Things get interesting when you listen closely

Fri, Apr 1 2016


Film maker. Researcher. Music man.

Michael B. MacDonald spent four years on piano touring with a country band from Cape Breton, was in a Sufi music ensemble, travelled the east coast of North America playing bass with a Flamenco ensemble, and has rocked the bass guitar for more than one band. But you won’t find him on a stage these days—and he’s fine with that.

“I still love music and I play all the time, but I stopped doing it professionally because I felt that I said what I wanted to say as a performer,” Michael says. “Now I’m looking beyond entertainment to explore how music is connected to tradition and culture.”

Michael’s work as a researcher, documentary filmmaker and ethnomusicologist (a combination of anthropologist and musicologist) takes him beyond concert halls and into some unexpected places—the forests of Northern Alberta, the Hip Hop community and even conferences filled with front-line social workers.

“ I’m looking beyond entertainment to explore how music is connected to tradition and culture.” 

“Often when people talk about tradition and culture, they talk about preserving the language—and that’s really important—but there are a lot of manifestations of culture that aren’t linguistic. For 40,000 years societies have been using music as a way of constructing, educating, healing, growing and orienting themselves.”

It’s those cultural connections Michael is most interested in. How does music affect us at our core? How does it fit into our culture, create connections and shape knowledge?

“This research isn’t about building ivory towers, it’s about building beautiful communities. I study cultural sustainability—what teaching and learning practices happen in communities that help maintain culture.”

But Michael says he didn’t make the switch from musician to academic to churn out papers that would be read by a small group of ethnomusicologists around the world.

“I still publish, of course, but as valuable as academic publishing is, in this field you’re talking to an extremely limited pool of people. I became an academic to study and explore ideas, but research for its own sake isn’t enough. You have to share with people, and that’s exactly what teaching, community-engaged research and documentary film allow me to do.”

Michael B. MacDonald is an associate professor in the Bachelor of Music in Jazz and Contemporary Popular Music program. Learn more at