ArticlesNo. 102, Spring 2018: Sounding the Break: Music Studies and the Political

The Musicological Elite


Musicologists have been gripped by the desire to democratize, diversify, decolonize, and popularize their discipline. Driven by a growing moral demand to challenge the Eurocentric, heteronormative, exclusionary, colonial, settler colonial, non-diverse, and white supremacist legacies of  a discipline plagued by its rootedness in European classical musical traditions, they have recently accelerated their efforts to expand the traditional canon, reform curriculum, and explore new mediums for the dissemination of ideas (for example, “popular” internet blogs over expensive academic monographs). In spring 2017, the Department of Music at Harvard University symbolically led the charge in this effort by announcing they would no longer require music theory and other courses, but rather ask students to pick “no more than two” of each type of course in their program, design their study plan with the Director of Undergraduate Studies, and include a rationale that outlines their path through the major. The only requirements left are the “Concentration Tutorials” that include courses on “Thinking about Music” and “Critical Listening.”[1] Harvard Professors stressed that this change would create more “flexible pathways” through their program, eliminate the class-based implicit requirements to enter it, and, most importantly, allow for a greater diversity of students and student interests.[2] Reactions to these plans on social media have been vehement and fiercely divided.[3]

That the standard curriculum in musicology programs has become an open wound or festering reminder of the labor injustice, class division, exclusions, structures of white supremacy, and inequality in the discipline became apparent again in October 2017, when an acrimonious debate, this time about eliminating the language requirements in musicology programs, erupted on the listserv of the American Musicological Society. A small, selective group of vocal subscribers posted a range of reasons    to keep the language requirements. They argued that learning languages (primarily German and French) was crucial to being able to read primary and secondary musicological sources, useful on the job market, generally worthwhile, and necessary to being able to translate. They thought language exams should remain required because they always had been. Opponents stressed that it no longer made sense to learn primarily German or French and that there were problems of access to language courses. The language requirements raised labor issues, they wrote. Some argued that the exams themselves failed to assure competency and fluency anyway. We are living in an age critical of the neoliberal individual’s need to master all tools of the trade, one contributor wrote, and today we can ask colleagues to help us. Finally, some felt more flexibility was needed to meet students with diverse needs. For days the AMS musicological community was held hostage to an excruciating chat marked by bouts of cynicism, obstinacy, the numbness of unacknowledged privilege, self-righteousness, heartfelt confession, careful analysis, and cogent critique, as well as momentary celebrations of self-experience, a lack of appreciation for each other’s views, and a practice of talking past each other that created a cocktail so explosive it precipitated the closure of that listserv.[4] Related discussions about changing the traditional music history survey in departments around the country have been characterized by similar ideological disagreement and intransigence.

In contrast to the tension that marks discussions of curriculum and language debates online, a much more optimistic attitude and sense of accomplishment has tended to accompany recent efforts to democratize musicology by utilizing alternative media, circumstances, and writing modes to reach out to new and more diverse publics. “Public musicology” appears a less disputed solution than curriculum change to the problem of musicology’s exclusionary elitism, the move outward seemingly smoother than any attempt at internal change. This may be because public musicology has taken on the allure of a social justice project. More departments across the country are now offering courses in public musicology, the American Musicological Society maintains a lively, dedicated blog, and conference presentations on the subject abound.[5] Westminster Choir College has also become the first school in North America to offer a Master of Music program in “American and Public Musicology.”

Yet recent efforts to expand the canon, reform curriculum, and make musicology public fall short in the project of decolonizing the discipline, in spite of their many obvious merits. One reason is that such actions address only one of the three core elements of the “coloniality of power” as theorized by Aníbal Quijano, Ramón Grosfoguel, and others.[6] Whereas musicologists have gradually begun working toward decentering what Grosfoguel (2002) calls the “hegemonic Eurocentric epistemologies in the modern/ colonial world-system” (205), they have tended to neglect systemic racialized power relations and the capitalist distribution of labor. Their impulse to bracket out material circumstances stems in part from their tendency to envision their discipline within the context of the “history of ideas,” or as dedicated to investigating the formal properties of music alone, rather than in terms of its institutional history as an academic profession. This situation is exacerbated by the fact that there is still very little research on the US history of musicology—a blind spot that weakens attempts to decolonize the discipline in that country.

In this article, I seek to rectify this situation by describing in detail how a small group of music scholars initiated the professionalization of musicology in the United States in the 1930s (or, more specifically, from 1929–1939). I choose to begin my story in the year in which the American Council of Learned Societies first took an interest in establishing musicology as a profession in the United States, and to end it in the year in which the AMS organized its first international conference—an event I consider something of a turning point. I have developed my historiographic approach in this article in response to Jo Guldi’s and David Armitage’s The History Manifesto (2014), which rejects microhistory (to which I have been partial in my work) in favor of a return to the Annales school’s notion of the longue durée. Guldi and Armitage suggest making long-term arguments— or telling stories of longer duration—by building upon microhistorical studies “of particular turning-points and watersheds in history, moments of revolution that destabilized institutions, climates, and societies” (2014, 36).[7] Enticed by this possibility, I am currently envisioning a history of the AMS based on microhistories of turning points, which will include the birth of the society (that I address in this article), the first international conference in 1939, the founding of JAMS in 1947, the annual meeting in 1961, the student revolutions in 1968, and the New Musicology.

I have structured this article to reflect how professions are formed, basing my approach on classic sociological texts. In 1964, Harold L. Wilensky argued that the job of the professional was based on 1) “systematic knowledge or doctrine acquired only through long prescribed training” (what he called its “technical” aspect, with its emphasis on the aura of mystery around knowledge); and 2) a set of “professional norms,” which include service ideals and codes of ethics (138). Professionalization occurred, Wilensky claimed, when people started doing full-time something that needed doing, leading to the establishment of training and professional associations. Those developments were generally accompanied by a “campaign to separate the competent from the incompetent” that included the self-conscious definition of tasks, the “contest between home guard” and “newcomers,” competition with neighboring occupations, political agitation to gain the support of the law, and so on (144–45). In her presidential address to the North Central Sociological Association in 1975, Marie R. Haug juxtaposed Wilensky’s view with that of Philip Elliot (1972), who argued from a historic perspective that status had preceded other professional attributes in Great Britain, leading to what he called the “status professional.” If status and autonomy came before the acquisition of esoteric knowledge, Haug concluded, then “exclusive knowledge and humanitarian claims can be conceptualized as rationalizations developed to preserve antecedent privileges and powers” (1975, 199).

By clarifying the foundations of US musicology as a profession, I will expose how the contemporary musicological elite wields its power to dominate and exclude. I will consider in this article how and in what geopolitical context early US musicologists determined their object of study and professional norms, established the rules that distinguished them from the public as an intellectual elite, carved out their territory in competition with other subdisciplines, negotiated with the patrons and institutions that financially supported their labor, and promoted their status and prestige.[8] I trace how musicologists consolidated this elite position through their daily actions, documented meticulously in minutes of meetings. This exploration of the unspectacular will provide, I hope, insight into the often-overlooked but crucial difference between bureaucratic decision making (motions!) and conceptual thinking (historiographic or aesthetic choice) in the formation of scholarly disciplines. My analysis will show that musicology as a profession developed in a particular way in the United States that is different from how it developed in countries like Germany and Austria. In spite of a persistent myth to the contrary, its origins were not Austro-German but rather “international.” I will not provide in this article a comprehensive history of the profession of musicology in the United States, and I warn against drawing sweeping conclusions for the present from the early history I present. Instead, at the end of this article, I will return to the current debates about curriculum change, language exams, and public musicology, and reexamine them there through the lens of the history I have told. In this way I hope to show how minute archival analysis, even of a small moment in the history of the discipline, can reorient perceptions and conceptual frames and provide the firm material ground needed for decolonization.


  1. See the Harvard Music Department’s web pages: and See also Valia Leiper (2018). Harvard was not the first university to make such changes, but their actions received the most public attention. I am grateful to Alex Rehding for his clarification of this curriculum in an email to me dated April 23, 2018.
  2. See, for example, Professors Alexander Rehding, Suzannah Clark, and Anne Shreffler, quoted in Robin (2017).
  3. See, for a small sampling, the discussions on:;; and (Ian Pace). Composer John Adams caught the most attention, and polarized the discussion, by rejecting the new requirements on Twitter.
  4. Although the AMS-list was scheduled to shut down in fall 2017, it is still One can become a member at: As far as I know, the AMS-list debate about language requirements was not archived publically.
  5. William Robin gives an excellent bibliography of recent online discussions and significant secondary literature on public musicology in a syllabus for a course he taught in the School of Music at the University of Maryland in spring 2017: https://willrobin251824868.
  6. I discuss the coloniality of power in “Decolonizing the Society for American Music” (Levitz 2017). See also the bibliography included in that
  7. I am grateful to Brigid Cohen for introducing me to this
  8. My understanding of the musicological elite’s expertise is shaped by my conversations and collaborations with Benjamin Court, whose work on amateurism inspired me in thinking about this topic, and taught me so much. See Court (2017).

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