Letter from the Editor (Volume 14, Number 2)

*This letter also appears in SEM Student News 14.2, Fall/Winter 2018.

This issue of SEM Student News marks my penultimate as editor, and I am extremely grateful to have worked with SEMSN over the past six (almost seven!) years. Not all of this has involved editing, though editing has been the most meaningful to me for several reasons: I get to read and re-read the writing of my colleagues, open myself to their ways of thinking about and perceiving musicking in our lives, communicate and exchange ideas with them, and present their hard work to our readers in a way that (I hope) does it justice. This has never been an easy process and there are many challenges with which I regularly struggle, including balancing my time and energy between SEMSN, graduate school, and life in general; possessing (or not) knowledge and experience fit for evaluating such a diverse array of topics; and the ever-pervasive self-doubt that has plagued me throughout my higher education. But there is one particular challenge that I want to take this moment to attend to: the frequent appearance and continued use of terms like world music(s), non/Western, and the West in (ethno)musicology.

These terms are rife throughout (ethno)musicological thought and writing, and I encounter them regularly in articles, journals, monographs, textbooks, courses, conferences, and so on (including this very publication). Attending lectures, leading discussion sections, assembling a syllabus for a “world music” course, reading scholarship, editing—whenever I come across these terms, which seem unavoidable, my first instinct is to throw scare quotes around them. “Non-Western.” But what does this achieve? Am I just wasting ink, pixels, a few seconds of time and energy? Does throwing an “s” on world musics really change its meaning? Do scare-quotes take away some of these terms’ power to categorize and divide? Am I just grumpy? Have I been in graduate school too long?

Terms like “Western” and “non-Western,” we should all realize, are loaded and dangerous. Why do we continue to use them? To quote Jody Diamond (1990), who recently shared her nearly thirty-year-old article “There Is No They There” on the SEM listserv, “World music is a dangerous idea” (12). Past and present, “world music” commonly refers to all music except that which we exclusively mark as “Western,” perpetuating, as Diamond asserts, a hierarchy of knowledge and culture. I realize that these are not clear-cut terms, yet I find that this hierarchy persists, and our efforts at inclusiveness often fall short and reveal our hypocrisy.

In the same listserv thread to which Diamond responded, another member referred to a forthcoming text titled Gateways to Understanding Music. Out of curiosity, I read the publisher’s description and met an example of this hypocrisy in (ethno)musicological discourse.

Gateways to Understanding Music explores music in all the categories that constitute contemporary musical experience: European classical music, popular music, jazz, and world music.

In this initial line we learn that “music” is a universal with four categories. First is “European classical,” which is a narrow-minded category in itself. “Popular music” seemingly means “Western popular music,” since “world music” constitutes the last category. “Jazz” is not a “popular” nor a “world music,” and constitutes one-quarter of contemporary musical experience.

Covering the oldest forms of human music making and the newest, the chronological narrative considers music from a global rather than a Eurocentric perspective.

Resisting a Eurocentric perspective is an important aim for all of us, but the first sentence pre-emptively contradicts this claim of a “global” one.

Each of sixty modular “gateways” covers a particular genre, style, or period of music. Every gateway opens with a guided listening example that unlocks a world of music through careful study of its structural elements.

Musical structure has long been a Eurocentric concern, here projected onto all musics of study in this text.

Based on their listening experience, students are asked to consider how the piece came to be composed or performed, how the piece or performance responded to the social and cultural issues at the time and place of its creation, and what that music means today. Students learn to listen to, explain, understand, and ultimately value all the music they may encounter in their world.

Musicking is here reduced to “pieces,” composed or performed. The ultimate objectives seem well-intentioned but the language representing how to achieve them remains highly problematic. Likewise, its “historical narrative,” which “begins with small-scale forager societies up to the present day, with a shifting focus from global to European to American perspectives,” suggests that European and American perspectives are the present and future, “global” a thing of the past.

It is very possible that this text itself does not reflect the seemingly Eurocentric bias evident in its publisher description. However, the information available on the publisher’s website suggests it as so. This may be a text for undergraduates and non-majors but this does not lessen the significance of how we approach and present our work. Our language, and the language used to represent our work, matters. We can combat Eurocentrism on many fronts.

We may commend ourselves for being “inclusive,” for “decolonizing,” for “decentralizing” our perspectives, knowledges, and values, but we will always need to carry this further through our words and actions. I am guilty of the above, as many of us may be, and I hope that we can take the opportunity to confront our own subjectivities—as well as those of (ethno)musicology and academia-at-large—in ways that will have tangible, and truly commendable, effects. Scare quotes are not enough.🍁

Davin Vidigal Rosenberg
University of California, Davis


Rice, Timothy, and Dave Wilson. Forthcoming. Gateways to Understanding Music. New York: Routledge. Publication information available at https://www.routledge.com/Gateways-to-Understanding-Music/Rice-Wilson/p/book/9781138039063.

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