Music in history: overcoming historians’ reluctance to tackle music as a source

tags: music, musical history, historical sources

Matt Karush is Professor of History at George Mason University and Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of Social History. He has published extensively on Argentine political and cultural history. His most recent book is Musicians in Transit: Argentina and the Globalization of Popular Music(Duke University Press, 2017), winner of a Deems Taylor/Virgil Thomson Award for music writing from the ASCAP Foundation.

Despite their enthusiasm for borrowing from other fields and incorporating new types of source material, many historians remain reluctant to analyze music. For example, when the American Historical Association dedicated its 2015 Annual Meeting to “History and Other Disciplines,” organizers called for work that engaged with anthropology, material culture, archaeology, visual studies, and museum studies, but they were noticeably silent about music and musicology. What explains this aversion?

First, many historians seem to believe that music, more than other cultural practices and products, demands specialized analytical tools. Of course, the field of musicology exists precisely to explicate musical texts and performances in all their specificity, and it does seem foolhardy for historians who lack this specialized training to attempt a technical, formal analysis of music. Yet historians have long since overcome any doubts they may have felt in the face of film or visual art, even though they lack training in film studies or art history. Perhaps they can more easily detect the similarities between films and paintings on the one hand and more familiar, textual sources on the other; they can more readily see the usefulness of the historian’s analytical toolbox for dissecting these sorts of materials: unpacking narratives, decoding symbols, contextualizing meanings, etc. Music, by contrast, seems somehow impenetrable, even ineffable. It is not surprising that many histories of modern, popular music actually focus exclusively on lyrics.

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