New musicology

New musicology

The New Musicology is a term applied to a wide body of musicology with focus upon the cultural study, analysis, and criticism of music, with influences from feminism, gender studies, queer theory, and postcolonial studies. New musicology is a non-integrated movement in the musicology field, and widely practiced in musicology research centres worldwide within musicology, ethnomusicology and cultural studies traditions. "New musicology" is continually being reconstructed, and some would argue that "new musicology" has definitively become current musicology (Williams 2001).


Definitions and history

New musicology seeks to question the research methods of traditional musicology by displacing positivism, working in partnership with outside disciplines, including the humanities and social sciences, and by questioning accepted musical knowledge (Beard and Gloag, 2005, 123). The study of new musicology does not necessarily imply a concrete paradigm of method (Clayton, Herbert, and Middleton 2003) and definitions of this musical field widely vary.

Susan McClary suggests that New Musicology defines music as: "a medium that participates in social formation by influencing the ways we perceive our feelings, our bodies, our desires, our very subjectivities—even if it does so surreptitiously, without most of us knowing how." [citation needed] By contrast, Beard and Gloag when commenting on T.S. Eliot’s influencial essay "Tradition and the Individual Talent" (originally published 1919) remark, "For Eliot, then, tradition involves an awareness of the past, a sense of historical precedent, which becomes an active force in the present. This view could be readily relatable to music, with the creative act of composition and the role of the interpreter reflecting the awareness of precedents and precursors" (Beard and Gloag, 2005, 186). We can see then how new musicology seeks to bring a social, personal, and relatable aspect to new and past musics, and the context in which musicologists write would appear to be circular, that is, what surrounds a piece of music, rather than linear, the historical precedent of the music.

In 1980 Joseph Kerman published the article “How We Got into analysis, and How to Get Out,” calling for a change in musicology. He asked for “a new breadth and flexibility in academic music criticism [musicology]” (Kerman, 1994, 30) that would extend to musical discourse, critical theory and analysis.

In the words of Rose Rosengard Subotnik: "For me...the notion of an intimate relationship between music and society functions not as a distant goal but as a starting point of great immediacy, and not as an hypothesis but as an assumption. It functions as an idea about a relationship which in turn allows the examination of that relationship from many points of view and its exploration in many directions. It is an idea that generates studies; the goal of which (or at least one important goal of which) is to articulate something essential about why any particular music is the way it is in particular, that is, to achieve insight into the character of its identity."

Fields of work

New musicology scholars are looking at musical questions through the lenses of anthropology, sociology, cultural studies, gender studies, feminism, gay musicology and history, among other disciplines.

New musicology is focused upon the cultural study, analysis, and criticism of music, and has limitless questions to pose in research fields like jazz, popular music, composers, music theory, the performance experience, musicians and music listeners.

This has caused many musicologists to question the previously held views of authenticity and make assessments based on critical musicology, which is “concerned with finding some kind of synthesis between analysis and a consideration of social meaning” (Beard and Gloag, 2005, 38).

Concerning authenticity, the very idea of canonization is questioned in new musicology in the thought that "interpretations of the world cannot be definitive" (Harper-Scott and Samson 2009. Gary Tomlinson suggests that meaning be searched out in a ‘series of interrelated historical narratives that surround the musical subject’ (Beard and Gloag, 2005, 123) – a “web of culture” (Tomlinson, 1984). Thus, the work and canonisation of Beethoven, has been examined with new perspective, by studying the relationship of his work, its reception (especially in terms of his 'heroic style', investigated in depth by Scott Burnham in his book Beethoven Hero, though Burnham perhaps should not be considered as part of the movement), and its influence in terms of masculine hegemony. New Musicologists dealing with this subject include Lawrence Kramer, McClary, Brett, as well as Tia DeNora and Sanna Pederson. The dichotomy between the constructions of subjectivity to be found in Beethoven and Schubert (especially with reference to the latter's supposed homosexuality) have also generated much debate; the work of Maynard Solomon is especially important in this context.

Criticisms of the New Musicology

Some musicology criticisms are location based, in that American musicologists struggle with different cultural questions than European or Japanese musicologists. For instance, Vincent Duckles in his entry “Musicology” in the New Grove Online, writes about American new musicology that “As musicology has grown more pluralistic, its practitioners have increasingly adopted methods and theories deemed by observers to mark the academy as irrelevant, out of touch with ‘mainstream values’, unwelcoming of Western canonic traditions or simply incomprehensible. Paradoxically, such approaches have distanced music scholarship from a broad public at the very moment they have encouraged scholars to scrutinize the popular musics that form the backbone of modern mass musical culture” (refer below) This outlines then that some musicologists in the USA must struggle to be seen as doing valid work in the tide of popular music culture. However, Duckles goes on to write that new musicology practices that include some of the interdisciplinary research methods can “engage musicology more and more deeply in central agendas of today’s humanistic academy.” (refer below) In this way, musicology relates to ethnomusicology, cultural and performance theory in ways that traditional musicology was not able to, or did not seek to.

Whilst some of the figures involved in the discipline claim some allegiance to Theodor Adorno, their work has little in common with the wider field of Adorno studies, especially in Germany. Adorno's own radical comments on gender, ethnicity and sexuality are rarely taken into account (for essentially sympathetic writings on Adorno in some of these respects, see various essays in O'Neill 1999, and Rycenga 2002). New Musicology might essentially be considered as a distinct phenomenon from the field of German music sociology bequeathed by the work of Adorno and before him that of Max Weber and Ernst Bloch (later figures in this tradition would include Heinz-Klaus Metzger and Hans G. Helms). New Musicologists frequently exhibit strongly anti-German tendencies (with a particular focus upon nineteenth-century German music theorists including Adolf Bernhard Marx and Eduard Hanslick, also the twentieth-century figures Heinrich Schenker and Carl Dahlhaus); this is especially pronounced in the work of Richard Taruskin (see Taruskin 2005 and also throughout his Oxford History of Western Music (see below)), whilst similar arguments can be found in the work of New Musicology-influenced journalist Alex Ross (see Ross 2003 and Ross 2007).

A particularly fundamental distinction has to do with attitudes towards modernism and popular culture. Influential, oft-cited essays such as McClary 1989, as well as (even more strongly) McClary 2006 are highly dismissive of modernist music per se, but it is unusual in such contexts to find detailed examinations of individual works. Heile 2004 contains sharp criticism of the work of McClary, Subotnik, Kramer and Born in this respect. German music sociologists from a Marxist tradition tend to be more favourable towards modernism (though by no means uncritically, for example in Adorno's essay 'The Ageing of the New Music') and often severely critical of popular music (see Adorno's essays 'On Jazz', 'On Popular Music', 'Perennial Fashion: Jazz', amongst others, or Metzger's description of 'a fascistic element' in the music of the Rolling Stones, in Feldman, Brown, Metzger 1972) frequently viewing it as being inextricably tied to the aesthetics of distraction as demanded by the culture industry (this type of view permeates the work of Adorno and was highly influential upon Metzger). New Musicology, on the other hand, often overlaps with postmodern aesthetics and approaches to music; various New Musicologists are highly sympathetic towards musical minimalism (see McClary 1990 and 2000 and Fink 2005).

Many of the New Musicologists, especially McClary, oppose public funding for music and believe that music should be left in the hands of the free market (as represented by the music industry), arguing that 'the music industry, despite its many faults, more closely approaches a meritocracy and offers opportunities to a wider spectrum of artists than any other form of support' (McClary 2000). In this sense she and others advocate the values of American high market capitalism as applied to music, as opposed to the social democratic model more common in Western Europe[citation needed].

Critics of the New Musicology include Pieter van den Toorn and to a lesser extent Charles Rosen. In response to an early essay of McClary (McClary 1987), Rosen says that "she sets up, like so many of the 'new musicologists', a straw man to knock down, the dogma that music has no meaning, and no political or social significance. (I doubt that anyone, except perhaps the nineteenth-century critic Hanslick, has ever really believed that, although some musicians have been goaded into proclaiming it by the sillier interpretations of music with which we are often assailed.)" (Rosen 2000).


  • Agawu, Kofi (2003). Representing African Music: Postcolonial Notes, Queries, Positions. Taylor & Francis.
  • Beard, David and Kenneth Gloag (2005). Musicology: The Key Concepts. Routledge.
  • Carter, Tim (2002). "An American In," review-article of McClary Conventional Wisdom, in Music and Letters, Vol. 83 No. 2, pp. 274–279.
  • Vincent Duckles, et al. "Musicology." Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online. 4 Oct. 2011 <>.
  • Feldman, Morton, Earle Brown and Heinz-Klaus Metzger (1972). Morton Feldman, Earle Brown and Heinz-Klaus Metzger in Discussion
  • Heile, Björn (2004). "Darmstadt as Other: British and American Responses to Musical Modernism" in twentieth-century music, Vol. 1 Issue 02, pp. 161–178.
  • Hisama, Ellie M. (2001). Gendering Musical Modernism: The Music of Ruth Crawford, Marion Bauer, and Miriam Gideon. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-64030-X.
  • McClary, Susan (1987). "The blasphemy of talking politics during Bach Year," in McClary and Leppert, Richard, eds. Music and Society: The politics of composition, performance and reception. Cambridge University Press.
  • McClary, Susan (1989). "Terminal Prestige: The Case of Avant-Garde Music Composition" in Cultural Critique 12 (1989), pp. 57–81.
  • McClary, Susan (2000). "Women and Music on the Verge of the New Millennium," in Signs Vol. 25 No. 4, pp. 1283–1286.
  • McClary, Susan (2006). "The World According to Taruskin," in Music and Letters Vol. 87 No. 3, pp. 408–415.
  • O'Neill, Maggie, ed. (1999). Adorno, Culture and Feminism. Sage Publications.
  • Rosen, Charles (2000). "The New Musicology," in Critical Entertainments: Music Old and New, pp. 255–272. Harvard University Press.
  • Ross, Alex (2003). 'Ghost Sonata: Adorno and German Music'
  • Rycenga, Jennifer (2002). "Queerly Amiss: Sexuality and the Logic of Adorno's Dialectics," in Gibson, Nigel and Rubin, Andrew, eds. Adorno: A Critical Reader. Blackwell.
  • Subotnik, Rose Rosengard (1991). Developing Variations: Style and Ideology in Western Music. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. ISBN 0-8166-1873-9.
  • Taruskin, Richard (2005). "Speed Bumps," in 19th-Century Music, Vol. 29 No.2, pp. 185–207.
  • Watson, Ben (1995). "McClary and Postmodernism" in Frank Zappa: The Negative Dialectics of Poodle Play. Quartet Books.

Further reading

  • Kerman, Joseph (1985). Contemplating Music: Challenges to Musicology. UK edition: Musicology.
  • McClary, Susan and Leppert, Richard, eds. (1987). Music and Society: The politics of composition, performance and reception.
  • Kramer, Lawrence (1990). Music as Cultural Practice, 1800-1900.
  • McClary, Susan (1991). Feminine Endings.
  • Subotnik, Rose Rosengard (1991). Developing Variations: Style and Ideology in Western Music.
  • Solie, Ruth, ed. (1993). Musicology and Difference.
  • Tomlinson, Gary (1993). Music in Renaissance Magic: Toward a Historiography of Others.
  • Citron, Marcia (1993). Gender and the Musical Canon.
  • Brett, Philip, Wood, Elizabeth and Thomas, Gary C., eds. (1994). Queering the Pitch: The New Gay and Lesbian Musicology.
  • Kramer, Lawrence (1995). Classical Music and Postmodern Knowledge.
  • Subotnik, Rose Rosengard (1996). Deconstructive Variations: Music and Reason in Western Society.
  • Van den Toorn, Pieter C. (1996). Music, Politics and the Academy.
  • DeNora, Tia (1996). Beethoven and the Construction of Genius: Musical Politics in Vienna, 1792-1803.
  • Schwarz, David (1997). Listening Subjects: Music Psychoanalysis, Culture.
  • Kramer, Lawrence (1997). After the Lovedeath: Sexual Violence and the Making of Culture. University of California Press.
  • Bellman, Jonathan, ed. (1998). The Exotic in Western Music.
  • Fink, Robert. (1998) Elvis Everywhere: Musicology and Popular Music Studies at the Twilight of the Canon.
  • Cook, Nicholas and Everist, Mark, ed. (1999). Rethinking Music.
  • McClary, Susan (2000). Conventional Wisdom.
  • Born, Georgina and Hesmondhalgh, David (2000). Western Music and Its Others: Difference, Representation, and Appropriation in Music.
  • Pederson, Sanna (2000). 'Beethoven and Masculinity', in Burnham, Scott and Steinberg, Michael P. (eds), Beethoven and his World, pp. 313–331.
  • Williams, Alistair (2001). Constructing Musicology. Ashgate.
  • Kramer, Lawrence (2003). Franz Schubert: Sexuality, Subjectivity, Song. Cambridge University Press.
  • Taruskin, Richard (2005). The Oxford History of Western Music (six volumes).
  • Fink, Robert (2005). Repeating Ourselves: American Minimal Music as Cultural Practice.
  • Ross, Alex (2007). The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century. Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
  • Szendy, Peter (2007). Listen, A History of Our Ears. Fordham University Press.

External links

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