Instruments as Objects in Ethnomusicological Museum Learning

By Katherine Palmer


The Society for Ethnomusicology’s 63rd Annual Meeting recently took place in Albuquerque, New Mexico. As co-chair of the SEM Education Section and curator of education at the Musical Instrument Museum in Phoenix, Arizona, it gave me a chance to reflect on the importance that objects (i.e. musical instruments) and participatory music making play in my own approach to education. Timothy Rice gave an educational keynote address, “My Life in Music Education,” that posed eight short stories and reflective questions about his personal experiences in ethnomusicology, music education, and higher education music curriculums. (see image below)

During this address, I was drawn to many of the questions Dr. Rice posed, including:

Question 4: How do we teach all music educators, and not just those dedicated to the principle of multicultural music education, to value all music not just one kind of music?

Question 6: How can ethnomusicologists intervene in music curricula not simply by insisting on adding courses in “world music” but by changing the core content and values of traditional courses and curricula developed principally to European classical music?

I also posed my own question: “What do we lose as musicians, educators, and researchers, when we only focus on WEAM (Western European Art Music)?” Repeatedly, I was struck by the pivotal role musical instruments could represent in educating others, not just for the sake of music education but also for advocacy of cultural awareness, understanding, and empathy. When we make abstract concepts like world music tangible through instruments, we’re able to increase participants’ understandings of musical function, social context, and significance. Additionally, when world music participants are able to “do” or “create” world music, we can begin to demystify the sound structures that accompany listening examples. As John Carlos Perea (San Francisco State University) said in response, “[We need students to] be comfortable with sounds so they can begin to understand them.”

My work at the Musical Instrument Museum (MIM) involves fusing best practices in museum education, community music, and ethnomusicology in a way that makes world music approachable to a variety of audiences, including early childhood (ages 0–5) and K-12 youth, MIM volunteers, and local educators. Instruments provide a vehicle for object-based learning and hands-on music making to take place, which has become a powerful connection for our education guests. Making musical instruments accessible and tangible through music making has become a dynamic tool for all guests to begin to construct meaning, assign identity, and take ownership of their educational experiences at MIM. In the remainder of this blog, I will discuss the sig