It Starts with the Sound

Sarah McCarthy and Music in Context


Article by Shu Chen

“I find all music and histories interesting, and I love exploring why people write music and do things a certain way.”

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PC: Shu Chen Ong

Sarah McCarthy began her journey to ethnomusicology on an unexpected note: aeronautical engineering. For the first few years of college, Sarah focused her time on science and engineering classes. While she found them interesting, she was often frustrated. No matter how much time she put in to the classes, she couldn’t form a personal connection to the subject matter. After drifting through her engineering major, she stumbled on a subject that she was deeply drawn to: “Electrical engineering was okay, but I wasn’t excited about it. Music, on the other hand, was this whole other world with people in it.”

It’s the human side of music that drew her to the research she does today. Sarah is in her third year of her ethnomusicology PhD studies, and the question of how music affects people dominates her methodology. Ethnomusicology as a subject focuses on putting music in its cultural context. Rather than being an isolated act of creativity, music serves as a snapshot of complex social factors and identity. Sarah has had opportunities to work with people and learn about their cultures through the music they create. “I love interacting with people and understanding why they make the music that they do, to write about human history,” she explained. She sees the creation and experience of music as integral to understanding of a given group of people.

Although she currently studies questions of authenticity and identity in the music of the Pacific Islands, her passion for this research began with the tango. By listening to this music, she gained a better understanding of the immense cultural factors that contributed to its making. Rather than tackling the questions of identity from the human perspective, she starts with the music itself: “It starts with the sound — how it’s made and why it’s made this way. In tango alone you can hear many different parts from different areas of the world.” Then, she moves to the context: “I like to get a grasp of the literature surrounding the music, and then I get to know people from the culture and build connections with them.” Sarah’s love for human culture drives her identity. While her research focuses on the music of specific communities, she is passionate about all of its genres and how they affect people.

Sarah’s ultimate goal is to use her research  for teaching. “As long as I’m teaching, I’m happy… I love the feeling of seeing someone understand something.” She wants to use her research to form connections with people and help them gain further insight into how they, as part of a wider community, form their identities through music. Though her research starts with a sound, it is firmly rooted in the people.

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