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“New Musicology”, Music Education and Music Therapy

Even Ruud, University of Oslo

Editor’s note:

This paper was originally presented as a keynote at the 13th Nordic Congress of Musicology, Aarhus University, Denmark, August 15-10, 2000. The text is published with kind permission from the author and the organisers of the conference. A revised version of the paper will be included in the conference proceedings that according to the plan will be printed in the spring 2001.

|Introduction| |Musicology and the Fundamental Attribution Failure| |Interfaces| |Towards a Critical Music Education| |Analysis and Music Therapy|  |Literature|


I have been invited to speak at this conference from the position of a music educator and a music therapist – or as a musicologist navigating across the margins of musicology for the last twenty years doing research in media and popular music (music video studies), music and youth culture (musical ethnography among rock bands), qualitative research on the formation of musical identity through memory work, as well as various theoretical studies in music therapy and music education.

In preparing for this conference I have been somewhat confused about my role or identity, speaking in front of musicologists as well as a panel of music therapists and music educators. The challenge has been to sort out or to see some common themes among these various groups. Looking back upon the years I have been working within the field of musicology, (which I probably have done, since I hold a position at the Department of Musicology at the University of Oslo), I have been given many opportunities to speak to music therapists and music educators, or to youth researchers and popular music researchers – seldom to music historians or analysts. Surely an occasion such as this is an opportunity to start dialoguing with “musicologists proper”. – But do we really share any common problems?

What we have seen during the last decades in Nordic musicology is a splitting up of musicology into several arenas. At one time I was active in four different networks – one for popular music, one for music anthropology, another network for music educators and not least a fourth for music therapists. All these groups have recently become increasingly numerous in many departments and music academies. If we look at the music educators, they probably initiated most doctoral programs the last years, the growth in new professorships and doctoral students may soon outnumber “traditional musicology”. Music therapy has established a very successful international doctoral program in Aalborg, and many of the new positions in musicology have been taken place within music anthropology and popular music. Throughout these networks there has been a feeling that traditional historical-analytic musicology has had little to offer. Instead there has been an interdisciplinary drive towards cultural studies, media and literary theory, social sciences, educational theory, psychological or medical theory, anthropology and so on.

At the same time, there has been a gradual change in musicology itself. Music anthropology, feminist studies, cultural studies and so on are about to transform musicology into “new musicology”. This seems to be the right time to ask how the different fields of musicology can come together again, to learn from each other, and to strengthen the whole field of musicology.

Before I go on, I would like to comment upon my own pre-understanding of the field of musicology. It would hardly surprise anyone who knows my paths through musicology that I embrace this recent development in musicology. Here I do not intend to repeat some of the arguments given by so many outstanding musicologists, or further the debate among participants in the text-context debate. However, I will justify my own position from the point of social psychology, urging musicologists to look into other fields of studies struggling with some of the same problems.

Musicology and the Fundamental Attribution Failure

The outstanding social psychologist Kurt Lewin once noted that lay misconceive social behavior in much the same way as earlier Aristotelian physics were understood exclusively in terms of properties or dispositions of the object: A stone sinks in water because it has the property of heaviness, or “gravity” (Ross and Nisbett, 1991: 161-62). However, in modern physics, the existence of a physical vector always depends upon the mutual relations of several physical facts, especially upon the relation of the objects to its environment. In “lay personology” people have a tendency to attribute behavior to persons rather than to situations, or to how people construe situations differently. In social psychology, this is referred to as the “fundamental or ultimate attributional error”. In much the same way “lay
musicology” (in the sense that we all are engaged in interpretation and classification of music and musical behavior) tends to misinterpret musical behavior in drawing our conclusions based upon our own interpretations of the music in question. When it comes to our understanding of how musical meanings are extracted from pieces of music, or music performed, we engage in the same game as ancient physics, overlooking contextual or construal factors as they are differently entertained by different people.

It seems to me that a lot of musicology suffers from this sort of “fundamental attributional error”, not making room or allowances for other ways of constructing musical meanings and realities. There is also a term for this in social psychology,  – “egocentric attribution”, quite often leading to phenomena as “the false consensus effect” and “overconfidence in predictions”.

If we look to one of the great controversies within the field of psychology, the so-called  “person-situation debate”, we might gain some understanding of the issues involved when we are attributing causes to people’s behavior.

In the field of personality theory, or personology, there is a strong tradition of so-called “trait psychologists” who sees personality as composed by certain more or less hereditary traits, such as “introversion”, “agreeableness”, “neuroticism”,  “openness to experience” and so on (see Pervin, 1996).

When I look at the field of musicology, some analytically or textually-oriented musicologists are in many ways similar to Aristotelian trait psychologist, who looks into the structures of music to find the aesthetically significant traits, totally ignorant of what will happen when this aesthetic reality is interpreted within a specific local situation. In many ways, the field of musicology is even more complicated than the field of psychology when it comes to the understanding of aesthetic behavior. To understand musical behavior or the experience of music, one need not only take into account the idiosyncratic interpretation of the person with a particular social, cultural or historical situation. Music itself is a kind of situation, with is particular materiality, syntax and semiotics.  We need a music-focused
musicology to describe some of the sonic differences, which give rise to our musical cognitions.  However, to understand the pragmatics of the situation, i.e. the special effects, functions or consequences of music, one has to go beyond the analysis and out into the world, into the specific situation and its concomitant experience. It might be that this is not the agenda of a lot of musicology. To my knowledge, musical analysis is often a formal game. However, seen from the perspective of music education and music therapy, the question of musical pragmatics is vital.

If music educators want to teach their students to understand how music operates in our society, how music attracts and shapes peoples and cultures, this local and situational knowledge is crucial. For the music therapists, contextual understandings are vital for any empirical understanding of how music affects our cognitions. Otherwise music therapy will have to remain stuck to a speculative tradition outlined more than two thousands years ago by gurus like Pythagoras and Damon.


In summing up some of the recent trends within the field of musicology, the British music therapist Gary Ansdell (Ansdell 1997) forefronts some of the views of music that he thinks are of particular relevance for music therapy, that is music:

  • as a process rather than a structure
  • as something intimately tied to human affect and meaning
  • as participatory and inherently social
  • as determined by culture and context
  • as performed, improvised and live as well as notated and reproduced
  • as personal, embodied and deeply human (p. 37).

These issues are in many ways part of the everyday concern of the music therapist. At the same time such a focus clearly demands a sort of musicological approach which goes beyond looking into musical scores as “autonomous organisms”. To the music therapist, the question of musical meaning is not only a question of “aesthetics”; how music affects us is a moral question, a highly pragmatic issue in the sense that we need empirical evidence rather than speculative arguments. To do musical analysis of music therapy products and processes, we need to involve the listener and performer in a direct way. What is “aesthetically significant” in music cannot be decided from a disembodied analysis, it must take into account the particular situation, the clinical as well as the cultural, as well as the particulars
in the music. Later I will return to some of the methodological issues involved in analysing music therapy music.

When it comes to music education, it is linked to musicology in two ways. First of all, musicology often presents the very subject material of music teaching. Surely when musicology changes, music educational practice may also change. In that sense, a “new musicology” has much to offer music education. In fact, I can see a whole new direction of a new “critical” music education coming from this new turn in musicology. But we could also ask if there is any use for music education as a part of musicology – or how can musicology learn from music education? Surely there is one area in particular where music education, or the didactics of music, may have something to offer musicology. This concerns the issue of music and values (See Ruud, 1996). To music educators, how music is related to values is not an academic question to be treated in isolation from the contexts of how music is presented, to whom and with what goals. Music educators are constantly observing how the value and meaning of music is negotiated in different contexts. Further, music teachers will also have to take into account what values are to be presented and to whom. In other words, values are not seen as inherent in musical objects, but as resulting from the interaction between biographies, contexts and musical processes. Thus, music is not “good” or “bad” in itself, but it obtains its value as it performs certain functions in a particular context. To quote the Århusanian philosopher Hans Fink, quality is always an adverbial phenomenon: we have to specify in what ways something has value (Fink, 1992). Classical music may have to share its values with popular music when it comes to aesthetic pleasure. Music from the classical western tradition is of course superior to popular forms of music when it comes to teaching us something about history. The use of current popular music forms are superior to classical music as it teaches a certain form of empowerment related to the formation of identity in a local cultural setting. However, empowerment, may be more than a feeling of personal worth, self-efficacy or identity. When it comes to ascertaining some ultimate goals of (music) education, that is to empower students critically and historically, it is my claim that a lot of contemporary music education has forsaken the critical potential inherent in the study of historical music. A “new musicology” may have something to teach music educators in terms of approaching music as a field of intellectual learning.

Towards a Critical Music Education

As we have seen, both the field of music education and music therapy are in many ways interwoven in the field of musicology. Perhaps music education depends more upon musicology in the sense that its subject “music” is in many ways defined within the field of musicology. For many years this seemed to be quite unproblematic – as long as the subject of teaching was classical music, and given that the goal of music education dealt with transferring values inherent in objects of historically important work. Music educators simply could leave the question of value to the music historians, take their canons and their tools of analysis, in short, their representations of history, and develop packets of information streamlined according to the developmental fit of the students. Of course this concept of music
education as a “dimension of science”, as Frede V. Nielsen has defined it (Nielsen, 1998), has had to be complemented by a “dimension of art”, an art-centred or performance centred approach. In Scandinavia, this last performance oriented approach has dominated music education, infused by theories of creativity and strongly influenced by pupil-centred ways of thinking. This has created a system of tension whereby a theoretical or musicological way of teaching music has been opposed both from performers, practitioners and educators. In this sense, music education has been transformed into a cultural critique, a critique of those forces restraining the body from its free expression, and amongst them, intellectual ways of dealing with music. The recent goal of music education is to promote some sort of inner or inborn music within the child. In this situation, history and tradition are set in opposition, threatening the free growth of musical individuality or even life forces. Musicality is constructed as inborn and/or constituted through the display rules of the idiosyncratic socio-musical contexts. As curriculum, music is linked to personal and social development, not to history or historical development. Improvisation and communication have become the new words of honour. In less than thirty years, a whole new set of cultural heroes has been implanted into the field of music education.

In this sense, a hidden therapeutic agenda has evolved in music education. There has been more of education “through music”, than “to music”, in the sense that the dialectics of these two forces has reduced music in schools to a sort of embodied musical practice. In many ways, music educators have come to claim the same territory as music therapists. Although there has always been a strong reformist tradition in our music education, this has mainly been operating in the classroom. Concurrent with the postmodern growth of identity-establishing strategies in education, through the recognition
of yet new groups of oppressed, unrecognised or marginalised identities, music education has become a form of ethno-pedagogics. Clearly, this belongs to a critical tradition in music education, although my claim is that we need to add to this project a more theoretically informed curriculum.

Music education and musicology are forever linked through their sharing of some underlying assumptions about the very nature of music, what Philip Bohlman calls the “metaphysical assumptions of music” (Bohlman, 1999). One of these assumptions, which seems to be central to music educators, and which is probably at the bottom of much musicology in the nineteenth-century tradition, is that a certain music reveals some of the secrets of the universe, and that this revelation is beyond the intellect, a truth-seeking process brought forth by forceful emotions in an encounter with the beauty in music. To claim that music should be studied because of its intellectual challenges, or because music gives knowledge about how societies work, how cultures are operating, or how people are behaving through music, seems to be a heretic thought. To reclaim music as an intellectual field of study, seems to betray the very essence of contemporary music education. Such a necessary component of a critical music education would often be opposed both from the performance oriented, bodily – based – improvised – African drumming – rhythmic- communicatively -oriented philosophy with its hidden therapeutic agenda, as well as from the aesthetic historic-analytical  “von musikalishen Schönen – musicology” – dependent music educator.

It seems to me as an observer and partaker in the development of music education  as an academic endeavor, that much  research and theorising which has gone on over the last twenty years, has moved away from sort of monolithic conception of musicology as found in the old historic-analytic discipline. Instead of fighting back any disagreement about established musical canons
of prescription about how to conceptualise music itself, music educators have moved into their own circles, often taking up the task of promoting the individual’s right to perform whatever music that supports his/her identity. In this effort, a whole repertoire of critical theory, ranging from Bourdieu to Foucault, qualitative and descriptive methods as Grounded Theory and the qualitative interview, have been utilised to clear the ground for new performance practices, new sensibilities more in contact with current media realities as well as in favour of issues related to gender, children and youth cultures. However, one could ask, what the agenda of this research is? Clearly, there is some reformative struggle, a pupil-centred, or ethnodidactic movement leading away from the earlier Western and classical ethnocentric music education. As I had said elsewhere, music educators soon will follow music therapists in becoming more interested in doing work on the personal history of the students rather than laying the ground for an expanded historical understanding. Likewise, the Eurocentric tendency is soon being replaced by a world-music-centric form of music education, where students knows more about the African djembe than our Hardanger-fiddle.

Of course I do not want to revert to a situation where the music-cultural needs of the upcoming generation are defined by some outdated authority. What I simply want to point to is that there is more to music education than to learn to perform music, or to practice music as some sort of embodied knowledge. Clearly this is important, but is it sufficient in the present state of affairs of political and cultural reality? What I want to suggest is a new turn in music education, a turn towards music as a subject which may teach us more about this reality, its cultural complexities, its ways of negotiating identities, creating boundaries between groups, forming hegemonies and counter-forces, re-installing discipline rather than liberate identities,  forging and giving expression to emotions, in short,
how discourses of the very concept of “being human” is given shape through music.

Clearly this will make necessary a whole new body of knowledge. Who is more apt to give this knowledge than musicology? This must surely not be a kind of musicology where formal analysis and the chronological order of composers, be it from classical or popular music serves the core of the curriculum. Neither would I advocate a solution through an expanded curriculum of listening examples, where blues and ragas become the new examples of forms and scales in an effort to educate the young listener. Rhetorically stated, most young people today are excellent listeners, not to say expert listeners within their own genres. If we accept that all music has equal value, that different music in its own way when consumed within their particular contexts and cosmologies, fulfils the emotional and existential needs of their respective fans, music educators need not to worry about raising the level of musical literacy. This is taken care of by the electronic industry, music industry, Internet, and entertainment
industry in general. I think we only have to trust that most people are able to navigate though this music cultural landscape as they mature intellectually and emotionally, as they move across different life-periods, social identities as well as existential crises.

Strengthening the theoretical or critical aspects of music teaching does not mean that music itself should be left out of the focus of music education. We will need a curriculum which is infused both by historical, analytical musicology as well as “new musicology”, i.e. from gender studies, cultural studies, intellectual history, not at least from an ethnographically informed musicology. In other words, we need some good case studies, where music is demonstrated to have social and political significance, cultural functions, identity-establishing value, and emotional significance beyond history and genre.

An aspect of teaching music where the “dimension of science” is upheld, perhaps needs to look closer to its ways of organising its topics, the choice of themes and focal concerns. Very often, when it comes to teaching the subject of history of music, the hidden agenda of historiographic teleology becomes the organising principle. Some reformist teachers have suggested that we start with popular music, “where the young student is” and move outwards and backwards to Gregorian chant. I suggest here that teaching music history should start from an organising theme, which teaches the student how music is related to human life, culture and the project of presenting oneself as gender and body through means of emotional expressions. Why not start off from a theme known to most youngsters: love, betrayal and melancholy!

What about making a project based upon the listening of Dowland, Monteverdi, Grieg, Led Zeppelin, some blues, as well as some current lamenting love ballad from the latest top-forty. Their task could be to help identify modes of expression, convention of lamenting and dealing with love-sickness across ages. How is melancholy expressed musically and textually? What prevailing views of melancholy and depression do we find in different cultures – from Marcilio Ficino’s Three Books of Life, Robert Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholia (1632), and Julia Kristeva’s Black Sun, to current medical manuals like WHO ICD 10. How is this theme related to visual arts? What is the gender difference? How are males allowed to express and transcends their sorrows through music while women, at least historically, were advised to marry? How does different female artists deal with the problem in contemporary popular music? Do they stand up or are they passively accepting their situation? What is the difference in sentiment in voice between the hard-rock ballad, teeny-bop tune and a performance of Monteverdi in an early performance style? How is this differently expressed in music itself or how are various musical parameters used to connote differences in the conception of, and dealings with the emotion of being betrayed? In other words, how does music, or the performance of music reflect different cultural values, philosophical and medical ideas of the times, conceptions of expressivity and so on imprinted upon the voice and the genre in question? (For details, see  Austern, 2000)

Maybe this project is more suited to university level, constructed as it is to meet the demands of this particular presentation. Clearly, this case is also presented to demonstrate how music therapy, more specifically conceptions of human ailments from Marsilius Ficino’s neo-Platonic world view and Burton’s 1700-century treatise of melancholia, to present day feminist informed discourses on the female voice, may interact with the project of musicology in general. Perhaps even more marginal to musicology than music education, historical research in music therapy is taken up by historians and anthropologists as well as musicologists and researchers in intellectual history (see Gouk, 2000; Horden, 2000). The history of music therapy is currently being recognised as one of the many small narratives, a neglected but highly present historical strand.

This new intervention of a whole new group of academic scholars, that is non-music therapy professionals, will also make necessary that the field of orthodox music therapy start interacting with a broader academic community. This has two implications. Firstly, as I remarked earlier it will be recognised that music therapy has already been a truly practiced field of “new musicology”. Secondly, music therapists will have to make explicit the cultural, ideological or contextual frames wherein they are operating (see Ruud, 1998).

Analysis and Music Therapy

Music therapy and musicology share a common ground in musical analysis. However, their agenda might be totally different, music therapy will need ways of analysing music in order to approach the questions of “how music works” in therapy. It is openly recognised in the field of music therapy that there has been a neglect of musical analysis. Music therapists often resort to clinical theory and evidence when they are describing the effects of music. Or, they fall back on generalised explanations about the “universal character” of music, the symbolic or metaphorical potential of music, its
communicative potential and so on. Only a few music therapists have taken the trouble to probe into detailed analysis of formal characteristics of music as it can be observed, notated or recorded during the therapeutic process. At the same time there is a proliferation of explanations given general therapeutic potential to certain intervals, scales, tempi, and so on.

Before I proceed with this discussion it is necessary to make a note on the current situation within music therapy.  I find it necessary to make a distinction between the more orthodox, or scientifically inclined music therapy and the more speculative, “new age” trends which are unfortunately more known to the media. Music therapy, as a modern health profession, is a highly complex endeavour, tightly interwoven into psychology, special education, psychotherapy and medicine. This means that it is almost impossible to give a short description of all the client groups and the methods involved in contemporary music therapeutical practice.  When it comes to musical approaches, music therapists use methods such as song writing, composing and performing, listening to all kinds of music, improvisation as well as partaking in communal music making such as singing, dancing or recreational music making. One of the reasons why music therapists neglect analysing the music, may well be that in many instances, music making and therapeutic intervention are not separable. Sometimes it does not make sense separating the therapeutic intervention from the musical intervention. In many cases, the depth of intervention, or the “level of therapy”, may not qualify for deeper analysis. Music may be solely regarded as a social frame, a activity of doing something together, a means of increasing self-efficacy, a way of doing reminiscence, a signal for a response, a structure for interaction and so on. In these cases, when music is more like a means of therapy, we speak of “music in therapy”. (I do not claim that the final word about the role, function or nature of music in these situations has been said – but I would argue that a more explicit contextual, ethnographic or clinical explanation has to be added or given focal concern.) In general, I would advocate situational explanations, rather than broad general explanations of how music contribute to the therapeutic potential of the situation.

It is in those cases where the level of music therapeutical work goes further, where therapeutic changes depends to a large extent on music itself, where music therapists speak of “music as therapy”, (se Bruscia, 1987) we might be interested in understanding how particular instances of music have effected a significant change in the course of action. This is of course an extremely complicated task of musico-ecological research. Firstly we need to establish some kind of correlation between the stream of music and the moments of therapeutic significance. How to validate the latter is in itself a major methodological problem, which has to be recorded and intersubjectively interpreted by behavioral observation of the client, or given significance as reported verbally by the client him/herself. Given
the case that we have selected some instances of music being influential in some way or another upon the client, we have at least somewhere to start. If our choice of departure is a notated transcription of the improvisation, or the score of the music (these of course are not two identical situations), we can attempt to analyse the music.

But what do we look for? Thematic unity, tempo changes, texture, dialogic patterns, changes in complexity, melodic or thematic characteristics? I would guess that everything is legio, according to the character of the piece in question. However, a particular problem seems more crucial to this kind of analysis than to the musicologist’s concern: To what extent can we expect a correspondence between the music as heard or notated and the experience as it occurred for the client? Is it possible to translate from the analysis to the experience? Even if it were, is it possible to generalise anything about the effects of music beyond this particular situation?

I would think that the problem of over-interpretation is serious. This does not mean I find this kind of analysis useless, I would rather hesitate to make any general claims about the relations between formal characteristics of music, or changes therein, and possible mental reactions. This because the very effects of music have to be understood within a context where identities of those doing music therapy as well as their instruments and technologies are a part of the transaction which gives rise to certain effects. Further, in the process of “conceptualising the non-verbal” (Gouk, 2000a), we have to take into account the nature of the language and metaphors being applied in the analysis. Together this places great demand on the capacity for self-reflexivity (see also Ruud, 1998).

Although the purpose of analysis in music therapy is to make explicit how music or musical processes contribute to the therapeutic interventions, we see how this activity may be linked to some of the issues in the “new musicology”, as outlined by Gary Ansdell. If musicology is concerned about music as something intimately tied to human affect and meaning, or how musical meaning is of a participatory nature and inherently social, cultural and contextual, than music therapy may have a lot to offer musicologists in broadening their understanding of how music is personal, embodied and deeply human.


Ansdell, Gary (1997). “Musical Elaborations. What has the New Musicology to say to music therapy?”, in British Journal of Music Therapy, Vol. 11, no 2, pp. 36 – 44.

Austern, Linda Phyllis (2000). “‘No pills’s gonna cure my ill’: gender, erotic melancholy and traditions of musical healing in the modern West”, in  Penelope Gouk (ed.) Musical Healing in Cultural Contexts. Aldershot: Ashgate, pp. 113 – 136.

Bohlman, Philip V (1999). “Ontologies of Music”, in Nicholas Cook and Mark Everest (eds.). Rethinking Music. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Bruscia, Kenneth E. (1987). Improvisational Models of Music Therapy. Springfield, IL: Charles C. Thomas Publisher.

Bruscia, Kenneth E. (1998). Defining Music Therapy. Second Edition. Gilsum, NH: Barcelona Publishers.

Fink, Hans (1992). “Når verdidommen faller”, in Karin Gundersen and Ståle Wikshåland (eds.) EST III Kunst og erkjennelse. Grunnlagsproblemer i estetisk forskning. Oslo:NAVF.

Gouk, Penelope (2000a). “Introduction”, in Gouk, Penelope (ed.) Musical Healing in Cultural Contexts. Aldershot: Ashgate.

Gouk, Penelope (ed.) (2000). Musical Healing in Cultural Contexts. Aldershot: Ashgate.

Horden, Peregrine (ed.) 2000. Music as Medicine. The History of Music Therapy since Antiquity. Aldershot: Ashgate.

Nielsen, Frede V. (1998). Almen musikpædagogik. København: Akademisk forlag.

Pervine, Lawrence A. (1996). The Science of Personality. New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Ross, Lee and Richard E. Nisbett (1991). The Person and the Situation. Perspectives of Social Psychology. New York: McGraw-Hill, Inc.

Ruud, Even (1996). Musikk og verdier. Oslo: Universitetsforlaget.

Ruud, Even (1998). Music Therapy: Improvisation, Communication and Culture. Gilsum, NH: Barcelona Publishers.

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