Ecomusicology and Listening Beyond Categorical Limits: 1. An Introduction

by Tyler Kinnear (University of British Columbia)


The evolving field of ecomusicology engages a particularly complex and contested topic through the cultural study of music and sound; that is, the physical environment. There is no shortage of categories of environment to consider, each with their own criteria: natural, built, rural, urban, abandoned, reclaimed, pastoral, polluted, etc. Who defines, influences, and preserves categories pertaining to the environment? How do these categories inform music and sound research? What role(s) might ecomusicology play in thinking about and applying categories in a time of environmental crisis? This collection of articles seeks to provoke discussion of these and other questions concerning ecomusicology and categorization. Each article explores an environment that transcends seemingly straightforward classification. The authors go beyond music to draw from other humanities disciplines as well as the social and natural sciences in order to illuminate these spaces.

Alexandra Hui, in “The Naturalization of Built Environments: Two Case Studies,” examines new forms of listening put forth by the Edison Re-Creation records of the 1910s and 1920s and environmental sound records of the 1950s and 1960s. She brings musical aesthetics, listening culture, and in the case of the Edison-Carnegie Music Research Program psychological experimentation into conversation. Hui demonstrates the powerful role of research, marketing, and the recorded medium in creating new categories of music, environment, and listener/consumer. Daniel Grimley crosses temporal, spatial, and disciplinary boundaries in “Sibelius Beyond Categorical Limits.” Ecomusicological in approach, he uses four discursive modes to investigate Finland as a border zone: 1) monumentalization of landscape, 2) topographic representation, 3) landscape as text, and 4) landscape as cartography. Together, these tools create a network of relations under the categories of landscape and identity that are not necessarily accessible through conventional research methods. In “There’s No Place,” James Currie asserts that artifice has an important role to play in times of environmental crisis. He begins with an interrogation of what he calls the “aura of relevance” in much ecocritical scholarship, where research maintains a moral investment in the wellbeing of the environment. Currie turns to a place of artifice—The Land of Oz (from the 1939 film The Wizard of Oz)—where common notions of place and belonging are destabilized. In line with recent scholarship that calls for alternative approaches to ecomusicology (Rehding 2011; Titon 2013), Currie prompts us to avoid over-determining the “reality” of the physical environment and to instead consider the alternative realities of music.

With a call for greater engagement with environmental crises in music scholarship (Allen 2014), we should consider whether the ways in which we categorize help us to better understand ecological issues or if they in some way hinder productive engagement with these challenges. When thinking about what ecomusicology could—and should—do to help address real-world issues, it may also be beneficial to reflect on how ecomusicology is categorized as a discipline, and how it relates to other disciplinary and sub-disciplinary categories. One of the dangers of categorization is that ecomusicology itself is categorized within the academy. To conduct music research in a time of environmental crisis, and to carry a sense of urgency with it (Rehding 2011), are scholars not projecting a stereotype onto those who employ it in the process? Given the current climate, now may be an opportune time to ask which disciplinary and aesthetic categories should be maintained, modified, eliminated, and created (if even momentarily). Whichever approach is taken, we remain face-to-face with categorical decisions.


Part of the panel “Ecomusicology and Listening Beyond Categorical Limits”:

  1. “An Introduction.” By Tyler Kinnear (University of British Columbia)
  2. “The Naturalization of Built Environments: Two Case Studies.” By Alexandra Hui (Mississippi State University)
  3. “Sibelius Beyond Categorical Limits.” By Daniel Grimley (University of Oxford)
  4. “There’s No Place.” By James Currie (University at Buffalo)


Citations and Bibliography:

Ake, David, Garrett, Charles H., and Daniel Goldmark, eds. Jazz/Not Jazz: The Music and Its Boundaries. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012.

Allen, Aaron S. Introduction to “Sustainability and Sound: Ecomusicology Inside and Outside the Academy.” Music & Politics 8, no. 2 (Summer 2014). DOI:

Born, Georgina. “For a Relational Musicology: Music and Interdisciplinarity, Beyond the Practice Turn.” Journal of the Royal Musical Association 135 (2010): 205–43.

Hanninen, Dora A. “Associative Sets, Categories, and Music Analysis.” Journal of Music Theory 48, no. 2 (Fall 2004): 147­–218.

Levitz, Tamara, ed. “Musicology Beyond Borders?” Special issue, Journal of the American Musicological Society 65, no. 3 (Fall 2012).

Mundy, Rachel. “Evolutionary Categories and Musical Style from Adler to America.” Journal of the American Musicological Society 67, no. 3 (Fall 2014): 735–­­68.

Rehding, Alexander. “Ecomusicology between Apocalypse and Nostalgia.” Journal of the American Musicological Society 64, no. 2 (Summer 2011): 409–14.

Titon, Jeff Todd. “Labels: Identifying Categories of Blues and Gospel.” In The Cambridge Companion to Blues and Gospel edited by Allan Moore, 13–19. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2002.

­­­­———. “The Nature of Ecomusicology.” Música e Cultura: revista da ABET 8, no. 1 (2013): 8–18.