NB: An academic article entitled "Toward a New Comparative Musicology" based on ideas presented on this site has been published in the journal Analytical Approaches to World Music.

Comparative musicology is the scientific discipline devoted to the cross-cultural study of music. It looks at music in all of its forms across all world cultures and throughout historical time. As with its sister discipline of comparative linguistics, comparative musicology seeks to

  • classify the musics of the world into stylistic families
  • describe the geographic distribution of these styles
  • elucidate universal trends in musics across cultures
  • understand the causes and mechanisms shaping the biological and cultural evolution of music.

The field has its roots in the Gestalt psychology movement of late 19th century Germany as well as the contemporaneous field of psychoacoustics. The founders of this movement comprised the "Berlin school" of comparative musicology, which included such seminal figures as Carl Stumpf, Erich von Hornbostel, Curt Sachs, and many others.

Comparative musicology flourished during the first half of the 20th century. But after the Second World War and in large part because of it the comparative approach to world musics underwent a significant decline. Instead, a new field called ethnomusicology emerged based on the paradigms of cultural anthropology in the United States. This field generally eschewed comparative analyses in favour of single-culture ethnographies based on extensive fieldwork. 

One of the strongest paradigms to emerge from ethnomusicology was Merriam’s proposal that music includes “sound”, “behaviour”, and “concept”, in contrast to earlier comparative musicological research that often focused on sound alone. Although there is nothing about the study of sound, behaviour, and concept that precludes comparative analysis, the practice of ethnomusicologists and other cultural anthropologists has tended to privilege single-culture ethnographies and emic (subjective, insider) theories over cross-cultural analyses and etic (objective, outsider) theories. When ethnomusicologists have emphasized cross-cultural comparison, they have tended to follow Blacking in valuing behavioural and conceptual “processes” over acoustic “products”, despite the fact that Merriam explicitly rejected this new hierarchy as strongly as he rejected the older hierarchy of products over processes.

In the 1960's, Alan Lomax and his colleagues – independent of the banner of either comparative musicology or ethnomusicology – established the interdisciplinary Cantometrics project, which remains the most ambitious attempt to classify world musics and create a global comparative map of musical style. The major tool developed for this project was the Cantometrics coding scheme, devised by Lomax and Victor Grauer. Although many critics expressed concerns about methodological issues such as reliability, sampling, treatment of intra-cultural diversity, and interpretation of correlations between music and social structure, most supported Lomax’s broad findings that major musical stylistic regions corresponded to major regions of historical and cultural continuity. While the Cantometrics project was a landmark of scholarship, it attracted few followers to its comparative methods.

The time has come to re-establish the field of comparative musicology. This field should not be seen as a replacement for ethnomusicology or historical musicology but as a specific stream within the overall umbrella of musicology. In particular, comparative musicology deals with a host of important issues that many ethnomusicologists do not typically consider, including musical classification, world maps of musical style, cultural evolution of music, musical universals, music's role as a migrations marker, the global spread of musical styles, and biological evolution of music.

This website is an informational tool to learn about the field of comparative musicology, including its history, research areas, literature resources, active researchers, and events. This website was created and is maintained by Pat Savage (Tokyo University of the Arts, Japan) and Steven Brown (McMaster University, Canada).