Prof. Dr. Birgit Abels

Why do we experience music as 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 in 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 make sense of music, it can help us make sense of ourselves.

What, then, is cultural musicology? It is 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. The term 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 is able to 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.

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 2008, 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 full professor of cultural musicology at the Georg August University Göttingen (Germany). As of January 2012, I'm editor-in-chief of the world of music (new series) and full member of the Göttingen Academy of Sciences and Humanities in Lower Saxony.

My research interests include neo-phenomenological and Pacific Indigenous approaches to the performing arts as well as music-making as an epistemological practice. The geographic foci of my research are the Pacific Ocean (particularly Micronesia), North India, and the Southeast Asian Island world. Among my books eW Sounds of Articulating Identity. Tradition and Transition in the Music of Palau, Micronesia (2008), which was recognized with the ICAS Book Prize (PhD) 2009, The Harmonium in North Indian Music (2010), and Music Worlding in Palau. Chanting, Atmospheres, and Meaningfulness (2022). I am Principal Investigator of the ERC Consolidator project Sound Knowledge. Alternative Epistemologies of Music in the Western Pacific Island World, and a full member of the Göttingen Academy of Sciences and Humanities in Lower Saxony.