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Cape Breton University
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Cape Breton University

Type of Program and Degrees Offered

Our music and ethnomusicology programs are housed in the Department of History and Culture. They are tightly allied with our program in Folklore and are affiliated with the Centre for Cape Breton Studies. We offer undergraduate programs only.

  • BA Community Studies (BACS) Music Major with a specialty in traditional music (a 4-year degree program)
  • BA Concentration in Ethnomusicology (a 3-year general degree program)
  • Undergraduate Certificate in Ethnomusicology
  • Minor in Music (may be paired with any Major taken as part of a BA or BACS degree)

Program Focus

We specialize in traditional musics, particularly those of Atlantic Canada (including Celtic, Acadian, Eastern European, and Aboriginal musics). We also focus on “tradition-based popular musics,” such as Celtic pop/rock. 

The majority of our courses are offered in English, although we do have some French-language courses and courses about musics in other languages (e.g., Scottish Gaelic song).

Special Resources

The Rotary Music Performance Room and Digitization Lab are state-of-the-art facilities that include an acoustically sound-proofed music room with a Steinway grand piano, a recording studio, and digitization equipment. Using these facilities, we have produced CDs featuring music performances and compositions by students and faculty, music collected for research purposes, and educational resources. The Lab has also produced other “digital humanities” projects, such as videos, tablet apps, and websites.

The Beaton Institute’s archives (http://www.cbu.ca/beaton), housed at Cape Breton University, is a community and university archives that specializes in the rich social, economic, cultural, religious, political, labour, industrial, environmental, and rural history of Cape Breton Island. It has documents pertaining to Cape Breton’s diverse ethnic communities, including: Acadian, British, Chinese, Croatian, Greek, Hungarian, Irish, Italian, Jewish, Lithuanian, Mi’kmaq, Polish, Scottish, Ukrainian, and West Indian. The Beaton Institute also regularly hires students to work as research assistants, to organize and document new collections, and to digitize materials, providing students with valuable skills used by many ethnomusicologists. Students who conduct original research are encouraged to submit their essays and theses to the Beaton Institute, where there is already an excellent collection of undergraduate and graduate theses pertaining to Cape Breton musics (which, in turn, are used as course materials). 

The Mi’kmaq Resource Centre (http://www.cbu.ca/mrc), also housed at Cape Breton University, collects material on Mi'kmaq and Aboriginal history, language, and culture, some of which is available online.

We offer exchange opportunities for students at the University of Limerick (the Irish World Academy of Music and Dance), the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland (which offers studies in traditional Scottish music), Newcastle University (which has a large traditional music program), and Sabhal Mòr Ostaig (a Gaelic-medium college that is part of the University of the Highlands and Islands/UHI). We are working to expand our exchange opportunities with other key institutions in Scotland, Ireland, and elsewhere.

The Centre for Cape Breton Studies (http://culture.cbu.ca/ccbs) offers regular workshops on various facets of Cape Breton culture, and is an integral part of the annual Celtic Colours International Festival each October.

We regularly work in partnership with community organizations and institutions, such as The Highland Village (https://highlandvillage.novascotia.ca/), the Celtic Music Interpretive Centre (http://www.celticmusiccentre.com/), The Cape Breton Centre for Heritage and Science (http://www.oldsydney.com/cape-breton-centre-for-heritage-science/), the Centre Communautaire Étoile de l’Acadie, local museums, and others. We have a formal agreement with Colaisde na Gàidhlig (the Cape Breton Gaelic College, http://www.gaeliccollege.edu/). 

We work with partners in the community to offer our undergraduate students hands-on learning opportunities, including internships, specialized training, and work placements.

Full-Time Faculty in Ethnomusicology

McDonald, Chris. PhD (Ethnomusicology and Musicology, York University, 2003). Assistant professor, ethnomusicology, Department of History & Culture. Research interests: popular music; social class; Middlebrow culture; Celtic music; Atlantic Canadian music; musical analysis; folk revival.

Ostashewski, Marcia. PhD (Ethnomusicology and Musicology, York University, 2009). Canada Research Chair in Communities and Cultures and Assistant Professor, Ethnomusicology, Department of History & Culture. Research interests: cultural heritage; Indigenous and Metis studies; dance; community studies; intersectionality; gender; diaspora; and critical pedagogy.

Sparling, Heather. PhD (Ethnomusicology & Musicology, York University, 2006). Canada Research Chair in Musical Traditions and Associate Professor, Ethnomusicology, Department of History & Culture. Research interests: Cape Breton Gaelic song; step dance; disaster songs; genre; cultural competitions; memorialization; intersections between “folk” and popular musics.

Affiliated Faculty

Dunlay, Kate. MA (Ethnomusicology & Folklore, Indiana University, 1988). Lecturer. Department of History & Culture. Research interests: traditional music and dance of Atlantic Canada; Celtic music and dance; early manuscripts and publications of traditional instrumental music

Labelle, Ronald. PhD (Ethnology, Laval University, 2001). Associate Professor, French, Department of Languages and Letters. Research interests: Oral traditions of Acadians and other Francophone minorities; folktales and beliefs; life history; oral history.

MacKinnon, Richard. PhD (Folklore, Memorial University of Newfoundland, 1991). Former Canada Research Chair in Intangible Cultural Heritage and Professor, Folklore, Department of History & Culture. Research interests: all aspects of Atlantic Canada’s culture including oral traditions, music, language, material culture and vernacular architecture.

General Program Statement

Cape Breton University’s undergraduate music programs are unique in Canada. Our BACS Music Major degree incorporates a wide variety of ethnomusicology courses on a variety of topics and cultures (such as Early Canadian Celtic Music, Aboriginal Musics of North America, Protest Song, and Cultural Tourism). These courses are complemented by innovative music theory courses in vernacular and popular music analysis. The core BACS degree courses are process-oriented and experiential, focusing on problem-solving, self-directed learning, critical thinking, reflective learning, group work, and action research. As part of the program, students complete two work placements, providing skills development and practical application of learning while developing resumés and career networks. 

Music students do not require any prior musical training; however, there are performance courses available for practicing musicians. Our small classes enable close student-faculty interaction. The university’s intimate connection to the Cape Breton community provides students with opportunities to meet, interact with, and learn from well-known local musicians; to work with members of the local music industry; and to participate in major cultural events such as Celtic Colours International Festival and the East Coast Music Awards. There is a vibrant music scene in Cape Breton, and local musicians are keen to meet and perform with CBU students. We encourage our students to take advantage of our many university exchange opportunities in the US, Scotland, Ireland, and England, with more to come. 

All CBU music programs require three courses: Experiencing Music, which develops listening and musical analysis skills, Musics of the World, which introduces a range of musics in diverse cultures, and Music and Culture, which introduces students to issues of particular interest in the discipline of ethnomusicology, such as the intersections between music and everyday life, migration, worship, dance, memory, identity, politics, and the music industry. Music Majors must also take at least two music theory courses.

Cape Breton Island, where the university is located, is a very special musical place. Named one of the world’s most beautiful islands by Condé Nast Traveler magazine, Cape Breton is famous for its music. For those who live there, it can seem that almost everyone is musically talented. Music of all genres is valued, although the island has especially vibrant popular, blues, and traditional music scenes. Music students quickly become involved not just in a campus musical community, but in an island-wide musical community.

Financial Support

Cape Breton University offers a wide array of scholarships for undergraduate students in any program (http://www.cbu.ca/scholarships), as well as scholarships aimed primarily at students studying music (the newly established Rita MacNeil Music Scholarship) and particular cultural areas (e.g., Celtic Studies, Indigenous Studies, etc.).

Further Information

Dr. Heather Sparling
Canada Research Chair in Musical Traditions
Associate Professor, Ethnomusicology

Cape Breton University
PO Box 5300, 1250 Grand Lake Rd
Sydney, NS  B1P 6L2

Related Websites

Centre for Cape Breton Studies: http://culture.cbu.ca/ 
BA Community Studies (BACS): http://www.cbu.ca/academics/bacs/

The content for Cape Breton University was last updated November 14, 2014.

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