Ethnomusicologist Dr Suzel Reily | Teen Jazz Interview

Hey everyone. With me today, I have a very special guest. This is Dr Suzel Reily, she is a professor at Queen’s University Belfast and she teaches in the Ethnomusicology department. So today we’re going to follow up on careers in music and discuss ethnomusicology as a career.


Hi Suzel

Hi there Shannon, how are you?

Good and you?

I’m just fine

So why don’t you tell us a little bit about yourself?

I was born and raised in Brazil of American parents and so I think having that double cultural background was probably what incited me to be interested in issues of culture and different kinds of musics. I actually began as a music educator. I discovered a thing called ethnomusicology and it was quite definitely the thing for me and then I went back to Brazil after finishing my MA and did a PHD in the department of social anthropology at the University of Sao Paolo, so that was, I guess, how I became an ethnomusicologist.

So why don’t you talk about some of the things you do as an ethnomusicologist?

Well, some people divide it into the two big camps – those people who are connected more to anthropology which I guess would be people like myself and people who are more linked to musicology and this is particularly marked in traditions that have got an art tradition associated with them like Indian classical music. Obviously one big area of ethnomusicological work is the field work. There’s of course the teaching, music journalism, arts administration, music therapy…

What are some of the other things that an ethnomusicologist could study? What other topics are there that are available?

Anything that’s connected to music and music is such a central part of so many people’s lives. Many ethnomusicologists do go abroad, a number of ethnomusicologists are now showing that ethnomusicological sensibility can be really quite critical to understanding even what we consider western classical music.

And how would one go about selecting a topic to study?

Often people will come with particular musical experiences that they had and that for one reason or another they were drawn to that topic or drawn at least to that particular music world. You can’t do everything so then you end up having to decide how you’re going to cut up your cake. Sometimes you have a particular idea about what you wanted to do and when you get to the field you realize that it isn’t going to be possible. It’s a little bit pragmatics, it’s a little bit chance, it’s a little bit personal interest and you just go from there.

So what are some of the other fields that you have to research and be aware of in addition to music and anthropology?

Music and anthropology would be the main ones. Depending on what you want to study, nowadays there’s a lot of very interesting material coming out of geography, sociology as well. One of the writers that all ethnomusicologists nowadays are reading, and she would not consider herself an ethnomusicologist but rather a socioligist is Tia DeNora, and she wrote a magnificent book on music in everyday life. There’s also a growing trend in cognitive ethnomusicology perhaps being led by Judith Becker. Cognitive psychology can be another important area. The work on emotions by Dimazzio is also being cited quite a bit. Philosophy is another area that some people wold say that you need to have a good basis there. But a lot will really depend on what area of music and what geographical area you’re working on.

Do you think it is necessary to learn the language of the region that you’re studying?

It’s fundamental. You do need to, yeah. Especially if you’re going to do fieldwork. It is possible to work with translators if you have the funds to pay them but it just does not take the place of first hand encounters and actually being able to talk yourself with the people that you’re studying. I would certainly encourage anyone wanting to go abroad to do research to start learning the language as soon as possible.

What advice do you have for a young musician or scholar interested in studying ethnomusicology?

Go do it! Well if you’re in high school and are thinking of studying ethnomusicology then one thing that you might want to do is take languages. You’ll certainly want to have every kind of musical experience that you possibly can. Start listening to as much music of the most varied type that you can and by that I mean actually listen. Don’t just put it on in the background. Sit down and actually take the time to try to hear what is that, how is this music put together? What are the sounds that are going on here? And do the same for musics coming from a lot of different places. Read. “How Musical is Man,” you might enjoy that. Tom Turino’s book on music in social life. Above all listen to as much music as you can.

-And of course bloopers!-

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Published by Shannon Kennedy

Shannon Kennedy is a vocalist and saxophonist living in Southern California. She is author of "The Album Checklist" and the founder of Teen Jazz. She has been contributing articles to music magaizines and websites since 2004.