What Are the 4 Main Branches of Musicology?

4 Main Branches of Musicology

Let’s admit it: We all love tapping our feet to some good music! But have you ever wondered what goes into creating those catchy beats and groovy tunes?

Well, a lot goes into making your favorite songs – from cultural influences to music evolution and current trends in music composition; creating music is no mean feat!

That’s where musicology comes in.

Musicology refers to a research-driven study of music that analyzes the culture, sociology, history, and evolution of music.

Here is another way to look at it.

Musicology is an academic study of music.

It examines music from a humanities perspective and analyses how different elements of our lives impact our music.

In the modern context, music is influenced by the above factors in addition to performance practices, artists’ approach, and the symphony of bringing different instruments together.

The result?

Beautiful tunes that mesmerize us and linger in our subconscious all day!

All of this can seem overwhelming, so don’t worry!

By the end of this blog, you will have a well-rounded music education with knowledge of different facets and branches of musicology.

So read on, and be prepared to be enlightened!

Here Are the Four Main Branches of Musicology:

Here is the truth:

Studying music goes way beyond reading musical notes, learning harmony & rhythm, or prompts for instruments.

It is deeply embedded in the study of history, culture, anthropology, sociology, philosophy, acoustics, music theory, and even cognitive science!

If you’re wondering how all of this possibly fits into the study of music, don’t be overwhelmed!

Read on to discover how the four different branches of musicology cover all this and more.

1. Ethnomusicology

Culture strongly influences our food, clothing, music, art, expression, and overall way of life.

Studying the relationship between culture and music is called ethnomusicology. It is often described as the anthropology of music.

Simply put, if anthropology is a study of how humans behave, ethnomusicology is a study of how humans make music.

Ethnomusicology is the study of world music. Hence it isn’t restricted to a particular region or language.

Some questions researchers aim to answer through ethnomusicology in a particular region, country, or time are:

  • How well does music in a region reflect its culture
  • What significance did music or musicians have in society?
  • How well did music identify with the tones of race, class, gender, marriage, sexuality, and other aspects of life?
  • Did music reflect the political or social environment?
  • Was music used to represent the nation, people, and region at the time?

In the modern context, ethnomusicologists study music in the context of war, migration, globalization, technology, poverty, media, and other facets of the modern world.

An example of ethnomusicology is the study of music during the Mughal Era in India and how the culture, socio-economic setting, and political environment around the time impacted musicians and their work.

This brings us to the question:

How do researchers undertake this study?

Read on to know.

Ethnomusicology requires the researcher to deeply immerse themselves in the culture of the place and time.

Interviews, observation, and archival research are only just the tip of the iceberg – ethnomusicologists even learn to play or sing the music they study to gain a deeper understanding.

They also live in a particular region and gain an understanding through experiences over years of observations.

After reading all of the above, there’s no denying an important observation:

Ethnomusicology is a wide discipline. It borrows from sociology, psychology, political science, and even cognitive science.

That’s right, what if we told you how musicians create music that is often driven by cognitive science?

Believe it or not, making music is driven not just by the right side responsible for creativity and art but also by the left side, which is responsible for analytical and systematic thinking.

Hence, ethnomusicologists also study the cognitive modeling of music and how cognitive abilities shape music in an era or a culture.

2. Systematic Musicology

Systematic musicology is that branch of musicology that a typical student of music can relate to most. As the name suggests, it involves studying various systems which function in music.

It involves the study of music theory, harmony, rhythm, acoustics, tempo, contours, tonality, sound studies, musical instruments, and more.

In the modern context, systematic musicology also covers computational musicology, as computers and technology play a big role in how music is created today.

Here’s something interesting about systematic musicology:

It is regarded as the branch of musicology with the widest scope. Not only does it cover aspects of music and instrument study, but it also delves into aesthetics, pedagogy, psychology, and even philosophy.

An apt example of systematic musicology is the study of the significance of the sitar in Indian classical music and how its vibratory tone adds depth to the music.

Such a study would involve diving into the harmony and rhythm of classical Indian music as well as studying the pedagogy and philosophy that is so closely intertwined with this genre.

Sounds interesting right?

Well, it only gets more intriguing.

Systematic musicology also has performed research under its umbrella. Performance research studies how different genres of music are performed, including vocal, physical, and emotional delivery of music.

Qualitative and quantitative data are collected and analyzed to understand different facets of performing music by individuals and groups.

The findings and understanding of systematic musicology, in turn, contribute to the rich repository of music theory, which is built from centuries of music study.

3. Historical Musicology

Just like every aspect of our lives, our music, too, is deeply intertwined with history.

Historical musicology is the study of this history. From composition to performance and even music criticism over time, historians study every aspect of how music has evolved.

Strangely, historical musicology, in practical terms, specifically implies the study of Western art music of the European tradition.

It is only in recent decades that musical historians, professors, and lecturers are showing their keenness to study Asian, Latin American, and African as well.

So, how do professors, musicologists, and historians study the history of music?

Let me explain.

Here are some disciplines that fall under the umbrella of historical musicology:

  • Philology or the study of languages in their oral and written forms
  • Palaeography or the study of history writing systems, historic handwriting analyses, and deciphering and dating historical manuscripts
  • Iconography or the study of the descriptions or interpretation of images
  • Historiography refers to the techniques or guidelines that historians use to study primary and secondary sources of history

Historical musicology is indeed quite expansive.

How do musicologists conduct such studies? It is no surprise that musicologists spend decades or sometimes even their entire careers in historical studies.

Surely it mustn’t be easy to gain access to and study such dense information.

Let’s find out how they do it.

Formal musicology Education: Several prestigious institutions globally offer programs to study the methods of western music, including rock, jazz, folk music, and other musical traditions and forms.

Coursework also includes the study of anthropology, sociology, history, and culture for a well-rounded understanding of the history of music.

Musicology Societies: Historians, musicologists, professors, and academicians with a common passion for historical musicology come together through seminars, conferences, and shared research.

Several societies, such as the American Musicological Society & Society of Ethnomusicology, have created a close-knit and strong community of musicologists to study and work together to take their cause forward.

Academic Press & Publishing: By writing and publishing research papers, books, and other literary works, musicologists make their work known. This helps them collaborate with other thinkers in the domain.

Formal education in musicology is available worldwide in universities in the US, UK, Europe, and India. Aside from independent research and work, musicologists also find employment in academics, research, drama & entertainment, production houses, and more.

A suitable example of historical musicology is the study of how legendary rock ‘n’ roll artists of the 1960s and 1970s developed their style of music by leveraging European traditions, parlance, and political evolution through the years.

This information can be quite overwhelming and intimidating to an average reader. But, to a musicologist, it is certainly music to the ears!

4. Music Theory

Music theory involves the study of different elements of music. As the name suggests, it largely revolves around stating, testing, questioning, and establishing theories around music creation and delivery.

A theory can include any statement, concept, or belief about music.

These theories can be made to explain the techniques used by composers to create music or the different ways of music delivery for the same tune or piece of music.

So how does music theory help?

Let me explain.

Music theory is both backward-thinking and forward-looking.

It is descriptive in that it helps musicians and music enthusiasts analyze music created in the past. It is also perceptive, as it aims to guide or influence later practice.

Theories in music are created to understand the structural relationships in music.

The creation of melody, tonality, different forms of music delivery, sound effects, and various compositional elements in music are studied and analyzed as part of music theory.

Think of music theory as a well of knowledge – it studies the music of the past and aims to serve as a guiding light to future musicians.

Different research papers written on the impact of slavery on the sound effects, delivery, and melody in African music are great examples of what music theory is and how it analyzes the past to aid the future.

Musicology Is Eternal

So, there you have it.

We have discussed in detail the concept of musicology and how its four branches come together to complete the study of music.

One thing is for sure:

The study of music is way too broad to be bucketed or classified into one discipline.

Musicology overlaps with every humanities discipline ranging from sociology, psychology, anthropology, pedagogy, performance research, and so much more.

This only means one thing:

Music is deeply embedded into every aspect of our lives.

But hey, no one’s complaining!

Please share your thoughts on musicology by leaving a comment below and tell us what you think of this ever-evolving and wide study area.

1 comment

  • gorilla grip

    This was very helpful you saved me so much time on an assignment.

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