In Defense of Music History

Hello everyone!

Sorry for my most recent hiatus, but I’m getting some more ideas for blog posts now, so hopefully I will be able to find some time to write! This semester, I’ve been doing a research project that will hopefully become my Senior Honors Thesis. My research focuses on the role of the American Organ Revival on the building of one particular organ, the newly purchased and placed organ at Messiah. This research project has been a great deal of fun for me, though not without its road blocks. Initially, a project on the history of this organ was presented to me by a professor in my department who is now on a year-long sabbatical in Nepal. I like to tell people that he gave me a research project and then fled the country.

I’ve been talking to a lot of my professors about this project because, until I found an advisor recently, I was unsure of where to go and what to do. So, one day I was talking to one of my professors about this project, and he said that he had one huge issue with it: it wasn’t about history. He clarified, saying that the sources that I used weren’t historians, so the project would never be acceptable. To say that I was frustrated and angry is to say the absolute least. But, now that I have some time removed from this incident, I would like to defend music history.

No, music historians do not have their degrees in history. More often than not, they have their degrees in music. However, what’s to say that that keeps you from being an historian? In history, we say that there are five c’s that are used to think like an historian. These were developed by Thomas Andrews and Flannery Burke in a January 2007 article in the American Historical Societies’s Perspectives on History. You can read the full article here. These five c’s are as follows: change over time, causality, context, complexity, and contingency. These are all pretty self-explanatory, but the article gives a great overview of what each means and how they operate in history. These five ideas are central to the study of history. They frame the way in which history classes are taught and in which students and historians think.

If the five c’s are central to thinking like an historian, how can someone say that music history isn’t history, when it, too, focuses on these five c’s. In music, we constantly talk about how much develops and changes over time, how events that are occurring at the time affect the music of that period and pieces in particular. We also talk a great deal about the context behind every piece and how complex each piece is and how complex the time period in which it was written was so that we can get a grasp of what led to the piece emerging as it did. Finally, we talk about how different pieces of music are contingent on those written before them or being written at the same time. Composers use other composers and other pieces that have been written for inspiration and a basis for their own works. The five c’s frame the way in which music history students are taught and think, we just don’t explicitly state it. As this is the case, how can one ever say that music history isn’t history or that music historians aren’t historians?

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Posted in Some Simple Rants On History, The Ways Historians Think

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