Ethnomusicology professor combines music and politics in the classroom

For six years on-and-off, Professor Benjamin Teitelbaum attended lectures, concerts and music festivals in Sweden and other Scandinavian countries. The types of people at these events could go by many terms — Neo-Nazis, fascists, skinheads, white nationalists.

Teitelbaum calls them radical nationalists.

He attended these events not as a sympathizer or a protestor, but as a researcher. A professor of musicology at CU Boulder, Teitelbaum spent years doing ethnographic research on Scandinavian radical nationalist subgroups, in order to study how music influences and expresses radical thought.

After more than half a decade, his work has finally paid off with the publication of his first book, Lions of the North: Sounds of the New Nordic Radical Nationalism, in January.

The work was not always easy. Teitelbaum said that many of the people he spent time with while conducting his research were less than accepting of his motives and even more hostile about his Jewish heritage.

“That was scary at the beginning,” he said regarding his research. “In various instances I’ve been targeted by people, sometimes there was full-blown hostility.”

He also shared that his first non-academic review of Lions of the North was by an outlet called “Radio Aryan,” where the reviewers had plenty of unpleasant commentary about the fact that he was Jewish.

Despite the hostility he received from his subjects, Teitelbaum said the most socially unpleasant conversations he’s had about his research occurred among his colleagues in the United States. He explained how many people don’t understand why he studies what he does and suspect him of being sympathetic to the causes he researches.

“The times when I’ve felt most uncomfortable, to be honest, was when I’d tell somebody what I’m doing and they’d be like ‘Well, why are you interested in that?’” Teitelbaum said.

Teitelbaum is a professor of ethnomusicology, which he describes as the study of how music and culture relate to each other. It is often defined as the study of non-Western or ancient music, but Teitelbaum said he’s trying to move away from that definition by studying music that is both Western and modern.

Teitelbaum is a Colorado native who grew up in Evergreen before going away to college on the East Coast. He earned his degree at Brown, where he studied ethnomusicology and nyckelharpa performance — a many-stringed fiddle-like object that’s the national instrument of Sweden.

Teitelbaum began his time at CU Boulder in the department of German and Slavic languages and literatures as head of the Nordic studies program. He taught classes about Nordic language and culture, as well as a class on radical nationalism in the international affairs program. He describes that class as “his baby.”

He was recruited into the college of music only a year ago and is now on the tenure track. While there, he has designed two new courses, music and violence and music and space, and assisted with the creation of music and global health.

Teitelbaum has a busy schedule — in addition to teaching, he is the chair of the new Arctic studies certificate and heads the non-major program in the college of music. He said he’s passionate about introducing music to non-majors and thinks that it’s a valuable subject for all students to study as a gateway to learning about other aspects of human culture.

“[Music] offers us a lens, a window into social behavior, into human history and human interaction that we can’t find in other ways,” Teitelbaum said. “You can use music to tell history and to analyze people, and that’s what most inspires me about it.”

In the classroom, Teitelbaum is strict but fair. He gently chides students for not knowing the answer to an easy clicker question, but postpones a paper because he feels it’s unfair to assign it before returning a previous one. He is even able to get multiple laughs out of the class during a lecture on how music influenced politics during the Bosnian War, not a light subject.

In fact, Teitelbaum’s colleagues cite his lecture skills as what makes him so remarkable. Multiple professors state that he’s one of the best lecturers they know and that he has a special knack for holding students’ attention in large lecture halls.

Carlo Caballero, head of musicology in the college of music, described him as “a performer,” saying that he quickly became “famous across campus as one of the most effective teachers and lecturers.”

“He’s a sensational teacher,” said Thomas Zeiler, an international affairs professor, of Teitelbaum. Zeiler praised Teitelbaum for his ability to translate his research on radical nationalism into teaching. He also said thought the material was especially timely with the rise of anti-Semitism and anti-immigrant sentiment in the U.S. and abroad.

Teitelbaum agreed that his work has taken on a new relevance, but explained that his goal in writing and teaching about radical nationalism is less to explain the subject and more to teach people about liberal democracy. He said that high school civics classes teach students the basics of their political system, but their education in this subject matter often stops at that point.

He worries that students will be unable to argue in defense of democracy when confronted by those who are trying to undo it because they never learned how to do so. What he really wants is his readers and students to understand the alternatives to democracy and decide for themselves what they think.

“We’re facing a moment right now where we have forces rising that oppose pluralism and oppose the concept of an ethnically and religiously neutral public sphere, and I think people are not positioned to respond to it,” Teitelbaum said.

“You can’t get to the point of feeling energized and in defense of our political system unless you find it really legitimately threatened, and allow yourself to consider an alternative in some kind of way.”

Contact CU Independent Copy Editor Carina Julig at

Carina Julig

Carina Julig serves as the managing editor of the CU Independent. A junior majoring in journalism and political science, she formerly interned at the Boulder Daily Camera and studied journalism abroad in the Balkans. She is a California native and cut her teeth in student journalism at her San Diego high school.

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