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Against History: Defining, and Defending, Systematic Musicologies1

Paul Attinello
mai 2011



When first defined by Guido Adler in 1885 in his pioneering article on the new discipline of musicology, systematic musicology appeared simply to be a good idea: after all, since music operates and is created across a range of different contexts, an articulated awareness of the various methods that could be applied to its study seemed necessary to any definition of musicology. But humanistic tradition and institutional politics intervened, and musicological studies became increasingly divided into the historical and the ethnological, with no room left for anything else. The limits of Anglophone musicology as established in the 1930s, and the unfortunate tendency of academic institutions to reproduce their own methodological patterns, created a situation where entire areas of musical study are now considered peripheral or even dubious by most musicologists.
This presentation will consider various definitions and studies of systematic musicology in the context of a number of related disciplines as they have been constituted in academe, as well as in the light of Kerman’s 1985 critique of the possibilities and limitations of our field. After examining some of the charts presenting the possible fields of musical scholarship, I offer my own chart of the potential disciplines of systematic musicology. All of these methodological divisions are invoked to recall those aspects of music that are denied by an exclusive focus on history and ethnology, as it reaches into the realms of the physical, the psychosocial, and the abstract.


Texte intégral   

1The so-called “New Musicology” has largely been concerned with the personal, the political, the social; but in the early 1990s, when I was a doctoral student involved in some of the arguments in favor of its existence (that is to say, while editing the Newsletter of the Gay & Lesbian Study Group of the American Musicological Society, as well as working on various postmodern and post-structuralist theories in my master’s and doctoral theses at UCLA), I had my own somewhat distinct research interests. Some of these interests, as represented in later writings, fell into line with the broader trends regarded as significant at the time ; but others were more abstractly related, through a parallel but quite different line of argument, to breaking away from other self-enforcing assumptions about musicology’s appropriate objects and methods. These were also different than those familiar in the work of my teachers and friends (Susan McClary, Philip Brett, and many others), because one of my objectives was to acquire the freedom to engage in an even wider variety of methods and arguments – to allow, in fact, for the non-historical, in a field that seemed to me too tiresomely bound to historical period and historically contextualized argument. Some of this difference may have been a result of my relative isolation – rather than being in daily contact with the radical postgraduates studying in Berkeley, I was some hours south in Los Angeles, where a more fragmented methodical radicalism took a different tinge.

2These ideas thus move in a rather different plane : rather than the self-evidently necessary freedom to discuss those aspects of music that are embedded in bodies, in sexualities, in experiences, in sensual and emotional and political contexts, my attention was also drawn in other directions – possibly because of my earlier training in mathematics and scientific formality, as well as my interest in the by-then-passé battles between structural and post-structural theories. Although those lines may seem from some angles to belong to existing and successful subdisciplines – music theory, psychoacoustics, and the like – I was disappointed by the reduction of those subdisciplines to formal and often dry intellectual ghettos, as well as by the extensive ignorance among mainstream musicologists of their existence and usefulness. It seemed to me then, and seems to me still, that at least some awareness of a wider range of techniques is necessary for any musicological project : and, even more importantly, some respect for this wider range is crucial, as opposed to the smug and self-referential arguments still familiar in our field.

3Hesse’s last novel, Das Glasperlenspiel, begins with an epigraph in Latin which states that although, according to “light-minded” persons, abstract systems may seem to require less discipline and be less important than the direct collection of data, the reverse is actually true ; and that, when serious and knowledgeable scholars put their attention on abstract concepts and the relationships between them, they can bring into existence understandings which are more valuable than any data. The epigraph is unusual in that its author is fictitious ; the “quote” was made up by Hesse himself and translated into Latin by two friends who appear, their names translated into Latin, as the fictitious “editors” of the collected works of the novel’s fictitious author.

4It might be appropriate to reach towards a critical understanding of systematic musicology through an attempt to define what music itself might be. Various definitions of music have appeared over the centuries ; in cultures which regarded their own operating principles as universal, such as the ancient Greek or Chinese, tautological definitions related to modes, instruments and musical function tended to dominate, along with philosophical speculation that used music as a metaphor for societal and cosmological structures. Modern attempts instead generally cite the definition of sound – vibrations as translated by the human perceptive apparatus – or bring in specific concepts such as “organization” (as in the definition of music as organized sound) or vaguer ones such as “art”, used in a transcendental or social sense.

5Definitions of music from the contexts of acoustics, poetics, and aesthetics (as the latter was originally defined, that is, as the study of “the beautiful” rather than as the study of the arts) all get into deep and irresolvable difficulties at the outer margins of normative musical behavior. How does an organization- or sound-oriented definition of music deal with Cage’s 4’33” ? Nattiez employed anthropologist Jacques Molino’s use of the term “total social fact” to redefine the boundaries of music. Defining music through the “total musical fact” suggests that all of the social, semiotic and behavioral associations that have been attached to music must be considered as part of the musical universe, whatever distinctions or values are then applied to divide it afterwards. This suggests that attempts to define the musical versus the extra-musical, whether in relation to movement, behavior, ritual, symbolism, narrative, or notation, is pointless – all of it is, indeed, music, and all of it must be seen as music if one is to make sense of various existing cultural contexts. Such a pluralist configuration of possible understandings would seem to indicate that music (as much as or even more than, perhaps, any of the arts) must be studied in as many ways as possible, those ways being defined according to our densest and most flexible understandings of disciplines, methods, objectives, and problems.

6The narrative of Das Glasperlenspiel posits a province of Europe in around 3500 A.D., an essentially pastoral, non-political culture. The intelligentsia of the province, and by implication most of the world, are engaged in a single complex activity that theoretically includes all the disciplines and thought processes we use in our culture. This is the Glasperlenspiel, or Glass Bead Game, a “game” of understanding that uses musical, mathematical, philosophical, and other symbols in an extraordinarily complex network of relationships and reconfigurations of abstract representations of the universe.

7Of course, it is useful to see music not just as a universe of possible connections, but in terms of how it has actually been configured in scholarly thought. The productivity of a connection between music and ichthyology, for instance, might prove to be rather limited ; the only points of comparison might be in metatheoretical concerns that they may share, such as methodology or taxonomy. More useful might be disciplines such as ethnography, because a large part of the world’s music operates in nonliterate cultures, and ethnography has developed techniques for data collection in such cultures ; and history, because many musical repertories now considered important were created in cultures which regarded non-quantitative social data as important, that is to say, eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Europe. However, given the common contemporary view of language and metaphor as the basic tools for processing experience, music is often treated as the primary vehicle of meanings not easily expressed through language, particularly various “abstract” processes in the mind or in the world. Thus, in many literate cultures, the various behaviors and interpretations that have collected around what is generally understood as music end up focusing on awareness of temporal processes, ways of being in the world, cultural values, and other systems that posit articulable networks of relationships between various perceived objects or abstractions.

8Such a definition of music as, though not necessarily or essentially abstract or system-oriented, nevertheless tending mostly to project systems and their effects, suggests that the total pluralism outlined above – the study of music through any of the disciplinary, methodological or imaginable ways available – might also need a definite bias : that music is best understood in a context of abstraction and system. Certainly, music entails a vast archive of concrete data : performances, recordings, places, dates, symbols and associations. But, although much of that data operates within systems that do not seem very abstract – composer’s biographies as collections of named and dated events, scores as concrete objects, ritual actions or instruments – many important aspects of musical meanings tend to operate in areas of abstraction, system, relationship.

9And so, in a roundabout manner – roundabout because I prefer not to pretend to establish a position on the proper object of systematic musicology as some sort of ultimate truth, but would rather open up the question and suggest its widest possible range of answers – I assert, with some easily proven validity, that the domain of music is a large and complex one which requires many points of access ; and that those points of access associated with what we call abstract or systematized thought might be among the most appropriate and productive of those that are available.

10The Glass Bead Game is, of course, allegorical, though not unambiguously so. Commentators have noted that Hesse is making fun of the Game’s implied isolation from directly perceived experience, what might be called the “real world” ; but they also note that Hesse makes a point of showing how valuable the Game really is, that its access to ways of comprehending the universe is extraordinary. Hesse is expressing, as an intellectual trying to sum up a lifetime’s accumulated wisdom, an ambiguous attitude towards art, academe, scholarship, philosophy, thought, abstraction, interpretation, and everything related to all of those : indeed the list of things that might be considered that which makes us human and not animal, that is to say : the ability to discuss and analyze that which is not directly present to our senses.

11This is an idealized view ; but a more material discussion of systematic musicology is necessary in order to create a useful relationship with the “real” world as it is commonly understood. Such a discussion should focus on what has actually happened : how scholars, whatever their potential understanding of the universe, have firmly and concretely configured musicology and its purview, in their research and teaching.

12Modern metatheory in musicology begins in the late nineteenth century. In an atmosphere of late Victorian positivism, Chrysander and more importantly Guido Adler established classifications of the possible fields of study for music. Both took for granted the binary division of fields of reference that Saussure would later name diachronic and synchronic – that is, viewed within time or outside of it – though Adler called them historic and systematic. Adler’s division (figure 1), perfectly sensible in terms of his time, puts biography, historical data, and paleography on the side of history, and pedagogy, theory, psychology and sociology on the side of system. Unfortunately, by 1885, when Adler presented his plan in the first issue of the first journal focused exclusively on musicology, many of the areas he identified – particularly those that involved scientific method and those that involved the interpretation of ideas – were already evolving into disciplines too complex to be easily accessible to the general scholar. Although specialization had been a noticeable characteristic of scholarship for nearly a century, the mutual incomprehensibility of systems of understanding was in the process of becoming one of the most important, and most disastrous, aspects of modern thought.


13Up through World War I, classifications by Pratt (1915), Adler (whose second version of his system appeared in 1919), and others confidently assumed that the various disciplines of what Pratt called the “science of music” were all undergoing development at only slightly different rates. This must have seemed appropriate in considering European “comparative musicology”, which already used ethnographic, acoustic and psychological data to interpret not only non-Western but also Western cultures. Unfortunately, over the following decades, the formalization of historical method as the primary research method for Western musicology and the reformatting of comparative musicology into what became ethnomusicology enforced an unbalanced structure of writings, curricula, and discussions of what music might be or might mean. Bukofzer’s arrogant assertion in 1941 that the sciences were peripheral to musicology became axiomatic, echoed in 1982 by Palisca when he claimed that the acoustician was a sort of technical specialist who might possibly, occasionally, work with the musicologist2. Ethnomusicology was caught up in the complex methodological debates of anthropology, debates which had to take into account the crises of the social sciences and the reinterpretation of Eurocentric modes of thinking.

14For systematic musicology, the decades from 1920 to 1960 is a time of prophets in the deserts. Though some systematic musicologies continued as viable, if peripheral, studies in continental Europe, Anglophone musicology was consider to be historical, period. Charles Seeger, a brilliant autodidact (with all the potential for fresh thinking combined with the laborious reinvention of wheels which that entails), claimed in increasingly irritable tones that systematic studies were absolutely necessary if musicology was to have any viability at all. Seeger grouped some studies we might now associate with systematic musicology – acoustics, sonic analysis, and (limited) approaches to cultural interpretation – with what would now be called ethnomusicology. Seeger’s writings didn’t have quite the desired impact, both because his writing tended to use abstract rather than concrete nouns, and because he always tried to redefine, not only music or musicology, but the entire universe of potential perception and discourse. In fact, his basic message – that traditional musicology was in trouble because its methodology and repertory were both overly limited – produced few changes in the discipline ; instead he was put into a niche position as a figure widely acknowledged to be brilliant, interesting, and too incomprehensible to be of any real use or interest.

15Since the disintegration of unified fields of study in the late 1960s and 1970s, various articles and programs have attempted to recreate some kind of systematic musicology. Because scientific method became so important in education after 1945, it was inevitable that the “sciences” of music – psychology, sociology, acoustics, physiology – would be repeatedly put forward as important gaps in musical understanding (in spite of the attitude exemplified by Palisca, which merely restates an appeal to tradition). Carlsen’s 1969 article explained the approach taken at the University of Washington, where “systematic” was defined lexically as pertaining to organized methodology, and more particularly as pertaining to scientific methodology. Unfortunately, the cultural circumstances – a “two cultures” division between the arts and sciences, and the raising of barriers between them – have forced a scientific systematic musicology to remain defensible but marginal. A definition of systematic musicology that is dependent on scientific method ultimately defeats the original intent of opening up our discourse to a broader comprehension of the many facets of music, as experimental methods can really only handle quantitative problems and are therefore relatively narrow in scope.

16Meanwhile, aesthetics, often approached in a manner that had become casual and increasingly irrelevant, started to devolve into a subheading of cognition and education. Syntactic analysis of music through the methods of formal philosophy became the province of a few thinkers (Leonard Meyer, Suzanne Langer, and those who followed them), whose approaches were taken as either proven or useless by numerous musicologists whose philosophical backgrounds were inadequate to enable them to critique the advantages or limits of such analysis. The UCLA systematic musicology program originally attempted to create an intellectual environment that could support a few professors and students in their consideration of these formalist philosophies of music ; articles by Schwadron and Hutchinson explained the attempt to establish that environment, and its various results. In an attempt to save aesthetics from evaporating into the pseudo-objectivity of history or the sciences, Hutchinson established a position (from which, evidently, he later retreated) that scientific method was not proper to systematic musicology. About the time of his retirement, the program at UCLA was pulled into a then new Department of Ethnomusicology and Systematic Musicology ; it was then represented by a specialist in continental aesthetics and a specialist in psychoacoustics. Neither that department, nor what is now the Department of Historical Musicology, seem very interested in hiring specialists in other systematic fields ; and so, as too often, a broad spectrum of possibilities has been reduced to a handful of narrower definitions with no prospects for expansion.

17As it happens, I am a graduate of this late version of the UCLA definition of systematic musicology. At one point early in my studies, I produced a chart that attempted to define systematic musicology(figure 2). Obviously, this is merely my opinion at a particular stage of my career : it attempts to establish a territory separate from history and ethnography, divided into three large and loosely defined areas, with subsets that reflect some of my interests and those of various colleagues. Although none of my former advisors, including those associated with systematic musicology or those who are not, would probably agree with all the details of this particular division, this chart has gained some empirical support – the graduate advisor for the UCLA music departments used my chart for nearly a decade and a half to help her answer a wide range questions from applicants and administrators that can be reduced to : “What is systematic musicology ?”


18I would now want to open up or elaborate on several sections of this chart, although there is probably no realistic way to adequately portray the potential complexity of the connections that link these disciplines and subdisciplines. In the years since this chart was produced, the main critiques from various colleagues and students have related to the apparently subsidiary position of the disciplines shown at the bottom of the page – literature, semiotics, linguistics – and the wide range of possibilities open to an examination of music education that might for a more sophisticated intellectual realm than it often presents. But perhaps any viewer, or user, would want to create their own chart, with different centers and links and areas of possible research ; in any case, I think that the chart’s chief value is in its potential to remind us of our vast stretches of ignorance, of the power and function of the many techniques and rhetorics whose ghosts may appear in all sorts of musicological writings, but whose real impact is normally ignored or covered over.

19Some of the most wide-ranging and interesting of published studies since the 1960s, an article by Andrew McCredie (who suggested that the Australian approach to systematic musicology was similar to the Continental and UCLA versions) and a book edited by Carl Dahlhaus, took a “negative” definition of systematic musicology for granted : that it is all those things which are not historical or ethnographic. This has joined scientific method and aesthetic speculation in a sometimes uneasy alliance, whereby it is suggested that they are relatively similar because of their difference from data collection of the historical or ethnographic types.

20But perhaps they can be seen as related : historical and ethnographic data collection tend towards, or hope for, creating a one-to-one mapping of circumstances onto records. In spite of the fact that nothing can be said to be truly objective, historical and ethnographic work is judged most successful when such a mapping appears to have been achieved. Obviously, scientific method operates in a similar manner ; but the objects of study in science are more abstract in that they tend to be deductive rather than inductive, summarized or isolated rather than circumstantial. Although history and ethnography have as much potential access to abstract thought as philosophy or science, their practitioners too frequently do not use that access. Aesthetics, or cultural theory, or whatever one calls it, gives us access to understanding at a level that can’t be reached when the specificity of facts is insisted upon. According to too many musicologists, a work written in a certain context can only be examined in terms indigenous to that context. But if we cannot detach aspects of musical objects and behaviors from their historical or cultural contexts, both science and philosophy become impossible : as some musicologists would hold them to be, in any case.

21The glass bead game, according to Hesse’s novel, was first invented in the twentieth century by a group of musical students as a means, first of remembering, then of improvising on musical elements, so that they could paradigmatically create fugues and other complex forms by means of verbal and visual symbols. It was taken up by several generations of mathematicians, and over the ensuing centuries began to gather the metaphorical and philosophical concepts that would enable the game, at least in the view of its players, to summarize, vary, or improvise on the entire history of culture, in fact on all possible histories.

22The conglomeration of systematic musicologies is a historical accident – the grouping of various kinds of thought that can be seen as synchronic rather than diachronic seem to have been glued together into a marginalized metadiscipline. That being the case, however, we may be able to retrieve some advantage from the situation. Any analysis of ways of thinking that tries to separate the concrete from the abstract is subject to endless disagreement, because those areas overlap at so many points. But if we admit to the advantage of a looser, less desperately positivist grasp of the concrete fact, and allow ourselves to reflect on the non-concrete abstractions implied in many aspects of musical discourse, it becomes plausible to interface scientific and philosophical methods such that they can support and expand, rather than limit, each other. This may also prevent the depressing activity of watching systematic musicology, as a curriculum and as an unrealized potential for all musicology, as it goes under the surface for what seems to be the third time. As players of the Glass Bead Game, we cannot help being ironically aware of our limitations : but I think our access to musical understanding may ultimately be more productive than that of those who just won’t play the game.


Guido Adler, Methode der Musikgeschichte, Leipzig, Breitkopf & Härtel, 1919.

Guido Adler, “Umfang, Methode und Ziel der Musikwissenschaft”, Vierteljahrsschrift für Musikwissenschaft, vol. 1, 1885, pp. 5-20.

James Carlsen, “The Ph.D. in Systematic Musicology”, College Music Symposium, vol. 9, Fall 1969, pp. 30-5.

Carl Dahlhaus (ed.), Einführung in die Systematische Musikwissenschaft. Köln, Musikverlag Hans Gerig, 1971.

Vincent Duckles et al., “Musicology”, New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, vol. 12. London, Macmillan, 1980.

Hermann Hesse, Das Glasperlenspiel, Zürich, Fretz & Wasmuth, 1943.

Hermann Hesse, The Glass Bead Game, Translated by Richard & Clara Winston, New York, Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1969.

D. Kern Holoman & Claude Palisca (eds.), Musicology in the 1980s : Methods, Goals, Opportunities, New York, Da Capo Press, 1982.

William Hutchinson, “Systematic Musicology Reconsidered”, Current Musicology n° 21, 1976, pp. 61-69.

Joseph Kerman, Contemplating Music : Challenges to Musicology. Cambridge, Massachusetts : Harvard, 1985.

Andrew McCredie, “Systematic Musicology – some Twentieth-Century Patterns and Perspectives”, Studies in Music n° 5, 1971, pp. 1-35.

Waldo Pratt, “On Behalf of Musicology”, Musical Quarterly, vol. 1 n° 1, 1915.

Edward Rainbow & Hildegard Froehlich. Research in Music Education : An Introduction to Systematic Inquiry, New York, Schirmer, 1987.

Abraham Schwadron, & William Hutchinson, “Systematic Musicology : aspects of definition and academe”, Bulletin of the Council for Research in Music Education n° 54, Spring 1978, pp. 1-19.

Charles Seeger, Studies in Musicology 1935-1975,Berkeley & Los Angeles, University of California, 1977.

Charles Seeger, “Preface to the Critique of Music”, Inter-American Music Bulletin, n° 49, September 1965, pp. 1-24.

Charles Seeger, “Systematic and Historical Orientations in Musicology”, Acta Musicologica, vol. XI, 1939, pp. 121-128.

Charles Seeger, “Systematic Musicology : Viewpoints, Orientations and Methods”, Journal of the American Musicological Society, vol. IV, 1951, pp. 240-248.


1  This article is based on a rather theatrical answer to a doctoral exam written at UCLA on March 28, 1992. It has metamorphosed through several versions over the years, becoming a staple of my methodological training for postgraduates at Newcastle University and the University of Hong Kong ; it has been a keynote for the Musicological Society of Australia’s South Australia Chapter at Adelaide University in 2001 ; and it was presented at the 39th annual meeting of the Royal Musicology Association in Cardiff in 2003, where it was an introductory shot across the bow for a conference whose official, and more traditional, theme was “Historiography”.

2  If the musicologist and the acoustician work together, they must understand each other ; and if they understand each other, aren’t they communicating in an intermediate field that is neither historical musicology nor acoustics ? Such problems evidently do not bother Palisca.


Paul Attinello, «Against History: Defining, and Defending, Systematic Musicologies1», Filigrane. Musique, esthétique, sciences, société. [En ligne], Numéros de la revue, New Musicology. Perspectives critiques, mis à  jour le : 30/05/2011, URL : https://revues.mshparisnord.fr:443/filigrane/index.php?id=274.


Quelques mots à propos de :  Paul Attinello

Paul Attinello is senior lecturer in the International Centre for Music Studies at Newcastle University; he has taught at the University of Hong Kong and UCLA. He has published in Contemporary Music Review, Radical Musicology, the Journal of Musicological Research, Musik-Konzepte, Musica/Realtá, the revised New Grove, and in essay collections and reference works, including the groundbreaking Queering the Pitch : The New Lesbian & Gay Musicology.He is co-editor of collections on reinterpreting the Darmstadt avant-garde and on music in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Current projects include a monograph on music about AIDS and a collection on contemporary composer Gerhard Stäbler.