without diving into what they do day-to-day (we’ll touch on that later), let me explain the raison d’etre of musicologists. Or, in other words, the significance of ethnomusicologists.
Ethnomusicologists help us gain a better understanding of the cultures and human beings behind the music. Whereas musicologists study the sonic elements of a song or composition, an ethnomusicologist combines the methods and techniques of ethnography (a social science) with the subdiscipline of musicology.
Without this type of worker, we would have little understanding of people’s motivations and techniques for making music. We would not understand the musician’s historical background and therefore would not fully understand the music itself.
The rigorous study of ethnomusicology helps us appreciate and understand the origins and humanity of a piece of music or a musical tradition. Many others in the industry, such as a music librarian, will spend time on similar studies as well.
It isn’t easy to describe exactly what an ethnomusicologist does on a day-to-day basis because what they do will depend on their institution, research focus, research methodology, and whether they teach or not. However, there are some basic elements of the profession that are common across virtually all members.
An ethnomusicologist spends much of their day reading and writing texts about music and the cultures from which music originates. In this sense, they are similar to other academic professions where reading and research make up a good part of their day.
They also listen to music relevant to their research and often travel to areas where a type of music comes from.
Unlike other academics, they conduct ethnographic research “in the field”. This means that they travel to visit cultures and individual musicians to conduct interviews or field reports to collect data about the music they create.
Ethnomusicology is sometimes referred to by its old name “comparative musicology” because it examines various cultures and their influence on music and music creation.
When they are not conducting research, these workers often teach classes at the undergraduate or graduate level. Of course, instructing courses requires many ethnomusicologists to spend time preparing lectures and grading papers and essays from their students. However, teaching assistants (TAs) often assist with grading and lecturing duties.
After completing their first-hand research, they often publish their research in a book or in a peer-reviewed academic journal. Ethnomusicologists with many publications to their name and several citations in high impact factor journals are more likely to receive tenure and long-term job security in their profession.
Ethnomusicologists conduct extensive fieldwork research while traveling for work. Therefore, those considering a career as an ethnomusicologist should be prepared to have the following skills to perform well at their jobs throughout their career:
Ethnomusicologists are a type of academic professional who teaches and conducts original research in higher education or private research institutes. There are several alternative jobs that they could have on the side, or as another career altogether.
Below, I’ve listed some of the most common jobs among ethnomusicologists:
Academic researcher: They are perfectly equipped to serve as academic researchers at a university, college, or research institute.
Lecturer or instructor: With their academic credentials, they can teach research methods at a post-secondary institution as a professor or adjunct instructor.
Music historian: Aside from ethnographic research, they are well-versed in the world of music history which makes them an excellent candidate for a career as a music historian.
Music teacher or tutor: Pedagogically-inclined individuals may opt to teach music lessons or instrument tutoring to children or adults. However, doing so would require expertise and possibly certification in a particular instrument.
Elementary or high school teacher: After graduate school, an ethnomusicologist may opt to teach at the elementary or high school level and specialize in the instruction of music classes or after-school bands.
There is little authoritative data on the salaries of ethnomusicologists in the United States. However, the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Occupational Outlook Handbook notes that postsecondary teachers earned a median salary of $79,540 in 2019.
Of course, this figure refers to all teachers and instructors in higher education of various levels of tenure. Still, it can give you a general idea of what a musicologist might earn after securing a teaching position.
There are several other career options that ethnomusicologists can choose from. Below, we’ve taken median salary data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics for careers that those with ethnomusicology degrees can pursue:
Given that the median personal income in the United States in 2017 was $31,099, the various career options listed above would put an ethnomusicologist firmly above the national average.
Given the relatively high-paying potential of this career track, many musically-inclined academics aspire to become an ethnomusicologist.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, postsecondary teachers are among the fastest-growing occupations in the country. In fact, the job outlook for 2018 to 2028 is 11%, which is “much faster than average,” according to the Bureau. Therefore, the number of jobs available to ethnomusicologists will increase sharply over the next decade.
There were 1,350,700 postsecondary education jobs in the United States in 2018. Therefore, there will be about 1,499,000 postsecondary education jobs in the country if the profession experiences its projected 11% growth by 2028. In more concrete terms, that amounts to a net gain of 155,000 jobs for post secondary educators from 2018 to 2028, including academic ethnomusicologists.
To become an ethnomusicologist you must possess a doctorate degree (PhD) in ethnomusicology or a closely related academic discipline from a licensed degree-granting institution. A doctorate in ethnomusicology is a four-year degree program that is completed after one completes an undergraduate degree (i.e., Bachelor’s degree) and a Master’s degree.
Therefore, a student on this track must undergo a minimum of eight years of higher education to become an ethnomusicologist with a doctorate degree. There are many schools that offer these PhDs and Master’s degrees, and many of them are a combined program that offer both concurrently.
A few of the schools that currently offer ethnomusicology programs in the United States include:
All of the academic programs listed above offer competitive and internationally-recognized ethnomusicology programs. However, the requirements to enter each program vary widely by institution. If you’re interested in applying to any of the programs, you should first check in with the school’s offices to see whether you have the prerequisites.
You can click below to request information from any of the listed schools above and see whether you’re eligible for admission into their program.
In this article, we covered what an ethnomusicologist is, who is best qualified for a career as an ethnomusicologist, and how to become one. We also looked at alternative career paths, as well as the current median salary for postsecondary teachers with ethnomusicology degrees ($79,540).
Given that ethnomusicologists explore the intersection of music and culture, there is no shortage of research to conduct and job availability is optimistic in the years ahead. The downside, however, is that ethnomusicology PhD programs are highly competitive and require many years of education to gain entrance into a program.
It’s true that this is a tough job, but it’s highly rewarding and intellectually enriching. An ethnomusicologist is one of the most sought after professions for academics and intellectuals who have a passion for music and the study of human cultures.
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