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Ethnomusicology: Travel the World Through Music

Travel Jobs
by Tom Gates Oct 14, 2008

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?

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.


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:

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.

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