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Musicology (Greek: μουσικη = "music" and λογος = "word" or "reason") is the scholarly study of music and music history. The specializations of musicologists are quite diverse. Like the comparable field of art history, different branches and schools of musicology emphasize different types of musical works and different approaches to music. National differences in the definition of musicology also abound. Some American scholars, for instance, do not consider music theory to be within the field of musicology.

Types of Musicology

Deductive Conjecture & Contextual Academic Disciplines


Main article: Ethnomusicology.

Ethnomusicology is the study of music in its cultural context. It can be considered the anthropology of music. Jeff Todd Titon has called it the study of "people making music". It is often thought of as a study of non-Western musics, and indeed most of the work in ethnomusicology has been on non-Western or popular music. But ethnomusicology may also include the study of Western classical music from an anthropological perspective.

After studying previous publications, ethnomusicologists usually (but not always) conduct fieldwork in the culture they are studying. Such fieldwork may involve the recording and later transcription of music, interviewing musicians, and/or learning to perform in a different musical style (called bimusicality).

Historical musicology

Main article: Music history.

The field of music history is the subfield of musicology that studies how music developed over time. The field is also sometimes called historical musicology. In theory "music history" could refer to the study of the history of any type or genre of music (e.g., the history of Indian music or the history of rock). In practice, courses on music history in the West are nearly always studies of European classical music.

The tools and products of music history tend to include manuscript studies, editions of composers' works (sometimes emphasizing textual criticism), biography of composers and other musicians, iconography, studies of the relationship between words and music, and the relationship between music and society. The application of musical analysis to further these goals is often a part of music history, though pure analysis or the development of new tools of music analysis is more likely to be seen in the field of music theory.

In most Western countries, music history is usually taught chronologically emphasizing a balance among the acquisition of musical repertory (often emphasized through listening examinations), study and analysis of these works, biographical and cultural details of music and musicians, and writing about music, perhaps through music criticism.

The New Musicology

Main article: New Musicology.

The New Musicology is a term applied to a wide body of work emphasizing cultural study, analysis, and criticism of music. Such work may be based on feminist, gender studies, or postcolonial hypotheses, or the work of Theodor Adorno. As one of the foremost new musicologists Susan McClary says, traditional "musicology fastidiously declares issues of musical signification off-limits to those engaged in legitimate scholarship."

The emphasis on cultural study within the Western art music tradition places New Musicology at the junction between historical musicology and ethnomusicology. Since the late 1980s, many of the scholarly concerns that used to be associated with New Musicology have now become mainstream and have begun to open up the category to contemporary genres, in giving notoriety to newer genres like Pop and Rap, acknowledging that there are categorical differences with the genres, and then by using the knowledge we have past music, hypothesize about where the current trends will lead us or who they may be classified in the future.

Theoretical & Practical Disciplines

Music theory

Main article: Music theory.

Music theory is a field of study that describes the elements of music and includes the development and application of methods for analyzing and composing music, and the interrelationship between the notation of music and performance practice, theory. Broadly, theory may include any statement, belief, or conception of or about music (Boretz, 1995). A person who studies or practices music theory is a music theorist.

Some music theorists attempt to explain the techniques composers use by establishing rules and patterns. Others model the experience of listening to or performing music. Though extremely diverse in their interests and commitments, many Western music theorists are united in their belief that the acts of composing, performing, and listening to music may be explicated to a high degree of detail (this, as opposed to a conception of musical expression as fundamentally ineffable except in musical sounds). Generally, music theory works are both descriptive and prescriptive, that is they both attempt to define practice and to influence later practice. Thus, music theory generally lags behind practice in important ways, but also points towards future exploration and performance.

Musicians study music theory in order to be able to understand the relationships that a composer or songwriter expects to be understood in the notation, and composers study music theory in order to be able to understand how to produce effects and to structure their own works. Composers may study music theory in order to guide their precompositional and compositional decisions. Broadly speaking, music theory in the Western tradition focuses on harmony and counterpoint, and then uses these to explain large scale structure and the creation of melody.

Performance practice

Main article: Authentic performance.

Performance practice draws on many of the tools of historical musicology to answer the specific question of how music was performed in various places at various times in the past. Although previously confined to early music, recent research in performance practice has embraced questions such as how the early history of recording affected the use of vibrato in classical music, or instruments in Klezmer.

Within the rubric of musicology, performance practice tends to emphasize the collection and synthesis of evidence about how music should be performed. The important other side, learning how to sing authentically or perform an historical instrument is usually part of conservatory or other performance training. However, many top researchers in performance practice are also excellent musicians.

Music cognition

Music cognition is the study of the perception and performance of music from the viewpoint of cognitive science. The discipline shares the interdisciplinary nature of fields such as cognitive linguistics. Although by the broad definitions generally used, acoustics should be considered a part of musicological study, in practice it is only within the field of music cognition where acoustics forms part of the English-speaking musicological curriculum. (In Germany and other European countries it is more integrated with musical study).

Biomusicology and Zoomusicology

Biomusicology is the study of music from a biological point of view. Zoomusicology is a field of musicology and zoology or more specifically, zoosemiotics. Zoomusicology is the study of the music of animals, or rather the musical aspects of sound or communication produced and received by animals. Likewise, Biomusicology is the study of the musical aspects of sound and communication produced and received by all living organisms.

What is music?

Main article: definitions of music.

Although one might expect "What is music?" to be the first (and historical) question of musicology, surprisingly, it has not occupied a central part of musicological discourse. (For instance, the 1980 edition of the 20-volume New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians had no entry for "music").

Richard Middleton's critique of musicology

According to Richard Middleton, the strongest criticism of musicology has been that it by-and-large ignores popular music. Though musicological study of popular music has vastly increased in quantity recently, Middleton's assertion in 1990-- that most major "works of musicology, theoretical or historical, act as though popular music did not exist" -- holds true. Academic and conservatory training typically only peripherally addresses this broad spectrum of musics, and many musicologists who are "both contemptuous and condescending are looking for types of production, musical form, and listening which they associate with a different kind of music...'classical music'...and they generally find popular music lacking" (Middleton 1990, p.103).

He cites (p.104-6) "three main aspects of this problem":

  1. "a terminology slanted by the needs and history of a particular music ('classical music')."
    1. "on one hand, there is a rich vocabulary for certain areas [harmony, tonality, certain part-writing and forms], important in musicology's typical corpus, and an impoverished vocabulary for others [rhythm, pitch nuance and gradation, and timbre], which are less well developed there"
    2. "on the other hand, terms are ideologically loaded...these connotations are ideological because they always involve selective, and often unconsciously formulated, conceptions of what music is."
  2. "a methodology slanted by the characteristics of notation," 'notational centricity' (Tagg 1979, p.28-32)
    1. "musicological methods tend to foreground those musical parameters which can be easily notated...they tend to neglect or have difficulty with parameters which are not easily notated", such as Fred Lerdahl. "notation-centric training induces particular forms of listening, and these then tend to be applied to all sorts of music, appropriately or not."
    2. Notational centricity also encourages "reification: the score comes to be seen as 'the music', or perhaps the music in an ideal form."
  3. "an ideology slanted by the origins and development of a particular body of music and its aesthetic...It arose at a specific moment, in a specific context - nineteenth-century Europe, especially Germany - and in close association with that movement in the musical practice of the period which was codifying the very repertory then taken by musicology as the centre of its attention."

These terminological, methodological, and ideological problems affect even works symphathetic to popular music. However, it is not "that musicology cannot understand popular music, or that students of popular music should abandon musicology" (p.104).

Other critiques of musicology

Musicology has traditionally been slow to adopt many postmodern and critical approaches now common elsewhere in the humanities. According to Susan McClary (2000, p.1285) the discipline of "music lags behind the other arts; it picks up ideas from other media just when they have become outmoded." Only in the 1990s did musicologists, preceded by feminist musicologists in the late 80s, began to address issues such as gender, sexualities, bodies, emotions, and subjectivities which dominated the humanities for twenty years before (ibid, p.10). In McClary's words (1991, p.5), "It almost seems that musicology managed miraculously to pass directly from pre- to postfeminism without ever having to change - or even examine - its ways."

See also

  • History of Music
  • Organology
  • Music Theory
    • Musical set theory
    • Tonal theory
  • Psychoacoustics
  • Prehistoric music or Music (archaeology)
  • Tuning, Temperament and Scales


  • Gaunt, Kyra D. (2006). The Games Black Girls Play. ISBN 0-8147-3120-1.
  • Kerman, Joseph (1985). Musicology. London: Fontana. ISBN 0-00-197170-0.
  • McClary, Susan (1991). Feminine Endings. Music, Gender, and Sexuality. University of Minnesota Press. ISBN 0-8166-1899-2 (pbk).
  • McClary, Susan (2000). "Women and Music on the Verge of the New Millennium (Special Issue: Feminists at a Millennium)", Signs 25/4 (Summer): 1283-1286. Cited in Gaunt (2006).
  • Middleton, Richard (1990/2002). Studying Popular Music. Philadelphia: Open University Press. ISBN 0-335-15275-9.
  • Pruett, James W., and Thomas P. Slavens (1985). Research guide to musicology. Chicago: American Library Association. ISBN 0-8389-0331-2.
  • Randel, Don Michael, ed. (4th ed. 2003). Harvard Dictionary of Music, pp. 452–454. The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. ISBN 0-674-01163-5.
  • Tagg, Philip (1979). [citation needed]

External links

On-line Journals

Although most of the broadest musicology journals are not available on-line, a sampling of peer reviewed journals in various subfields gives some idea of musicological writings:

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