Music and culture | Work of Arts
Music and culture | Work of Arts

Music and culture

Science student Elizabeth Cunningham participated in an Ethnomusicology class this past summer and learned how music impacts and changes lives.

I chose to study Ethnomusicology in Ghana during the summer of 2013.

The Faculty of Arts offered an incredible opportunity to achieve nine credits, while traveling in this area of West Africa, to observe how music can be a significant part of life. As a science major with no musical background, I wondered how significant music could possibly to be to one person. To a community? To a country? As I had a love for traveling, I decided to jump in with both feet and spent 7 weeks living and breathing the answers to those questions.

Photo: A few of the friends that Elizabeth (centre) made in Dagbamete, Ghana

In West Africa, communication is not predominantly verbal, but is expressed through music and movement and I was quick to learn this the very first day I arrived in Accra. As I walked out of the airport terminal, a group of older men rocked their drums with incredible skill and conviction; my taxi driver did not hesitate to enthusiastically exercise his vocals while listening to his gospel tape; and outside of my taxi window I could see children singing and dancing as they played their hand clapping games.

Music is the medium that allows Ghanaians to celebrate their achievements, to acknowledge their struggles and to freely demonstrate their beliefs. From the adorning of a new born child, a wedding, an adolescent coming of age, a return from war or a funeral, and many other significant life events, every celebration is expressed with music and dance. Every new generation carries these musical traditions to the next and does so with honour. They do not learn how to dance, sing or repeat a drum pattern through formal instruction because it isn’t necessary; music is in their home, in school, in games that they play, in religious worship, and they are eager to participate as soon as they can walk. Music is welcomed in all of its forms but it is the traditional music that illustrates who they are, what their community stands for and what it means to be Ghanaian. I was inspired by the desire of the youth to not only participate and understand traditional music, but their effort in solidifying its place in Ghana’s future.


While traveling throughout Ghana and its various regions, we were incredibly privileged to participate in numerous festivals, ceremonies and musical ensemble performances. We learned how to drum and how to express ourselves through various traditional Ghanaian dances. The experience of meeting so many new people and having the opportunity to share new experiences with fellow students—as well as with the amazing people that surrounded us while we were in Ghana—was unforgettable and life-altering.

I would like to thank Michael Frishkopf from the Department of Music for teaching me so much about music and its unlimited capabilities.

Related links:
Canadian Centre for Ethnomusicology

Elizabeth is a biological science major at the University of Alberta who will be graduating this year! She studied genetics for the first two years of her degree at the University of Calgary. Originally from Edmonton, Elizabeth grew up in the USA between the ages of 8-15 and has lived in Calgary, as well as Vancouver. She plans to pursue a Masters in Forensic Sciences. Her hobbies now include dance, West African Style of Dance (of course!), and traveling.

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