Ethnomusicologists go into the field to learn about the musical practices of different groups, writing academic studies that frame musical traditions and movements through a sociocultural lens.
Comparative Musicologist, Musicologist, Folklorist
How To Become an Ethnomusicologist
Ethnomusicologists are usually employed by colleges or universities, where they lecture in addition to conducting research. (Others are employed by museums, archives, institutes, record labels, etc.) They study the music of a culture within a social and political framework, spending long periods of time living immersed in the culture they study.
Professor Adriana Helbig of the University of Pittsburgh says it’s the study of “how people use music to create community and how they relate to each other on the physical, emotional and national level.” They also teach students, present work to peers, and write research projects.
Helbig says “my day begins very early because I’m working [with groups] in Europe. I do a lot of my research between 5-8am. I can’t just get to work at 8 am” because of the time difference. “I teach two classes a day” and conduct “field work in the summer. I have to plan a year ahead of time because of grant work deadlines. . . . You have to think two or three steps ahead.”
Usually, an Ethnomusicologist will teach during the school year, with occasional overseas outings to teach study abroad courses. They have regular office hours and teach a certain amount of classes during the day or the night.
However, they also spend time writing grants, conducting research and putting together travel and research plans for the periods of time when they’ll be conducting fieldwork. This can happen at anytime—during “normal” business hours and outside of them. Schedules also vary based on where the Ethnomusicologist’s main area of study is located; to communicate with people around the world, they often have to get up very early or stay up very late.
Most Ethnomusicologists start off as Adjunct Professors, moving on to become Visiting Professors or Visiting Assistant Professors before landing Assistant Professor positions and getting on a tenure track. From Assistant Professor they become Professors. Further advancement can come in the form of working with a more well-known, prestigious university or institute, or through becoming Director of the related university department.
It’s a long road to landing that first tenured position as an Ethnomusicologist “because we have to do research and lots of long training,” Helbig says. “I became an Adjunct the last year of my grad school program, getting paid to teach one class,” before moving on to become a visiting Assistant Professor as a sabbatical replacement, and finally ending up at the University of Pittsburgh where she taught for six years before getting on the tenure track.
“The typical job has 50-80 applicants. Everybody has a Ph.D. and everybody is quite qualified so a lot of it is learning how to market yourself,” she says. “You need to know more than just your subfield these days so you can be hired to teach other classes” like jazz, etc. Plus an Ethnomusicologist has to be able to speak the same academic language as their other colleagues on the music staff.
- Start looking at grad school programs during junior year. Have at least two solid pieces of writing “that show your chops.”
- Start making connections.
- Most people apply to an average of eight grad school programs.
- Apply to doctoral programs to get funding. This won’t happen if you only apply to MA programs.
Experience & Skills
“Study abroad so you know your comfort levels.” Even as undergraduates, the connections aspiring Ethnomusicologists make on these programs are key because as in all music careers, “it’s who you know” and these are the connections people will use “to get a research project going.”
Traveling experience ranks highly for a slightly different reason. Part of Helbig’s job as an Assistant Professor is planning and leading groups of students on study abroad.
She says “when I do my study abroad programs, I’m drawing on how much time I need” to plan out the trips based on personal experience. This same knowledge of how long things take is important for fieldwork when she has to make plans based on “how long it takes to find an underground scene versus talking to Producers. Everything you see builds on everything else.”
It’s important to learn how to manage time and stress levels. “Learn these types of skills so you can use your time well [when you’re] in other countries,” she says. It’s also important to study a language that isn’t French, German, or Spanish.
Choose “something that relates to your own experiences but isn’t a colonial language.” She uses the example that in Russia, everyone speaks Russian, yet there are also many other tongues specific to minority cultural groups. Speaking these languages will help Researchers communicate, navigate their new location, and show respect and a serious interest in the culture.
An Ethnomusicologist should enjoy acquiring language skills and “really be willing to travel. This isn’t the field for you if you’re uncomfortable in different cultures and social situations,” Helbig says.
Although this is an academic field of study, aspiring Ethnomusicologists must not adhere to the buttoned-up Professor stereotype. While learning about other cultures, Ethnomusicologists might hear things like “take your shoes off, we’re going to learn some Irish dancing,” and they have to be excited to “participate in the music and how that music is used in the culture.”
Ethnomusicologists must “persevere, be determined and stubborn” yet also be “laid back because things go wrong all the time in fieldwork.”
Education & Training
A Ph.D. is essential to becoming a Professor. Ethnomusicology MA degree programs are available, but they have almost no likelihood of being funded, and will not allow a candidate to advance as far as possible in this career.
“You need this degree in music to make these connections,” Helbig says, explaining that the research and study abroad connections students make will stay with them throughout their career, opening new doors to study in different areas of the world.
She stresses that attending an undergraduate program with world music classes is important, saying that “if you only go to a school that talks about Bach and Beethoven, it’s not going to give you a sense of what you can do.” In addition to schoolwork, students need to be motivated to attend regional conferences, join Ethnomusicology organizations and get to know the people in their chosen field to get exposure to more opportunities.
Google Scholar is a great resource for online research. “What interests you? Are you interested in music and sexuality? Music and race? Just start reading,” Helbig says.
What is the single biggest suggestion you would give to someone wanting to get into this career?
“Know what you’re getting into” in regards to time commitment, stress, and the job market. It’s extremely competitive because jobs rarely open up, plus there’s the tenure process. Once people get to where they want to be, even if it’s not perfect, “they stay there and make things work.”
Also, be organized. You might have to be a TA for 300 students. You might have to put together a concert. “You have to ask a lot of people for help.”
Find a Professor who can help you “because a Professor won’t reach out to you. I’m here to help. I’ll never not reply to your email.”
What’s the #1 mistake people make when trying to get into this career?
They don’t see “the overload of the job. They think you just teach music. Well, no…I don’t just teach music. It comes with a lot of responsibility.”
Adriana Helbig is an Assistant Professor of Applied Ethnomusicology and an affiliated faculty member in Cultural Studies, Women’s Studies, Global Studies, and part of the Center for Russian and East European Studies at the University of Pittsburgh. A member of the graduate faculty, she teaches courses on global hip-hop, world music, music, gender, and sexuality, music and technology, and cultural policy. She is an alumna of Columbia University.
She is also founder and director of the Carpathian Music Ensemble, a student performance group that specializes in the music of Eastern Europe, including Jewish klezmer and Gypsy music. She is the recipient of numerous grants and research fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities, American Councils for International Education, IREX, and Fulbright.
She is the co-author, with Oksana Buranbaeva and Vanja Mladineo, of The Culture and Customs of Ukraine (Greenwood Press, 2009). Her book Hip-Hop Ukraine: Music, Race, and African Migration was published in May 2014 by Indiana University Press. Helbig has been a guest lecturer at the University of Maryland. For more of her thoughts on Ukraniain hip-hop, check out this article from PRI.