Music history

Music history

This article is about the academic field of music history. For a chronological overview of music, see history of music.

The field of music history, sometimes called historical musicology, is the highly diverse subfield of the broader discipline of musicology that studies the composition, performance, reception, and criticism of music over time. Historical studies of music are for example concerned with a composer's life and works, the developments of styles and genres (such as baroque concertos), the social function of music for a particular group of people (such as music at the court), or the modes of performance at a particular place and time (such as the performance forces of Johann Sebastian Bach's choir in Leipzig).

In theory, "music history" could refer to the study of the history of any type or genre of music (e.g., the history of Indian music or the history of rock). In practice, these research topics are nearly always categorized as part of ethnomusicology or cultural studies, whether or not they are ethnographically based.

The methods of music history include source studies (esp. manuscript studies), paleography, philology (especially textual criticism), style criticism, historiography (the choice of historical method), musical analysis, and iconography. The application of musical analysis to further these goals is often a part of music history, though pure analysis or the development of new tools of music analysis is more likely to be seen in the field of music theory. (For a more detailed discussion of the methods see the section on "Research in Music History" below)

Some of the intellectual products of music historians include editions of musical works, biography of composers and other musicians, studies of the relationship between words and music, and the reflections upon the place of music in society.

The teaching of music history

Although most performers of classical and traditional instruments receive some instruction in music history from teachers throughout their training, the majority of formal music history courses are offered at the college level. In Canada, some music students receive training prior to undergraduate studies because examinations in music history (as well as music theory) are required to complete Royal Conservatory certification at the Grade 9 level and higher. Particularly in the United States and Canada, university courses tend to be divided into two groups: one type to be taken by students with little or no music theory or ability to read music (often called music appreciation) and the other for more musically literate students (often those planning on making a career in music). Most medium and large institutions will offer both types of courses. The two types of courses will usually differ in length (one to two semesters vs. two to four), breadth (many music appreciation courses begin at the late Baroque or classical eras and might omit music after WWII while courses for majors traditionally span the period from the Middle Ages to recent times), and depth.

Both types of courses tend to emphasize a balance among the acquisition of musical repertory (often emphasized through listening examinations), study and analysis of these works, biographical and cultural details of music and musicians, and writing about music, perhaps through music criticism.

More specialized seminars in music history tend to use a similar approach on a narrower subject while introducing more of the tools of research in music history (see below). The range of possible topics is virtually limitless. Some examples might be "Music during World War I," "Medieval and Renaissance instrumental music," "Music and Process," "Mozart's Don Giovanni." In the United States, these seminars are generally taken by advanced undergraduates and graduate students, though in European countries they often form the backbone of music history education.

The methods and tools of music history are nearly as numerous as its subjects and therefore make a strict categorization impossible. However, a few trends and approaches can be outlined here. Like in any other historical discipline, most research in music history can be roughly divided into two categories: the establishing of factual and correct data and the interpretation of data. Most historical research does not fall into one category solely, but rather employs a combination of methods from both categories. It should also be noted that the act of establishing factual data can never be fully separate from the act of interpretation.

Source studies. A desire to examine sources of music closest to the composer or period which produced it has made manuscript, archival, and source study important in almost every field of musicology. In early music in particular, manuscript study may be the only way to study an unedited work. Such study may be complicated by the need to decipher earlier forms of music notation. Manuscript study can also allow a researcher to return to a version of a work prior to the interventions of later editors, perhaps as a basis for her own edition.

Archival work may be conducted to find connections to music or musicians in a collection of documents of broader interests (e.g., Vatican pay records, letters to a patroness of the arts) or to more systematically study a collection of documents related to a musician. Rarely but increasingly, such archival work can be done virtually.

Performance practice draws on many of the tools of historical musicology to answer the specific question of how music was performed in various places at various times in the past. Although previously confined to early music, recent research in performance practice has embraced questions such as how the early history of recording affected the use of vibrato in classical music, or instruments in Klezmer.

Biographical studies of composers can give a better sense of the chronology of compositions, influences on style and works, and provide important background to the interpretation (by performers or listeners) of works. Thus biography can form one part of the larger study of the cultural significance, underlying program, or agenda of a work; a study which gained increasing importance in the 1980s and early 1990s.

Sociological studies focus on the function of music in society as well as its meaning for individuals and society as a whole. Researchers emphasizing the social importance of music (including classical music) are sometimes called New musicologists.

History of scholarship on Western music

Before 1800

The first studies of musical history date back to the middle of the 18th century. G.B. Martini published a three volume history titled Storia della musica (History of Music) between 1757 and 1781. Martin Gerbert published a two volume history of sacred music titled De cantu de musica sacra in 1774. Gerbert followed this work with a three volume work Scriptores ecclesiastici de musica sacra containing significant writings on sacred music from the third century AD onwards in 1784.


In the twentieth century, the work of Johannes Wolf and others developed studies in Medieval music and early Renaissance music. Wolf's writings on the history of musical notation are considered to be particularly notable by musicologists. Historical musicology has played a critical role in renewed interest in Baroque music as well as medieval and Renaissance music. In particular, the authentic performance movement owes much to historical musicological scholarship.

Towards the middle of the twentieth century, musicology (and its largest subfield of historical musicology) expanded significantly as a field of study. Concurrently the number of musicological and music journals increased to create further outlets for the publication of research. The domination of German language scholarship ebbed as significant journals sprang up throughout the West, especially America.

Further reading

  • Lipman, Samuel, The House of Music: Art in an Era of Institutions, published by D.R. Godine, 1984. ISBN 0879235012

See also

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