What, If Anything, Can the Study of Popular Music Contribute to Musicology

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Joseph Kerman, in his 1985 book Musicology, stated that musicology had "come to mean the study of the history of Western music in the high-art tradition…musicology is perceived as dealing essentially with the factual, the documentary, the verifiable, the analysable, the positivistic." Richard Middleton defines musicology as "the scientific study of music." Nicholas Cook, in his article What is Musicology?, claims that musicology "is all about the knowledge that underlies the enjoyment of music."

Traditionally, being a ‘musicologist' has come to mean an academic who studies and writes about music from the Western high-art tradition.

Popular music, traditionally, has not been studied by musicologists. Alastair Williams, in his book Constructing Musicology, said this ignorance occurred because "an overtly socialized medium appeared trivial alongside music making claims to autonomy."

Both contemptuous and condescending musicologists are looking for
types of production, musical form, and listening which they associate
with a different kind of music – let us call it ‘classical music' for now -and they generally find popular music lacking.

Indeed, it is claimed by some that popular music is not worth of such close analytical consideration. There is no ingrained musicological tradition for the study of popular music.

Theoretically informed musicology understands both art and popular
musics as social constructions. Nevertheless, the study of popular
music raises specific issues, the most obvious being the absence of a
musicological tradition to build on.
An absence of a popular musicological tradition led to traditional musicologists using traditional musicological methods in the analysis of popular music. Richard Middleton, in Studying Popular Music, thought there were three main aspects to this problem.

The bundle of methods, assumptions and ideologies which came to
constitute ‘mainstream musicology' in the later nineteenth and the
twentieth centuries renders it a less than useful resource in many ways.

The first aspect that Middleton thought unsatisfactory was the terminology used by musicologists when studying music.

The terminology used when analysing art music was applied to analyses of popular music. These terms had been used in musicology for a long period of time and had been utilised and re-evaluated as the musicological tradition grew, the terms and vocabulary becoming the mainstay in musicological research. Often the terminology used is not relevant to popular music.

Middleton felt the terminology used was slanted by the needs and history of a particular type of music, namely the European tradition, or canon, that musicologists studied. He claimed that there was a rich vocabulary for certain areas that were important in musicology's typical corpus, such as harmony, tonality, part-writing and form. However, there were less developed areas of vocabulary which were less developed in traditional musicology but important in popular music, such as rhythm, pitch nuance, graduation outside of the diatonic and chromatic system and timbre.

Middleton also felt that terms used in musicology and music analysis were ideologically loaded. The terms ‘dissonance' and ‘resolution' for example suggested harmonic procedures akin to traditional functional harmony and were associated with certain technical procedures and emotive links. ‘Motive' brings to mind the techniques of Classical composers, not the use of a riff in a pop song. Terms such as ‘accidental', ‘third' and ‘fifth' are again associated with functional tonal harmony, implying precedence to certain notes above others; and ‘syncopation' implies rebellion from the rhythmic norm which is certainly not appropriate in some popular music where syncopation is in fact the norm.

These connotations are ideological because they always involve
selective, and often unconsciously formulated, conceptions of what...
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