The UCLA Herb Alpert School of Music, Department of Ethnomusicology grew out of the former Institute of Ethnomusicology, established by Mantle Hood at UCLA in 1960. In its early years many distinguished scholars, including Charles Seeger and J. H. Kwabena Nketia, collaborated in advancing the vision of the Institute. From the 1960s to 1989 Ethnomusicology was a program within the Department of Music, part of the College of Fine Arts. In 1989 it became an independent department, called the Department of Ethnomusicology and Systematic Musicology, part of the School of the Arts. In 1995 it was renamed the Department of Ethnomusicology.

In 2007 ethnomusicology became one of three departments, with music and musicology, to comprise The UCLA Herb Alpert School of Music. This school was named with a $30 million endowment gift made possible by the generosity of the renowned performer, producer, and philanthropist Herb Alpert and his wife Lani Hall Alpert through The Herb Alpert Foundation. The UCLA Herb Alpert School of Music, with Timothy Rice as the founding dean, facilitated a new cooperation between the departments of ethnomusicology, music, and musicology, while also allowing the departments to remain autonomous and continue their unique academic and performance curriculums. At that time, the UCLA Herb Alpert School of Music was a "virtual" school, with the departments of ethnomusicology and music remaining within the School of the Arts and Architecture (formed in 1994 from the School of the Arts) and the department of musicology remaining within the College (which it opted to join in 1989).

On January 21, 2016, the University of California Regents voted to formally establish the UCLA Herb Alpert  School of Music, the first school of music in the UC system. UCLA’s proposal to transfer the ethnomusicology and music departments from the School of the Arts and Architecture and the musicology department from the College’s Division of Humanities to the School of Music received extensive input from students, faculty and staff. Campus officials named Judi Smith (Dean and vice provost emerita of the UCLA College) as interim dean.

During the 2010-2011 academic year, The UCLA Herb Alpert School of Music, Department of Ethnomusicology celebrated 50 years of ethnomusicology at UCLA through a variety of activities, including symposia, concerts, and exhibitions. For information about the history of ethnomusicology at UCLA go to "Fifty Years of Ethnomusicology at UCLA: 1960-2010" and Institute of Ethnomusicology.

UCLA has granted more Ph.D and M.A. degrees in ethnomusicology than any other university in the world. Graduates in ethnomusicology from UCLA have founded many of the most important ethnomusicology graduate programs in the United States, including those at the University of Michigan, University of Washington, Brown University, Wesleyan University, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Florida State University, and UC Berkeley.

The specialization in systematic musicology is currently the only one of its kind in the United States. Since its inception, systematic musicology has created a distinguished record of scholarship, noted for its scholastic depth and innovation.

In 1991 the department established a full undergraduate curriculum in ethnomusicology. In 1996 Jazz Studies was instituted as a concentration within the undergraduate major. The renowned guitarist Kenny Burrell is the director of the jazz studies concentration.