International-Comparative Music Research

Below is the abstract of my keynote speech for the upcoming conference of the Grieg Research School, which is on the theme of research methodologies in music. I think it promises to be a very interesting conference, and I am especially eager to see the presentations by professors David Hargreaves, Marie McCarthy, and Brynjulf Stige.

Grieg Research School in Interdisciplinary Music Studies, Bergen
June 18-20, 2012

Researching Music Practices – Methodological Approaches

Challenges and Opportunities in International-Comparative Music Research

David G. Hebert


The credo “Know Thyself” was advocated by Socrates, but as Ptolemy and others would later recognize, it is only possible to fully know our selves and the ultimate significance of human practices (such as music) through systematic documentation and comparison, which enables the production of robust theories and contextualized, verifiable knowledge. Judicious comparison of diverse practices and contexts is an essential component of theory construction, yet hasty comparisons can also be very misleading. It is, therefore, important to carefully consider the common pitfalls of comparison, and how they may be avoided, as we interpret and design international-comparative studies to develop new advancements in musical knowledge.

In this presentation, I will use anecdotes from personal experience to illustrate various aspects of international-comparative music research, including its distinctive prospects, characteristic methodologies, and contemporary theories, as well as potential risks and benefits associated with the application of its findings in such fields as ethnomusicology, music education, and performance science. Specifically, I will demonstrate issues in the representation of sociocultural differences, and how a comparative lens can produce practical insights, particularly through examination of performance techniques, music institutionalization and arts policy, and global norm making. A deeper understanding of such issues may help shape a research agenda toward pioneering findings and actionable outcomes, enabling others to increasingly recognize music’s value and utilize its power in positive ways for an improved quality of life. 

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