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  • Have You Changed Your Mind?Reflections on Sixty Years in Ethnomusicology*
  • Bruno Nettl

A younger colleague asked me a few years ago whether, in the realm of ideas and concepts in the field of ethnomusicology, there were things about which I had changed my mind in the course of the six decades I had spent studying and teaching in this field. At the time, it seemed a somewhat ridiculous question: how could I not have changed my mind? Indeed, whether I myself had changed my mind or not, the denizens of this field have learned a great deal, and further, both the world's musical cultures themselves and the kinds of things we know about them have turned out to be different from the way they seemed a half century ago. How can scholars not change their minds as they learn new things?

My colleague's question, however, led me to think about the concept of "changing one's mind" in my field, and maybe in academia generally. "Changing" one's mind may refer to the recognition of newly discovered data that may require, unquestionably, a new interpretation of its background and context. Or it may involve a methodology or approach that suggests or argues for a new interpretation of data already well known. A scholar might, once in his or her life, make a huge shift of perspective, perhaps denying what he or she had once considered to be unshakably established. Once in a lifetime, a scholar might make a major turn, or another might make lots of small shifts, living perhaps a kind of zigzagging life of scholarship. "Changing my mind" might refer to an individual insight, finding, interpretation; or participating in a movement of the entire discipline; or deciding to swim upstream; or leading a movement that in concert significantly changes direction.

Many scholars seem to me to have thought of their work as comprising, principally, one major overarching contribution, coming to one conclusion that dominated their thinking for life. I think I have more typically changed my mind, tried different approaches, leading me to feel that I often turned the wrong way and had to make a correction, tried something different, turned right or left or even made a U-turn. I propose here to comment informally on ten issues (but there could well be [End Page 45] others) relevant to this discussion. I have touched on the subject in several recent publications,1 and would like here to consolidate, correct, and expand a bit.

The Definition and Concept of Music

Here is my first issue: What is music, and is there really such a thing—such a thing? What a ridiculous question! Surely not one that the founders of the Society for Ethnomusicology (SEM) asked themselves. If they had, they could have paraphrased Descartes: "We are ethnomusicologists, therefore there is music" (paralleling David McAllester's possibly apocryphal definition of ethnomusicology, "ethnomusicology is what ethnomusicologists do"). As ethnomusicologists increasingly broaden their field, encompassing even subfields such as medical ethnomusicology, evolutionary musicology, ecomusicology, and music and conflict resolution, the question again becomes relevant. If at that first SEM meeting in 1955, no one asked that question, what is music?, this neglect, in retrospect, was a bit naive. It's something they should have been concerned about at the beginning. After all, most English-language dictionaries defined music simply in terms of the common-practice Western tradition, just what the new field of ethnomusicology was inveighing against. Most encyclopedias of music, too, lacked an entry. Who would be looking up "music" when they already had a music dictionary in hand?

About 1990, the distinguished editor of the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians (NGroveD), Stanley Sadie, invited me to write the article with the title "Music" for the next edition of the great encyclopedia.2 NGroveD did not previously have this entry and had been criticized for the omission. With trepidation, I undertook to write the article, but I found it very hard for many reasons, and I'm a bit relieved that few seem actually to have read this article. Looking in dictionaries of languages of the world, and in a body of ethnographic literature, I...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2296-4339
Print ISSN
0001-6241
Pages
pp. 45-65
Launched on MUSE
2018-01-01
Open Access
No
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