Ethnomusicology – the study of music in different cultures – has existed for decades, but began to become known as a term in the 1970s. A branch of anthropology, it includes studying the musical instruments, traditions and contexts of a given ethnic group to better understand its culture.
Early missionaries to the developing world often outlawed traditional music in worship, deeming it ‘unholy’ or ‘undignified’, even idolatrous. However, in more recent times mission organizations have realized that local art forms, including music, are useful tools in reaching out within those cultures. Many mission agencies now have their own ethnomusicologists – or ethnodoxologists – who carry out research into local arts, and then use these to communicate the gospel. The late Tom Avery, a pioneer in this field in Brazil, described ethnodoxology as “tapping into the heart music of a people to reach them most effectively with the message of God’s Word in song.” Every culture has its own way of making music. When we harness this the results are very positive indeed, as people begin to understand the Christian message in a contextualized, relevant style which speaks to their hearts.