Visual Evidence in Ethnomusicology

Authored by: Andrew Killick

The Routledge Companion to Music and Visual Culture

Print publication date:  September  2013
Online publication date:  July  2013

Print ISBN: 9780415629256
eBook ISBN: 9780203629987
Adobe ISBN: 9781135956462


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Definitions of ethnomusicology are many and varied, but one thing that they nearly all have in common is a focus on the relationships between musical sound and other aspects of human life. These “other aspects” often manifest themselves in visual forms—not only when music is performed in highly visual contexts such as theater, dance, or ritual, but also when the aural and visual products of a given society (say, the melodic ornamentation of Middle Eastern music and the “arabesques” of Islamic architecture) are interpreted as springing from the same underlying values, or when social groups are understood to express their identities and relationships through both aural and visual channels. Ethnomusicologists typically study music in performance rather than as “works,” and regard the visual as well as the aural component of a musical performance as a source of insight into the aesthetic and ethical values of the people involved in it. From this perspective, the spatial arrangement and demeanor of the performers and audience (where such a distinction exists), the visual design of instruments, and the apparent age and gender of participants may convey as much information as the sounds that are produced. Where sound-structures do become a focus of analysis, a fixed, visual notation can be helpful, but, as many of the world's musics have no written form within their own tradition and are not readily accommodated by Western staff notation, the ethnomusicologist is often at pains to devise a visual representation that is intelligible to outsiders without distorting the actual sounds too much. In view of all this, it comes as no surprise that ethnomusicologists are constantly using visual evidence in their research, examining visual artifacts and behaviors as a part of musical life, documenting musical events with still and video photography as well as sound recording, and communicating their findings in visual as well as verbal ways.

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