Open University Professor of Ethnomusicology Martin Clayton outlines the delights of a job that combines music, travel and meeting lots of different people.
What does it involve?
Ethnomusicological research involves working closely with the people whose music we are studying – which could be locally in the UK, or anywhere in the world. Exactly what´s involved depends on the context, but we usually try to spend enough time in a community to get to know the musical culture very well – often learning to play the music ourselves as well as talking to other people about what they do and why.
In terms of practicalities it could mean anything from a short drive to a local music event, to a year or more abroad carrying audio and video recording equipment. Now I´m established in the field and it’s impossible to take off for such long periods of time, I tend to work in shorter, but very intensive periods, making many recordings and carrying out lots of interviews that my team and I can analyse back home.
What´s the point of it?
The basic point is to understand why people make music and how people in different cultural contexts conceive music - its structures, aesthetic principles, meanings and effects. We try to see all of those things in relation to other social and cultural factors, and also to compare between contexts to get a sense of what the underlying impulses are that are manifested in such various ways around the world.
How do you become an ethnomusicologist?
Academics such as myself have usually completed a PhD in ethnomusicology, which will include a period of field work as well as time spent mastering some of the academic literature in the field.
What are the rewards?
It’s hugely rewarding: ethnomusicologists tend to be people who not only love music but like to travel, to meet people and to get to know their languages, cooking and other customs. The other part of the equation is the work of analysis and interpretation, which throws up some fascinating intellectual challenges.
Where can I find out more about ethnomusicology?
Are there any relevant OU courses?
At the OU, ethnomusicology is integrated into our music curriculum alongside other approaches. So there are elements in AA317 Words and music and in our music MA programme, for instance. And we also have students studying for PhDs, both full- and part-time.
Pictured is Martin (foreground) and colleagues attaching radio microphones to Congado drums to record a festival in Brazil in 2006.