Ethnomusicology: Music as a Means to Travel

Marina McLerran

Editor, McLerran Journal

Assistant Band Director, Center ISD, TX


When most people think of careers in music, they picture performing in a large venue, but there are several diverse branches of musical work. The Society of Ethnomusicology defines the field as “the study of music in its cultural context.” It Involves sharing folklore, history, and religion through the study of music. Ethnomusicologists are “musical anthropologists” (to paraphrase Tom Gates from the Matador Network) who encourage an appreciation for folk music; stories and melodies that are deeply rooted in a people’s culture. It is the responsibility of ethnomusicologists to both gather musical samples and also understand the social or religious purpose of the work. A successful ethnomusicologist has training in music dictation, recording technology, and extensive knowledge of the culture being studied; folklore, social sciences, political policies, gender roles, and more.

To become an ethnomusicologist, one should first apply to one of the over sixty universities worldwide who offer a degree plan in the field. While holding a college degree in ethnomusicology is not required to travel, it certainly makes attaining an audience with important political leaders or universities more likely. Grants are available to the public but are generally awarded to doctoral students or published scholars. The salary for ethnomusicologists ranges from thirty thousand to ninety thousand dollars annually, according to Adriana Helbig from the University of Pittsburgh. Professor Helbig also points out that ethnomusicologists working with colleagues across the globe (in different time zones) must hold either very early or very late office hours.

A day in the life of a contemporary ethnomusicologist, includes tasks ranging from cataloging samples for a museum to recording or transcribing folk songs in an isolated community. On the more adventurous side of ethnomusicology are individuals like Aaron Appleton; currently the Science Department Chair for the New York based Quest to Learn, and an Earth Science Fellow with the NYC Teaching Fellows. In 2007, Mr. Appleton worked as an ethnomusicologist in Central America designing multiple ethnomusicology workshops, aiding in the construction of a recording studio in Belize City, organizing community performances, and producing four albums of songs. According to an article by Mr. Tom Gates from the Matador Network, Mr. Appleton’s time as an ethnomusicologist included dangers like being swallowed by a rioting mob, encounters with snakes, and frustrations with recording equipment or a lack of resources. Field researchers will regularly face adversity when it comes to traveling and potentially outdated machinery and therefore must be resourceful.

While some ethnomusicologists will spend the majority of the year traveling, others elect to work as curators or educators instead. This allows for a predictable daily routine and a steady income with regular opportunities to travel during the summer months. In an interview with Nicole Saylor from the American Folklife Center, intern Kirk Sullivan described his studies in ethnomusicology with the Library of Congress in 2014. Having always had a passion for music and other cultures, Sullivan left his software engineering career after twenty years to enroll in a Master’s program at the University of Hawai’i. Through the study of Polynesian music and history, Sullivan found his passion in the locating and cataloging of old wax cylinders (phonograph recordings), which led him to an internship at the American Folklife Center. Sullivan, noting the importance of organizing and properly caring for artifacts, began to lean more towards an ethnomusicology position in a museum or library rather than field work.

Famous Composers and Ethnomusicology

While it is not a requirement that ethnomusicologists also be composers, the two fields regularly intersect. Several famous composers including Bela Bartok, Percy Grainger, and Antonin Dvorak all dabbled in arranging folk songs for band or orchestral works.

Bela Bartok

Bela Bartok (1881-1945) was a Hungarian composer famous for the prevalent nationalism in his music. According to David Taylor from the publication Musical Offerings, Bartok was one of the first major composers to travel to rural areas in search of authentic folk songs and is therefore often referred to as the “Father of Ethnomusicology.” Taylor states that Bartok’s efforts “revealed to the world that folk music exists, is important, and stands as an independent academic discipline.”

Percy Grainger

Percy Grainger (1882-1961) was an Australian-American composer, pianist, and conductor who is best remembered for his arrangements of English folk songs like “Molly on the Shore” or “Country Gardens.” In his career, he composed variations of traditional English music for soloists, chorus, orchestra, and band. A collection of his personal works and belongings can be found within the Grainger Museum in Australia (

Antonin Dvorak

Antonin Dvorak (1841-1904) was born in what is now known as the Czech Republic. His groundbreaking compositions transformed folk music into symphonies. Dvorak’s most famous work, “Symphony No.9 in E Minor (From the New World),” combined elements of both African American spirituals and Bohemian (Czech) folk music.  


Ethnomusicology Resources:

International Council for Traditional Music

The British Forum for Ethnomusicology

The Society for Ethnomusicology.



“Ethnomusicology: Travel the World Through Music.” Gates, Tom. 14 October 2008. Matador  

          Network. Travel and Adventure Jobs. Web. 14 May 2017.


“What is Ethnomusicology?” The Society for Ethnomusicology. N.d. Web. 14 May 2017.


"Béla Bartók: The Father of Ethnomusicology." Nelson, David Taylor. (2012) Musical Offerings

          Vol. 3 : No. 2 , Article 2. <



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          1999. Web. 17 May 2017. <>


“Antonin Dvorak.” Lloyd-Jones, David Mathias. Encyclopaedia Britannica. 2 March 2017. Web.

          17 May 2017. <>


“It's Never Too Late to be an Ethnomusicologist: A Conversation with AFC Intern Kirk Sullivan.”

          Saylor, Nicole. Folklife Today. Library of Congress. 3 July 2014. Web. 18 May 2017.



“Caught My Eye: Nagra Field Recorder.” Winick, Stephen. Folklife Today. Library of Congress. 1

          February 2017. Web. 18 May 2017.



“Ethnomusicologist.” Helbig, Adriana. Careers in Music. 2017. Web. 18 May 2017.