There have been numerous calls for the use of qualitative research in music education. Music educators have been slow to heed these calls, despite the wide acceptance of qualitative methods in other areas of education research. This paper describes the place of qualitative paradigms in the gamut of research methodology and assesses the potential of the ethnographic techniques of participant observation and ethnographic interviewing for music education. In doing so it responds to Swanwick's (1984) critique of participant observation method by, (a) describing some of the techniques' philosophical bases, (b) citing several model ethnographies in other disciplines, and (c) reviewing some of the ethnographic research literature which, the author argues, has recognised the particular strengths and weaknesses of qualitative method and developed a strong philosophical and empirical rationale for its use. The author argues that ethnographic method has much to offer as we seek solutions to the problems of understanding music education in its social context in the late twentieth century.