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With its essentially anthropological approach resulting from more than a century of history, ethnomusicology aims for an understanding of the prevailing relations between the human being and the musical, whatever the culture.

It therefore involves the study of the musical act in a given society or symbolic community, generally a different one from the researcher’s, and from the more collective aspect to the more personal approach of the musician. Ethnomusicology has developed specific methods of investigation and experimentation, often at the frontier of a number of disciplines.

The Faculty approach

As taught at the Université de Montréal Faculty of Music, ethnomusicology is based on an interdisciplinary and comparative approach. Musical phenomena in oral or semi-written traditions are addressed, although several methods in ethnomusicology may be applied to Western art music so-called.

Topics covered include:

  • Organology
  • Investigative and data-collecting techniques in the field
  • Musicians’ playing techniques
  • Compositional processes
  • Explicit or non-explicit musical theories
  • Innovative creative processes
  • Musical tastes
  • Emotions
  • Socio-religious meanings relative to the musical act
  • Borrowing and intermingling processes
  • Behaviors relating to musical practices
  • Processes of identity building
  • Transmission of knowledge

All forms of music productions are considered in their diversity as well as in the points they have in common. The concepts and theories that nourish ethnomusicology provide an opportunity to reflect on the evolution in time and space of music productions and, why not, on what music is, above and beyond the boundaries that are somewhat artificially drawn between nature and culture.

A rich collection of world music instruments

A project implemented in 1989 at the instigation of Monique Desroches, the Faculty of Music’s scientific collection of instruments today contains over 850 specimens hailing from five continents, deposited and archived in a space with museum conservation standards. It is one of the great collections at Université de Montréal.

The majority of the instruments start with the recovery of objects from the animal, plant, occasionally mineral, or even industrial world. For example:

  • Turtle rattles
  • Bells made from goat hooves or fruit shells
  • Food-can horn
  • “Scraper” washboard

The instruments are classified according to four major organological families defined on the basis of the mechanical principle of production of the sound:

  • Membranophones
  • Aerophones
  • Chordophones
  • Idiophones

The collection is used for presentations about world musics and organology to Faculty of Music students at the three levels of study (courses and seminars in organology and in ethnomusicology), but also to those in geography and museology.

A bit of history

Interest in world musics clearly manifested itself during the Enlightenment, when for the first time Jean-Jacques Rousseau included various transcriptions in his Dictionary of Music (1767).

But it was not until two centuries later that ethnomusicology as a discipline would be so named by an actual ethnomusicologist, Jaap Kunst, although as such it was truly born under the name comparative musicology in the late 19th century. In that period, researchers aimed for the extensive collection of oral traditional music in the world and for the documentation of knowhow from a comparative perspective.

After more than a century of history, ethnomusicology founds its place in an approach of an essentially anthropological nature, and strives to understand the relations that prevail between human beings and the musical.

Program head



Nathalie Fernando, ethnomusicology and anthropology of music
Simon Labonté, Inuit music, ethnopop
Frédéric Léotard, Central Asia, Turkic music, world music appreciation