Constructing a cyberworld laboratory for ethnomusicology

(Edmonton) A musical cyberworld co-developed by a researcher at the University of Alberta will enable people to explore music from around the world, while allowing ethnomusicologists to conduct novel studies on a range of uncharted musical subjects, including how people form social groups online.

Michael Frishkopf, professor in the Department of Music, in collaboration with colleagues at the University of Aizu in Japan, has developed Folkways in Wonderland. A virtual musical cyberworld, Folkways in Wonderland uses avatars to virtually travel around the world and listen to world music tracks drawn from the Smithsonian Folkways collection.

“As far as I know, ethnomusicology has never been attempted in a cyberworld laboratory,” said Frishkopf. “My aim is to discover how people interact in relation to the music contained within Folkways in Wonderland, when they are presented with a collaborative task.”

Frishkopf says his team is planning an experiment in which participants enter the system, learn about the music tracks it contains, then work together to rank them in order of preference. “We want to see what kinds of interactions emerge as a result of this artificial goal and how they're related to the kinds of tracks and people populating the cyberworld."

Traditionally, in conducting a study, ethnomusicologists live in a music community to collect data through participant observation. Frishkopf says this research practice can be extended with the use of cyber systems such as Folkways in Wonderland.  He adds studying in such a controlled system could prove useful in understanding the sociology of cyberworlds.

“As we spend an increasing number of hours online, cyberworlds become an important part of the real world, while cyberworlds—immersive and social—become increasingly realistic,” he said. To study such virtual realities is to study reality."

Frishkopf says one of the fundamental hypotheses of ethnomusicology is that people form, maintain, transform and express social groupings through shared musical choices and experiences.  For example, sometimes musical preferences may be similar because of pre-existing friendships, while other times friendship results from shared musical preferences and experiences.

“What’s significant is that there’s a relation between social identities, communities and groups on the one hand, and musical experiences and preferences on the other,” he said. “It’s always been one of the fundamental roles of music to create and sustain communities.  Music offers a special mode of interaction and bonding, through a shared emotional high.”

In the real world, however, Frishkopf says musical tastes tend to be conservative. He says Folkways in Wonderland pushes users beyond their musical comfort zones.

“One of the goals of ethnomusicology is to present music as a gateway to other cultures and peoples.  A virtual environment like this could help people connect in new ways across cultural divides.”