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Principal Methodologies For Musicological Research

In the face of a disciplinary definition of virtually unlimited scope and a diverse array of related subjects, the actual practice of musicology is probably best understood in terms of the principal methodologies or investigative paradigms that have been and are currently the bases for the scholarly study of music as it is carried out within each of the major subdisciplines: the scientific historical method, the analytical method, and the critical or interpretive method.

The scientific historical method.

"Scientific" historicism—rather than just "historicism," to distinguish it from what is now commonly known as "new" historicism (see Treitler, "The Historiography of Music," p. 362)—is the traditional historiographical methodology of music history, taken (as indicated above) to mean the history of Western classical music. It is scientific in the sense that it seeks first to establish an accurate historical record and then, on the basis of that record, to identify patterns of influence and causal relationships that form the basis of the periodization of music historical time and the construction of a diachronic narrative.

Scientific music historiography has as its object of study "the history of music" in its most common sense—that is, the events of the past that can be related in some way to music. Because the investigation begins with whatever historical data are available, the subdisciplines of textual scholarship, archival research, history of music notation, organology, and iconography (as described above) are extremely important to the accurate and efficient construction of the facts and texts (for example, transcriptions or facsimiles of archival documents, biographical information, and scholarly editions) that will comprise the historical record and will serve as the bases of subsequent causal hypotheses. This first, empirical stage of investigation is frequently referred to as "historical positivism."

In general, once the historical record has been established, the scientific historiographer attempts to establish order among the various facts and texts by constructing plausible causal relationships and historical periodizations. In the case of music historiography, however, there exists at this point a tension between generalizations based on the entire historical record and those based on a consideration of specific pieces of music, objectified as works of musical art and considered to be semi-autonomous in the sense of existing within a continuum of musical works of art that are largely defined by their own internal processes of influence and causality, apart from those of history in general. In simplest terms, it is a question of what music history is about, traditionally a choice between two alternatives: either defining periods of musical history based on the guideposts provided by the lives of great composers (placed within their cultural context) and the schools of composition formed around them, or extrapolating periods defined by musical style from the patterns of influence, types of compositions (genres), and prevalent characteristics observed through the careful formal analysis of the properties of individual works of musical art. In either case, the result remains within the historicist paradigm; and in practice, twentieth-century music historiographers have tended to base their diachronic narratives principally on musical style, a process that permits the inclusion of historical and biographical facts but encourages the conviction that music history is really about the objectified musical work—and is therefore different in essence from other types of historical narratives. An instructive case in point is the extremely popular History of Western Music by Donald J. Grout and Claude V. Palisca, now in its sixth edition. A sampling from the table of contents shows a pragmatic mixture of chapters defined, respectively, by stylistic period, composer, genre, and historical grab bag: "Music of the Early Baroque Period," "Sonata, Symphony, and Opera in the Early Classic Period," "Ludwig van Beethoven," "The American Twentieth Century."

One result of nineteenth-century scientific historicism was the consolidation of what is known as the "musical canon," a collection of works that are generally regarded as having extraordinary aesthetic value and therefore able to serve as the building blocks of an historical narrative whose subject is the musical work. During the twentieth century, the wide popularity of historical accounts based on style, dealing almost exclusively with the composers and works of the musical canon, resulted in the nearly complete exclusion of minor composers and women and in an increasing emphasis on formal analysis. This emphasis led to, and was in turn nourished by, intense positivist activity in the production of new and more accurate editions of the composers and works of the canon, and answered many open questions about chronology, authenticity, and the process of composition. Thus, it encouraged an even greater focus on the inner workings of individual pieces of music and an increasing absence of any consideration of those pieces of music as historical documents produced within a specific social and political context. By the late 1970s, in fact, German musicologist Carl Dahlhaus, in the Introduction to his study of nineteenth-century music, lamented the decline of history and reasserted the task of a music historiographer as the establishment of "a relation between the aesthetic and the historical substance of works of music" (Dahlhaus, Nineteenth-Century Music, p. 1; see also Dahlhaus, Foundations of Music History). Similar ideas were expressed at about the same time by the American musicologist Leo Treitler: "Music history is possible only insofar as the historian is able to show the place of individual works in history by revealing the history contained within the works themselves, that is, by reading the historical nature of works from their internal constitution" (Treitler, Music and the Historical Imagination, p. 173).

Contemporaneous with these somewhat premature announcements of the triumph of formal analysis over music history was the rise of a flourishing practical application of various positivist historical projects: a branch of performance practice known variously as "the early music movement," "authentic performance," "period performance," and "historically informed performance." Beginning around 1970, performers of music written during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries began to use the data of the historical record—editions, information about period instruments, knowledge of the composer's intentions, original performance conditions, and so on—to produce performances that were intended to be as historically appropriate as possible. Nourished by a thriving recording industry, the movement soon included music from every period and style, even that of the twentieth century. The movement has been widely criticized on the basis of its claims to authenticity and for what is described as its "essential modernism" (see Kivy, Authenticities, and Taruskin, Text and Act, respectively). However, it cannot be denied that the historically informed performance movement, which continues to be both vigorous and vital, has generated interest in a wide variety of repertories and introduced a broad spectrum of possibilities for both performance and hearing. (See Butt, Playing with History, for a thorough discussion of issues surrounding historically informed performance.)

The analytical method.

The analytical method in musicology begins with a consideration of the music itself—either in written form in a notated musical score or in sounded form in performance—and attempts to identify the structural characteristics of that piece of music in terms of broadly definable elements such as form (including motivic and harmonic analysis), musical detail (such as dynamics and tone quality), and the music's relationship to a text. In the most straightforward sense, the musical analyst attempts to uncover what it is that makes a piece of music "work" as music. Musicological analysis differs from ethnomusicological analysis in that the latter necessarily places the investigation squarely within a particular cultural context, whereas musicologists may consider the musical work, either in score or in performance, completely removed from its context. As indicated above, musical analysis is related to music theory in that analysis provides the data that can be used to validate existing theories or to construct new ones; it is, as Nicholas Cook observed, "the practical application of theory" (Music, p. 93). It is also at least implicitly involved in critical musicology (see "The Critical Method," below), since the very act of careful analysis of a work of music indicates a prior judgment as to the worth of that music.

Musical analysis, though synchronic rather than diachronic in nature, provides the data that allow the scientific historian to assess the possibility of a causal relationship between the works of two composers, given the existence of stylistic similarities: Did the two composers know each other's work? Did they come into direct contact? Were they both influenced by a third composer rather than directly by each other? And the historian may be able to determine a chronology of composition of works of one or more composers on the basis of the stylistic information provided by analysis. Likewise, historical information can be of great use to the analyst, who must on occasion step outside of the work itself in order to decide which of several hypothetical structures best fits the music in question.

Whether the music is in musical score or in performance, the question of what is actually being analyzed, the "subject" of analysis, is difficult to answer. Music is by nature ephemeral, not subject to scientific observation and measurement. Should one concentrate on the musical sound that the composer may have had in mind as he composed the work, or on the sound of a particular performance, or on the work as it is represented in a notated score? In the Western classical-music tradition, the notated score—the written image of a work—is generally used as the starting point for analysis, which may then go on to consider various possibilities of how it might sound. Here again, the analyst often uses the output of the scientific historian, specifically the editions of works and composers produced by textual scholarship and the study and interpretation of music notations (see the sidebar on "Music Notation").

As mentioned above (in the discussion of scientific historicism), in recent years the popularity of historical accounts based on musical style and the accompanying emphasis on the formal analysis of the inner workings of individual pieces of music gave rise to a feeling among many historical musicologists that the analytical method had to a great extent succeeded in removing the historical component from works of music that were in fact historical documents and should not be considered entirely out of context. In short, the concern was that the two methodologies, rather than existing in peaceful symbiosis, were in danger of becoming a single approach based on formal analysis. Perhaps the most virulent denunciation of this tendency came from the musicologist Joseph Kerman, who objected strongly to the formalist preoccupation of music analysts with the internal structure of the individual work of art, considered as an autonomous entity. "The potential of analysis is formidable," he wrote, "if it can only be taken out of the hothouse of theory and brought out into the real world" (Kerman, Contemplating Music, p. 18). In fact, many of Kerman's points were well taken, although unquestionably overstated. Much of the structural analysis during the early years of the twentieth century tended to accept uncritically the works of the Western musical canon and to seek analytical methods to explain the "greatness" of these works; in other words, the truly critical dimension was missing. And in the years following World War II, music analysis became increasingly formalist, abstract, and even arcane in nature, using scientific language and symbolism, as well as drawing directly on areas of theoretical mathematics such as set theory.

In the years since 1985, the analytical method has continued in the old directions (which are ably defended in Pieter Van den Toorn, Music, Politics, and the Academy), while also—somewhat in response to Kerman's charge of excessive formalism—moving in new ones that attempt to strike a balance between the consideration of the musical work out of context and an investigation of the historical and social forces evident in that music. Among these new approaches are semiotic analysis; surface rather than structural analysis; a more vigorous investigation into the history of the reception of musical works; and attempts at experimental verification, based on perception, of the importance to the listener of various abstract analytical properties. (See, in this context, the collection of essays included in Cook and Everist, Rethinking Music.)

The critical method.

The critical method in musicology undertakes the comprehensive interpretation and evaluation of what a musical work means within all of its contexts—historical, political, sociological, and economic, as well as aesthetic. In this, it differs from the analytical method, which generally considers the work of music to have a partially, if not completely, autonomous status with respect to any of its possible contexts. Scholarly music criticism has a long tradition, but the critical method in musicology has taken on much of its importance as a reaction and a response to Kerman's previously mentioned attack, in the mid-1980s, on excessive analytical formalism (see "The Analytical Method," above) and unrealistic historical positivism. With respect to the latter, Kerman and others questioned the assumption by scientific historians of the existence of a unique "best text" (ur-text) that can be reproduced in a scholarly edition, noting that for much early music the concept is anachronistic, and that even nineteenth-century composers such as Beethoven and Chopin were continually making changes to their compositions.

Deploring what he perceived as a substantial gap between academic musicology and the human experience of music, Kerman called for a methodology that would draw upon "all modes of knowledge, including the theoretical and the analytical, the historical and the intuitive, to help achieve a critical response to a piece of music" (Kerman, Contemplating Music, p. 154). And indeed, whether in response to Kerman specifically or simply as part of the "postmodernist" climate of the late 1980s and 1990s, the critical method in musicology has come to encompass a variety of historiographies and research methodologies, showing the influence of the literary critical theory of the 1990s as well as recent developments in disciplines such as anthropology and philosophy. This new wave of critical thinking is often included under the omnibus term "new musicology." Among the most productive and promising are the following, not necessarily mutually exclusive, directions:

Hermeneutic historiography.

In answer to criticism of the claims of "certain" knowledge put forth by scientific historians, proponents of a hermeneutic historiography in musicology advocate a synchronic rather than a diachronic historiographical model: that is, narratives based on causal relationships constructed according to the scientific historical method should be replaced by thorough contextual descriptions of a musical work of art, a goal much influenced by the work of the anthropologist Clifford Geertz. The aim of such an investigation, given the wide range of contextual information, is the well-informed interpretation, or exegesis, of all aspects of the creation in a particular time and place of a musical work or of a musical process, involving details and conditions of performance and reception. (See, for example, Small, Musicking, especially his Geertzian "thick analysis" of a symphonic concert of classical music.) The issue of the status of the work of music is generally unresolved. Some musicologists argue that contextual interpretation is not enough, that the musical work of art must also be considered with respect to the aesthetic experience that it produces. It must therefore retain some degree of autonomy within its historical context and should be analyzed accordingly. (See, for example, Treitler, "Historiography of Music.") Others reject entirely the idea of a "close reading"


The fundamental aim of music notation is to make a lasting visible indication of musical sound, which is invisible and ephemeral. In this respect, it is intimately related to writing in general; and, in fact, music notation is a technology found in societies that have already developed a script for language. Frequently the elements of that script are used in the music notation. And indeed, wherever they have been developed, systems of music notation fulfill two of the functions of script: conservation and communication. Moreover, just like writing in general, systems of music notation are selective in what they specify, ignoring certain aspects of performance judged to be less significant. For example, just as the written record of a speech provides little information about modes of delivery, music notations generally specify pitch or duration—which can be seen as the analogues of letters and words—but leave unfixed many elements of performance. Western notations are of two major types: instrumental tablature and phonetic or pitch notations. A tablature provides specific instructions for playing a piece of music on a stringed instrument, including proper placement of fingers and performance technique, and sometimes rhythm and the relative duration of notes. Pitch notation is a collection of signs (frequently letters of the alphabet), each representing a specific pitch, and possibly other information such as rhythm and duration.

The earliest surving notation is from Mesopotamia; and the musical cultures of India, China, Korea, and Japan, as well as the Arabic-speaking cultures, have made extensive use of music notation of various types, principally pitch notation, tablature, and solmization (the system of using syllables to denote the pitches of a musical scale). (See the articles on notation in the New Grove Dictionary of Music for a discussion of Western and non-Western music notations.) Western classical music, however, has relied more on notation than any other, because notation is fundamental to the conception of Western classical music as a collection of enduring works of art, objects that can be replicated in performance but that have a separate fixed existence independent of any specific sonic realization. This is not the case in other musical cultures, or even in non-classical Western musics, which place a higher value on performance and improvisation—on the act of making music—than on a written set of musical instructions.

The metaphor of the musical "object" came into use at some point during the nineteenth century (see Goehr, The Imaginary Museum of Musical Works). Prior to that time, imprecision was a generally accepted aspect of music notation, and a piece of music was generally thought of as something that existed only in specific performances made possible by the skill of performers in using a notational "sketch" to produce musical sound. But during the nineteenth century, composers increasingly sought to control performances of their works by means of more specific notation. This led to a view that performers were not "making music" but were "producing" musical works. According to this interpretation, the canon of Western music is a collection of imaginary musical objects (which are given a sense of reality by the fact that they are notated) and temporal experiences (the performances of these musical objects, made possible by the fact that they are notated). In this scenario, the responsibility of performers is to be true to the work (in German, werktreu) —that is, true to the intentions of the composer, true to scholarly edition, true to the authentic conditions of performance. These ideas have been challenged on many grounds, as discussed above. Most notably, the actual circumstances of composition indicate that often there is no single "correct" version of a musical work. And the degree of "authenticity" of a performance is difficult if not impossible to assess. These objections notwithstanding, Western classical music is largely conceived not in terms of performance but as a collection of notated musical objects.

of musical text, preferring to base their analysis entirely on a theoretically dialogic (two-way) conversation with the producer through the cooperation of archeological investigation and sympathetic hermeneutics. (See, for example, Tomlinson, Music in Renaissance Magic.) The most extreme advocates of this position interpret all musical detail—tonality, form, and so on—culturally.

Studies in gender and sexuality.

Beginning in the 1970s, some music historians began to take an interest in writing the history of women in music, a subject that until then had been almost entirely ignored; the resulting studies concentrated largely on the location of sources and the recovery of biographical information. These efforts were followed in the late 1980s and 1990s by the development of serious musicological criticism based on gender. In addition to identifying gender representations in various types of music, writers have used the results of formal analysis to argue that the music itself can produce these representations. Often this type of research has resulted in the destabilization of conventional assumptions about the events of Western music history. For example, Susan McClary, in Feminine Endings, has examined music spanning the period from the sixteenth century to the present and has identified the ways in which historically constituted ideas of gender, sexuality, and the body have informed musical procedures. (See Solie, Musicology and Difference, for a diverse and fascinating collection of critical writings on gender and sexuality in music.) The emergence of gender criticism in musicology during the 1990s was accompanied by scholarship based on gay and lesbian issues, demonstrating the relevance of issues of sexuality to musical criticism. (See, for example, Brett, Queering the Pitch.)


Since the late 1980s, musicologists and other scholars have increasingly studied Western classical music as a type of cultural practice. This rich methodological development includes work such as that of economist Jacques Attali, who, in a study of the political economy of music, argues that music can in fact challenge normative social orders and thus presage social development (Attali, Noise; see also Walser, Running with the Devil).

Rhetorical historiography.

Recently, the very ways in which musicologists present the results of their research, rather than the research methodologies themselves, have come under critical examination. Notably, Daniel Leech-Wilkinson, employing ideas drawn from Pierre Bourdieu (especially Homo academicus) and others, argues that the nature of the academic workplace guarantees that the presentation of new research is necessarily influenced by the shared ideology of the group of scholars for whom that research is largely intended (see, The Modern Invention of Medieval Music, especially chapter 4, "Evidence, Interpretation, Power, and Persuasion"). Furthermore, paradigm shifts in musicology, like that accompanying the "new" musicology of the late 1980s and 1990s, are more a result of the importance of creativity and novelty to academic promotion than of a successively closer approximation to the "truth" that is the purported goal of musicological research. Rather than viewing this as a drawback, Leech-Wilkinson concludes that rhetorical excellence of the sort that generates interest and creativity among the scholarly community should be the admitted goal of musicological research.

"Decentered" historiography.

Since the late 1980s, many musicologists have questioned the concentration by music historians on the group of works known as the canon of Western classical music (see "The scientific historical method," above), a concentration that has tended to marginalize or to ignore completely types of music that have in fact been extremely influential in the West and throughout the world. Advocates of the decentralization of music history argue that the very procedures by which scientific historians construct linear chains of causal relationships and ultimately propose periodizations based on elements of musical style are flawed; these historical analyses are diachronic and too narrowly focused, and the tidy narratives that they construct are misleading and should be corrected by a more synchronic and open-minded historiography. Susan McClary, for example, has written, "My history of Western music contains Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven, but it also includes Stradella and the Swan Silver-tones, Bessie Smith and Eric Clapton, k. d. lang, Philip Glass, and Public Enemy" (Conventional Wisdom, p. 30). A fine example of decentered historiography is Robert Walser's detailed study of the heavy metal genre of rock music (Running with the Devil). Walser approaches his subject in various ways, integrating methods of musical analysis and cultural criticism; in particular he devotes a chapter to what he calls the "intersection" of heavy metal and Western classical music, comparing the techniques of heavy metal musicians to those of classical musicians (chap. 3).


Attali, Jacques. Noise: The Political Economy of Music. Translated by Brian Massumi. Foreword by Frederic Jameson. Afterword by Susan McClary. Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, 1996.

Bourdieu, Pierre. Homo academicus. Translated by Peter Collier. Cambridge, U.K.: Polity Press; Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1988.

Brett, Philip, Elizabeth Wood, and Gary C. Thomas, eds. Queering the Pitch: The New Gay and Lesbian Musicology. New York: Routledge, 1994.

Butt, John. Playing with History: The Historical Approach to Musical Performance. Cambridge, U.K., and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002.

Cook, Nicholas. Music: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.

Cook, Nicholas, and Mark Everist, eds. Rethinking Music. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1999. Reprint with corrections, 2001.

Dahlhaus, Carl. Foundations of Music History. Translated by J. B. Robinson. Cambridge, U.K., and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1983.

——. Nineteenth-Century Music. Translated by J. Bradford Robinson. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1989.

Goehr, Lydia. The Imaginary Museum of Musical Works: An Essay in the Philosophy of Music. Oxford: Clarendon; New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.

Grout, Donald J., and Claude V. Palisca, eds. A History of Western Music. 6th ed. New York: Norton, 2000.

Jeffery, Peter. Re-Envisioning Past Musical Cultures: Ethnomusicology in the Study of Gregorian Chant. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1992.

Kerman, Joseph. Contemplating Music: Challenges to Musicology. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1985.

Kivy, Peter. Authenticities: Philosophical Reflections on Musical Performance. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1995.

Leech-Wilkinson, Daniel. The Modern Invention of Medieval Music: Scholarship, Ideology, Performance. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2002.

McClary, Susan. Conventional Wisdom: The Content of Musical Form. Berkeley, Los Angeles, and London: University of California Press, 2000.

——. Feminine Endings: Music, Gender, and Sexuality. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1991.

Pendle, Karin, ed. Women and Music: A History. 2nd ed. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2001.

Small, Christopher. Musicking: The Meanings of Performing and Listening. Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press; Hanover, N.H.: University Press of New England, 1998.

Solie, Ruth A. Musicology and Difference: Gender and Sexuality in Music Scholarship. Berkeley, Los Angeles, and London: University of California Press, 1993.

Taruskin, Richard. Text and Act: Essays on Music and Performance. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995.

Tomlinson, Gary. Music in Renaissance Magic: Toward a Historiography of Others. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1993.

Treitler, Leo. "The Historiography of Music: Issues of Past and Present." In Rethinking Music, edited by Nicholas Cook and Mark Everist. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999. Reprint with corrections, 2001.

——. Music and the Historical Imagination. Cambridge, Mass., and London: Harvard University Press, 1989.

Van den Toorn, Pieter C. Music, Politics, and the Academy. Berkeley, Los Angeles, and London: University of California Press, 1995.

Walser, Robert. Running with the Devil: Power, Gender, and Madness in Heavy Metal Music. Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press; Hanover, N.H.: University Press of New England, 1993.

Blair Sullivan

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