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Musical Transitions
Musical Transitions to European Colonialism in the Eastern Indian Ocean


The Musical Transitions project was a five-year research programme funded by the  European Research Council, based in the Kings' College London Music Department (2011–2015).

Headed by Principal Investigator, Katherine Butler Schofield, the aim of the Musical Transitions team was to produce a history of how the musical fields - the soundworlds - of the eastern Indian Ocean changed during their transitions to and through European colonialism c.1750-1900. Our focus was on North India and the Malay world, largely under British colonialism, and combined the methodologies of history and ethnomusicology to analyse visual, material, and literary sources on music, sound, and listening, in key regional and European languages. The project consisted of three Case Studies - the Awadh (India), Malay, and India-Malay Case Studies whose findings were increasingly pooled in order to make larger-scale sense of how local musical systems and networks were transformed across the region in their encounter with European colonial power.

This deeply collaborative and cross-disciplinary project has had exciting and field-changing results:

1) We have established for the first time that vast and rich historical archives exist for North Indian and Malay music history before 1900. These archives are in many languages, extremely diverse, and represent multiple lineages of knowledge. For North India, we have developed a database - SHAMSA: Sources for the History and Analysis of Music/Dance in South Asia - of more than 300 key primary musical texts produced c. 1700-1900 in Sanskrit, Persian, Hindavi, Hindi, Urdu, Bengali, and English; for about 100 of these a digital copy is also included. SHAMSA may be consulted at King’s by appointment with Dr Katherine Schofield

2) We have developed four new methodologies for the study of such archives: A) A focus on sound and listening, leading to a broadening of our field from music to auditory history. B) Multilingualism: in these regions, operating in multiple languages was normative; so we too needed to place different languages back into dialogue. C) Intermediality: attention to the ways visual, literary, and sonic media historically interconnected and enriched each other. People across this region cultivated rich, virtuosic aesthetics of borrowing and reuse across media; and an intermedial perspective is required to make sense of how they responded to new, European entrants into this regional space. D) Stereophony: detailed connection and comparison across the Bay of Bengal between India and the Malay world.


3) We have developed a new model for the transition of regional knowledge systems to and through European colonialism—paracolonial lineages and economies. Colonial power had enormous distorting effects on regional soundworlds, but “colonial discourse” on music was itself irrelevant to most regional systems of knowledge until well past the mid nineteenth century. Of far greater impact were European notions of the proper uses of space, time, and resources; ways of doing business; employment of musical labour; interference in older economic modes; civic regulations and jurisprudence; new technologies; and significant acts of physical violence, notably the brutal British suppression of the 1857 Indian Uprising, and the 1824 Anglo-Dutch treaty that cut the Malay world in two. The archives show that late-nineteenth-century reformist discourses represented only a limited top-slice of local opinion, and were not a “mainstream” of regional views. Precolonial knowledge systems did not consecutively give way to transitional, then colonial knowledge systems. Instead, reformism was but one strand among many thriving lineages of knowledge that competed for precedence in dynamic musical economies during the colonial era. These streams were facilitated or altered in their course by colonial presence and action, but the vast majority were not beholden to colonial epistemologies. 

In seeking to account for these economies while never losing sight of the coercive colonial context that shaped them, we have developed the concept of “paracolonial” knowledge systems (after Stephanie Newell), denoting lineages of knowledge that continued, developed, and were born and died alongside and beyond the colonial. The paracolonial enables us to account for the many otherwise unaccountable regional musical practices and knowledges that coexisted, waxed, and waned in differing relations to European power and culture during the years conventionally marked off as the “colonial period”. It also makes sense of the persistence of older forms and ideas long after independence in India and the Malay world.

The above text constitutes the official summary report of the project, which may also be downloaded as a PDF. Please cite as: Schofield, Katherine Butler. 2016. “Musical transitions to European colonialism in the eastern Indian Ocean: final summary report.” European Research Council, Project ID 263643; Principal Investigator, Katherine Butler Schofield. <>




The major publications of this project will be two edited volumes, 'Paracolonial soundworlds: music and colonial transitions in the eastern Indian Ocean' (ed. Schofield, Byl, Lunn), and 'Hindustani music between empires: alternative histories, c. 1750–1900' (ed. Schofield). 

Significant publications from the project to date include:
  • Byl, Julia. Historical sections of Antiphonal histories: resonant pasts in the Toba Batak musical present, especially Chapter 4. Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 2014.
  • Byl, Julia, Raja Iskandar bin Raja Halid, David Lunn, and Jenny McCallum. “The Syair Tabut of Encik Ali: a Malay account of Muharram at Singapore, 1864.” Indonesia and the Malay world 45:133 (2017), 1–18.
  • Irving, David. “The Genevan psalter in eighteenth-century Indonesia and Sri Lanka,” Eighteenth-century music 11.2 (2014), 235–55.
  • Lunn, David, and Julia Byl. “‘One story ends and another begins’: reading the Syair Tabut of Encik Ali.” Indonesia and the Malay world 45:133 (2017), 391–420.
  • Lunn, David, and Katherine Butler Schofield. “Delight, devotion, and the music of the monsoon at the court of Emperor Shah Alam II.” In Imke Rajamani, Margrit Pernau, and Katherine Butler Schofield, eds. Monsoon feelings: a history of emotions in the rain. New Delhi: Niyogi, 2018.
  • McCallum, Jenny. “Beguiling voices: traces of vocality in the Malay literary tradition of the Riau islands.” Ethnomusicology forum 26.1 (2017), 93–115.
  • Schofield, Katherine Butler. “‘Words without songs’: the social history of Hindustani song collections in India’s Muslim courts, c. 1770–1830.” In Rachel Harris and Martin Stokes, eds. Theory and practice in the music of the Islamic world: essays in honour of Owen Wright. London: Routledge, 2017.
  • Sykes, Jim. “Towards a Malayan Indian sonic geography: sound and social relations in colonial Singapore.” Journal of Southeast Asian studies 46.3 (2015), 485–513.
  • Williams, Richard David. “Music, lyrics, and the Bengali book: Hindustani musicology in Calcutta, 1818–1905.” Music & letters 97.3 (2016), 465–95.

A limited archive of past project news, events and notices of publications is preserved on these pages for the record, and case study information can be found below.

Project Team

Principal Investigator

Post-doctoral Research Associates

Doctoral Students


  • Angela Waplington 

Visiting Fellows

Musical Transitions team