Jeffers Engelhardt

Published On


Page Range

pp. 193–208


  • English

Print Length

16 pages

9. An Ethnomusicology of Spiritual Realities

This chapter surveys some of ethnomusicology’s attitudes toward religion and other-than-human agency in its disciplinary histories and practices. Since the early 1900s, the field has moved from positivist, comparative origins through a cultural turn and into nonsecular methodologies. This is the story of a long pivot from disentangling music and religion as secular categories toward recognizing the entanglements of sound, spiritual realities, and ethnomusicologists. Alongside its methodologically atheist or methodologically agnostic disciplines in the social sciences, mainstream ethnomusicology proceeded through the twentieth century on the basis of knowledge being limited to the human. Other-than-human agents were largely written out of ethnomusicology. Ethnomusicologists could report on research participants’ descriptions of the spiritual power and divine origins of music, but could not leverage sonic theologies or the knowledge of divine encounter in ethnomusicology so-named. In many of ethnomusicology’s histories, addressing connections between music and spiritual realities meant wielding the blunt instrument of ‘music’ on the secular oxymoron of ‘spiritual realities.’ Things have changed since the 2000s. In this chapter, I draw attention to ethnomusicology’s nonsecular turn by comparing the work of Jeff Todd Titon and Melvin Butler and offering a brief ethnography of a performance by The Campbell Brothers, sacred steel artists from the House of God Church. To contextualize this crucial turn, I emphasize its embrace of sonic theology as a theoretical tool, the ways other-than-human agency enters into musical ethnography, and the knowledge ethnomusicologists communicate through their nonsecular relationships with other-than-human deities and spiritual beings.


Jeffers Engelhardt

Professor of Music at Amherst College

Jeffers Engelhardt is Professor of Music at Amherst College. He is the author of Singing the Right Way: Orthodox Christians and Secular Enchantment in Estonia (2015), and he co-edited, with Philip V. Bohlman, Resounding Transcendence: Transitions in Music, Religion, and Ritual (2016) and, with Andrew Mall and Monique Ingalls, Studying Congregational Music: Key Issues, Methods, and Theoretical Perspectives (2021).