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Feature photo and photo above by Aaron Appleton.

A look at Ethnomusicology, where anthropology and music mix with travel.

ROBBED AT GUNPOINT. Chased by a pack of wild dogs. Swallowed by a rioting mob. Attacked by a black mamba. These might sound like plot points for a new Indiana Jones flick, but really they are just events in a year of Aaron Appleton’s life as a self-described “avant garde ethnomusicologist”.

Aaron travels nine months of the year recording vocalists from developing countries, in hopes of creating an album that combines these sounds with those of producers from the USA, Portugal, The Netherlands and Australia.

An Ethno-What Now?

Photo by by Aaron Appleton.

Aaron is just one example of a growing number of people who have made recording world music into a career. Ethnomusicology is a relatively new field, with the official term only being coined in the 1950′s.

Loosely, it’s the anthropology of music. Most ethnomusicologists travel intensely and have a natural curiosity for how music translates as a cultural phenomenon. Music is recorded at source, in many cases creating a record of sounds that have previously never been documented.

Adventure In Sound

Most recording is done on the fly. A background in audio recording is imperative because so many variables present themselves in different environments. Skill aside, ingenuity and a duct-tape-fix-all mentality can often come in handy.

Says Appleton, “I’ve worked in very rural areas with no electricity, using a recording method called ‘binaural recording’, where I place some tiny microphones in my ears and capture the audio with a small battery operated recorder.” It’s not always Abbey Road Studios.


A degree makes obtaining grants much easier and can help prepare students for a positive interaction with different cultures. There are over sixty universities offering programs worldwide.

Even if a school does not offer the specific program, some will agree to an individually tailored education program that can be designed to allow for similar experience.


Photo by by Aaron Appleton.

As connecting directly with indigenous musicians is the fastest way to find local talent, networking with other ethnomusicologists is essential to advancing a career. Several groups serve as a hub, including:

  • The Society For Ethnomusicology
  • The International Council For Traditional Music
  • The British Forum For Ethnomusicology
  • Also important are: The International Association Of Sound and Audiovisual Archives and Smithsonian Folkways.

    Aaron recommends a start by “searching out national cultural councils and organizations, or just going to universities and meeting with professors from the music or anthropology department.”

    Grants and Funding

    Ethnomusicology isn’t necessarily the job for anyone looking to make mountains of cash. Grant competition is fierce, with the The Fullbright as The Holy Grail for students looking to break into the field. Most newbies to the field work a second job in order to fund expeditions.

    Appleton himself spends his summers fighting wildfires in the USA to increase his savings.

    About The Author

    Tom Gates

    Tom is a wayward writer based in Los Angeles. He has served as Editor for both Matador Nights and Life. He loves to go far, far away whenever possible. He is also pretending to be a third person right now and is obviously writing his own bio. He knows that you knew that, despite the deft maneuvering of pronouns. Tom's new book 'Wayward: Fetching Tales from a Year On The Road' is available for download on Amazon and iTunes.

    • Jessica Skelton

      I never knew such a job existed. How cool. Just goes to show that all the most fascinating jobs revolve around travel. ;)

    • kiyone

      I never heard of this either. This sounds perfect for me. I love travel and I LOVE music. Thanks for this article!

    • Sirsalamander

      As an ethnomusicologist focusing on organology (study of musical instruments and their cultural function), I have to say this is a pretty great article to shed light on the discipline.  Glad to see people interested in it as well.  The only thing I wanted to draw attention to is the last part of the 2nd paragraph, in which the sounds are used in collaboration with other producers.  This has proved to be detrimental to many cultures throughout the history of creative expression, and is met with harsh criticism in the discipline.  There isn’t much detail on what these producers do with the sounds, but in many cases, it would be considered exploitation and a false representation, which is the antithesis of what we do.


      I have a Masters degree in Ethnomusicology. If you are really interested in it, ask a professor if you can sit in on one of the graduate level lectures. The field of Ethnomusicology now is far less about adventure and far more about philosophizing on such topics as: “what is music? is a bird call music? do constructs alone determine individual musical behavior?” etc. You can go to the Society of Ethnomusicology conference for just a day for about $80 and listen to the presentations. Do this before you apply for a degree! You may find that this field is far more dry and academic than you realized. It is about discussing and arguing about very very minute and specific aspects of philosophy and you may deal with actual music very little. Gone are the days of Alan Lomax when ethnomusicologists traveled the country to record folk singers. It is not about this at all anymore. Is it about becoming a professor through showing how well you can argue semantics. And to be a professor of Ethnomusicology you will need a PhD and will have to live in the midwest most likely at the beginning of your career in order to get a job and to pay off your students loans.

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