New research methods in traditional music

New research methods in traditional music

posted 21 Feb 2014 02:09 by Simon McKerrell

I’ve always been keen on finding out appropriate ways to think about and discuss traditional music, with quite an applied view of why it matters. Another article this morning in the Guardian about folk music moving into a new and quite different mass mediated space in our culture:

(Congratulations by the way to another phenomenal graduate of Newcastle University’s International Centre for Music Studies–Bella Hardy, who took ‘Folk Singer of the Year’ this week at the BBC folk awards!)
Colin Irwin’s view echoes mine that we are now wholesale into the era of ‘folk music’ as commodified music, essentially, professionalized, commercialized and all of the changes that that brings with it. This means of course that the tools for which we need to research folk and traditional musics have to change (as they have been over the previous decade).
If folk music is now mass mediated, which much of it is, then we need to open a dialogue about the sorts of research questions, and methods we use to understand how folk music constructs society and culture in the 21st century. Can we continue to rely upon methods such as transcription and analysis, desk-bound ballad studies, participant observation and ethnography in the round?
These methods work very well in situations where one is considering social relationships or asking questions of value and meaning in traditional music, performed locally, and face-to-face without mediation. But who could now claim that almost any form of music in the late modern West is not quite heavily mediated either online, on the television or radio?
Can anyone interested at all now in the three ‘A’s of authorship, authority and authenticity seriously expect to conduct meaningful research without at least considering the role of mass communications and deterritorialization in traditional music, or its more commodified and politicized sister ‘folk music’?
We have lessons to learn from Popular Music Studies, and perhaps more importantly from Discourse Analysis, Narratology, Social Semiotics and Sociology–Anthropology (again!). It’s not that we haven’t been reading these disciplines as scholars–we have. But we need research questions and methods that work for today’s environment. Yes, it is a bit more complicated than this (but aren’t blogs necessarily about polarization of views?) and there is now a growing list of publications in traditional music studies that engages with these sorts of methods, but as the media now accept ‘folk music’ as a commercial and mass mediated genre, isn’t it time we do too?

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