Why Public Musicology Matters

In recent years, musicologists have increasingly called for their fellow academics to take up the mantle of “public musicology.” The strange implication of the phrase is that there might be some kind of “private musicology” out there, perhaps the analysis of Beethoven sketches conducted in one’s boudoir.

But what the term more broadly suggests is the desire for music scholars to reach out beyond the academy, to connect with audiences that are not found in our seminar rooms and lecture halls, and with readers who are not fluent in the heady prose of dissertations. Our field’s typical venues – the peer-reviewed journal, the college classroom – are vital and necessary homes for our work. But what does it mean to try to convey the message of our research to a much wider audience, such as the readership of The New York Times, or Slate or even BuzzFeed?

It’s not that crazy of an idea. The newspapers, magazines and websites that you regularly peruse are already chock-full of hot takes from writers who have earned PhDs in variegated disciplines, whether historian Jill Leopore on the death of democracy in The New Yorker, sociologist Zeynep Tufekci on the authoritarian use of technology in Wired or media studies scholar Ann Helen Petersen on the idea of millennial burnout on Buzzfeed.

When properly deployed, the breadth of musicology can make for persuasive public engagement.

Historians, economists, sociologists, even Shakespeare buffs all seem to have a relatively regular presence in the cultural discourse. Music scholars, though, don’t have such an easily definable role. In part, it’s because we’re crowded out by related fields: When NPR wants to provide an uplifting message about Beethoven, they’ll probably interview a conductor or pianist. But it’s also because our expertise is peculiar, and not fully understood – not to mention the fact that we don’t always provide the most uplifting messages. Musicologists are trained to develop a critical ear, a skepticism towards claims of music’s power or greatness and an understanding that situates those claims in particular social and political contexts. We are less propagandists for music’s inherent goodness than historians of how such “goodness” might be actually be a byproduct of, say, 19th century German nationalism.

How we look at the world – or, perhaps more accurately, hear the world – is attuned to documentary history, archival sources, score analysis and critical thinking. If that sounds a bit vague, that’s because it is: The strength of musicology as a discipline in our current moment is that it’s too capacious to easily summarize. Visit a national conference and you might hear papers on “La La Land,” Frank Sinatra fan clubs, 1990s alt-rock, Julius Eastman and the Leipzig Conservatory. 

When properly deployed, the breadth of musicology can make for persuasive public engagement. Last year, Gabrielle Cornish, a scholar of music in the Soviet Union, wrote a sharp piece for Slate that traced our current culture of auditory surveillance – our strange comfort with letting Google and Amazon listen to us in our homes via smart speakers – back to the earliest days of audio technology in the 19th century, and through the devices that Soviet authorities used to spy on their citizens during the Cold War. Reading the deeply researched, insightful and – importantly! – easily digestible piece gave me a new, historically grounded perspective on our contemporary moment. (No, I won’t be buying an Alexa.) 

Or there’s music theorist Frank Lehman, who takes meticulous notes on each motif that John Williams deploys every time he goes to see a new “Star Wars” movie. Last December, Lehman wrote a column on musical villainy in the Star Wars universe, in advance of “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker,” for The Washington Post. In fewer than 1,400 words, Lehman addressed how Williams’ brilliant use of leitmotifs lends depth to the moral quandaries of Skywalker saga while deploying precise examples from his rich scholarly catalogue of Jedi musical arcana. The best mainstream musicological writing is erudite yet accessible and, ultimately, educational.

Public musicology is ultimately an act of translating scholarship for non-academic audiences. Learning to be a good translator takes a lot of time, and a lot of work.

I’ve spent a number of years doing this kind of work myself, for mainstream outlets such as The New York Times, where I write a lot about 20th and 21st century composers, grounded in my own research on contemporary music. The writing of which I’m proudest brings musicological expertise to bear on timely cultural conversations. Back in 2016, a few days after Colin Kaepernick first refused to stand during “The Star-Spangled Banner,” I wrote a piece for The New Yorker historicizing his decision within a longer lineage of figures who had used the national anthem as a site for musical dissent. A debate was unfolding on the national stage about the anthem, but it largely omitted a discussion of the history of the song itself, from 19th century political parodies to Jimi Hendrix at Woodstock: As a musicologist, I could contribute a perspective that was otherwise absent.

Public writing often requires bending the slow-paced timescale of academic research to the quick deadlines of journalism. I wrote the Kaepernick column in only a day, but it rested on a foundation of research on “The Star-Spangled Banner” conducted by musicologists such as Mark Clague, as well as the many years I had spent honing my own voice as a writer. And scholars writing for the mainstream media inevitably discover that distilling our expertise into only a thousand words is really, really hard. One cannot simply “dumb down” one’s research; the public is smarter than that, even if they don’t speak the language of academia. Public musicology is ultimately an act of translating scholarship for non-academic audiences. Learning to be a good translator takes a lot of time, and a lot of work.

Which is why I tell graduate students that there’s no better time than now to start learning to communicate with the public. Writing articles is just one potential outlet. In a recent seminar I taught on public musicology, we looked at a range of possibilities, from an educational project that teaches history and politics through the lens of “The Star-Spangled Banner” to an online archive that provides a window into the rich world of music created by Romani people. Start a blog, start a podcast, start a YouTube channel: Be creative in how you present your research, within and without the university setting. You may soon discover that it feels really good to have a readership beyond the professors of your dissertation committee, and that it might even help your parents finally figure out what it is that you’ve been doing in school for so long. (It is important to note, though, that being a scholar-in-public comes with risks; women and scholars of color are disproportionately subjected to harassment online.)

Receiving immediate feedback – in a field that typically doles out praise in tiny doses spread out over many years – can keep your enthusiasm for your work stoked. When I publish a 50-page, peer-reviewed journal article that I’ve spent multiple years writing, a bunch of people on Facebook will comment, “Congrats, looking forward to reading!” and I’ll never hear from them again. Maybe they’ll read it, maybe they won’t. If I write a pithy column for the Times, though, some of those same people will actually read it, and tell me what they think. It makes a difference.

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Will Robin

William Robin is an assistant professor of musicology at the University of Maryland’s School of Music. His research explores how institutions structure the creation, …more 

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