How to create an inclusive classroom for students of all political persuasions

This blog post was planned earlier this year in response to a very important question placed on social media, by the account known as Experimental Philosophy (@xphilosopher ), which was as follows:

At this moment in time, this issue seems more vivid than ever, and it is one I myself have considered at length during my university career, both when my own politics were more aligned with the radical left and in terms of the social democratic position which I espouse nowadays.

Teaching is not preaching. In the UK, the 1996 Education Act forbids the ‘promotion of partisan political views’ at primary and secondary level. This is sensible when teaching at that level; a corresponding prohibition at tertiary level would inevitably entail a significant loss of autonomy and academic freedom which would be undesirable. Furthermore, students are generally legally adults, and as such it is reasonable to think that they are in more of a position to be able to recognise and critique such views for themselves.

But what about the duty of academics to make all students feel welcome, and able to express their own views without fear or intimidation? Here there is much reason for concern, not least with respect to political bias amongst academics themselves. There is clear evidence that academics identifying with conservative or right-of-centre positions are in a quite small minority. There have been various attempts to refute this, some involving obfuscation, other balanced appraisals (such as this study), suggesting that the situation varies between countries and disciplines, but without denying this is the case in the humanities in particular. As one working in the humanities, and identifying as left-of-centre, this concerns me very much.

I was distressed and angry by the Brexit vote, and continue to believe that this will soon be seen as one of the worst own goals in this country for a very long time. Nonetheless, I am quite sure that not everyone who supported or continues to support Brexit is simply stupid or ignorant (I think they are wrong, but that is not the same). Furthermore, as 52% of those who voted in the 2016 referendum supported Brexit, this is sure to include at least some who were students at the time, or their families. For a lecturer in class to brand them stupid and ignorant (the views they express outside of the classroom are their own business) would be grounds for legitimate complaint. I dislike a lot about the form of unbridled capitalism in the United States, as well as the meagreness of welfare provision in that country, the gun culture, the fact that this is the only Western country still to execute its own citizens, or the draconian sentencing policies implemented in many of its regions. I do not believe this amounts to a slur on American citizens in general (anymore than drastic opposition to Putin and the actions of the Russian government and military amounts to a slur on all Russians), whilst recognising that to some extent in a democracy the actions of governmental authorities cannot be divorced from the will of its citizens. But I would never think that teaching is a place to try and preach this to students, some of whom may be from the United States.

Some of the responses to the Twitter post above were encouraging (I won’t link to all the tweets, but one can go and view the thread oneself): some suggested that one should avoid making partisan statements in class, avoid making one’s own political opinion clear (I do not necessarily agree with this, but certainly think it needs to be tempered – see below), or interestingly suggested the teacher can present themselves as the advocate for an argument in a paper, perhaps thus inviting the students to find holes in it. But others epitomised what the post was trying to address – one said that conservative students are ‘threatened by rational thought, scientific evidence, and collective determination of invariant truth’ (which I argued is equally true of many on the left), another branded anyone right-of-centre as ‘racist or intolerant’. One suggested that one should become friendly with conservative colleagues, with which I wholeheartedly agree. Others reasonably asked whether this was not equally an issue for conservative academics teaching left-of-centre students, and this certainly needs to be considered too; I would say (including in my own field) there are more than a few who present themselves as politically ‘progressive’, and assume themselves to be left-of-centre, but their neglect of the economic lead them to become quite aggressive advocates of market forces and consumer culture (see my earlier post here and the end of the post here).

This is a blog post rather than a scholarly article, and does not allow for the type of thoroughgoing research required to ascertain the extent to which political activism and intimidation of students with different political views are major factors within higher education. So here I draw upon personal experience, and knowledge imparted by a wide range of other academics and some students or former students. I am not sure I have always been successful with avoiding some of these factors in my teaching, but over the last decade-and-a-bit have thought and worked harder on this.

  1. Always ensure that your lecture materials, set readings, and so on, draw attention to plural political and other perspectives on the issues at stake.
  2. As an extension of 1, make sure you set readings which are not just those with which you personally agree.
  3. If you wish to inform the students of your own position on certain matters, always emphasise that this is your own, should not be given priority over the views of other scholars, and above all stress that students will never be penalised in their assignments for disagreeing with your position, nor win any special favour for agreeing with it.
  4. When there is a clear majority of students adhering to a particular view in class discussions, make sure you interject alternative views into this, and present these at their most convincing. Otherwise, students whose views are in the minority may feel afraid of not ‘going with the flow’.
  5. Avoid asking leading questions (this is a wider academic point) on all occasions. This includes assignments – anything along the lines of ‘Show how various forms of culture or knowledge served to sustain the power of particular groups in society’ should be right out. This should be reframed as a question of whether the forms of culture or knowledge in question served such an end. Also, avoid any type of passive-aggressive language which indicates a ‘right’ position to take or could be viewed as denigrating those who might disagree.
  6. Never present the work of highly politicised and contested figures – whether Friedrich Hayek or Milton Friedman, or Michel Foucault, Stuart Hall and Edward Said – as if their work represents some type of objective truth. Always draw attention to the critiques which exist of their work.
  7. As an issue directed towards those of a more right-of-centre persuasion: be aware of how politically loaded some concepts might be (I would include ‘cultural industries’ and ‘creative industries’ in this category, just as much as the Adornian negative conception of the ‘culture industry’). While students will often be working in a capitalist and market-driven world after graduation, that in no way means that education should exclude more critical positions on the marketplace and commercialism. Remember that you are teaching students to be intelligent, mature and independent critical thinkers, not just to adhere to a dominant ideology which you think might serve them well at a later stage.
  8. Do not appropriate rhetoric about white supremacy simply for the purposes of closing down discussion. This term should not be used lightly, especially not with students. This is no better than using racial epithets against students. Similarly, avoid as far as possible any comparisons with the Nazis unless talking about obvious genuine fascists. Also, be proactive if you see students trying to use similar rhetoric for the same aims.
  9. Much of the rhetoric about ‘decolonising’ education is toxic; loaded with all sorts of unchallenged assumptions, frequently ahistorical, again used as a means to close down debate and force through a particular political programme, and exploited by particular academic factions in order to bolster their own positions. I have published on the subject here in the context of music here and here; I would also recommend this piece by Patrick Porter, this by James Olsen and this interview with Olúfẹ́mi Táíwò for alternative perspectives to the dominant positions within the academic industry on this subject; the article upon leaving academic from Paul Harper-Scott gives a prime example of how this rhetoric is exploited. This does not mean by any means that the subject of possible intersections between culture, knowledge, institutions and colonialism are not a legitimate area for study; far from it. But whether particular intersections exist, and if so their nature, are critical questions, not opportunities for imposing dogma via questionable claims of EDI (Equality, Diversity and Inclusivity – see this article by Alice Sullivan and Judith Suissa on how bodies dealing with this are often hijacked by activists and political extremists). To be able to engage with such questions, teach students about the history of colonialism (including that from non-European powers) and slavery (likewise), introduce them to culture, thought, from non-Western culture, but allow them to arrive at their own conclusions. To put some non-Western cultural work, social practice or variety of knowledge on a pedestal, as if beyond criticism, is as demeaning and dehumanising to the heterogeneous people and social groups in any such region as anything from a far-right racist.
  10. Equally pernicious is the argument that ‘everything is political’, used to suggest that one person’s teaching cannot be more ‘politicised’ than another’s. This is aggressive and belligerent rhetoric which could equally be exploited by those on the far right.
  11. There are not that many subjects which lie outside of the boundaries of legitimate debate – those which involve dehumanisation and denigration of people on the grounds simply of what they were born, or those which involve cynical denial of genocidal events, are amongst the few. Even some for which academics may feel most passionately – about the extent to which a government should allow admission to those seeking to immigrate or claiming asylum, or whether the termination of a pregnancy is purely a matter of a woman’s own body, or whether the unborn child has rights and deserves protection too – elicit multiple views which exist within the boundaries of democratic debate. In some cases this may prove extremely difficult – how to respect, for example, the religious sensibilities of those who have firm views on the place of women, or on homosexuals, which would be beyond the realms of acceptable discourse for many others. Here I do not have a solution other than to argue that tertiary education should be conducted from a secular perspective, and no religion deserves special treatment.

More broadly, the use of teaching as a vehicle for propaganda and political activism should be entirely unacceptable, and students should receive independent advice to become aware of this and be provided with appropriate channels to register their unhappiness about it.

I have found many in academia may pay lip service to ‘critical thinking’, but this is tempered in one of two ways. For many, such critical thinking does not apply to many of the assumptions underlying their own field of work. Numerous ethnomusicologists, in my experience, can be especially wedded to axiomatic assumptions about the relationship between music and its social/cultural context (not to mention frequently treating the works of their own set of canonical thinkers practically as sacred texts). They are of course perfectly entitled to their own views and to express them, but students should not be made to adhere to and avoid critique to such thinking under fear of ostracisation or penalisation of their work. For others, their concept of ‘critical’ means absolute adherence towards a particular political view which they deem ‘critical’. Critiques of the NHS, of trade unions, of factions within the left, of antisemitic ideologies in the same place, can be just as ‘critical’ as those of capitalist institutions, the military, the monarchy or the church (and I say this as a dedicated trade unionist, with huge pride in the NHS, also very sceptical of the monarchy, many churches, and certainly of unregulated power given to the forces of capital).

There are of course limits – it would be foolish to think that a position advocating slavery, or expressing support for Nazism or Stalinism, should be treated just like any other political position. But even in these cases there is much more to education than simply telling students how bad these things are. There are many questions relating to the workings of the Western slave trade, the extent of complicity or active involvement of many in various fields of life, the extent to which assent towards this was dominant within political discourse or the extent to which it engendered significant opposition, and the sensitive issue of active complicity of some members of the societies from which slaves were taken (just as Holocaust scholar Raoul Hillberg encountered great controversy when investigating the involvement of some Jewish organisations in facilitating the machinery of genocide, now a perspective accepted by a wide range of historians). Nazism, wider fascism and the Third Reich form parts of my own research areas; I see how important it is in education to consider historical conceptions of fascism (far from the crude way the term is often bandied about nowadays), but also consider not just the extent to which it formed/forms a continuity with the pre- and post-fascist histories of the societies in question, to what extent there was popular approval for the movement (equally a question for Stalinism), including during the times of the worst atrocities, and how and why this might have been true, if there was indeed considerable support (the extent continues to divide historians, especially in the wake of the work of Daniel Goldhagen). I have taught a module entitled Music, Fascism, Communism for over a decade. In this, I frequently show students a section from Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph des Willens (1935), focused around a Nuremberg Rally, presenting the Führer almost like an angel sent from on high, and with mesmerising choreographed scenes of sacralised, ritualistic displays of militaristic power. It would be easy just to tell students why this is so terrible; but actually I would like them to consider what it was about these types of spectacles (if indeed they did resemble Riefenstahl’s portrayals, which is a big ‘if’) might have proved so compelling, and by extension consider how cultural forms (I often juxtapose the Riefenstahl with some choreographed scenes from Busby Berkeley – others have commented on the similarities, and Riefenstahl herself acknowledged the influence of Berkeley) can operate upon the spectator (and listener) in such an atavistic manner, appealing in a purely sensuous and emotive manner, not to rational and critical faculties, and how this strategy has proved as effective in steering consumer habits as in bolstering emotional identification with fascism – though of course also registering dissenting views towards this interpretation. This is about attempting to encourage wider critical analysis of the phenomena in question and related ones, not simply to bolster support for a viewpoint with which no reasonable person would disagree (that Nazism was a disastrous and genocidal movement). Knowledge of Stalinism or more widely of documented atrocities under actually-existing communism seems to become thinner with every year that passes since the end of the Cold War; it is vital that students are aware of what has been documented beyond reasonable doubt, but there remain many different interpretations to explore, concerning such issues as whether Stalinism and its counterparts elsewhere were an inevitable consequence of any type of social upheaval following the principles laid down by Marx and Engels, or whether it was a distortion of these and this historical trajectory could have been avoided, the role of personalities such as Lenin, Trotsky, Stalin, Tito, Mao, Ho Chi Minh and many others, and in a cultural context whether there was any necessary connection between this type of politics and radical artistic movements (see my latest piece in The Spectator for some thoughts on this).

At one institution where I once did some teaching, I found that one student with whom I was working was a supporter of the British National Party. However, so long as this did not lead to the expression of overtly racist views in front of others, I did not see any reason for this to affect things. In another somewhat less loaded case, when teaching about performing some music explicitly linked to a specific left-wing political programme, with associated texts alluding to global events, I realise that some students there who had grown up in Eastern European countries under communism were uncomfortable with any suggestion that one should share the view of the composer in question, so I tried to adapt teaching from then onwards to make clear this needn’t be the case. I have also (briefly) taught a student who went on to become a Brexit Party MP; I have no idea what they think about my teaching, but hope at least that it didn’t make them feel politically excluded.

But let me end with an inspiring example from the past: the case of Ralph Miliband, father of David and Ed. Miliband was born to a Jewish refugee parents from Poland, who had settled in Belgium, and in turn had to flee the country to escape persecution at the hands of the Nazis and their Belgian allies. Miliband was a major political theorist who taught at the London School of Economics, the University of Leeds, and various US institutions. His positions were associated with particular factions of the Marxist left (and he had little time for the idea that change could be achieved through the Labour Party), unlike both of his sons, though this fact was used to discredit Ed Miliband in particular by association in pernicious journalism in the Daily Mail, calling the elder Miliband ‘The man who hated Britain’. But one who defended Miliband most strongly was Lord Moore, formerly John Moore, known in the 1980s as a right-wing member of Thatcher’s cabinet (associated in particular with major cuts to social security). Beyond defending Miliband against the charge that he hated Britain, he recalled studying under Miliband at the London School of Economics, where Moore was a student in the late 1950s:

Ralph Miliband taught me and I can say he was one of the most inspiring and objective teachers I had. Of course, we had different political opinions but he never treated me with anything less than complete courtesy and I had profound respect for his integrity.

I cannot imagine any stronger tribute to the fairness of one’s teaching than to have such a testimony from someone at the other end of the political spectrum, nor more worthy aim for academics than to be as fair and balanced to one’s own students as Miliband was to his.

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.

Students taking A and AS-Level Music – declining numbers

I would like to express immense thanks to my City University colleague Diana Salazar for compiling some of the figures below and drawing my attention to their sources.

The following tables provide figures for students taking A- and AS-Levels in Music, Music Technology, and proportions gaining particular grades, in the UK from 2009 to 2014. These are derived from several sources: this set of tables collated from the figures provided by the Joint Council for Qualifications, which however combine A and AS-Levels in Music and Music Technology into a single figure. Separation of numbers is enabled by subtraction of figures for Music Technology found at Edexcel, the only board to provide this subject.

There has thus been a 16.8% drop in A-Level Music applicants over this five-year period, a 25.6% drop in A-Level Music Technology applicants, and a net drop of 19.7%. The corresponding figures for AS-Level applicants are 8.0%, 13.1% and 9.7%; slightly less drastic but still very significant. There is a clear decline in the numbers of students taking these subjects, which has major implications in terms of future applicants to music degree courses. Unless this pattern changes, those degree courses requiring an A-Level in one or other of these subjects are certain to see a reductions in numbers.

The Education Secretary, Nicky Morgan, earlier this week made a speech in which she urged young people to concentrate at school on taking STEM subjects rather than the arts and humanities , because of alleged lack of resulting employability (she does not appear to have read articles such as this which stress how employable music graduates are). This decline in those studying in music should, alas, warm Morgan’s heart.

A2 Music
A*-U totals
A2 Music
A2 Music, % of total A2 entries
A2 Music Technology
A*-U totals
A2 Music Technology
A2 Music Tech, % of total A2 entries




AS Music
A*-U totals

AS Music

AS Music, % of total A2 entries

AS Music Technology
A*-U totals

AS Music Technology

AS Music Tech, % of total AS entries


Musicology is not Musical PR

A good many non-musicians look bewildered when I tell them I am a musicologist as well as a performer, wondering what on earth a ‘musicologist’ is. I usually answer by saying something like ‘I am also engaged in critical historical study of music and music-making’, aware that this is far from being an exhaustive definition of the range of activity encompassed by musicology. Some musicologists are engaged primarily in highly technical analysis, others do fieldwork, some spend long periods in detailed study of old manuscripts, others investigate non-Western musical cultures, philosophies of and strategies for musical education, the psychology of music, and so on; my own work concentrates on document-based historical study, some analysis, sketch study, lots of historical contextualisation, ideology critique, performance practice, and in general a wide range of music and music-making from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, focusing not least upon the institutions of music (including educational institutions) as well as musicians.

But, whilst many people would understand the difference between the critical study of literature such as one might undertake in an English degree, and a course in Creative Writing, designed to help students develop their skills for becoming a writer, the equivalent distinction is insufficiently understood and appreciated for music. This can be a major issue with prospective students and their parents, who imagine that a music degree is essentially a vocational qualification in order to become a professional musician. Unfortunately only a small minority of those who go through the advanced professional training provided by conservatoires succeed towards this end; the chances for those who go to university are correspondingly fewer.

Much can be said about the wider benefits of a music degree, the range of transferable skills it can entail, which not only prepares students well for many fields of life in which they might work, but also opens up an enriching outlook on culture and society in general. But this relates to a much wider conception of the study of the subject than would be involved in a more narrowly vocational degree, and in particular to the role of musicology.

Many musical practitioners (performers and composers) are sceptical or even downright hostile to musicology as a discipline with a degree of autonomy, seeing it as of secondary importance compared to the acts of making or producing music. Certainly as a formalised academic subject, dating from the mid-nineteenth century in the German-speaking world, musicology is very young compared to practical musical activity, though wider thinking and writing about music can be dated back a lot further. As long as human beings communicate with one another about music, then some verbal discourses are established; musicology attempts to find ways to develop these discourses into something employing more rigorous and self-critical methods for arriving at conclusions.

Not all of those who listen to or take an interest in music are necessarily involved in producing it, any more than all readers are professional writers, or viewers of art are themselves artists (I personally have interests in a wide range of visual art, but my abilities to produce anything of the type are practically zero). And the priorities of those interested in music might be quite different to those who have a professional stake in certain outcomes. In this context the intermediary role of the critic can be important – bridging the intentions and desires of the producers with the wishes and requirements of the consumers, whether reviewing concerts or restaurants. In the case of reviews of atonal contemporary music, this relationship can become fraught, depending upon the target readership; a critic writing mostly for an audience already likely to be broadly sympathetic (such as the readership of a specialist new music journal) has a different task from one writing for an audience whose sympathy might be highly selective, or may even be actively hostile to such music, and are reading this critic for advice on what they might listen to. This latter type of critic would in some sense be failing their readers if they simply reiterated composers’ own perception of their work with no consideration as to how it might be perceived by someone who does not necessarily share all of those composers’ assumptions and priorities.

When considering historical composers, there are many obvious ways in which listeners may also approach the music in question in ways very different from those of the composers (or others from the time). One does not have to be a strict Lutheran to appreciate Bach, nor necessarily accept some of the theological motivations proffered for some of the musical decisions. An atheist would believe these were a delusion or at least a fiction, and might consider them as the expression of some wider human issues. A similar situation can apply to the tropes of heroism which inform some of Beethoven’s mid-period work (and a good deal of subsequent reception), or more ominously the anti-semitic views expressed by Wagner in his 1850 article ‘Das Judenthum in der Musik’; much work has been done considering the question of the extent to which these views, and other common anti-semitic views of the time, might have informed some of the characterisations in his music-dramas, and been understood as such by audiences of the time. If one concludes that this might indeed have been the case, this does not require automatic rejection of the work, but can facilitate an engagement with the music-dramas not simply as art works existing outside of time and place, but ones which reflect a particular set of ideologies of the time, held by the composer, which a reasonable person would today reject without necessarily rejecting all cultural work which sprang up in a context where they were indeed acceptable. Similar positions are possible with respect to representations of women, of characters from outside of the Western world, in musical works involving theatre or text; on a deeper level it is also possible to consider the ways in which abstract instrumental music might itself have grown out of texted/stage work and inherited some of the oppositions between musical materials (especially as had become codified to represent masculine and feminine characters) which were intrinsic to the latter.

In all of these cases, the approach of the writer or listener amounts to something different from simply reiterating the composer’s intentions and wishes, or at least applying a different set of valorising standards to them. When applied with sufficient care for proper and balanced investigation of factual evidence (with proper referencing), rigour and transparency of argument, and elegance of presentation, not to mention some commitment to producing an argument which does more than simply reiterate that of numerous previous writers, this constitutes one variety of critical musicology. Not all or even most such work need arrive at negative conclusions, and some might affirm existing perceptions, but it does so as a result of serious consideration of alternative possibilities, rather than simply declaring them off-limits from the outset.

To some extent, I believe the value of this type of work is more widely accepted than it would have been several decades ago. The situation might be different with other forms of critical investigation, such as examination of the cult of artistic genius, the privileging of particular forms of music (orchestral, chamber) over others (opera, some solo music) on grounds of apparent ‘depth’ and ‘substance’, or for that matter the devaluation of some popular music or musical forms rooted in practices from minority groups as compared to a Western art music tradition, taking on board the associated assumptions and ideologies upon which such positions are founded. All of this involves countenancing the notion that music, music-making and musical reception may not be ideologically neutral fields belong to the realms of ‘pure art’, but might themselves reflect and reflect back upon wider social perceptions.

But the situation is more contested in the field of contemporary classical music. This is itself a field in which many practitioners feel themselves to be marginalised, with very little music of an atonal nature having won any degree of widespread public acceptance (even to the extent of that of composers such as Stravinsky, Britten or Shostakovich). Yet there are musicological critiques of some of this body of work emerging from people other than conservative classical music listeners. A body of work by various scholars associated with the ‘new musicology’ has contested the claims for primacy of various avant-garde music, drawing attention to what is argued to be its elitism, individualism (maintaining a nineteenth-century focus upon the ‘great composer’), abstraction and consequent social disengagement, white male middle-class bias, and artificial institutionalisation (including institutionalisation in higher education) despite its being a small minority interest. This latter point is extremely charged considering that some such musicologists inhabit university departments which they will share with some of the practitioners said to benefit from such institutional privilege.

As both a practitioner (as an active performer) and a musicologist, I was naturally somewhat thrown when first spending serious time with this body of work in the early 2000s. At first I was hostile, as it seemed simply another nail in the coffin of the type of avant-garde music I felt bound to defend. I began framing an extensive critique of several of the key writers concerned (to date unfinished but in a quite advanced state of development, which I will return to at some point), after realising the extent to which much of this work had become easily absorbed and was now little questioned within academia, despite sometimes being based upon major assumptions which I felt never to have been properly tested. But after spending a considerable amount of time reading the work in question, I felt myself forced to conclude that it did indeed raise many issues which could not be dismissed out of hand, however much these issues might be difficult for those of us intensely involved in the field being critiqued. From this point onwards I began to take a somewhat more sceptical attitude towards various aspects of the musical world in which I was most deeply involved as a practitioner, and especially became aware of conflicting priorities as a scholar and a performer, a conflict I have never wished to artificially elide.

For those writing about contemporary composers and their work (of which I am one) this can create a very difficult situation. The work concerned is already deemed marginal, and the scholar can encounter distrust or even hostility if their own work takes a critical perspective. Such scholars value opportunities to speak and write about composers outside of the usual academic arenas, but many of these opportunities are determined by the composers in question; in several cases I know of these opportunities promptly being curtailed after the scholar in question dared to express an even mildly critical opinion about some aspect of the work of the composer in question. Perhaps as a result of this, a lot of scholarly work on new music has tended to be defensive or hagiographic – and I would include a good deal of the early writing on Boulez, Stockhausen and John Cage in this category, as well as some of the writing on Michael Finnissy by myself and others – or else simply outright hostile. Little middle ground exists between this ‘in-group’ and ‘out-group’ mentalities towards new music, though the situation is changing a little. The failure on the part of many actively involved with the composition and performance of new music to address the issues raised by new musicologists and others has allowed the sometimes simplistic arguments of the latter a free ride.

In my own more recent work on Finnissy (which I have been revising and editing over the last months) this has been a continual concern. Finnissy can be most articulate about his own intentions and ideas behind certain works, but it ill behoves a scholar of integrity to simply reiterate these without asking any questions first. In his piece North American Spirituals, Finnissy finds ways of combining eighteenth-century white American hymns with African-American spirituals, to make a comment about racism and racial tension. A brilliant idea (especially in the sophistication of its implementation), but to what extent does the sounding result necessarily communicate the latter to someone who has not been told what they are meant to be hearing and interpreting? And what are the wider implications of appropriating music borne of slavery into a concert hall environment generally populated by white middle class people? For reasons too detailed to explicate here, the view which I ultimately concluded was mostly affirmative of some of Finnissy’s positions, but not without attempting to consider how they might be interpreted quite differently.

The ‘intentional fallacy’ (the fallacy of granting primacy to the intentions of an author) has been widely recognised as such in literature ever since the publication of W.K. Wimsatt and Cleanth Brooks’ 1946 essay of the same name. But in much writing about new music, the composer’s intention remains almost sacrosanct, and some writing is judged better or worse by the extent to which it concurs with this. This is a very poor state of affairs compared to that appertaining to literature. The composer is an individual existing in a particular time and place, having inherited (and of course themselves mediated) a range of beliefs and ideologies, who is inevitably a flawed individual with their own set of interests, prejudices, perhaps petty jealousies, and so on, not the be-all and end-all of meaning in the way that is implied through a deferential attitude towards ‘great men’ (and the odd ‘great woman’).

One can read any number of pieces of writing which will present the finest detail of compositional technique involved in creating a piece – in a duly ‘respectful’ manner – but when it comes to dealing with the sounding result, restrict themselves to a few choice adjectives of praise, saying little about what relationship exists between the means and the ends, let alone about why (or if) the final result might be capable of generating any type of meaningful response amongst listeners. This may not be entirely unwilled: to address the latter issue would involve asking difficult questions relating to the fact that much new music has never succeeded in gaining more than a very small audience relative to the totality of the listening population, and many of them have professional connections to the work concerned. That some artistic work is a small minority interest need not necessarily be cause for censure or dismissal, but to pretend that this is not the case, or continue with the far-from-proved assumption that simply a greater amount of promotion and publicity will generate these so-far elusive audiences, is simply naïve.

At a round table discussion at a conference a few years ago on the symphony orchestra as cultural phenomenon, one musicologist opined that whilst it was all very well for such musicologists to look critically at these types of institutions, at a time when funding is in question this was the wrong thing to do, and we should all be putting our weight behind supporting them. But this would be a prime example of substituting propaganda for scholarship. In other contexts, musicologists may want to lend their names to campaigns to preserve state funding of symphony orchestras, but to censor critical scholarship for this reason is a betrayal of every principle upon which rational investigation is based.

There are many ways in which legitimate criticisms can be made of a whole range of musicological work (some of which I intend to consider in some later posts on here); I personally would identify excessive use of jargon, sometimes to mask a paucity of any more incisive argument, and simply the production of work which seems intended primarily to satisfy a few other like-minded academics in a particular sub-field, with no real interest in whether it might have any wider impact. But the alternative to this is not simply for musicologists to line up to write what practising musicians want them to, and sacrifice any independent perspective in the process.

Musicology should be properly valued as an independent discipline which enhances understanding of music, the role of music in different societies and cultures, approaches to performance, modes of listening, and much else. These ends are not served by its inhabiting a subservient position relative to practical music-making and producing material more akin to that one might expect from composers’ publishers or musicians’ agents. And the study of music can be an enhancing experience for a great many people, regardless of whether they go on to practise it professionally.