Mass participation in Flemish Pieter Bruegel's 1566 painting "The Wedding Dance" (cropped)

Musics of the World might just change your worldview

Dr Nicholas Tochka recently became Head of Ethnomusicology at the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music. Here, he shares some insight from his career to date, and explains the thinking behind his new Musics of the World course.  

Ethnomusicology is like anthropology, but we’re looking at the ways people construct their lives specifically through music-making.

My area of specialisation is popular music and I’m really interested in questions around the economics of music-making and music in the context of the political orders it’s made under – not just how musicians protest or resist political-economic structures, but how they are shaped by them and even contribute to them.

My first project looked at popular music in state-socialist Albania. My new project looks at rock music in post-war America – at the relationship between American rock and roll and its global export.

I look at how musicians draw on liberal ideas and discourses to talk about individual self-expression and freedom, and I look at how popular musicians have been drawn into American politics. Why did Hillary Clinton have Bruce Springsteen sing at her rallies? Why did Donald Trump try play Rockin’ in the Free World – only to then get slapped down by Neil Young?

In the MCM’s Musics of the World course we examine musical case studies from places including Bali, North India, Southeast Asia, Latin America and Indigenous Australia. One goal of the course is to get students thinking about music as a social and political process, not just a thing in itself.

Another part of the course involves training your ears to listen to different pitch and rhythm systems and understand the terminology that musicians from around the world use to describe how their music is organised. We try to put ourselves in the shoes of those musicians to understand why that music is meaningful to them.

A lot of music cultures from around the world are very participatory and it’s a huge faux pas if you don’t get involved. At an American wedding, on the other hand, it’d be very strange to see everyone on the dancefloor.

Built into the premise of a course such as Musics of the World are some ethical questions: How should we engage in trying to understand other people? Is music an appropriate way to do so? What kind of power dynamics are inherent in the relationship between the listener and the performer?

Looking at how people try to lead meaningful lives in circumstances that are different from your own is a good way to gain a little bit of critical distance from your own life. It can help you think more deeply about the kinds of relationships you have, and the kind of values you hold.

As told to Sarah Hall

Banner image: Mass participation in Flemish painter Pieter Bruegel’s The Wedding Dance (1566), cropped. Wikimedia Commons.