Empirical Musicology: Aims, Methods, Prospects/Statistics in Musicology

By Huron, David | Notes, September 2006 | Go to article overview

Empirical Musicology: Aims, Methods, Prospects/Statistics in Musicology


Huron, David, Notes


Empirical Musicology: Aims, Methods, Prospects. Edited by Eric Clarke and Nicholas Cook. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004. [viii, 229 p., ISBN 0-19-516749-X. $99.] Music examples, illustrations, index, bibliographies.

Statistics in Musicology. By Jan Beran. Boca Raton: Chapman & Hall/CRC, 2004. [viii, 299 p. ISBN 1-58488-219-0. $71.94.] Music examples, illustrations, index, bibliography.

Recent decades have witnessed a significant rise in scientifically-inspired music research. This expansion is apparent, for example, in the founding of several journals, including Psychomusicology (founded 1981), Empirical Studies in the Arts (1982), Music Perception (1983), Musicae Scientiae (1997), Systematic Musicology (1998), and the recently founded Empirical Musicology Review.

The dictionary definition of "empirical" is surprisingly innocuous for those of us arts students who were taught to use it as a term of derision. Empirical knowledge simply means knowledge gained through observation. Science is only one example of an empirical approach to knowledge. In fact, many of the things traditional musicologists do are empirical: deciphering manuscripts, studying letters, and listening to performances.

Historically, empiricism began as a uniquely British enthusiasm, so it is entirely proper that seven of the nine contributors to Empirical Musicology: Aims, Methods, Prospects are British. The book adopts a notably broad perspective in describing empirical research in music.

After an introductory chapter, the book begins with a contribution by ethnomusicologist Jonathan Stock, who describes the "participant-observer method" that has been the cornerstone of anthropological field research for the past half century. The chapter provides some concrete advice related to keeping a field notebook, interviewing, and video documenting. Echoing the views of most ethnomusicologists, Stock notes that the participant-observation method has considerable potential value in music research beyond its usual application in studying non-Western musics.

Jane Davidson's "Music as Social Behavior" emphasizes survey methods, distinguishing two broad approaches. The first is the cross-sectional survey which aims to provide a generalized snapshot using quantitative information gathered from a large sample of people. The second is the longitudinal case study that focuses on individual experiences over time. In the first approach, the survey might be based on a formal questionnaire distributed to some group of people. In the second approach, researchers might make use of existing information, such as diaries (e.g., Berlioz) or correspondence (e.g., between Clara and Robert Schumann).

Nicholas Cook contributes a chapter on computational and comparative methods in music scholarship. Since the late 1950s, successive generations of enthusiasts have predicted that computers would revolutionize music research. Cook suggests that recent developments in computational musicology are finally beginning to fulfill the promise glimpsed by earlier scholars. He describes a number of studies carried out over the past decade and concludes that there is significant opportunity for what he calls "disciplinary renewal." Given the availability of large amounts of musical data (often from a wide variety of cultures) Cook recommends that music scholars reconsider the long-standing antipathy toward comparative studies. Throughout his presentation, Cook takes special pains to distance his empirical enthusiasms from past positivist presumptions. "[W] hat I am suggesting," he notes, "is that musicology in the broadest sense can take advantage of computational methods and transform itself into a data-rich discipline, without giving up on its humanist values." (p. 123)

Perhaps the most extensive empirical efforts in music scholarship are to be found in the areas of performance studies and in studies of musical sound. Eric Clarke provides a fine outline of the history of empirical studies in musical performance, including a convenient list of landmark achievements.

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