World Music Classes: Why They’re Worth Taking

World music classes can inform your music and musical interests, as well as provide insight into different cultures, communication patterns, rhythms, instruments, sounds, and ways of making music.

MajoringInMusic.com talked with Dr. Jeff Packman to learn more about the benefits of taking world music classes — for music majors as well as non-majors. Packman, a former working drummer, is assistant professor of Ethnomusicology at University of Toronto Faculty of Music. He specializes in Brazilian music, popular music of the Americas, and cultural theory.

How do world music classes differ from other kinds of music courses?

Much of the music in the world looks and sounds very different from that which is most typically studied and taught in North American universities, i.e., music from the Western art music tradition. These “other” kinds of music often involve different instruments, different scales, different rhythms, different ways of participating, and different ways of thinking. So a class in “world music” will really help you understand that there are countless ways that music can sound, look, and be meaningful. This is one of the main reasons that more and more people are studying music from other cultures.

Who teaches these classes?

In most instances, university courses on world music are taught by ethnomusicologists. Ethnomusicology is often described as the study of music in and as culture. This means that, for an ethnomusicologist, studying world music means trying to understand any music from anywhere in the world as social practice — activities in which people participate in various ways.

While most ethnomusicologists conduct research and teach classes on non-Western music from distant locales such as Bali, India, Japan, Brazil, Iran and countless others, the way we do this has been applied to more familiar kinds of music including rock, jazz, and even Western “classical” music in familiar places, including our own “backyards.”

What specifically do world music classes offer?

A world music class can call attention to the incredible diversity of musical sounds that exist in the world. It can provide a starting place for more varied listening. This is fundamental to any kind of music study, any musical career, and any life in music regardless of whether or not you consider yourself a musician.

Not only will these classes help you increase the variety in your playlists, but, since they are usually taught from an ethnomusicological perspective, they will also help you better understand sounds that otherwise might not make much sense. All of this can make listening to music — and playing and composing it —that much more enjoyable, by helping you break out of those inevitable and at times tiresome old habits and by creating a greater openness and appreciation of new sounds.

Do world music courses influence performing?

I think so.  For example, analytical listening to music that uses scales and tuning systems that differ from Western music or that are based in unfamiliar approaches to rhythm can do wonders for your ear training, your ability to play in tune, in time, and with the appropriate feel. These concepts and skills are not necessarily limited to performance. They can also strengthen your composition, arranging, and conducting chops.

How can world music classes impact your career?

Ethnomusicology can help students think differently about what music is and what it means.

Something that I have seen quite frequently is that students who have stayed close to “home” in their music studies by taking only western music history, harmony, and performance courses, often limit themselves to defining their future as musicians and participants in music in fairly narrow ways. This can, unfortunately, lead to disappointment and dissatisfaction in terms of careers after college and even with their own involvement with music.

For example, many students major in music with the ambition of becoming a great virtuoso who earns a living performing as a soloist with elite orchestras. While this is an admirable goal, it is one that only a very few people will ever achieve. Ethnomusicological studies of conservatories and various communities of professional musicians have illustrated how musicians who, despite being quite skilled and successful professionals, can become frustrated and even bitter about their careers and their music making because they have not become “headliners.”

At the root of this dissatisfaction, according to these studies, is a sense that such status is the only way to be truly successful in music. Some of these musicians go as far as saying that by not becoming famous soloists (or composers, or conductors), they had let down family, friends, and teachers who held those expectations of them.

As a kind of antidote to this kind of thinking, ethnomusicology courses often study music cultures that have very different values about music and success, including many that stress the importance and pleasures of participation with a group rather than standing out from it. In other words, people in different cultural contexts may define musical and career success in different ways, a realization that can be quite liberating.

The critical thinking typically stressed in ethnomusicology courses also helps students see that there is much more to music and musical careers than meets the eye. It reveals that success results from factors beyond constant practicing or natural “talent,” and most importantly, that there are numerous ways to have a successful and fulfilling life and career as a musician.

Additional ways world music classes can contribute to your career?

1. With cultural diversity on the increase throughout the world, the need for people with cross-cultural knowledge is more crucial than ever. 

Ethnomusicology and specifically the study of world music provides a framework for thinking about how we encounter musical and indeed, cultural difference. Such knowledge can be put to use in any number of ways including doing public sector work on cultural policy or community arts programming and education. In the private sector, people with training in ethnomusicology work as organizers for music festivals, folkloric and cultural societies, museums, and more.

2. Performers with ethnomusicological training are able to draw on their knowledge of a wide range of music to broaden what they do musically, but in a culturally-sensitive and more self-aware way.

This can not only help create new opportunities for music making, but it can make that music making more enjoyable and in many instances, more ethical.

3. Transferable skills

Ethnomusicology courses teach students skills such as research, critical thinking, and writing that are entirely applicable and even necessary for most other careers.

• Professional musicians need to write bios for their websites and must keep developing their musical understandings.

• Doctors need to write reports about their patients and learn about new illnesses and treatments.

• Lawyers must research legal precedents and write briefs.

• Executives must study financial reports and write memos.

While other university classes often stress these skills, the work of developing them seems less hard and often much more fun when thinking and writing about music.

What if you want to further explore ethnomusicology?

Beyond taking ethnomusicology courses and playing in world music ensembles that are offered in many undergraduate programs, the best way to really dig into ethnomusicology is to pursue graduate study.

At the graduate level, you will be able to delve deeply into music and related issues that interest you. You will be able to study any music anywhere in the world as a social practice. You will also have opportunities to participate in that music, with the larger goal of learning as much as possible about it and the people who participate in it as a basis for communicating what you’ve learned by writing books and articles, giving lectures, and teaching.

If you aren’t ready to take on graduate school just yet, reading ethnomusicology journals like Ethnomusicology and Ethnomusicology Forum is a great place to start. Your library will likely have a selection of ethnomusicology books as well, so you might ask a librarian to make recommendations. Many libraries also have subscriptions that will let you listen to music from all over the world. Talking to an ethnomusicologist and asking for reading and listening recommendations is a great way to keep exploring as well. Most of us are more than happy to talk to people about what we do and especially the music we study, teach, and perform.


Dr. Jeff Packman is assistant professor of Ethnomusicology at University of Toronto Faculty of Music where he is divisional coordinator of History & Culture of Music.

Photo Credit: Liam Sharp

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