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Contextual Musicology: books and resources

This is a section that deals with musicology books, which do not focus only on music directly, but music in connection to other topics and subjects. The term contextual musicology I thought suitable, although it’s not really an established one. Music has been studied in relation to all kinds of fascinating areas, including politics, feminism and homosexuality. In what ways does music matter to us and the society we live in? Why do we even need to study it? Those are some of the central questions that scholars of musicology tries to answer.

This section is divided into the following subsections:

Music and Society | Ethnomusicology | Music and Politics | Music and Gender | Popular Music Studies

Music and Society

It is the opinion of most modern musicologists that music does not exist in total isolation from society. In many cultures, there isn’t even a word for “music”, as it is seen as something so integrated with the contexts in which it takes place, so that it is in no way distinguished from them. Moreover, social forces have always affected the production, distribution and reception of music. Of course, there are numerous works of literature, which seek to understand and explain the connections between music and society.


This topic can be quite close to the above, but deals more with studies of music in specific cultures, other than Western ones. There are many questions and controversies concerning ethnomusicology. Can we really understand what role music plays in distinctly different cultures simply by studying them? Are we not, as outsiders, biased in a way that cannot easily be changed? No matter what, ethnomusicology is a very intriguing topic.

Music and Politics

Many people, and even some musicologists, tend to want to keep music and politics separated. “Music is independent from all that”, is a rather common view. Often, we do not think about how music – even classical instrumental music – can reflect strongly political concepts and phenomena. However, there are also works that aim to illustrate that music is in fact not political at all. In this subsection, all relevant books, no matter the author’s viewpoint, are listed.

Music and Gender

musicology books feminine endings mcclaryThe connection between music and gender was not a much-discussed topic within the musicology world before the beginning of the 90s, when the musicologist Susan McClary published her famous book “Feminine Endings”. The book aims to illustrate how music has always been intrinsically masculine. Could this be why there are so few established female composers in practically any music genre?

Music and gender is also, of course, a controversial topic. It often deals with questions that most people without further thinking would consider ridiculous, because they do not conform to their inherent views of how music is or is supposed to be.

Popular Music Studies

This subcategory partly belongs in the section dealing with different music genres. However, studies revolving around popular music are often focused on context rather than the music itself; music in relation to the industry, music in relation to media, music in relation to political movements.

Books on musicology in general

There are some books, which treat musicology in general:

Musicology: The Key Concepts

musicology the key concepts david beard and kenneth gloagI am quite convinced that there are no better introduction to the different concepts of musicology than that of David Beard and Kenneth Gloag. Not only does it contain detailed outlines of such concepts as autonomy, discourse, gender, hermeneutics, intertextuality, new musicology, postmodernism and structuralism; but it also gives hundreds of references to the relevant works associated with these concepts (extremely helpful if you are writing an undergraduate essay). I chose to rely heavily on this book for my last essay in contextual musicology during my first year at University. It felt very easy to find good sources for the essay, and the mark I received was the strongest of the year for that particular assignment.

Musicology: The Key Concepts has yet to receive a rating lower than 5 / 5 at Amazon ( 7 votes), so it is a very popular publication indeed. It might actually be the best book you could purchase for an undergraduate music course.

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Page published August 2, 2012 as Contextual Musicology: books and resources.

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