Musicology Needs a Reboot and a New Name

Ever since I first entered graduate school in musicology, people have asked me: “What instrument do you play?” It is safe to say that almost no-one in the general public understands that musicology is largely about interpreting and contextualizing music—historically, culturally, and so on. The field’s closest parallels are not found in the fine and performing arts, but in the humanities, where an art history professor would never be asked: “What sort of paintbrush do you prefer?” Some musicologists also perform (or conduct, compose, etc.), but it is rarely the main thing they do. In any case, the field needs a reboot and a new name.
Musicology established, in central European universities in the mid- to late-19th century, the academic study of music. In the 20th century, university and college music departments (including schools, faculties, conservatories, etc.) then began to house all music sub-disciplines, with performance majors eventually comprising about 80% of music students. In nearly all music departments, musicology became triply-ghettoized as: (1) the provider of music history courses in a “service industry” to other types of students, (2) the purveyor of relatively obscure research in dissertations, books, conferences, and journals (such as journal reviews of books that have already been through peer review), and (3) a field giving ideological precedence almost exclusively to European classical music. Thus, it is hardly surprising that musicology has remained, with very few exceptions, a “faceless” discipline.
Musicologists still mainly teach music history “core” courses, covering various developments within the eras of European classical music: Medieval, Renaissance, Baroque, Classical, Romantic, and 20th Century. Their students are mostly music performance majors, many of whom resent having to take any music history courses at all. Musicologists also usually teach a one-semester “music appreciation” course (i.e., mainly classical music, “once over lightly” and less technically) for non-music majors. A few teach courses on the history of popular music, the history of jazz, and/or other “outliers,” but such courses are usually also for non-major music appreciation. Music departments frequently expect their music history core and appreciation courses to be based around textbooks. Thus, it is only occasionally possible for a musicologist to give students much of a sense of his or her intensive, original research.
Sometimes, musicologists teach upper- or graduate-level seminars within subject areas more specifically related to their research specializations. However, nearly all music departments continue to expect such seminars to focus on detailed explorations of more specific topics found within the standard, European, classical subject areas and largely from before the 20th century. This is unfortunate, because by the first decade of the 21st century 48% of all new musicology Ph.D.s had produced dissertations on 20th-century topics (a 400% increase from the 12% of the 1950s). Such dissertations often covered a wide range of North American and other non-European topics, including not only concert music and opera, but also such non-classical forms as national/regional music from around the world, various types of popular music, jazz, and film/TV/radio music. Scholars working on such “new” topics are often highly innovative, using methodologies from cultural studies (e.g., issues of ideology and cultural hierarchy), critical theory (e.g., post-modernism and parody/appropriation), gender studies, and so on. Unfortunately, though, non-music departments and non-music scholars remain largely unaware of this excellent work.
In the late-20th and early-21st centuries, musicology encouraged (or at least allowed) dissertations on hundreds of topics that only a few music departments ended up tolerating in their courses. Those who argue that the best people always rise to the top of their profession are not in touch with the realities of subject-matter-bias found within music departments. Although some people would argue for the benefits of proprietary courses with specifically-assembled materials (as I would), almost any musicologist is capable of teaching standard, classical music history based around a textbook, its provided listening materials, and its provided lecture slides. By comparison, almost any musicologist who has never studied or performed popular music (or even listened to much of it) is going to look very silly teaching “The History of Rock” or running a seminar on “Interpretation vs. Analysis in the Study of Popular Music.” Tellingly, music departments routinely consider popular music to be “non-Western” (i.e., non-classical “world music,” and thus to be taught by ethnomusicologists), even though it is extremely diverse and makes up the vast majority of Western music.
Ph.D.s in musicology end up in tenure-track (or similar) academic jobs only somewhat less than one-third of the time, but what the rest are supposed to do remains a considerable mystery. Academic music research changed significantly in the 1990s and 2000s, but the requirements of music departments largely did not. Doing what you believe in doesn’t necessarily mean that search committees and potential future colleagues will also believe in it, even if your work is ground-breaking. So, musicology should aspire to become much more widely: (1) respected (e.g., by a much broader range of students and colleagues than has so far been the case), (2) consulted (such as for media interviews, public-interest debates, magazine articles, and so on), and (3) disseminated (e.g., outside of music departments, at non-music conferences, and including “public intellectuals”). Suitable contexts include cultural studies, “general” humanities, American studies, philosophy, media studies, history, gender studies, sociology, broadcasting, journalism, and the development of web-based content.
Above all, we need to establish a new and better name for our field, one that actually lets people know what we do. “Musicology” is: (1) much too pseudo-scientific-sounding, (2) widely derided by music students (and even by many of their instructors), (3) far too tied-up in its formerly-exclusive associations with classical music, and (4) misunderstood by the general public. So, let’s start calling it what it is: “humanities music history & culture”—or, in university contexts: “humanities music” and, in public contexts: “music history & culture.” Only then will some Ph.D.s in musicology actually have a chance of getting tenure-track academic jobs in places other than music departments and/or contributing to wider, public discourses about music.
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