New article in the Weekend Australian Review on issues relating to #notationgate and deskilling

A new cover article in The Weekend Australian Review, Rosemary Neill, ‘Notes on a Scandal: The raging debate over our next generation of composers and musicians: should they be able to read a score?’, Weekend Australian Review, 29-30 August 2020, brings to a further readership many of the key issues debated a few years ago as part of #notationgate and also of deskilling (see here and here). This is behind a paywall, but can currently be accessed here for those with a subscription.

Neill speaks at the outset to student composer Dante Clavijo, who surprises some people by saying that he still composes using pen and paper, rather than relying entirely upon digital audio workstations. Clavijo argues that songwriters and composers ‘absolutely benefit from knowing notation; it’s jut a logical way to organise musical thought.’ But this then leads to the question of whether even those studying music at tertiary level need to learn notation. On this, Neill quotes my collaborator Peter Tregear:

Yet Peter Tregear, a former head of the ANU’s school of music, points out that these days, students can graduate with music degrees without being able to read music, particularly if they are studying popular music and music technology subjects or degrees, and he is scathing about this trend.

“I find it concerning,” says Tregear, who obtained a PhD in musicology from Cambridge University and has worked at Cambridge, Melbourne and Monash universities. “It’s a misunderstanding of what universities are there to do. We’re meant to be expanding minds and opening horizons. … If you no longer teach musical notation, you effectively wipe out not just a good deal of recent Australian music history, but a large swathe of music history full-stop.”

Tregear presided over the ANU’s music school from 2012 to 2015 and waged a battle to keep several notation-centred subjects in the music degree. He lost.

He attributes the decoupling of music education and traditional notation to the march of new technologies and – more controversially – to a push to “decolonise” the music curriculum, because the classical canon was largely created by “dead white men”.

The outspoken academic, who has also won a Green Room Award for conducting, tells Review: “There has been, I think, a false or at least a very dubious conflation of arguments around the fact that western music notation is western music notation, and the idea that we shouldn’t favour it for that reason.

“To borrow an Orwellian phrase, ignorance is now a strength – it is considered that we’re actually better off not to teach this, which I find an extraordinary view for any higher education institution to take.”

In contrast, most European countries still comprehensively studied their own music histories. Still, even in Europe, there was a push at some conservatoriums and universities to “decolonise” the curriculum.

“There is a move away from musical notation as being central to a music education as a kind of excuplation for western historical wrongs,” he says.

Tregear argues that if a music student is incapable of engaging with music that was “increasingly written down” over the course of 1000 years, “a whole wealth of the global musical past is effectively closed to you”.

Tregear is opposed by composer and University of Melbourne professor Barry Conyngham who claims that whether or not his institution’s students ‘can read sheet music or not’, they are ‘very musically capable of conveying musical performances and thoughts.’ But composer Matthew Hindson, of the Sydney Conservatorium of Music, notes that all students there must study music theory and notation.

Other examples are cited such as Paul McCartney and the Beatles, but Clavijo, like others before him, points out the important contributions of others such as George Martin, who certainly did have a more traditional and formal musical training. Others make claims that any objections to the removal of traditional skills are little more than resistance to ‘decolonisation’.

This article obviously comes from an Australian context, from a country in which (as with the US and even to some extent the UK), art music traditions have a much less central cultural role than in much of continental Europe, and with fewer living musical traditions developed over centuries or millennia as in various Asian and African countries. But it points to a wider trend by which a mixture of over-elevated claims for certain technology, allied to populist and commercialist attitudes (invariably favouring Western popular musics – the study of non-Western musical traditions are faring no better in this environment, for all the rhetoric of decolonisation) are said to obviate any requirement for more rigorous training.

My online timelines fill up with videos and websites promising to teach people how to compose in a few weeks without requiring any learning of harmony, use of instruments, and so on. Furthermore, in an interview from two years ago, film composer Hans Zimmer, recently renowned for his slowed-down version of Elgar’s ‘Nimrod’ to accompany the arrival of pleasure boats to rescue British soldiers in Dunkirk, the film which was accurately described as fuelling Brexit fantasies, boasts of having ‘no technique’ and ‘no formal education’, but instead ‘the only thing I know how to write about is something that’s inside of me.’ This sort of argument is not new, and was encountered in the nineteenth-century amongst a range of Russian composers opposed to the professionalisation of music-making and establishment of conservatoires for this purpose. Appealing to some sense of inner authenticity and the notion that somehow anyone can be a composer so long as they have something ‘inside of them’, has a long and dishonourable history, as was debated extensively in the responses to Stella Duffy posted on this blog in 2017. It speaks to a wider culture of anti-intellectualism and deskilling, in which the only measure of art is commercial and popular success.

I continue to believe that it would be a great loss if those who go on to teach music in primary and secondary cannot read music and thus will be unable to impart it to pupils, or if composition becomes merely about copying and pasting others’ work. This is not to deny the importance throughout musical history of musical borrowing, an issue about which there are a range of sophisticated theoretical models (of which I undertake a critical survey in order to arrive at models for analysing the work of Michael Finnissy, in my book chapter, ‘Negotiating borrowing, genre and mediation in the piano music of Finnissy: strategies and aesthetics’). A good deal of very superficial writing on postmodernism, intertextuality and so on, is founded essentially a dichotomy between two straw men – an insistence upon absolute originality or total plagiarism, when in reality almost all music of any quality inhabits differing positions on a spectrum. That Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Rossini, Schubert, Schumann, Chopin, Liszt, Wagner, Verdi, Brahms, Debussy, Stravinsky or any number of others drew upon existing musical forms, genres, styles, sometimes explicitly borrowed musical materials (for example Liszt’s huge range of ‘transcriptions’ for piano, or Brahms’s many pieces alluding to Renaissance or early Baroque choral music) has never seriously been in doubt to anyone familiar with their work. Such examples as Stravinsky’s transformation of baroque musical materials into an angular, askew, sometimes dissonant, and alienated musical experience, Finnissy’s transformations of small groups of pitches and rhythms from Sardinian folk song into wild, rampaging musical canvasses, Ives’s hallucinatory and terrifying visions incorporating the residues upon consciousness of mangled hymns, allusions to brass bands, Beethoven and more, Berio’s carefully-judged fragmentations and superimpositions of a wide range of music from nineteenth- and twentieth-century orchestral and other repertoire on top of parallel threads provided by the scherzo from Mahler’s Second Symphony and a text from Beckett’s The Unnamable, to create an unsettling tapestry of commentary and critique, or for that matter Chopin’s use of known dance and other genres (waltz, polonaise, mazurka, etc.) allied to a Bellinian sense of vocal line and an ultra-refined contrapuntal sensibility, are all a world away from music which simply lifts others’ work or hackneyed clichés for ready-made, tried and tested, effects and moods. What distinguishes the above (and many others, including many in non-‘classical’ fields of composition) is a highly developed and refined level of musicianship, including detailed musical understanding of the properties of the sources upon which they draw. These are not achieved easily, and empty claims that anyone can be a composer comparable with the above, without having to go through the training, are no more convincing than equivalent claims about becoming a surgeon.

Rethinking Contemporary Musicology: Panel at the Royal Musical Association 2019 – Part 1. Papers of Larson Powell and Eva Moreda Rodriguez

At this year’s Royal Musical Association annual conference, at the University of Manchester/Royal Northern College of Music, I was very pleased to convene a panel on ‘Rethinking Contemporary Musicologies: Disciplinary Shifts and the Risks of Deskilling’ (12 September 2019). These featured the following speakers and papers:

Larson Powell (University of Missouri, Kansas City, USA): ‘Film-Music Studies between Disciplines’.

Eva Moreda Rodriguez (University of Glasgow): ‘Are We all Transnational Now? Global Approaches and Insularity in Music History’.

Darla M. Crispin (Norwegian Academy of Music, Oslo, Norway): ‘Artistic Research in Music: Brave New World – or Harbinger of Decline?’

Peter Tregear (University of Melbourne, Australia): ‘Telling Tales in (and out of) Music Schools’.

Below, I reproduce my Introduction to the panel in full, then give a detailed account of the first two papers (as some of these are drafts for chapters in the book, I prefer not to reproduce them verbatim). In the second part of this, I will do the same with the other two papers and also give some wider reflections of my own on the very well-attended and constructive event.


Ian Pace, Introduction

Twenty years ago, in 1999, Nicholas Cook and Mark Everist published the co-edited volume Rethinking Music. This followed in the wake of a series of publications now associated with the ‘New Musicology’ from the early 1990s, but the scale of this publication and its appearance from such a major publisher as Oxford University Press indicated how various tendencies had entered the musicological mainstream. Twenty years later, Peter Tregear and I are in the process of co-editing a new volume, Rethinking Contemporary Musicology: Perspectives on Interdisciplinarity, Skills and Deskilling, which will appear from Routledge in 2020. This brings together a range of leading scholars who all offer critical perspectives on both developments in English-speaking academia which were relatively new when Cook/Everist was published and the state of play in more long-established realms of research and teaching. Four of the contributors are here and will be giving papers, most of which relate to their chapters in the book.

I would emphasise that this book deals specifically with English-speaking academia. This is not because of any type of provinciality, let alone any assertion of centrality of Anglophone contributions to the disciplines. Rather, the editors simply feel that the issues at stake in the Anglosphere, while far from homogeneous, are somewhat distinct from those elsewhere, and as such warrant separate consideration.

Amongst the other chapters in the book – this is not an exhaustive list – are Paul Harper-Scott on musicology, the middlebrow and questions of demographics amongst academics, Christopher Wiley on popular music education and the question of specifically musical engagement, Mu-Xuan Lin on body politics and gendered orthodoxies relating to contemporary composition and the ‘New Discipline’, myself on the application of ethnomusicological approaches to the study of Western art music, then Michael Spitzer on the state of musical analysis, Alan Davison on that for music history, Nicole Grimes on neo-liberalism and the study of Western art music, and case studies relating to issues provoked by the work of Richard Taruskin, Nicholas Cook and Georgina Born, written by Frank Cox, me and Joan Arnau Pamiès respectively.

In general, the contributors can be said to share varying degrees of scepticism towards some aspects of such Anglophone musicology which can be said either to have become orthodoxies, or are sufficiently widespread as to be worthy of critical interrogation. In short, it is time to cast a critical eye on what the discipline has become. Key questions which recur in many essays have to do with the demands of interdisciplinarity, especially whether some allegedly interdisciplinary work entails more than a superficial injection of a handful of concepts or buzzwords from other disciplines (as has been argued by Giles Hooper, another contributor to the book) rather than more rigorous engagement, and the complementary issue of ‘deskilling’ of musicology.

The term ‘deskilling’ was coined by Marxist theorist Harry Braverman in his Labor and Monopoly Capital (New York: Monthly Review, 1974) to characterise the lowering of skill levels as part of a process of progressive estrangement and alienation of workers, relating to the division of labour, in the process increasing their dispensability. As musicology has supposedly become more diverse, many of us argue that various core skills and knowledge, not least relating to basic musicianship, notation, familiarity with history and repertoire, and especially theory and analysis, can no longer be assumed on the part of students, graduates, and indeed many academics themselves. This reduces the possibility of broader interactions between those working in different sub-disciplinary areas, and limits the ability of many to contribute to certain types of core curriculum.

What remains, at worst, is an atomised profession permeated by disputes and struggles for territory and power, in place of genuine quests for knowledge, however utopian such ideals might be. Such a situation is exacerbated and in some ways fuelled by neo-liberal reforms to higher education, pitting students as ‘consumers’, creating increased precarity for academics, and importing aspects of market culture as well as ever-growing strata of top-down management. Whilst many of the new musicological tendencies are advocated by those laying claim to ‘progressive’ political causes, at the same time they have often proved most amenable to the strictures of the commercialised university, not least through the post-modernist eschewal of conceptions of truth and knowledge with a degree of autonomy from their social function, in a capitalist society.*

Contributors to the book consider how his situation has come about, what are some of the ideological assumptions which underlie such a predicament, how this has been manifested in certain types of work, and what might be positive alternatives.

*This point may deserve more explanation than I gave in the introduction. My argument here is essentially that concepts of truth and scholarly autonomy and integrity serve as a brake on attempts to enlist academia in the service of the production of good capitalist functionaries. As such, post-modernists who jettison such things, or the likes of William Cheng and his acolytes (see the arguments of Peter Tregear below), facilitate such a process. It is no coincidence that many of these are strong advocates for heavily commercialised forms of music-making.


Larson Powell, ‘Film-Music Studies between Disciplines’.

Professor Powell began by identifying a growth in the field of film music studies in English since the publication of Claudia Gorbman’s Unheard Melodies (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987), but noted the difficulty in defining the field. He cited David Neumeyer, in the introduction to The Oxford Handbook of Film Music Studies, edited Neumeyer (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2014), on how film music studies are ‘a node between disciplines’ and how scholars ‘have begun to bypass the modes requiring highly specialized musical knowledge and jargon by moving toward sound studies’. Whilst accepting the need for broadening of established musicological methodologies in light of this specific technological context, Powell argued that when links to musicology are loosened, the result is often ‘imprecision and methodological inconsistency’. He cited James Buhler’s discernment (in ‘Ontological, Formal, and Critical Theories of Music and Sound’, in the Oxford Handbook) of three phases in film music theory: (i) the ontological, prior to World War Two; (ii) the methodological, linked to institutionalisation of the discipline, and incorporating structuralism, semiotics and psychoanalysis; and (iii) the ‘field theory’, a looser conglomerate of approaches. Buhler notes that when the term ‘critical theory’ is employed in film music studies, it no longer refers to the hybrid of Marxism and psychoanalysis which characterised the work of the Frankfurt School, but also areas such as poststructuralism, gender and sexuality studies, postcolonialism and race studies, narrative and cultural studies, and so on, without recognising the incompatibility of some of these. Furthermore, the forms of interpretation employed are usually limited to ‘semantic content or associations’, which are notoriously ambiguous.

Powell gave quite a severe critique of Anahid Kassabian’s book Hearing Film: Tracking Identifications in Contemporary Hollywood Film Music (New York and London: Routledge, 2000) (for another critique of a different piece of writing by Kassabian, see my contribution here), not least on account of her (mis-)characterisations of the work of Adorno, which he called ‘schoolbook examples of cultural studies misconceptions’. Kassabian claims that Adorno, Stravinsky and Irwin Bazelon ‘all seem to suggest that music is outside of social relations, pure in some fundamental, ontological way’, which Powell found absurd in light of Adorno’s work such as his Introduction to the Sociology of Music (New York: Seabury Press, 1976; translated by E.B. Ashton from Einleitung in der Musiksoziologie (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1962)). Furthermore, he noted that Kassabian’s ideas of ‘meaning’ were unconstrained by any technical musical engagement, nor by any sociological theory, and amounted to little more than speculation, held up in opposition to a straw-man notion of ‘absolute music’.

Kassabian claims that the relationship between musics and social orders is something that Western society has attempted to repress since the Enlightenment, and in a similar manner, ‘film music constitutes society while being constituted by it’. Powell characterised this as typical of ‘the amateur sociology of cultural studies’ which ‘sees society as an undifferentiated totality’, and uses the simple concept of ‘repression’ to encompass all of the various ‘subsystems of art, economics, morality, politics and law, a central component of theories of modernity’ (I would add that in Marxist terms these constitute key elements of the superstructure). She assumes that her readers share her own prejudices and assumptions, such as that high culture is repressive by its nature, while popular music is an emancipatory force; Powell then demonstrated how some of her claims of ‘our’ identifications with certain music amount to little more than brand recognition, and so ‘scholarship’ becomes little more than registering one’s favourite top 40 tune.

Powell then looked at Emilio Audissino’s Film/Music Analysis: A Film Studies Approach (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017), which he finds considerably more edifying than the work of Kassabian, but not without methodological problems. Audissino takes more of a neo-formalist approach (this is a school of film studies heavily indebted to the work of Noël Burch, David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson from the early 1980s onwards), and is sceptical towards ‘culturalist analysis’ without ‘some basic grasp and knowledge of the musical art’, though is vague on what the latter might amount to. Audissino rejects a ‘separatist’ view of the visual and aural aspects of a film, presenting as an alternative a view of a film as ‘as an integrated system of elements (say, a soup)’, whereby an analysis should ‘break down the single substance to its single ingredients (tomatoes, salt, oil, etc.)’ Powell was quite amazed by the idea that an integrated system of music and image (like a Wagnerian Gesamtkunstwerk) might be seen as a ‘soup’, and in contrast presented the view from Ludwig von Bertalanaffy’s General System Theory (New York: Braziller, 1968):

A system can be defined as a set of elements standing in interrelations.  Interrelation means that elements, p, stand in relations, R, so that the behavior of an element p in R is different from its behavior in another relation, R’.

In a film, a piece of music ‘behaves’ differently to how it would in another film, or a concert hall, argued Powell, but the concept of the system means that its identity is not wholly dissolved in the process, as the metaphor of the soup might imply.

Audissino cites an analysis by Frank Lehman of John Williams’ score to Raiders of the Lost Ark in which a cadence is coordinated with the discovery of the Ark, and is ‘exactly in synch with the sun rays’. But Powell subtly probed the use of the concept of ‘function’ for music in such a context, whereby it implies a teleological view by which a coupling of music and image is required to be ‘effective’ or ‘work’. In contrast to this, Powell suggested that function ought to be a comparison rather than a teleology, and pertinently observed that ‘If one only grasps film music in relation to the image, one cannot imagine what other kinds of music could have been used’. Williams’ music is able to be visually functional by ‘straining the boundaries of tonal functionality’, which Powell compared to the Rückung or harmonic shift identified by Adorno in Schubert or late Beethoven (as discussed in Michael Spitzer, Music as Philosophy: Beethoven’s Late Style (Bloomington and Indianapolis, IN: Indiana University Press, 2006)).

To Powell, Audissino employs a concept of ‘effectiveness’ which is wholly in the ear of the listener, and as such renders a particular acculturated response as something absolute, as does Kassabian when talking about responses to pop music heard on a car radio (which she thinks more ‘natural’ than those experienced in a concert hall). But Powell alluded to a standard practice in film studies of listening to a sequence with the sound turned off and then on, which demonstrates its distinctive role and codes. He maintained that perceived effect (or German Wirkung), while certainly an important consideration, should not be the only one, and called for greater understanding of the craft of writing film scores.

For an alternative approach to the audio-visual relation, Powell looked to semiotics, claiming that this had had relatively little impact upon cultural studies, and differentiating the ‘encoding/decoding’ model bequeathed by Stuart Hall, which Powell felt had more to do with communications theory (I am personally a little unsure about this claim about cultural studies and semiotics in light of the influence of Roland Barthes’ Mythologies (Paris, Editions du Seuil, 1957; translated Annette Lavers as Mythologies (London, Paladin, 1972)) on the former field, though this could be considered some of Barthes’ loosest and most journalistic work, in comparison to his almost exaggeratedly analytical approach to semiotics elsewhere). Drawing upon Christian Metz’s observation (in The Imaginary Signifier, trans. Celia Britton et al. (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1982)) that film language ‘possesses a grammar, up to a point, but no vocabulary’, Powell noted how neither Kassabian nor Audissino ‘clearly define the relation of sound to image‘, instead simply ‘leaping straight from music to larger narrative or cultural signification’. He related this problem back to Gorbman and her argument that ‘musical codes’ are always overridden by ‘cultural’ or ‘cinematic’ codes.

Musical semiotics, however, is a rich and pluralist tradition, often at best combined with rhetoric, hermeneutics or pragmatics, as detailed in Michael Spitzer’s Metaphor and Musical Thought (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2004) and Nicholas Cook’s A Guide to Musical Analysis (London: Dent, 1987). Powell drew various theses from this:

(i) it is very hard to pin down a ‘natural’ or unitary correlation between musical signifier and signified, as ‘Music does not simply ‘transmit’ a signal from sender to receiver’. To assume otherwise reflects the biases of communications studies, in departments of which film scholars are often employed.
(ii) this situation comes about because musical signification cannot exist without associated competencies, as argued by music semiotician Eero Tarasti in Signs of Music (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2002), and also by Kofi Agawu in the related field of topic theory (Playing with Signs: A Semiotic Interpretation of Classical Music (Princeton, NJ and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 1991).
(iii) musical signs cannot be analysed in isolation, as the minimal units of meanings are not simply sounds heard in isolation, but utterances. Scott Murphy (in ‘Transformational Theory and the Analysis of Film Music’, in the Oxford Handbook) has shown this for popular film music scores, using neo-Riemannian theory.
(iv) access to what Jean-Jacques Nattiez (in Music and Discourse: Toward a Semiology of Music, translated Carolyn Abbate (Princeton, NJ and London: Princeton University Press, 1990)) calls the ‘musical object’ is not provided by a naïve approach to listening, where the listener hears only what they want to hear. Kassabian and Audissino, in a similar fashion, hear only their own cultural and academic conventions.

Powell advocated recent dissertations by Juan Chattah (‘Semiotics, Pragmatics, and Metaphor in Film Music Analysis’ (Florida State University, 2006)) and Alex Newton (‘Semiotic of Music, Semiotics of Sound, and Film: Toward a Theory of Acousticons’ (University of Texas, 2015)). Newton’s ‘acousticon’ is a new semiotic audiovisual unit, investigated through a combination of musical and visual analysis, while he makes a link to the topic theories of Leonard Ratner, Agawu, and especially Robert Hatten and suggests that film music theory could learn from art-historical iconography and iconology. Powell argued that one might also draw further on Spitzer’s work on musical metaphor and associated scepticism about certain uses of semiotics (when they become ‘a kind of glorified motive-spotting’, like a similar criticism from Nicholas Cook), so as ‘not merely to produce another castle-in-the-sky of system-building that could risk its own problems’.


Eva Moreda Rodriguez, ‘Are We all Transnational Now? Global Approaches and Insularity in Music History’

Dr Moreda Rodriguez began by noting how for over 200 years many have been fascinated by the idea of a global history of music, and how in contemporary times this coincided with moves towards internationalisation in many Anglo-Saxon universities who wish to recruit more international students and also, ‘more recently, to develop broader, more diverse, “decolonized” curriculums’. In this context, she proceeded with a critical examination of three attempts at writing such a history: Mark Hijleh, Towards a Global Music History: Intercultural Convergence, Fusion, and Transformation in the Human Musical History (New York: Routledge, 2019); Philip V. Bohlman (ed.), The Cambridge History of World Music (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013); and the project ‘Towards a Global Music History’ led by Reinhard Strohm (Oxford University) under the auspices of the Balzan Prize for Musicology.

Moreda Rodriguez also alluded to her own experiences as an ‘international’ academic working at a British university, whose work focuses on her own country of origin, Spain, which is considered somewhat marginal within Western art music. This, she said, had shaped her perceptions of the ‘global’, not least when having to put together grant applications justifying the relevance of her research beyond the community of musicologists working on music in the same time and place. As such, she felt it necessary at least implicitly to engage with the questions underlying these ‘global music history’ projects. Moreda Rodriguez’s principal projects to date have related to music under the Franco regime, which led her towards history and political science, and the national and international nature of fascism; and on the early history of recording technologies, about which she noted that there are many localised non-Anglophone studies, but the more ‘global’ narrative is dominated by US or other English-language sources and issues without acknowledging this.

Hijleh’s book justifies the sole-author narrative by framing itself as a textbook as would be used in a US context, where students take a greater range of foundational, comprehensive courses than in British universities. He also claims that it should be viewed as a gateway for the development of musicianship, in light of which Moreda Rodriguez argued that it should be viewed as a companion to Hijleh’s earlier Towards a Global Music Theory: Practical Concepts and Methods for the Analysis of Music across Human Cultures (London: Routledge, 2016). She also noted the extent of Hijelh’s interest in music theory, manifested in investigations of the relative role of melody and harmony in different times and places, or issues of tuning and temperament, as well as the development of ‘global regions’ of influence and prominence at various periods in history. While these two axes suggested very promising results, Moreda Rodriguez felt the book to be let down by omissions and overgeneralizations. For example, he treats the Americas as a whole in the period from 1500 to 1920, but after then ‘the Americas’ becomes exclusively the United States. Also, he neglects the crucial years in the formation of a European canon (also the period which saw increased colonisation) with no mention of Bach, Handel, Mozart, Schumann or Schubert, while Hijleh does bring up Jordi Savall and a range of Spanish Renaissance composers, on the grounds of the musical exchanges between Spain and its American colonies in the early modern era. Moreda Rodriguez argued that an equally plausible case could be made for the global reach of Bach, Mozart or Italian opera.

She also hesitantly evoked the concept of ‘music history minus Beethoven’ as recently imagined by Leah Broad, in order to argue for the difficult place where this book is situated, neither wholly a textbook nor a research monograph. It would be unlikely to be of service to first year undergraduates who have only a partial knowledge of some of the musical traditions (though it was not entirely clear why Moreda Rodriguez thought so, though she acknowledge a sensitive tutor could use it productively). Instead, she thought it might have a more polemical aim: specifically to test, in front of other academics, ‘the viability of a single-authored, predominantly narrative music history’. In this, she thought he succeeded to a significant degree.

In contrast with Hijleh, who acknowledges that power in music and power in the real world do not simply mirror one another, Moreda Rodriguez noted how ‘power dynamics and otherness’ are central to the essays in Bohlman’s edited volume, many of which studiously disregard aesthetic and qualitative matters and avoid any engagement with musical detail. As such, the whole history of Western opera (itself undoubtedly something which has had global ramifications, as Moreda Rodriguez pointed out) is simply reduced to a perfunctory mention of its colonial aspects. While the introduction disavows narrative, the chronological ordering of the book – from non-European music during the Antiquity and Medieval Times, through ‘The Enlightenment and world music’s historical turn’, to ‘Music histories of the folk and nation’ – does imply something of the type. Despite various attempts to define ‘world music’, few try to ascertain how this might differ from a global history of music; any such venture is viewed as an academic exercise rather than something which could impact upon the regular work of musicologists. Chapters written from a position of great expertise, such as those of Peter Manuel (‘Musical cultures of mechanical reproduction’) or Bonnie C. Wade (‘Indian music history in the context of global encounters’) are nonetheless both rushed and founded upon too many assumptions to work as introductory texts, but contain too little critical or innovative detail to qualify as research chapters.

Strohm’s project has so far resulted in one edited volume (Strohm (ed.), Studies on a Global History of Music: A Balzan Musicology Project (London: Routledge, 2018)), while two more are in preparation. In his acceptance speech, Strohm expressed his motivation to ‘learn new things on the musical relations between geographical regions and chronological eras’, focusing less on narrative than attempts to ‘explore, through assembled case studies, parameters and terminologies that are suitable to describe a history of many different voices’. As Moreda Rodriguez, noted, at that stage such parameters and terminologies were not yet defined, but the publication and workshops suggest overlaps with the approaches of both Hijleh and Bohlman. She urged, as further outputs are published, investigation of whether these ends have been achieved more efficiently than in existing collections which relate single issues or questions to diverse cultures and contexts, but do not necessarily explore global or transnational issues.

In conclusion, Moreda Rodriguez anticipated the appearance of further such attempts at writing global music history, but also that the search for some ultimate such history will prove elusive. Many of them might reveal less about music history than about ‘the shared assumptions, values and trends embedded in the musicological community at particular moments in time’ as with the contributors to Bohlman’s volume in their ‘attempt to understand world music history under the now-fashionable lens of power dynamics’. As such, such works may be ‘less interesting as product than they are as process’.


[To be continued in Part 2]


Some thoughts on classical vs. popular music from pianist Peter Donohoe

The pianist Peter Donohoe recently posted an interesting piece of text on social media, in response to a question posed on Quora: ‘Is classical music truly “superior” to the popular music of any era? And, if so, why is it?’. There has been many a debate within musicological circles on this issue, not least as relate to the shaping of curricula for music education. In Anglophone musicology, it is very rare to find many scholars who would argue for any primary importance for classical music, with the result often being that it is becoming increasingly marginalised in a good deal of institutions. Those who have read this blog will know this is not a situation I favour, and have posted various things relating to the subject: see for example this set of responses to a radio talk given by Simon Zagorski-Thomas on a related subject, also another set of responses to an article by Stella Duffy on the arts, elitism and community (and this follow-up), not to mention the debate on teaching musical notation in schools following an article by Charlotte C. Gill. I have also posted some related articles on musical canons, and this on deskilling in musical education.

The dominant ideologies within academia are by no means necessarily shared more widely in the musical world – indeed can be quite antagonistic. I believe it is very important to encourage a wider discourse, involving many who care about music, on these subjects, and so with permission I am posting Donohoe’s text here, and also part of a response of my own drawing on a paper I gave on a few occasions in 2018 in musicological populism.

I welcome further responses from any angle (but would request that people refrain from any personalised insults or abuse towards others, and just address the arguments).


The following is Donohoe’s response:

This is a reply to recent tweet asking me my opinion of this: The tweeter in question asks: ‘Could it just be an era thing?’

It is only related to the era in that the determination with which the mediocre seeks to defeat the excellent is gaining ground.

However good pop music is – I include all the other brackets such as rock, country, blues, etc – by the side of the best classical music, it is always primarily commercialised, it is always primarily aimed at a majority audience, it is always the product of less skill on the part of both performer and listener, and it is always short-lived – even 40 years, as in the lasting effect of The Beatles is nothing compared to the greatest classical music. Jimi Hendrix, Bob Dylan, The Beach Boys, and The Beatles were all fantastic in their field, but not in the same field as the best classical music.

By what authority or standard of measurement is Jimi Hendrix the equal of Franz Liszt? The question also applies all the other absurd claims made in this piece. Dylan’s lyrics are more complex and deeper than the libretto of Mozart’s operas? The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds as complex as a Haydn string quartet? The Beatles were every bit as ground-breaking as Beethoven. Give me a break – this is utter twaddle and has no basis in analysis. And who said greatness equates to complexity?

Pop music does not need to be taught as it is at its best a reactive protest against the status quo – in which case if it becomes part of the status quo it has no function – and at its worst it has considerably less content than most nursery rhymes, no harmonic grammar, no sense of shape, form and no skill. That it can be better than that is undoubtedly true, and I have a deep affection for certain pieces of pop music from across the years of my life, but to suggest that it equates to the best classical music is ridiculous, pretentious, and to my mind makes a mockery of popular culture, and its position in society.


The following is part of my response:

The arguments above about popular music being commercialised (with which I agree) would certainly make a significant body of musicologists unhappy, and they try to deny, that there is any real alternative. For example:

‘Although we live in a commercially dominated culture, 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 – certainly more than the patronage systems of old. Music by women can continue to flourish in the public sphere, but only so long as it manages to sell tickets and recordings: the unexpected success of the Lilth Fair concerts, featuring exclusively female artists, confirmed not only the artistry of the participating musicians but also the willingness of a mass audience to support their efforts.’

Susan McClary, ‘Women and Music on the Verge of the New Millenium’, Signs, vol. 25, no. 4 (Summer 2000), pp. 1285-6.


‘…the condemnation of fusion for its commercial success drastically underestimates the vitality, subtlety, and expressiveness of the pop traditions that influenced David. It is nothing more than an antipopulist chauvinism that turns from the unacceptable view that “what sells is good” to the opposite and likewise unacceptable view that “what sells must be bad.”

And finally the contrast of commercial fusion with noncommercial earlier jazz amounts to elitism pure and simple, to a snobbish distortion of history by jazz purists attempting to insulate their cherished classics from the messy marketplace in which culture has always been negotiated. Those who advocate such a view should reread Ralph Ellison’s review of Blues People, where he reminded Baraka that even Bird and the other early boppers, the ne plus ultra for many critics of esoteric jazz intellectualism, “were seeking . . . a fresh form of entertainment which would allow them their fair share of the entertainment market” (1978:59). Or, in a different connection, they should read recent nonhagiographical music histories that have Beethoven hawking the same opus to three different publishers, or Mozart conniving, with a sad lack of savvy, at one music-business killing or another. Music created with an eye to eternal genius and blind to the marketplace is a myth of European Romanticism sustained by its chief offspring, modernism.’

Gary Tomlinson, ‘Cultural Dialogics and Jazz: A White Historian signifies’, in Katherine Bergeron and Philip V. Bohlman (eds.), Disciplining Music: Musicology and its Canons (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1992), pp. 82-3.

‘I’ve noticed that, when I go to conferences or similar events in continental Europe, people make the assumption that, because I’m interested in music, I must have an interest in and commitment to new music; that’s not an expectation about me in particular, but a taken-for-granted assumption about what it means to be seriously engaged in music. (In the UK or the USA, people make no such assumption.) [….] In my book, I referred briefly to critical theory in general and Adorno in particular, as a way of introducing one of the main intellectual strands of the ‘New’ musicology of the 1990s, but I made no direct link between Adorno’s critique and new music. In her commentary, Anne Boissière (2001, p. 32) picked this up, asking why I didn’t discuss ‘the problem of contemporary music which resists consumption’: instead, she complained, I made music sound as if it was just another commodity, and in this way passed up the opportunity to offer ‘a critical analysis of consumer society’. In which case, she asked, ‘what point is there in making reference to Adorno?’: if one’s critique isn’t motivated by moral or political commitment, as Adorno’s was, then what is there to it but nihilism?

Actually, the argument Boissière is putting forward here, and which other contributors also reflected, has a long and rather peculiar history. It originates in the conservative critique of the modern world—the attack on capitalism and consumerism that developed throughout the German-speaking countries in the 19th century (where it was associated with the nostalgic values of an idealised rural past), and fed ultimately into the Nazi creed of ‘blood and soil’; Adorno’s critical theory might accordingly be seen as appropriating a conservative tradition in order to attack the right-wing ideology of his own day.’

Nicholas Cook, ‘Writing on Music or Axes to Grind: road rage and musical community’, Music Education Research, vol. 5, no. 3 (November 2003), p. 257.

‘My contention is that petty capitalism – a term I take to encompass myriad small-scale form of entrepreneurial, commercial activity in culture – has been one of the key means by which progressive leftist, anti-racist, and resistant forms of culture, music, and art have been made possible: have been produced, circulated, and lived. It’s a despised category of economic activity and analysis, generally seen as collusive with capital, as politically irredeemable, an insignificant and ineffective in any meta-historical analysis. But with regard specifically to cultural activity it sits somewhere crucial between full-blown corporate capitalism and the quite different but just as marked forms of cultural, ideological, and aesthetic closure and policing that tend to characterize statist and other kinds of subsidized cultural institutions, whether in music, broadcasting or academia. I’ve researched statist cultural institutions rather deeply, as those who know my writings on IRCAM and the BBC will be aware. So my argument today is that while there is no necessary connection between progressive or politicized culture and these small-scale, entrepreneurial petty capitalist interventions – and in that sense there is no deterministic relation – there are, nonetheless, opportunities; they might be conceived as affordances or, better, in William Connolly’s fruitful phrase, indebted to complexity theory as pluri-potentialities. In terms of the possibility of new experimental, and alternative forms of production and circulation, informed by a politic of cultural production, we should be more aware of this category of activity and what it can achieve.’

Georgina Born, ‘On Music and Politics: Henry Cow, Avant-Gardism and its Discontents’, in Robert Adlington (ed.), Red Strains: Music and Communism Outside the Communist Bloc (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), p. 64.

Deskilling and Musical Education – Response to Arnold Whittall’s 80th Birthday Celebrations

The following article was printed in the Society for Music Analysis Newsletter 2015. I reproduce it with just a few small modifications here.


To do justice to Arnold’s enviable legacy, we should reverse the tendency towards the de-skilling of a discipline.

During the contributions to Arnold Whittall’s 80th birthday colloquium at King’s College, London, Jonathan Cross linked two events: Arnold’s appointment as the first Professor of Theory and Analysis in 1982, and later in the decade the purported expansion of musicology to incorporate issues of gender, sexuality and race, methodologies from sociology, anthropology, cultural studies and elsewhere, and greater focus on popular musics and other traditions outside of Western art music. Some of the latter phenomena are associated with the so-called ‘new musicology’ in the US and its slightly milder counterpart ‘critical musicology’ in the UK.

All of these were portrayed by Cross as a general broadening of the discipline, a welcome infusion of increased diversity of subject and methodology, a natural step forward. But an academic field now in large measure antipathetic to claims of musical autonomy seems nonetheless to claim a fair degree of autonomy for its own trajectory, in a way I find implausible and even disingenuous. There may be some common determinants underlying all these apparent broadenings of the field, and both systematic analysis and the new musicology have been opposed by conservatives such as Peter Williams. Nonetheless, the wider ideologies underlying these disparate developments can be quite antagonistic, as was certainly made clear in an important interview between Arnold and Jonathan Dunsby published in Music Analysis (Vol. 14, No. 2/3 (Jul. – Oct., 1995), pp. 131-139) for the former’s 60th birthday.

The ‘new musicology’ is frequently argued to have been inaugurated with the publication of Joseph Kerman’s Contemplating Music (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1985) (UK title Musicology). Despite being replete with factual errors, Kerman’s appeal to a musicological inferiority complex, a field presented as trailing far behind other disciplines in terms of adoption of ideas from phenomenology, post-structuralism, feminism and more, not to mention his negative view of both musical modernism and historically-informed performance, as well as residual anti-German prejudice, would prove very influential.

But Kerman was also the author of the polemical ‘How We Got into Analysis, and How to Get out’ (Critical Inquiry, Vol. 7, No. 2 (Winter 1980), pp. 331-331), absolutely at odds with what Arnold was advocating and aiming for at around the same time. The contexts for these two musicologists were very different: Kerman was responding to a particular North American situation (though he was shameless in extrapolating universal pronouncements from a rather provincial perspective), with a much starker distinction between ‘historians’ and ‘theorists’ than in the UK. In the US, a heavily mediated rendition of Schenker’s work had flowered since 1931 through his student Hans Weisse, and in the early post-war era through other students Felix Salzer and Oswald Jonas, whilst other intense analytical approaches had been developed by Rudolph Réti, Milton Babbitt, Allen Forte, George Perle, David Lewin and others. In the UK, on the other hand, as Arnold would note in a 1980 article (‘Musicology in Great Britain since 1945. III. Analysis’, Acta Musicologica, Vol. 52, Fasc. 1 (Jan. – Jun. 1980), pp. 57-62), systematic analysis had made little advance, despite a gauntlet having been set down by Ian Bent’s advocacy at the Congress of the International Musicological Society in 1972. What did exist – through some interest in Réti’s work, the ‘functional analysis’ of Hans Keller, and a smattering of other work from Alan Walker, David Osmond Smith and a few others – was occasional and patchy, and this was undoubtedly a major factor in Arnold’s co- founding, in 1982, the journal Music Analysis together with Jonathan Dunsby, with whom he would author what remains the leading general textbook on analysis in English six years later. The subject has continued to grow and develop, with excellent work from UK academics, such as Matthew Riley’s studies on Haydn and Mozart, Michael Spitzer’s work on the affective function of gesture, Nicholas Cook on analysis and performance, or Allan Moore’s work on rock, but it is difficult in 2015 to see analysis as having attained a central position in musicology as might have seemed possible in 1982. Various musicologists who assumed prominent positions from the 1990s onwards have made no secret of their disdain for this sub-discipline, sometimes inspired by American writings of a similar ideological persuasion.

Assumptions of autonomous development of the discipline in the 1980s and 1990s are belied by issues such as the wider politics of education from the Thatcher years onwards. These entailed cuts in musical provision in schools, the 1992 removal of the formal distinction between universities and polytechnics, and then expansion of student numbers. After a doubling of the number of students (in all subjects) between 1963 and 1970 following the Robbins Report, numbers remained static until the late 1980s, when during a period of around a decade student numbers practically doubled from 17% in 1987 to 33% in 1997, then rose steadily to peak at 49% in 2011. This move from an elite to a mass educational system occurred in parallel with attempts to erase the very real differences in preparedness and background amongst students at different types of institutions, with a net levelling effect upon many.

Much of the new embrace of popular music had less to do with genuine diversification than an enforced denial of very real differences of various forms of musical production’s relationship to the marketplace. One of Thatcher’s neoliberal mantras, ‘There Is No Alternative’ (TINA) was echoed by many a musicologist scornful of any possible value in state-subsidised musical activity thus able to operate with a degree of autonomy from shortterm market utility. As subsidy is rare or minimal in the US, this ideology was convenient for American musicologists eager to claim some radical credentials through valorisation of the commercial whilst still appearing patriotic; it was disappointing to see so much of this ideology imported wholesale in the UK, a country with a modest level of subsidy for music compared to its continental European counterparts.

I had always thought of music, at a tertiary level, as a highly skilled discipline for those who have already developed and refined musicianship prior to entering university. This belief may reflect a background in a specialist music school in which, if nothing else, the teaching of fundamental musical skills was rigorous and thorough. Nonetheless, the importance of not allowing music slip to become a ‘soft’ subject requiring only nominal prior skills (and, as with much work in the realm of cultural studies, not requiring any particular artistic disciplinary expertise or extended knowledge) is to me self-evident. But with declining primary and secondary musical educational provision, frequently the extent of such prior skills amongst students can be quite elementary.

Furthermore, following the trebling of tuition fees in 2012 and other measures removing caps on recruitment, higher education has become a more ruthlessly competitive market with institutions fighting to attract and keep students. These various factors provide the context from which we should view the growth in many departments of types of popular music studies, film music studies, cultural studies, and some varieties of ethnomusicology, in which engagement with sounding music is a secondary or even non-existent concern. Such focus enables the production of modules which can be undertaken by those students with limited prior skills, but militates against musical analysis in particular.

We now have a situation, unthinkable a few decades ago, where some senior academics – even at professorial level – have no ability to read any type of musical notation. These academics (not to mention some of their students who will go onto teach at primary and secondary levels) may only perpetuate and exacerbate this situation for their own students. Similarly, a number of sub-disciplines of academic music can now be undertaken without linguistic skills, or much background in history, literature, the visual arts, philosophy and so on. Students have always had uneven or patchy backgrounds in these respects, but the will to help them improve upon this has also declined in various institutions. Expansion of musical study to encompass wider ranges of music and disciplinary approaches is certainly to be welcomed when this entails the cultivation of equal degrees of expertise and methodological refinement and critical acumen, but not necessarily when these are simply a means for attracting and holding onto less able students.

In short, these developments in musical higher education have seen a well-meaning liberal quest for inclusivity amount in practice to a pseudo-egalitarian de-skilling of a profession. In order to build upon the legacy bequeathed above all by Arnold for the support of specialised and rigorous analytical skills, we cannot ignore this issue any longer.