[Position Paper]

Music in Culture, Music as Culture, Music Interculturally: Reflections on the Development and Challenges of Ethnomusicological Research in Australia

By Sally Treloyn


Culture has long been a unifying consideration of ethnomusicologists. Summarising the theoretical range of approaches encompassed by the discipline in the late twentieth century, Bruno Nettl characterised ethnomusicology as the study of music in and as culture (Nettl, 1980, p. 1). The study of music in and as culture renders rich understanding of musical systems and of musical cultures as systems of signs and symbols that are created by, take the form of, and operationalise, social, historical, and political actions. In turn, the study of music in and as culture produces better understandings of the world, humanity, and its societies. Such a definition also applies to varying extents, to other humanistic music-focused fields such as musicology, music cognition, and music therapy. It also pervades the view of music from disciplines as broad-ranging as anthropology, geography, history, and linguistics. The study of music in and as culture, however, is not without complication. This article provides an account of the response to the modern postcolonial prerogative in intercultural music research from a particular perspective and field: that of a non-Indigenous Australian ethnomusicologist (the author) who conducts research on Indigenous Australian musical traditions with Indigenous cultural performers and stakeholders. The article outlines histories and legacies of ethnomusicological research in Australia centred on two disciplinary concerns: the role of musical analysis and recording technologies in the task of understanding music in and as culture; and, a postcolonial discourse of interculturalism in applied ethnomusicology that prioritises collaboration and repatriation. The article is particularly concerned with Australian ethnomusicology that is concerned with Indigenous Australian performance traditions.

Keywords: music research, ethnomusicology, music as culture, intercultural research

Editorial note: In 2016, Voices hosted a special edition to accompany the launch of a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) on the topic of "How Music Can Change Your Life". Thirteen authors agreed to develop position papers for the MOOC, with two articles being developed to accompany each of the six topics within it. Each author has highlighted the theorists and researchers who have influenced their thinking, and included references to their own research or music practices where appropriate. These papers have been written with a particular audience in mind—that is, the learners who participate in the MOOC, who may not have had previous readings in any of the fields being canvassed. We hope that you find these articles interesting, whether reading as a MOOC learner, a regular VOICES reader, or someone who is discovering VOICES for the first time.


From the Latin colere, early use of the word “culture” (as a verb) refers to the practical domain of cultivation of the land, livestock, one’s community, and one’s self through care and custom of family, gods, and discipline (Jackson, 2013, p. 52). As phenomenological anthropologist Michael Jackson has pointed out, the semantic history of culture through the Middle Ages to the late 19th century reveals a drift away from this notion of culture as bodily, grounded, human activity in a “social and material environment” (p. 57), towards imagined qualities attributable to distinct groups on the basis of race, class, and nationality. In this period, for German writers:

culture [now a collective noun] almost invariably designated the refined mental and spiritual faculties which European bourgeoisie imagined set them apart from the allegedly brutish worlds of manual workers, peasants, and savages (p. 52).

In the realm of music research, the German Vergleichende Musikwissenschaft “comparative musicology” school (c.1885–1935) adopted this decontextualised view of culture, and subscribed to emergent ideological theories of cultural diffusion and monogenesis in their approach to viewing music in culture. The creation of recordings of the world’s musical practices for the purpose of armchair comparative analysis was essentially, as ethnomusicologist Philip V. Bohlman has suggested, “an extension of colonial intervention, with the concomitant aim of locating non-Western music in the comparative framework of Western, largely European, history” (Bohlman, 2001/2016, para. 3).

The new globalism that followed World War II brought by new migrations, reorganisation of colonial boundaries and powers, and new recording technologies, prompted numerous revisions to the study of music and culture. At Columbia University in the USA, Franz Boas espoused the importance of rich ethnographic description in the study of music. Alan Merriam, at Indiana University, argued for the necessity of anthropological approaches to music in ethnomusicology (Merriam, 1964) and cultural anthropology emerged as a primary influence on the study of musics of the world. John Blacking turned to the biological conditions of music to find that music was not simply a product of a culture, but rather that “[c]ulture ... was… a product of musical practices that combined with other fundamental human activities to yield society” (Bohlman, 2001/2016, para. 17): music was “humanly organized sound” (Blacking, 1973, p. 3) that “soundly organized humanity” (p. 89). A disciplinary focus of music as culture (not simply music in culture) emerged. This has guided rich ethnographic accounts of musics in many Global North and Global South communities, rendering understandings of humanity that were otherwise inaccessible. Such an approach has also emerged in musicology, with new theories that emphasise embodiment and reliance on context, such as “musicking” (Small, 1998, p. 9) and “turtles all the way down” (McClary, 2000, p. 1) in the study of Western musics.

As a more holistic understanding of music as culture emerged in ethnomusicology, so too has recognition of the participation of ethnomusicology in reinforcing “ideological faultlines” that persisted from early academic iterations of the culture concept (Bohlman, 2001/2016, para. 25). Ethnomusicology involves new discourses that are attentive to race, gender, power and privilege that cast not just the musical other, but also the gazing ethnomusicologist, at the center of the study. For Bohlman “the cultural study of music is inseparable from the history of the present and the ethnographic encounter with our own world” (Bohlman, 2012, p. 30). Comparison in ethnomusicology has returned, but we are more attentive to context (Savage & Brown, 2013) and to the need for discourse and greater awareness of what we compare and why (Clayton, 2012). Critical reflexivity has emerged as a priority when designing and conducting research, and when analysing, interpreting, and representing results, as have calls for greater attention to postcolonial discourses when we theorise our field(s).

In Australia, a settler state that continues to struggle with the systemic violence of colonialism, ethnomusicology has turned its sites on the power and the privileges assumed by non-Indigenous researchers in approaching and representing Indigenous musical traditions. Here, the task of ethnomusicology is not just studying music as culture, but to study music reflexively and interculturally; that is, recognising the act of research as a “a symbolic, interpretive, transactional, contextual process” (Lustig & Koester, 1993, p. 25).

This article provides an account of the response to the modern postcolonial prerogative from a particular perspective and field: that of a non-Indigenous Australian ethnomusicologist (myself, the author) who conducts research on Indigenous Australian musical traditions with Indigenous cultural performers and stakeholders. In this account I contend that postcolonial discourse that emphasises intercultural knowledge production contributes to an understanding of past and present approaches to the study of music in and as culture.

Histories and Legacies of Music as Culture Research in Australia—Musical Analysis and Recording

In 2006 one of the leading exponents of ethnomusicology in Australia, Stephen Wild, asked if ethnomusicology in the antipodes has “a distinctive voice?” (p. 345), pointing out that while American ethnomusicology has been guided by an anthropological approach to the exclusion of the analysis of musical sound, Australian ethnomusicology was informed by a musicological approach that featured the analysis of musical sound (p. 351). As Wild (2006) and Toner (2007) pointed out, while American Richard Waterman set forth with a distinctly anthropological approach in his study of songs from Arnhem Land in far north Australia in the 1950s, early Australian ethnomusicologists such as Trevor Jones, Alice Moyle, and Catherine Ellis, all trained in Europe, incorporated analysis of musical form in research and scholarship on Australian Aboriginal song, setting a path for following and current generations who have included substantial musical analysis and transcription in their studies of Australian Aboriginal music.

Ethnomusicologists in Australia from the 1980s onwards, by and large, blended both approaches—using musical analysis in hand with socio-cultural analysis to understand Aboriginal musical cultures. This was in part due to the legacy of Wild (who himself trained under Alan Merriam in the 1960s at Indiana) and Catherine Ellis, and in part due to the broader influence of anthropological and ethnographic approaches in ethnomusicology beyond North America. However, the blended musicological/ethnographic approach of Australian ethnomusicology was also due to the particular complexity of Australian Aboriginal musical traditions. In these traditions, where musical variability is a key marker of social action, fine-grained analysis of multiple songs within repertories, and multiple performances of songs, enables us to get to socio-cultural processes and the social power of musical processes. Allan Marett, a leader in Australian ethnomusicology from the 1980s to the present explained:

although analysis is not particularly fashionable within ethnomusicology today, … it provides our best methodological tool for isolating significant (and signifying) moments of performance (2005, p. 6).

This approach has rendered powerful insights into music as culture. In his Stanner Award-winning monograph on the Wangga genre from the Daly Region of northern Australia, for example, Marett investigated social and political contexts in hand with cosmology and aesthetics, and musical form, to show how Wangga songs have the power “make and unmake the world” (2010, p. 250). Drawing on Nicholas Evans’ description of the way in which small societies distinguish themselves from neighbouring and distant groups by a “constructive fostering of variegation” in their languages (2010, p.14), Linda Barwick (2011) used musical analysis to show how the diverse clans that were moved from their traditional lands into the Port Keats Mission in the mid twentieth century negotiated new social and ceremonial relationships through musical innovation.

While musical analysis provides tools to gain insight into Aboriginal musical cultural expression, its application raises a number of issues that are central to our understanding of the broader intercultural context in which research takes place in Australia. In the first instance, due to the variability of musical systems (Barwick, 1989), analysis of Aboriginal song (particularly analysis that seeks to understand the relationships between text and rhythm, and melody and text/rhythm) inevitably becomes a complicated technical feat. This analysis risks eclipsing embodied musical processes (Magowan, 2007, p. 13) and may be oppressive (Mackinlay, 2012). For others the music cultures we look at “resist… the universalising aims of analysis” through irregularity and variability (Barwick, 1989, p. 14), parataxis and minimal contrast (Barwick, 2005a; Barwick, 2005b; Treloyn, 2007), amongst other techniques.

Secondly, the very task of analysis is predicated on access to recording technologies and acts of recording. The advent of recording technologies opened new possibilities for ethnomusicological research, enabling researchers to review and reflect on performance events. The creation of recordings and their subsequent archiving has also created a record of many musical traditions and practices of the past for use by communities of origin in the present and future. However, the use of recording technologies and creation of recordings by ethnomusicologists is not without complication. Australian historian Martin Thomas has drawn attention to the historical associations between recording, cultural appropriation and colonisation, for example (2007, p. 118). Recording technologies were used in the comparative musicology school to facilitate comparison of musical systems guided by ideologies of monogenesis and diffusion (see discussion by Bohlman, 2001/2016) and were also deployed to support preservation/salvage approaches to non-Western musics predicated on a deficit view of dying cultures. As discussed elsewhere (Treloyn & Charles, 2014; Treloyn, in press-a), due to the colonial history of the Australian nation state and histories of collection-based intercultural research, disciplines such as ethnomusicology risk passively reinforcing the systemic colonial violence.

A question that emerges when we consider the historical and political baggage of the task of researching music and culture in Australia is: how can we proceed with knowledge of these shadows and risks? Do the benefits of research outweigh the potential harm? In light of the complexity and political shadows of analysis and recording of Australian Aboriginal music, it is not surprising that critical reflection on the Euro-centric presumptions and short-comings of the analytical endeavour is frequently woven into analytical ethnomusicological scholarship. As early as 1991 Marett stated:

we need to work at devising strategies to avoid subsuming Aboriginal performers' realities to our systems of knowledge, and this involves our continuing to refine our awareness of the implications that our processes of documentation and analysis hold for the politics of representation (p. 44).

Indeed, a reflexive tendency has continued to emerge in discussions of analysis in Australian ethnomusicology in the 21st century and permeates both ethnographic (see Mackinlay, 2012) and analytical approaches. This seeks to “take personal responsibility” for the method as a cross-cultural response (Knopoff, 2003, p. 44) and that makes not just musical systems, but also contemporary Australian societies and culture, including cultures of intercultural ethnomusicology, the subject of research.

Elsewhere, I have described the new emergence of an epistemic community of applied ethnomusicologies in Australia,[1] centred on principles derived from an Indigenous Rights agenda, repatriation, and Indigenous epistemologies (see Treloyn, in press-a). Here, I turn to the postcolonial discourse of interculturalism in the study of music as culture as it manifests in applied ethnomusicologies that are centred on collaboration and repatriation.

Futures of Music as Culture Research in Australia: Researching Music Interculturally—Collaboration and Repatriation

Ethnomusicologists working with Aboriginal cultural heritage communities in Australia have long used methods that involve a certain degree of collaboration or cooperation with musicians and cultural heritage stakeholders. Over the last two decades, ethnomusicologists have increasingly begun emphasise the importance of self-representation by Indigenous participants in presentations and published research results. Forums such as the annual Symposium on Indigenous Music and Dance, for example, showcase Indigenous-led and collaborative research projects.

Accordingly, ethnomusicologists have turned to collaborations, such as these, as the subject of study. Elizabeth Mackinlay has led a critical discourse on the problematics of, and embodiment in, intercultural collaboration (e.g., Mackinlay, 2005; Mackinlay & Barney, 2014; Mackinlay & Chalmers, 2014). A recent volume on collaboration, edited by Katelyn Barney (2014), provides numerous collaborative perspectives on the processes of collaboration in the Australian context. Articles by Barney, Mackinlay, along with Brydie Lee Bartleet and Kathryn Marsh appear in the recent volume on intercultural arts research (Burnard, Powell, & Mackinlay, 2016). This scholarship turns the ethnomusicological gaze—previously directed at music as culture as other—onto our ethnomusicological selves. It views our collaborations as co-creating cultures of music research that can, hopefully, inform intercultural relations more broadly. We seek a view of music not just as culture, but through process of understanding interculturally.

At the basis of postcolonial discourse on intercultural collaboration is the notion of a contact zone, a term coined by Mary Louis Pratt to describe “social spaces where disparate cultures meet, clash, and grapple with each other, often in highly asymmetrical relations of domination and subordination” (Pratt, 1992/2008, p. 7). Margaret Somerville and Tony Perkins (2003) reframed the contact zone in intercultural research collaborations as a discomfort zone—a space where new and hybrid knowledge can be produced when difference brings opportunity for creativity (p. 257; see also Manthunga, 2009, p. 166). As has previously been observed, discomfort—including that which comes from a critical awareness of the colonial roots of our disciplines and the power imbalances of our research relationships—is a constitutive part of the processes and products of research (see Treloyn & Charles, 2014).

In the context of ethnomusicological research that engages with the community of singers and stakeholders that holds the public Junba dance-song tradition in the northern Kimberley region of northwest Australia, this has manifested in two areas. Firstly, in dialogues about the colonial entanglements of recording-centred research on the Junba dance-song genre and, secondly, in dialogues about the colonial entanglements of repatriation of recordings of Junba to communities of origin.

With regard to recording, in 2014 Charles (a Ngarinyin/Nyigina cultural consultant) and I (Treloyn & Charles, 2014) discussed our contrastive perspectives on my early research in Charles’ community in 2000–2002. Charles explained the cultural foundations for her concern, producing new knowledge about the movability—or removability—of intangible cultural heritage from a cultural heritage community:

Sally: So you’d see me driving around and [name omitted—elder singer] had said to you, “She’s putting all the junba on CDs.” What were you thinking then about what I did?
Rona: Well, when you ask those old people a question they don’t talk much, you know. They just tell you “We just recording, put ‘im ’bout on music, on CD” and they won’t talk for a sentence or a whole paragraph. They will just give you one little quick answer and that’s it. They won’t talk more. I was thinking at the time [that I saw you here] that I wanted to be involved becauseI wanted to sing junba. I can sing junba. And I used to think, “How can I be sitting there singing with them?”, you know.
Sally: Did you wonder why they were talking to me?
Rona: In a way, but I used to [I wanted to] wait. We [are] talking about a cultural thing now, because I am not what you call a manambarra senior person you know. … I used to say to myself, “I’ll wait until they ask me”—not [I wasn’t waiting for] you, I was waiting for them. Like I used to say to myself,
“They’ll ask me to be part of them when they ready”, you know. I always thought to myself, “When they come and ask me mean[s] … [that is when] they [are] ready to die. I used to always think that “They preparing themselves to die, when they want to give their knowledge.” … I used to think [that] they might be making their way, preparing themselves to go, you know … and [they] want to put all that knowledge [on paper and in recordings with you]. But I was also thinking, because … [there were no] young people with them, they want to put it in the CD with you. Get all this written up (Treloyn & Charles, 2014).

Charles went on to describe how, when asking an elder to teach her a Junba song, she was presented with transcriptions that I had previously provided to the elder.

This dialogue, while revealing a number of uncomfortable and problematic truths about the ramifications of my research, in turn, opened up new dialogue about the productive benefits of recordings and how these concerns might inform positive outcomes for Charles’ communities. Through acknowledging the discomfort and differences that emerge in intercultural music research, we were about to produce transcultural knowledge about: learning both ways (Treloyn & Charles, 2014); how new media can support intergenerational transmission of knowledge about and through song and wellbeing (Treloyn & Charles, 2015); and, the role of intercultural collaboration in supporting the voices of Indigenous research participants (Treloyn & Charles, 2014).

With regard to repatriation of recordings to communities of origin, while by and large published and anecdotal reports recount the positive outcomes of repatriation, various scholars have also noted some of the ambiguities and sometimes problems that archives and repatriation can cause (see Treloyn & Emberly, 2013). Non-Indigenous researchers in Australia may view repatriation as a good that they might do in their neo-colonial settler state, however these reports and concerns highlight the potential complexity of the space in which recordings are not only made and held, but also the space created when they are returned; spaces in which the relational goods of research—be that good intents or the recorded objects/recorded goods themselves—are ambiguous and contested.

Again, dialogue with cultural heritage stakeholders, has enabled the production of new knowledge from this collaborative space of discomfort. Matthew Martin, an elder Ngarinyin singer and leader of Junba, has previously described to me his experience of traveling to the archive in Canberra to listen to and identify songs recorded in the 1960s for repatriation. His approach is to frame the repatriation process in terms of cultural precedents, namely the principle that singers of the past (his own, now deceased ancestors) sang the songs for past researchers and now, through the tape, sing for him, so that he can sing for younger generations. For Martin, the repatriation of recordings is framed by the unbreakable epistemology of Wurnan, which guides an ethos and process of interpersonal and intergroup gifting and sharing.

You have to give back … the recording. Family takes it. You have to give them the recording so they can listen to their grandfather, uncle, father. They listen to the songs. They’ll dance. They’ll pick it up too. … They’ll be wanting to sing the song or put on their show. They can pick up the song from their old timers. … That’s real good that. That’s real good, handing it back to the family. … It is the Wurnan. It is the Wurnan. We have to do it for family. We have to give the families back. We musn’t forget about—they musn’t forget about—their family that passed away. They must remember their songs. [When they] see the picture, they will always remember them then. Old people passed away, some of us too young to know. They didn’t know [them] but they can look at the picture and the boys when they start singing and they can see how they was, in their days. … It’s been there for years, Wurnan. (Matthew Dembal Martin cited in Treloyn, in press-b).

For Martin, repatriation fits within a local cultural frame of knowledge sharing and knowledge production that cuts across generations, geographical space, cultural perspectives, and, historical research frames. This extends to his relationship with me:

Wurnan only coming to [us] for sharing. Share a lot of things, like food, junba. Share, sharing with spears, woomeras [spear throwers], it’s sharing. Wurnan is for a gift, you know. Free gift. Like you are working with me and I got a wurnan for you. I go, I wurnan with you see. You do the recording for me and I do the talking and I’m, it’s just like Wurnan giving us. I am giving you the stories and you work with me and it’s a gift. Recording – that’s a gift. You record things (Matthew Dembal Martin cited in Treloyn, in press-b).

For Charles, collaboration is Wurnan (see Treloyn & Charles, 2014).

In engaging with dialogues that acknowledge difference and discomfort when working at the boundaries of gender, cultural worlds, and epistemologies, Charles, Martin, and I, have produced transcultural knowledge about music that encompasses both the local context from which it is inseparable, and the intercultural context in which music meaning is generated.


The selective history of ethnomusicological research on Indigenous Australian musical traditions provided in this article, accounting for the international and ideological origins and modern influences of the discipline, offers insight into a research practice that operates within political, historical, social, and personal shadows in its treatment of culture. This article has provided an account of the shadows that are cast over one of the furthest corners of Australian ethnomusicological research, in the Kimberley region of northwest Australia. In sitting together with the discomfort of these shadows, operationalised in the course of collaborative intercultural processes of research, recording and repatriation, reflexive dialogue has been shown to produce new transcultural knowledge about music and about music research.

Contemporary critical discourse on research on music in and as culture, across fields of study, is attentive to the assumptions, gaps and boundaries that define the contact zones in which the researcher and the researched meet. It is hoped that the path travelled here moves towards the transdisciplinary, postcolonial, task of researchers who are concerned with producing knowledge about music in and as culture.


[1] The International Council for Traditional Music Study Group defines applied ethnomusicology as “the approach guided by principles of social responsibility, which extends the usual academic goal of broadening and deepening knowledge and understanding toward solving concrete problems and toward working both inside and beyond typical academic contexts” (http://www.ictmusic.org/group/applied-ethnomusicology)


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