Musikwissenschaftliches Seminar

Prof. Dr. Birgit Abels

Direktorin des Musikwissenschaftlichen Seminars
Herausgeberin der Zeitschrift the world of music (new series)
Director, Department of Musicology
Editor-in-chief of the journal the world of music (new series)

Cultural Musicology - Why and What Is It?

As a cultural musicologist, what interests me the most is why music is so meaningful. What makes sound significant? How does music make us choose to engage with it every day by listening to it; liking, disliking, patronizing, or rejecting it; tapping our feet along with it; dancing to it; making it; being moved emotionally by it; and, finally, identifying with it?

Music occupies a space where our ideas about culture, society, place, history, and life meet. It's a space where we think about who we are and who we would like to be, and in this ephemeral sound, we spontaneously find ideas about ourselves reflected at a given moment. Music is a sonic 'mirror space' whose reflection we can look at and within which we can move at the same time. This is why I believe it is fundamentally important that we try to understand the many meanings of music, because they tell us things about who we are that we might not know otherwise. As we sense, and make sense of, music, it can help us make sense of ourselves.

What, then, is cultural musicology? It's much more than a "post-colonial" incarnation of the academic disciplines historically known as comparative musicology, ethnomusicology, and ethnochoreology. A "disquieting relation between the old and the new"(1) exists in musicology, which "stands at an [...] important historical juncture."(2) With the ideal of a truly de-colonized approach, cultural musicology seeks to reflect on and provide the analytical tools that enable a holistic study of the world's music. By holistic, I mean here an approach that is open to integrating methodologies and techniques characteristic of each of the three customary subdisciplines of musicology: namely, historical, systematic, and "ethno"musicology. Terminologically, the name cultural musicology can be seen in analogy with cultural anthropology and more importantly, cultural studies, both of which inform cultural musicology. Through easing the somewhat unconstructive debates around the scope of ethnomusicology, and facing the realities of the 21st century, cultural musicology can identify a way out of the disciplinary frustration apparent in a lot of recent literature without falling back on an artificial distinction between "modern," "popular," and "classical" music.

Some boundaries between "musics" have become more and more blurred in the last decades, while others have shifted - in any case, these boundaries are in constant flux. This is by no means a new development, but it is evolving at a more rapid pace. I believe that the various branches of musicology should primarily offer different perspectives, rather than different methodologies, on music in order to do justice to these changes. Cultural musicology is one such set of perspectives.

(1) Philip Bohlman Martin Stokes, Foreword, in: Henry Stobart (ed.), The New (Ethno)Musicologies. Lanham: The Scarecrow Press 2008:viii.
(2) Henry Stobart, Introduction, in: Henry Stobart (ed.), The New (Ethno)Musicologies. Lanham: The Scarecrow Press 2008:1.

Research foci

The geographic focus of my research is the Pacific Ocean (particularly Micronesia), North India, and the Southeast Asian island world.


I studied Musicology (Christian Ahrens, Richard Widdess, Owen Wright) and Arabic and Islamic Studies (Gerhard Endreß, Stefan Reichmuth) at Ruhr University Bochum (Germany) and London's School of Oriental and African Studies. Following the completion of my master's degree at Bochum in 2004 and fieldwork in North India, I took up my doctoral studies. I received my doctoral degree from Ruhr University Bochum in 2007, having written my dissertation on the music and dance of Palau (Micronesia). I lived and conducted fieldwork in Palau from 2005 to 2007, after which I implemented a research project on the performing arts of the so-called sea-nomadic communities of the Southeast Asian island world, primarily the Sama Dilaut (Bajau Laut). I worked mostly in Borneo; my institutional affiliation was first with the International Institute for Asian Studies in Leiden (The Netherlands), and later with the University of Amsterdam. In March 2011, I was appointed professor at Georg August University Göttingen (Germany).

Personal homepage of Birgit Abels

the world of music (new series)

An der Bochumer Ruhr-Universität und der Londoner School of Oriental and African Studies habe ich Musikwissenschaft mit dem Schwerpunkt Musikethnologie (Christian Ahrens, Owen Wright, Richard Widdess), Islamwissenschaft und Orientalistik bzw. Arabistik (Gerhard Endress, Stefan Reichmuth) studiert. Nach meinem Magistra-Abschluß in Bochum (2004) und Feldforschung in Indien begann ich mein Promotionsstudium. 2007 wurde ich promoviert mit einer Arbeit über die Musik von Palau (Mikronesien); dort habe ich von 2005 bis 2007 gelebt und intensive Feldforschung betrieben. Im Anschluß widmete ich mich einem Forschungsprojekt zu den sogenannten seenomadischen Gruppen der südostasiatischen Inselwelt, vor allem den Sama Dilaut (Bajau Laut), das ich vor allem auf Borneo, in institutioneller Anbindung aber zunächst am International Institute for Asian Studies in Leiden (Niederlande), später an der Universität von Amsterdam durchführte. Im März 2011 nahm ich den Ruf an das Musikwissenschaftliche Seminar der Georg August-Universität Goettingen an.
Der geographische Focus meiner Forschung liegt auf den pazifischen Inseln (vor allem Mikronesien), Nordindien und der südostasiatischen Inselwelt.

Zur Homepage der Zeitschrift the world of music (new series)
ZTMK Uni Göttingen
Society for Ethnomusicology (SEM)
SEM Special Interest Groups Historical Sources and Analysis of World Music
International Council for Traditional Music (ICTM)
ICTM Study Groups on Music and Dance of Oceania, Southeast Asia and Historical Sources
Gesellschaft für Musikforschung