The vanishing discipline: the threat to musicology

Hewett, I. (2021) The vanishing discipline: the threat to musicology. Search: Journal for New Music and Culture, 12 pp. 1-17.


In recent decades the familiar discourse of musicology has been subject to profound upheaval, as the discipline has welcomed influences from literary studies, feminism, sociology, and a variety of hard sciences, to name just a few. A key moment in this process was the publication in 1985 of Joseph Kerman’s Contemplating Music, which launched the movement known as New Musicology, among whose leading lights were Ruth Solie, Susan McClary and Philip Brett, among others. Each of these has imported into musicology its own discourse, its own norms of argumentation, its own conception of what counts as evidence, its own set of values – though given that these were themselves contested within each discipline, this process was bound to be uncertain and partial. These different discourses do not always live in amity under the sheltering umbrella of musicology. On the contrary, one can perceive a tendency among some of them to reconfigure and redefine the subject matter of musicology in their own terms, a tendency which, if allowed to proceed unchallenged, risks robbing the traditional discipline of musicology of its intellectual autonomy. This paper uncovers this tendency in two influential texts, which arise out of two different sorts of discourse. One of them (Cook & Clarke, 2004), asserts the desirability of a hard science discourse, the other (Born, 2010) calls for a realignment of musicology along sociological and anthropological lines. I argue that both forms of discourse essentially reduce musicology to a secondary discipline, granted value only to the extent that it is willing to ape the discourse of others, and that the old form of musicology embodied a particular musical form of knowledge of its subject matter for which the new discourses can never be an adequate substitute.

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