Prolegomena to Practice-Based Research in Traditional Music

Prolegomena to Practice-Based Research in Traditional Music

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Memory, Music and Movement
An AHRC-North Atlantic Fiddle Convention (NAFCo) Networking Project

The Elphinstone Institute of the University of Aberdeen in partnership with Cape Breton University

The issue of musical practice and the sonic aspects of music themselves have re-asserted their musicological importance in recent years. This new re-emergence of sound and practice began in the early music community, spread to the art music community in the early noughties and gradually into the canon of scholarship on popular music studies. Ethnomusicology, since its inception in the 1950s, has however privileged the practice of traditional music, bimusicality and embodied forms of performative knowledge as part of the discipline. Arguably however, this focus has tended to be a vehicle for the real object of ethnomusicological scholarship—the social life and structure of communities. This paper surveys the epistemological scholarship of practice in traditional music since the 1950s to today and makes an argument for adapting a relational and socially constructivist position on traditional music practice as the place of meaning construction through the adoption of an intersubjective approach. I argue that this is a much stronger position to ground theoretical practice based research for traditional music, rather than following the phenomenological lead from art music, artistic practice research or sound studies. A socially constructivist practice based research rests upon on a set of shared intersubjective symbolic meanings, rejecting the myopic singularity of phenomenological ways of knowing, and better suits traditional music because of the centrality of a social (and changing) symbolic historicism at the core of traditional music. This puts the theoretical emphasis more firmly on communal performative values and shared symbolic meanings, which is more epistemologically congruent with the emphasis on communitas and relativism at the heart of ethnomusicological approaches to traditional music around the world.

Dr Simon McKerrell is interested in the social impact of traditional music and the creative industries. His research largely focuses upon the communicative power of music as heritage, social conflict and multimodality, and how these relate to policy. He is the author of Focus: Scottish Traditional Music (Routledge), and the Co-Editor of both Music as Multimodal Discourse: Media, Power and Protest (Bloomsbury) and Understanding Scotland Musically: Folk, Tradition, Modernity (Routledge). He is Associate Dean for Research & Innovation at Newcastle University, having previously held positions at the Universities of Sheffield, Glasgow and the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, and The National Piping Centre in Glasgow. He is currently Co-I on the EU funded international research project Critical Heritages (CoHERE): performing and representing Identities in Europe (2.5€ million), in 2014-15 he was PI for the AHRC project Understanding Scotland Musically (£68,000) and was concurrently a Co-Investigator for a Scottish Government Social Research project entitled Community Experiences of Sectarianism (£73,000). In 2016, along with Dr Simon Keegan-Phipps (Sheffield) he was the founding Co-Editor of The International Journal of Traditional Arts ( In addition to this, Simon is an expert performer of Highland and Uilleann bagpiping, having recorded 11 commercial albums and taught throughout the world.

Dr Simon McKerrell
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