While studying in Jordan during a Mellon-funded May Term, Hope Safford ‘16 became increasingly interested the how of music: specifically, how the people she was working with were improvising and learning music.
Originally a music performance major, she felt her primary interest shifting to music, languages and the Middle East. Although she would still perform, she shifted to a double major in Music and Comparative Languages and Linguistics and a minor in Middle East Studies.
“When I got back to Earlham, ethnomusicology became my focus,” she says. She immediately took a semester off to complete an intensive Arabic language program in Spain and then spent an additional two weeks in Jordan completing research for her senior thesis. A $5,000 crowdfunding campaign funded the entire trip.
“The thing that intrigued me was some of the people I worked with had no formal training and still tended to use a lot of Western terms in describing music,” she says. “I wanted to learn how Westernization had affected music pedagogy in the Arab world.
“My research is now looking at the intersection of someone’s musical background and how they learn music. In the Western system we are used to notation and Solfège. These sorts of practices are very much a part of the Western system. The Arab system is based not just on memorization but understanding, a deep intuitive sense of how music is structured.”
Safford explains that Arab music has twice as many options for notes – a feature which requires a lot of modification in Western notation in order to communicate what is going on.
“That has obvious limits,” she says. “What I found with the people I worked with, especially with people my age, is that they felt like they have to combine using their intuitive knowledge of Arab music with a knowledge of Western notation.”
Safford says it’s hard to pin down how that translates into Arabic music. As an example, she pointed to her own challenge of learning to play the oud, or Arabic lute.
“If my instructor is explaining how to work through an improvisation using the Arabic modal system, we’ll call them scales, he’ll really conceptualize those in a Western way based on chords or harmony,” she says. “He does it with all of his students, not just because I’m a Westerner.”
As for abandoning her plans for to be a performance major, Safford has no regrets. She still sang in Earlham’s choirs and, she explains, “was no longer feeling fulfilled by just performing and focusing on my own skill as my goal,” she says. “I have always been good at research, and I enjoy it. Switching to ethnomusicology was a logical progression.”
Safford studied Spanish in high school and added French and Arabic at Earlham.
“I’ve always enjoyed language and am fascinated by etymology and how words develop from other words,” she says. “Even as a kid I was making up languages and was a big fan of The Lord of the Rings because of its philological base.”
Comparative Languages and Linguistics and ethnomusicology aren’t as far apart as people think, she says. Through her CLL studies, Safford learned about sociolinguistics and translation and how those fields are directly linked to anthropology of any kind, including ethnomusicology.
“Languages overlap, change and evolve,” she says. “That’s what happens with musical systems. Thinking critically about the processes is something that interests me. I wouldn’t feel comfortable doing the research I’m doing in ethnomusicology without CLL, Arabic and the other languages I’ve studied.”
Although her interest in the Middle East grew while at Earlham, it began at home.
“In my family it was normal to be active in social justice, and a lot of that revolved around combating Islamophobia in our community,” she says. “I felt that part of what generates Islamophobia and anti-Arab racism in this country is that you don’t learn about the Arab world in a positive light, so I read stuff and watched movies and I absorbed alternative points of view. Coming to Earlham shortly after Arab Spring also prompted me to, at the very least, be active in Middle East studies.”
Safford hopes to complete graduate school in the UK because master’s programs there are one-year intensives that include a lot of independent fieldwork. Ideally she would like to teach ethnomusicology.
“I feel like this is where I can make the greatest difference,” she says. “It’s more about bringing light to the ideas of folks whose voices aren’t amplified by the mainstream.”