Saturday, September 12, 2015

A Profile for Public Musicology

by Drew Massey

As my co-editor Kern has noted, 2015 marks the fiftieth anniversary of a pivotal moment in musicology: the Kerman-Lowinsky debates about the purpose of musicology. Interested readers can familiarize themselves with the terms of the debate here, here, and here; the crux of the disagreement was the relative prestige of different ways of thinking about music, with Kerman pleading with his fellow musicologists to place music criticism as first among the modes of thought. Kerman caught flak from many sides. Lowinsky insisted that the more pressing issue for musicologists was to actually spend time fully digesting the sources: what would it mean to “study” Beethoven if so many of the sketches remain uncataloged? Kerman hurt more than a few Americanists’ feelings by declaring the entire country to be devoid of music worth criticizing (somewhat disingenuously dodging a consideration of jazz).

For my inaugural post as co-editor of Musicology Now, it strikes me that Kerman’s comments animate my own view of the future of this blog. As you might already know, the mission of this blog is to serve as a citadel for “public musicology.” Musicology is hardly the only scholarly discipline that has a separately articulated public service arm: public history and public sociology spring to mind as examples from other fields. Some scholarly fields, on the other hand, have such presence in the public already through museums and other venues (I’m thinking specifically of art history, but arguably archeology and architecture fit in here, too), that a “public” appellation is scarcely necessary.

Public musicology runs parallel to but is ultimately distinct from Kerman’s vision of “criticism.” Kerman gave his succinct definition of the latter: “criticism is the way of looking at art that tries to take into account the meaning it conveys, the pleasure it initiates, and the value it assumes, for us today.”[1] Kerman was casting his eyes somewhat enviously towards the “New Criticism” in English departments. In this respect both Kerman’s criticism and public musicology are different from music criticism as practiced in newspapers, magazines, and (increasingly) online forums, if only for music criticism’s tendency to emphasize individual performances or recordings rather than historical moments, works, or artists. Yet to my mind the very point of contact between Kerman’s definition of criticism and public musicology is the element that has most frequently been glossed over: the qualifier that criticism is “for us today.” Hence the “now” in Musicology Now is not a throwaway modifier, but crucially situates the mission of this blog as one addressing the present moment, placing somewhat less of an emphasis on our posts’ consequences for posterity.

My profile for public musicology, at least as I see it unfolding over the course of my three-year tenure, will center around a set of concerns for the hic-et-nunc (and will surely feature the more-than-occasional excursion beyond them). They complement some of our existing threads, such as the “What I do in musicology” posts. My themes number seven in total:

Big Questions

Like most humanities fields, musicology is splintering into ever-smaller affinity groups; the same could be said of many contemporary audiences for music. Although there are methodological questions that remain “big” to musicologists (criticism vis-a-vis other modes of inquiry still being one of them), I am interested to see what “big” questions can be asked of music and musical practices themselves.


Beginning this fall, we intend to develop a series in the blog of interviews with movers and shakers in the music world. While some will be with academic musicologists, others will be with writers, critics, composers, and performers, in order to get an impression of what their points of contact for musicology are. The goal of this element is to sample the broader audience of people working in and around music, which surely is a mission for public musicology.


Insofar as we are tracking the “now,” Musicology Now will pay special attention to how the digital world is reshaping our musical and musicological lives. Some of these trends have achieved a lot of recognition in the field already, for example in our recent post by Carolin Rindfleisch on British initiatives in the digital humanities. The air that scholarship breathes has an increasingly digital ingredient, and so we are interested to track the developing role of born-digital dissertations, social media, and other emerging technologies in shaping our musical and musicological experiences.

New Works

If we all had unlimited time, all that would be necessary to do to follow trends in musicology would be to read all of the books and scholarship that were coming forth. Alas, we do not. This element of our blog’s offerings will highlight aspects of the field by featuring posts on books and articles by scholars who have recently published or are about to publish something. It continues a strain of posts that is already present in the blog.

Emerging Scholars

Although the field of musicology, like most academic fields, churns slowly on account of the structure of higher education in the United States, there are exciting new voices entering the field every year. It is another goal of this blog, moving forward, to highlight some of those voices and introduce them to the broader music-loving public.

Music(ology) in Society

The last two themes in my profile are somewhat more general in nature. Music(ology) in Society is intended to be a series that captures many of the changing trends in both musical and musicological communities. It is deliberately nebulous, but given the fever pitch of American politics in the run up to the 2016 election (to name one example), I sense there will be no shortage of worthwhile cases of music and music scholarship intersecting with large cultural forces.

Material Culture

As something of a counterweight to the “technology” theme, I also intend to highlight how material culture continues to inform our experience of music. This is evident not only in instruments, scores, ephemera, and antiquarian material, but also even in the built environments in which we encounter music. I admit that it is something of a biased theme (my day job is with a rare book dealership, so material culture is frequently on my mind), but one that seems like it could contribute meaningfully towards a rich, multi-faceted profile of public musicology as we cruise through the twenty-first century.

A profile for public musicology necessarily has a different stance from Kerman’s profile for American musicology. In many ways the times have changed and Kerman’s call for more criticism within musicology has been taken up, first by the new musicologists but now in a more general way by scholars occupying many different nooks and crannies in the field. But in other ways the field has not. An emphasis on the “now” means that this blog will track issues at the present moment, without attempting to build a scholarly canon parallel to the musical one. This may seem like something of an academic point on which to end, but I think that nothing distinguishes public musicology from “private” musicology more than a focus on its usefulness and relevance for a general readership, identified not as a monolithic mass but as individuals each situated in particular places at a particular time.

[1] Kerman, “A Profile for American Musicology,” JAMS 18, no 1 (Spring 1965), 63.


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