The following is a discussion of ethnomusicology as a concept, the history and present state of the teaching and research of ethnomusicology in Australian universities from the late 1960s to 2018, the importance of music archives, and weaknesses and strengths in the state of ethnomusicology in Australia.

What is Ethnomusicology?
Ethnomusicology may be defined as the study of the music cultures of the world. The discipline encompasses the study of the sounds, structures and functions of each particular culture in the context of the people who perform and listen to it.

Throughout its history ethnomusicology has developed various methodological and theoretical approaches to the study of music relating to (i) its material aspects – including the acoustics of vocal and instrumental sounds, dynamics, tempo, multiphony, heterophony; (ii) organology, or the study of musical instruments; (iii) aspects of music-cultural and social theory, e.g. cultures in contact, gender studies, religion, philosophy, aesthetics; (iv) the cognitive and biological facets of music making and consuming; and (v) musical behaviour associated with such factors as poverty, racism, colonialism, imperialism, and war.

The term ‘ethnomusicology’, from the Greek words ἔθνος (ethnos, “nation”) and μουσική (mousike, “music”), is said to have first been coined by Jaap Kunst, the pioneering scholar of Indonesian music in the colonial Netherlands East Indies. Kunst and others belonged to the discipline of “comparative musicology” which was born in the high- to late- colonial era in ca the 1890s and lasted till ca 1945), after which the new discipline of ethnomusicology developed. In its early stages from the 1950s, the discipline was oriented mainly toward non-Western music, but since then it has come to include the study of all the music cultures of the world, including Western art music and popular and community music which are often viewed from novel anthropological, sociological and intercultural perspectives.

What is the history and present state of ethnomusicology in Australia?
Undergraduate teaching of Indonesian (Sundanese gamelan) and Japanese music began minimally in the 1960s in the University of Sydney. The early 1970s saw the introduction of Australia’s first fairly comprehensive suite of theoretical and area studies in ethnomusicology in the Bachelor of Arts and postgraduate courses at Monash University taught by four ethnomusicologists and a Javanese gamelan performance teacher, with a substantial fourth year Honours course in ethnomusicological theory and practice involving field- or theory-based thesis writing.

Gradually the universities of Sydney, Adelaide, and Western Australia, then Queensland, Melbourne, New South Wales, New England, ANU and Griffith Universities appointed at least one ethnomusicologist each. In the early 1990s, under a new Head, Monash expanded its ethnomusicology/musicology orientation to include popular and community music studies in its curriculum and research, as did several other universities, including Melbourne, Macquarie, and Newcastle.

Some Monash postgraduates went on to found ethnomusicology courses in other Australian tertiary institutions and some taught overseas. In the early 1990s Monash expanded its ethnomusicology and musicology orientation to include jazz, popular and community music studies as well as Western performance and composition, with Macquarie University leading the study of popular music research in the country.

In 1975 Monash established a music archive (MAMU, the Music Archive of Monash University) containing staff and student field collections of recorded music, musical instruments, puppets, masks, films, letters, field notes and memorabilia, and including bequests of musical materials from various parts of the Australia-Pacific, Asia, Baghdadi Jewish culture, Europe, Africa and the Americas. It is still expanding its rare holdings, including many student theses, under the name of the Music Archive of Monash University. New expanded premises are planned for it under the name of the Gallery of Musical Instruments and Artefacts.

Are there areas of special concentration for ethnomusicology as practised in Australia?
From the beginning in the late 1960s, Australia’s area studies teaching and research focused on Australian Aboriginal, Pacific, and Southeast, South and North Asian music. This concentration is likely to continue given the accumulated library and archival resources and instrumental ensembles in universities. Areas of special concentration for ethnomusicology as practiced in Australia at present include the music cultures of (i) Indigenous Australians, especially the Yolngu in Northern Territory, Walpiri, and Pitjantjatjara; ii) Southeast Asia – especially Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam, the Philippines and Cambodia; (iii) Northeast Asia, including China, Korea and Japan; and (iv) the Pacific, including Easter Islands; and Chile.

Periodicals that publish articles by Australian ethnomusicologists
Australian ethnomusicologists publish in the peer-reviewed Musicology Australia, the scholarly journal of the Musicological Society of Australia. Its articles and reviews cover various aspects of the world’s traditional musics, indigenous music practices, ethnomusicological theory and analysis, sociology and psychology of music, organology, performance practice, contemporary music, jazz, and popular music. Australian ethnomusicologists also publish in peer-reviewed international journals such as Ethnomusicology, Yearbook for Traditional Music, Ethnomusicology Forum (formerly known as the British Journal of Ethnomusicology), Wacana Seni/Journal of Arts Discourse, and other journals published in various countries that are active in the field of ethnomusicology. Ethnomusicologists engaging with popular music also publish in the International Association for the Study of Popular Music (IASPM), Australia/New Zealand Chapter.

Australian ethnomusicology’s international connections.
Most Australian ethnomusicologists are members of the International Council for Traditional Music (ICTM), a non-governmental organization in formal consultative relations with UNESCO which aims to further the study, practice, documentation, preservation, and dissemination of traditional music and dance of all countries. Other fraternal societies include the Musicological Society of New Zealand, the Society for Ethnomusicology in the USA, the British Forum for Ethnomusicology, and various national societies in Asia, Africa and beyond.


Special achievements of Australian ethnomusicology

  1. Australian ethnomusicologists have convened many international conferences, including Symposia of the International Musicological Society in 1998 and 2004 and the Conference of the International Council for Traditional Music in 1995. Monash ethnomusicologists have convened international conferences on the music cultures of Indonesia’s Riau Islands, Aceh, Java’s Dieng Plateau, Indian music and dance, etc.
  2. Australian ethnomusicologists are producing ground-breaking work in the field of Indigenous Australian and Asian music cultures. They tend to be highly collaborative with the source communities in which they work, in no small part due to the presence of Indigenous knowledge holders in their research teams.
  3. Between them Australian ethnomusicologists have received many grants from the Australian Research Council for fieldwork, and published many articles and books in ethnomusicology, including:
  4. Iranian Music and Popular Entertainment: from Motrebi to Losanjelesi and Beyond (Gay Breyley 2016)
  5. Research, Records and Responsibility: Ten Years of PARADISEC (Linda Barwick & Nick Thieberger, editors, 2015)
  6. Choral Singing in Human Culture and Evolution (Joseph Jordania, 2015),
  7. Music Endangerment: How Language Maintenance Can Help (Catherine Grant, 2014)
  8. Musical Journeys in Sumatra” (Margaret Kartomi, 2012)
  9. Why Do People Sing? Music in Human Evolution”, (Joseph Jordania 2011)
  10. “National unity and Gender Difference: Ideologies and Practices in Georgian Traditional Music (Nino Tsitsishvili 2010)
  11. Colonial Counterpoint: Music in Early Modern Manila (David Irving, 2010)
  12. Reflections and Voices: Exploring the Music of Yothu Yindi with Mandawuy Yunupingu (Aaron Corn, 2009)
  13. Songs, Dreamings, and Ghosts: the Wangga of North Australia” (Allan Marett, 2009)
  14. Dancing with Devtas: Drums, Power and Possession in the Music of Garhwal, North India” (Andrew Alter, 2008)
  15. Singing Australian: A History of Folk and Country Music (Graeme Smith, 2005)
  16. Deadly Sounds, Deadly Places: Contemporary Aboriginal Music in Australia (Peter Dunbar Hall, 2004)
  17. Inventing the Sarod: A Cultural History (Adrian McNeil, 2004)
  18. The Gamelan Digul and the Prison-Camp Musician who Built It: An Australian Link with the Indonesian Revolution (Margaret Kartomi, 2002)
  19. Women’s Gidayu and the Japanese Theatre Tradition (Kimi Coaldrake,1997)
  20. Music and Dance in Traditional Aboriginal Culture (Alice Moyle, 1991)
  21. On Concepts and Classifications of Musical Instruments (Margaret Kartomi 1990)
  22. Rom, an Aboriginal Ritual of Diplomacy (Stephen Wild (ed.), 1986)
  23. Aboriginal Music, Education for Living: Cross-Cultural Experiences from South Australia, (Catherine Ellis, 1985)
  24. : and articles such as
  25. “Musical Form and Style in Murriny Patha Djanba Songs at Wadeye (Northern Territory, Australia, in Analytical and Cross-Cultural Studies in World Music, (Linda Barwick 2012)
  26. “Yuta Manikay: Juxtaposition of Ancestral and Contemporary Elements in the Performance of Yolngu Clan Songs” in Yearbook for Traditional Music, (Steven Knopoff, 1992)
  27. Australian ethomusicologists have established two internationally known music archives containing rare field recordings and videos of music collected in Australia, Asia, the Pacific, and many other parts of the world. One is the Music Archive of Monash University/MAMU see The other is the music component of PARADISEC (Pacific and Regional Archive for Digital Sources in Endangered Cultures at at the Universities of Melbourne and Sydney.
  28. The National Recording Project for Indigenous Performance in Australia (NRPIPA) was launched in 2004 and is committed to assisting Indigenous Australians record, document and securely archive their tradition of music and dance.
  29. NRPIPA also holds an annual Symposium on Indigenous Music and Dance including presentations by performers, scholars, allied professionals and/or community stakeholders working in the creation, performance, recording, documentation, archiving and/or exhibition of Indigenous music and dance expressions in Australia and globally.
  30. Some Australian ethnomusicologists have received awards for their work, including The Koizumi International Ethnomusicology Award (Joseph Jordania 2009 and Margaret Kartomi 2016), the Future Justice Medal (Catherine Grant, 2014). Margaret Kartomi also received the Sir Bernard Heinze Award, Indonesian Ministry of Culture and Education Award (Foreign Individuals) in 2016 and the Australia Indonesia Award in 2018.


  • Compared to the 1970s-1990s there have been relatively small numbers of undergraduate students studying ethnomusicology in the 2000s and 2010s.
  • In general students at Australian universities are less exposed to ethnomusicology coursework and Asian performance electives.


  1. A larger undergraduate intake would help to strengthen the future of the field.
  2. Australian postgraduate students benefit from the presence of international students in their midst, but Australian universities could accept more of them.
  3. Ethnomusicologists are employed in many countries to help governments and civil societies to understand Forest- and Sea-dwelling communities, to promote governments’ tourist developing strategies, and to help promote their sense of national, regional and ethnic identity.
  4. Several universities are now opening up their ethnomusicology units to a broad spectrum of students in the sciences, humanities and social sciences. As their lives and careers are increasingly being shaped by global influences they will continue benefit from exposure to the different cultures covered in ethnomusicology units.


  • Universities cutting budgets or staffing or research funds
  • Governments cutting funding to organisations which fund ethnomusicology.


In summary, Australian music scholars and research students have made substantial contributions to ethnomusicological research through their diverse publications on many music cultures of the world, contributions to ethnomusicological theory and musical practice, and their establishment of music archives that contain world-class materials. They have also passed on their knowledge to generations of students who maintain the discipline in many music schools in Australia,


Professor Margaret Kartomi
DATE PUBLISHED: 22 March, 2018

Professor Margaret Kartomi, Monash University, Melbourne.

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