Empirical Musicology: Aims, Methods, Prospects

Empirical Musicology: Aims, Methods, Prospects

Empirical Musicology: Aims, Methods, Prospects

Empirical Musicology: Aims, Methods, Prospects


The study of music is always, to some extent, "empirical," in that it involves testing ideas and interpretations against some kind of external reality. But in musicology, the kinds of empirical approaches familiar in the social sciences have played a relatively marginal role, being generally restricted to inter-disciplinary areas such as psychology and sociology of music. Rather than advocating a new kind of musicology, Empirical Musicology provides a guide to empirical approaches that are ready for incorporation into the contemporary musicologist's toolkit. Its nine chapters cover perspectives from music theory, computational musicology, ethnomusicology, and the psychology and sociology of music, as well as an introduction to musical data analysis and statistics. This book shows that such approaches could play an important role in the further development of the discipline as a whole, not only through the application of statistical and modeling methods to musical scores but also--and perhaps more importantly--in terms of understanding music as a complex social practice.


Nicholas Cook and Eric Clarke

I believe there’s a real world out there, because not all of my fantasies work.

The words are those of the composer and music theorist Benjamin Boretz (1977: 242), and they articulate a level at which it is hard to envisage work in musicology or theory that is not empirical. Any archival musicologist, after all, knows that facts can be very hard indeed—though, as we shall see, it would be more correct to say that facts are a matter of interpretation and that it is the data that are hard. In the same way, different analysts’ Schenkerian interpretations of a given passage may well differ (and Schenkerian analysis is supported, or at least surrounded, by a discourse that is largely speculative if not at times metaphysical), but they are closely regulated by the score on which they are based; indeed the trial-and-error process by which music-analytical interpretations develop, with observation leading to interpretation and interpretation in turn guiding observation, is a model of close, empirically regulated reading. Theorists and composers have both on occasion invoked the language of experimentation, too; for example, Marion Guck (1994: 62) has described her analyses as “(thought) experiments,” but the best known of such invocations is Milton Babbitt’s (1972a: 148) claim that “every musical composition justifiably may be regarded as an experiment, the embodiment of hypotheses as to certain specific conditions of musical coherence.”

In short, there is no useful distinction to be drawn between empirical and nonempirical musicology, because there can be no such thing as a truly non-empirical musicology; what is at issue is the extent to which musicological discourse is grounded on empirical observation, and conversely the extent to which observation is regulated by discourse. The idea of regulation is essential in this context. Michel Foucault (1970) has illustrated this point through reference to the comparative illustrations of human and bird skeletons published in 1555 by Pierre Belon: as Foucault says, these illustrations look like the products of nineteenth-century comparative anatomy, but the resemblance is little more than chance, because the interpretational grids of sixteenth-century and of nineteenth-century thought are so different. In other words, what we generally think of as empirically-based knowledge—as science—depends not only on observation but also on the incorporation of observation . . .

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