International Council for Traditional Music

A Non-Governmental Organization in Formal Consultative Relations with UNESCO

2010 - Talking Circle Reports, 2nd Symposium of the ICTM Study Group on Applied Ethnomusicology



Many presentations at the second meeting at the ICTM Study Group on Applied Ethnomusicology in Hanoi referred explicitly or implicitly to issues of sustainability: of musics, communities, individuals, justice, identity, social and economic wellbeing. Towards the end of the study group meeting, this group discussion on July 28th 2010 aimed to draw together some of these ideas. The report below is a summary of key issues raised across the three small discussion groups that constituted the talking circle.

The concept of sustainability

In all groups, an initial focus of discussion was the meaning of sustainability in relation to music. Questions were raised about the use of the word, which some interpreted as highly static. Some participants did not favour the term being applied to music because of its connotations of "preservation" and a risk of conceiving of music as a product (for instance in the context of documentation and archiving), which seem to ignore that change is a vital part of any music tradition. Others talked about different ways of approaching sustainability, for example as “cultivating,” “revitalising,” or “transforming,” and (inspired by one of the papers at the symposium) as “creative regeneration.”

It was suggested that efforts towards sustainability could be interpreted in two ways: first, through efforts to observe, objectify and preserve traditions; and second, through efforts that allow them to change. Participants stressed the importance of recognising different types of change, and that some change could have both positive and negative implications for different aspects of a music culture.

This raised the question on choosing which genres to sustain. The notion of Darwinism was raised, and the survival of the fittest.  Also discussed were Jeff Todd Titon’s concepts of ecologies as presented in Worlds of Music (2009). It was noted that the choice of which genres to sustain is complicated when there were many voices within a community. Ways of negotiating those through dialogue were discussed as was the role of the media. The idea was also raised that sometimes sustainability may be a questionable good, for example with regard to neo-Nazi music.

In other settings, musical sustainability was not the first priority in the face of non-musical challenges in the communities in which researchers worked. More pressing needs were lack of funding for food, drainage, medical supplies and trauma centres/counselling.  One person suggested that the importance of sustainability is primarily in its human and social effects on a community, not in the purpose of preserving the music per se. Often the two are seen as inextricably linked, as is the case with many indigenous peoples.

Musical ecosystems

A document provided for the discussion outlined five domains: systems of learning music; musicians and communities; contexts and constructs; infrastructure and regulations; and media and the music industry. The document was not considered helpful or appropriate by all because of its close association with a specific project, but it did trigger discussions on various parts of the support structure for any music, including economic, political, ideological and environmental factors, including the role of authority in affecting the workings of a system.

It was clear that some factors are easier to influence than others: It is hard to change regimes, wars or famine, while finding one-off funding and teaching practical skills are more within the realm of possibility. One participant commented that in the place in which they worked, "sustainability" was hard to achieve, as schools were unsupportive and it was hard to access technology. 

Several groups emphasised the importance of intergenerational transmission in sustainability, and the importance of intergenerational communication and dialogue in resolving disparate views on sustainability within a community. It was suggested that this may be seen as a form of conflict resolution; discussions kept connecting musical to contextual factors.

The role of researchers

Sustainability of specific forms of music is not an issue in some research projects where music is being employed primarily to achieve certain social (non-musical) outcomes. In other research, musical sustainability is very central. In the latter, obtaining funding in the form of grants was considered important, as this may improve the well-being of communities and thus contribute to their ability to make music together, for instance by recording music in need of safeguarding, or by providing physical spaces in which to teach or rehearse.

One group summarised various possible contributions through the work of applied musicologists:

  1. provide a context for intergenerational transfer of knowledge and identify creative ways to reinvigorate the tradition (research is a context for remembering)
  2. provide a context to identify and discuss issues of musical, social and environmental change (research is a context for evaluating)
  3. identify the factors that facilitate people’s own musical (cultural) expression
  4. encourage people to make use of their own local music forms to address current issues
  5. enhance intercultural communication
  6. advocate on behalf of minorities and archive for the benefit of future generations

Finally, it was noted that the impact of applied research on music cultures may not be apparent until years after our projects are finished. Applied ethnomusicology works from a long-term perspective.



Reporter: Brian Schrag


Presenters during the Applied Ethnomusicology study group meetings frequently described their work as confronting daunting obstacles: 

  • Profound ironies, complexities, and tensions of our work in the real world
  • Powerful forces, histories feeding injustice and loss
  • Institutional inflexibilities, inertias

Given this backdrop, participants in the second talking circle explored answers to these questions:

  • What aspects of educational contexts work for or against inclusion of various arts and artists? How could we be involved in creating educational environments better able to incorporate ethnomusicological knowledge and action?
  • What factors make advocacy for minoritized artists and their arts difficult? What factors help? How can we capitalize on the positive factors and overcome the barriers?
  • What character traits do we need to encourage in each other to overcome obstacles in this movement?

Most of the discussions centered on traditional musics in educational contexts.

Factors Working For Inclusion of Minority Musics

First, in many countries, local and national governments have begun to acknowledge the existence and value of the musical traditions of ethnic minorities within their borders. This has resulted sometimes in allowing ethnomusicologists and practitioners in traditional musics to experiment with new courses in schools, and government efforts to revitalize traditions, as with the Vietnamese Ca Tru. Second, changing immigration patterns have resulted in a growing number of people who are bi- and poly-musical; in Austria, for example, more than 30% of the population are immigrants. People with multiple musical identities may be more open to innovative inclusion. Third, international initiatives like UNESCO's Intangible Cultural Heritage have raised the profile and status of globally-hidden artistic traditions.

Factors Working Against Inclusion of Minority Musics

First, Western culture has a strong influence both in urban and rural areas. In Vietnam, for example, people sometimes use gong sets to play Western music or they use Western techniques in their performances. Second, it is often difficult for performers and artists to get into academic settings as legitimate educators. This is because they represent traditions that eurocentric faculty, administrators, and governments don't value, because they don't have the educational credentials that the school expects, and because they may not have language skills necessary to work easily in a school. Third, even schools that try to integrate non-European traditions sometimes do it naively or half-heartedly, trying to force all oral traditions from a country into a single genre mold.

Solutions, Dangers and Recommendations

Expect Change to Take More Time than You'd Like. Social and educational inertia may take years of persistence to change, and only become self-sustaining when a critical mass of personnel, funding and institutionalization comes about. In Amsterdam, a world music program flourished only after it reached a size that allowed it to do things on its own terms.

Work the System. When governments or schools require credentials for non-Western artists to enter that they don't possess, find other (perhaps unrelated) credentials to get them in the door. Then help them work toward acquiring the education and certificates they need.

Beware Complete Institutionalization. Integrating non-Western traditions into institutions can lead to their sustainability, but sometimes at a high price. Western art music, jazz, pop and now traditional musics have often been deadened by being extracted from their originating contexts and forced into academic structures. Ways to counteract this stultifying effect include sending students into immigrant and foreign communities for short and extended fieldwork.

ICTM Could Help by

  • running on-the-ground workshops in applied ethnomusicology, providing tools for overcoming obstacles. More experienced people could present project ideas and their experiences.
  • providing more political support in certain areas – joining voices and helping each other in this process. We need a critical mass of support.
  • helping build alliances with development agencies around the world.

Character Traits

Perseverence, patience, courage and a willingness to be seen as crazy are prime traits for people involved in applied ethnomusicology.