Musicologists in the Making?

I mentioned in a comment not too long ago that an apt subtitle for Taruskin’s Oxford History of Western Music would be  And How it Got that Way. Taruskin consistently presents not only the history at hand, but also the story behind how the history was constructed. Elijah Wald recently put it succinctly: “Any history is a reflection of at least two periods—when the events happened and when one is writing—and also of the writer’s personal experience.”* And Taruskin’s is no exception. Take for instance his attention to the volatile changes in Josquin scholarship since the inception of modern musicology (the Josquin legend, biography, the minefield of style dating; Vol. I, 547-584). This is something we expect to get extended space in the pages of The Journal of the American Musicological Society, not a general history of music. That he insists on these types of inclusions—and they are frequent—reflects Taruskin’s concern with outing unconscious philosophical blunders and a self-consciousness about the shifty nature of our historical understanding. Further, it reflects the presence of these issues in the larger community of today’s musicologists.

But I don’t want to get into the philosophy of it right now. Instead, I have been thinking about what byproducts this practice of including the “story behind the history” might have on student readers of the OHWM. There are many possibilities, but I would like to ask the readership’s opinion about a specific one: Do you think that this inclusion will create more interest in the discipline of musicology among student readers?

I’m imagining the typical undergraduate music major, who sees learning about ancient music from a bunch of dead composers as barely more fun than the swine flu—or maybe not even that, given the number of absences in class this term. Would it be more intriguing to students if music history was less of a set number of dates and facts, and more of a living, breathing animal that may bite your hand at any moment?

What if, on an undergraduate music history exam, the student had a short answer question on how Lowinsky and Noblitt affected our understanding of the historical importance of “Ave maria…virgo serena”? What if the student had more of a conscious understanding that history is being better understood every day, and that they could be a part of it?

Taruskin’s is not the first history to include the story behind the history, though I might argue that it is the first to do so on such a pervasive, ground level, and on such a grand scale. And I am eager to hear feedback on the effects this might have on potential readers. Will this have any effect on interest in musicology as a discipline?

I need your opinion. Are you a teacher who has included “the story behind the history” in your lectures? Have you noticed any effects on interest in musicology? Are you a student who would appreciate this type of information? Do you think this idea is totally bogus? Click on that comments button and let us know.

* Elijah Wald, How the Beatles Destroyed Rock ‘n’ Roll (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), 7).


  1. Excellent question.

    I’d be curious to know how the OHWM is being used in undergrad music courses around the world right now: Are individual chapters being assigned to supplement course readings? Are separate volumes being used AS class textbooks (Vol. III, say, for a Romantic Music survey)? Or is the set primarily a reference volume in the college library?

    It goes without saying that how the OHWM is used will determine how influential it is in changing students’ perspectives and perhaps turning them on to the discipline. And it seems that this question – who exactly is reading the OHWM and in what ways? – is still very murkily understood. Some of the criticism of the book speaks directly to this ambiguity: is it for grad students with a background in musicology? Is it for undergrads? Curious neophytes? Taruskin has been blasted for grazing over certain issues while allowing long, technical detours for others. It’s tough to say who exactly is reading the book, just as it’s hard to pin down who Taruskin was writing it for.

    I have yet to embark on the adventure of TA-ing as I move down my doctoral path, but I’d suspect that you’re right. If the OHWM is the main source for an undergrad history survey, students will be given a primer in musicology and the philosophy of music, areas of thought many undergrads don’t even know exist. I wish that I had that experience as an undergrad – like most people, I had to come to musicology through JAMS articles, not a comprehensive music history text.

    It will be interesting to see what becomes of the rumored single-volume textbook version of the OHWM. I’m afraid that in any abridgment of so vast a text, the titillating side discussions of aesthetics, philosophy, musicological method, historiography, etc. (some of the favorite topics on this blog, coincidentally) will be pruned in favor of more concrete history (ie. Who was Josquin? What did he write? What does it sound like? Why is he important?). You could make the argument that all of these questions need the rich musicological background issues in order to be fully explored, but it’s not the purpose of an history textbook to dig too deeply into any one thing. The revelation of the OHWM is that, in its sheer scope, it grants the reader both breadth and depth. The abridged version will not be so broad, and this is the version that is likely to make the most impact on undergraduates.

    Running with your idea, ideally, the publisher would release two separate abridged versions of the OHWM: “The Oxford History of Western Music” and “How the History of Western Music Got That Way.” The former would be a condensed history, nothing but the facts, ma’am; the latter would be a musicological “story behind the history.” Now, if undergrads were exposed to this second abridged volume combined with a passionate teacher, I definitely think we’d have more young musicologists lining up to get into the field.

  2. Speaking from a music theory perspective, I do challenge my students by presenting to them the historical contexts behind the various harmonic elements that I teach them, as well as the multiple views and interpretations of these elements that theorists have had throughout history. Not only does this seem to really engage their interest in what is all too often a boring and unpopular subject for music majors, but it also encourages them to really think about WHY they interpret the music that they listen to and perform the way that they do, making them more independent and thoughtful musicians than the traditional dry, facts-only approach.

  3. I haven’t taught undergrads (except as a TA), but I have taught a Grad History Review sequence where I used OHWM for supplementary materials that weren’t being given attention or detail in the course text. For example, RT has a passage making the chanson-canzona connection concrete and dealing with Venice’s uniqueness as a musical milieu by comparison with the rest of the Holy Roman Empire which I enjoyed using.

    I don’t tend to make the “How we got there” connections in class because I’m so protective of the amount of class time I have, and so painfully aware of how much cool stuff doesn’t get on a syllabus. But I might now after thinking about this post. It seems valuable to get those ideas into the students heads: history is fluid; you and I make history as much as some old white guy who wrote a book (the implicit provenance of all textbooks); historiography brings up a lot of interesting questions about who is canonized in texts and why.

  4. Thanks for the comments.

    Zach, you anticipated my very thought: if this text were to be slimmed down to one volume, would this type of material be the first to go? That would be the traditional choice. But one of the reasons Taruskin’s text is unique and of the moment is the way he brings modern musicology and historiography to the fore. If that is lost, I fear that the OHWM could become just another standard textbook.

    Nathan, bravo for getting your students to think about these things!

    Jason, you also hit upon one of the major practical roadblocks in this whole discussion: time. There is never enough. But it might be easier to drop some of these disciplinary nuggets in lecture if the setup was already in the text. We could let Taruskin cover all the details, and tell the narrative in his dramatic way, then harness it in lecture and bring home the point.

  5. Exactly! I’ve never been a fan of slavishly following the textbook–I expect the text I choose to be one major source of learning for my students, my lectures to be another source, and extra readings/listenings/assignments to be even more supplemental. I’m more interested in teaching my students HOW to think about music than merely WHAT to think about music (after all, in today’s information tech society, it’s very easy to look up precise dates etc. at any time–knowing what all this stuff MEANS and how it could affect their contemporary musical careers is another beast entirely). Make the students come to class having read the text, start off by taking questions/comments about the reading, then build upon it by bringing in your take or sharing the ideas of others in the field or annals of history.

  6. As someone who was an undergrad until very recently, I think that these issues definitely have the potential to enliven undergraduate history courses, particularly in pre-Baroque history, when so many students can be hesitant to engage in music that they don’t see as especially relevant. I have also found that many of my former classmates don’t have a sense of what musicologists DO (when I say I am going to graduate school for musicology, I get a lot of “Oh. So you’re going to teach history then?) and Taruskin’s account of Lowinsky and Noblitt manages to cover that nicely, while still imparting useful historical information about Josquin.

  7. Meghan—Thanks for your thoughts. I agree that these issues might have special potential for particularly “far back” periods in history. It hopefully makes the point that understanding of history is constantly being (re)formed, and that perhaps there is work left to be done. And best of luck as you embark on the grad school journey!

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