History Of Music Research Paper

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‘History of music’ signifies the sum of all musical or music-related events in as much as they have been documented or handed down through time. In particular, it refers to the historiography of music (music history) and is a synonym for the discipline of musicology. In recent decades it has come to designate that part of musicology referred to as ‘historical musicology.’

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1. History And Representation

The panorama of cultures, with their divergent concepts of music and history, are too multitudinous to be adequately and equitably considered here. A review of the world’s oral and written musical traditions, whether they be Indian, American-Indian, Chinese, Australian-Aboriginal, Japanese, Ewe, Near-Eastern, or Central European, would only culminate in the emptiest of generalizations to compare their individual courses. For reasons of expediency, therefore, the following remarks refer to the history of music as perceived from the perspective of Western culture and are restricted to its tradition.

Three characteristics of music determine and modify questions concerning historical data, documents, and sources, modulating thereby the various approaches to the history of music. (a) By necessity, the transitory nature of music as a performed art form does not engender an immutable artifact for permanent view, and, in contrast to the visual arts, is dependent on reproduction and representation. This contributes to the tendency to perform and listen to music as though it would be permanently present. In fact, performing or listening to music from an earlier period decomposes the historical distance between the period in question and the present time. This impulse to dispossess music of its history may in some instances lead to the radical inclination to regard music as a natural phenomenon rather than as a historical one. (b) Musical notation was an early invention. Two different kinds were already established in Greek antiquity, most likely for educational purposes and not for the preservation of music for future generations or for performances. This also holds true for the earliest stages of polyphony in the Middle Ages, which went hand in hand with the beginning of notational practice and ultimately led to the types of scores now familiar to us. Before printing was invented, it can scarcely be claimed that musical notation produced works as texts comparable to written texts, such as the The Odyssey or The Iliad. And while illiteracy and education are by nature contradictory, musical illiteracy has remained a socially tolerated phenomenon; someone who is unable to read music, will not be ostracized from an elitist social group. In popular music circles musicians have never been required to possess the ability to decipher musical notation. (c) With Edison’s invention of the phonograph, voices and sounds could be acoustically documented for the first time. Due to the omnipresence of music in today’s popular culture and the recording industry, one can easily forget that this ‘kopernikanische Wendung’ in music history took place just one century ago. In 1886 Friedrich Nietzsche asserted that music is the latecomer of every culture (Menschliches, Allzumenschliches II, Sect. 171). Although this corresponds to the romantic conviction that music is the youngest of the fine arts it seems to contradict the Western tradition that ranked music theory among the earliest individual academic disciplines, together with arithmetic, geometry, and astronomy. This was the case in the Greek enkyklios paideia and later in the quadrivium of the medieval septem artes liberales. To the degree that music is more often associated with emotional and spiritual qualities than with intellectual or physical ones, the reconstruction of the history of sound is no less precarious than the history of the emotions themselves. Both fields are predominantly dependent on a systematic or experimental approach rather than on a historical one. And in contrast to archeological sites or the visual arts, the historical foundations of music are ultimately of less interest within the context of the essentially personal need for music.

2. Considering Music History And The Beginning Of Music

History has always played a certain role in speculations about the theoretical basis of music. The historical account of music in (pseudo-)Plutarchus’s De musica from ca. AD 100 weaves together mythological and historical names (that cannot be clarified in each instance) before turning to the matter of ‘old music,’ regarded as holy and good, and its succession by ‘new music,’ seen as degenerate and decadent. Aristophanes and other contemporaries maintained that this transition took place in the late fifth century BC. Twentieth-century historians still adhered to this model. Greek myths and medieval legends based on biblical narrative that once explained and interpreted the origins of music have today been replaced by ‘scientific’ theories that biologically and genetically construe the earliest stages of the development of music, whether beyond written traditions or in paleontological respects. One may ask whether modern speculations as to music’s prehistoric inception are more reliable than Ovid’s report of Pan’s invention of the syrinx (Metamorphoses I, 689 ss.) that signaled the beginning of another ars nova, or more insightful than the lemma handed down since late antiquity that states Pythagoras as the inventor musicae, claiming that he was to have found an explanation for the phenomenon of consonances and therefore to have ‘invented’ music theory.

By 1700, book titles espousing the history of music appeared throughout Europe (e.g., W. C. Printz, Historische Beschreibung der Edelen Singund KlingKunst, Dresden, 1690; G. A. Bontempi, Historia musica, Perugia, 1695; P. Bourdelot and J. Bonnet, Histoire de la musique, Paris, 1715). In all cases, the point at which the history of music is seen to begin is dependent upon the historiographical premise that has been taken. Some scholars proceed from early organized polyphony around AD 900; others go back to monophony (Gregorian chant). The belief that ancient Greek music need not necessarily belong to music history’s canon is in large part due to the decrease in the knowledge of the Greek language in the twentieth century, with the result that it is subsequently relegated to the fields of ethnomusicology or anthropology (cf. West 1992, p. 3). Thus, what was still regarded to be the foundation of European culture and humanistic tradition in the nineteenth century has been cut off from the history of Europe.

3. The Discipline And Its Methods

The rise of historicism in the nineteenth century brought music history (together with art history) as an academic field into the university, a development that began primarily in German-speaking countries. The history of music quickly became an essential component of both the theoretical and practical study of music. Together with specialized research institutes, the academic discipline increased in German universities after World War I, while the wave of emigration following 1933 played an exceptional role in its advancement in the USA. Since World War II the discipline has grown inside and outside Europe, and today is established in universities worldwide. Aside from biographical studies and philological efforts (such as editing scores and theoretical texts on sources), music history’s chief methodological approach has been to examine the history of style, or more recently, genre. This is narrowed down further to the history of composition or individual works. Special attention has been given to the history of reception throughout the last decades. Even with respect to essentially synesthetic productions, such as opera or stagings within the multimedia landscape, the score remained the music historian’s most important source at hand. Up to the present time, the predominant individuals of interest for historians have been composers, regardless of how prominent a performer, whether singer, conductor, or instrumentalist, may be. This is also the case within the history of performance practice (impulses coming from the UK), which attempts to reconstruct performance style within any given age independently of the work of individual interpreters. Compared to music history’s concentration on composers and compositions, adjacent fields such as the history of music theory and of music aesthetics, and the archeology and iconography of music have assumed less prominent positions. This holds true for the relationship between the history of music and history as well. For example, while writings on the history of sacred Christian music are often aligned with related areas such as the history of liturgy, churches, and religion, contextualizations within social and political history remain rare. Supported by the romantic notion of Kunstreligion (the substitution of religion by the arts), the ideology that positions music in an apolitical, internalized, subjective domain strictly separated from social and political conditions has not yet been fully overcome.

3.1 Boundaries

The history of music has pertained and, in large part, still pertains to Western music, if not exclusively. The periodization of earlier epochs (the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, and Baroque) has remained comparatively stable; thereafter, less so. The history of music is patterned after conceptualizations similar to those used in general historiography (whether in the framework of Geistesgeschichte, social, or cultural history); the philosophy of history; and the fundamental concept of permanent progress (innovation and its aesthetic equivalent, originality) and cyclic forms (such as ascent, climax, and decline). In spite of how commonplace the expression ‘occidental music’ (abendlandische Musik) is, a history of European music in which local, regional, and national traditions are treated as a unity within diversity—in accordance with the standards of the modern European Union—has yet to be written. Historians who specialize in the musical culture of their own regions often lay claim to the concept of occidental music, and yet upon closer scrutiny, the traditions of other countries are comfortably overlooked. In the subtext one can ascertain that the inclusion of music from the Byzantine empire (with consequences for Eastern European music) and from the Americas within the occidental circle is questioned. The post-Wagnerian composer Hans Pfitzner (1926, p. 193) compared music’s historical course to the upbringing of a boy whose first nurse was Dutch, who then lived for a season in Italy before making his home in Germany around 1750. Music historiography, dominated by the ascendance of nationalism in the nineteenth century, has been influenced by national historiography. Some music historians’ nationalistic stance relies on a conception of music history in which consecutive composers are threaded onto a string of pearls, neither allowing for diversity or pluralistic considerations.

3.2 ‘Relative’ Autonomy

Music historians who view the history of music within the scope of art history tend to view favorably the idea of a ‘‘‘relative autonomy’’ of music history’ (cf. Dahlhaus 1983, Chap. 8). This concept focuses on questions of style, genre, and composition without giving credence to their contextual arena—an idealistic interpretation of art music that boasts of a pragmatic concentration on musical components at the cost of music’s isolation from society, economy, and politics. The idea of autonomy maintains that (a) art is independent of life and (b) music history is made up of a sequence of masterpieces written by heroic composers of genius, whose musical innovations and originality are synonymous with progress. This progress is often associated with decline in differing degrees up to the present time: while contemplating the grand summits of art music, no thought should be squandered on the valleys. As can be expected, Marxist writers have explicitly opposed this view (cf. Knepler 1977, p. 462 ss.). Art and social histories were often strictly and programmatically opposed to each other; particularly in the tradition of Hegel, dominant in German musicology, this led to a disengagement between music history and history in general. The historiography of Western music has remained the historiography of an elitist art form. In spite of its universal popularity, Beethoven’s music has never belonged to the realm of popular culture (one notable exception being the Ode to Joy, used as the anthem for the European Union). Popular music—written for the day, not for eternity—has socially, politically, and historically been the most effective type of music throughout the ages. Music historians seldom participate in the methodological discourses of historians. Likewise, the historian’s rare stand on musical matters, owing to a lack of technical skills or detailed knowledge, is similar to the philosopher who eschews discussions on music in their aesthetic writings. None of the famous historians, therefore, focused on music or, particularly, music history as a methodological paradigm, and in spite of the general increase of interdisciplinary research, historical musicology and history rarely cooperate.

3.3 Recent Developments

Music history, perceived either as the history of Western music in general or its various national entities, came to be questioned in the second half of the twentieth century. In the USA a discussion about whether its music history should solely be defined from the European perspective has emerged. A front-page article of the New York Times entitled ‘Ibn Batuta and sitar challenging Columbus and piano in schools’ on April 12, 1989 asked whether university professorships for piano should be replaced by those for sitar. Jazz and other forms of popular culture excluded from traditional historiography have been seen by some to pose a threat to the canon of classical music heard in Carnegie Hall and at the Metropolitan Opera. ‘Eurocentrism’ in music has come under critical scrutiny in recent years. Ethnomusicologists increasingly bemoan the dominance, even hegemony, of Western music as it spreads globally through radio and recordings. This new wave of cultural colonialism is seen as a potential annihilator of the last traces of ‘original’ music cultures. In extreme cases, ethnomusicologists deny history in music altogether if the related culture in question does not reflect the concept of history, or where a lack of observable change has led to an ‘almost absolute stability of the musical cultures of non-Western societies,’ a view modified by major scholars (Nettl 1983, p. 172). Although ‘world music’ is the slogan of the day, the idea of a universal history of music is seen to be obsolete or, due to the plethora of materials, unmanageable. The relevant UNESCO project begun in 1979, Music in the Life of Man, retitled in 1989 The Universe of Music. A History, has produced programmatic statements rather than results. Conversely, the controversial search for ‘universals’ in music is generally conducted in a nonhistorical fashion. ‘New musicology,’ which began in the USA in the early 1980s, directs its attention to gender issues and the music of minority groups, and emphasizes a contemporary approach to criticism in which the role of history has yet to be fully defined. The phrase ‘new historicism’ has entered into the discussion of late (cf. Stanley 2001).

4. Identity Exchanges And Modern Mythology

The current global fashion and passionate search for cultural and national identities presents some dubious consequences for music history. If one attempts to decipher what is specifically ‘Italian’ or ‘American’ in a piece of music, the answer will remain arbitrary by definition, since sounds cannot signify unequivocal and indubitable meanings. An example of one such identity crisis can be found in Austria. Viennese classical music, denoting the music of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven, has long been considered to be a paradigm of, if not synonymous with, German music. In 1947 Albert Einstein stated that the ‘concept of German music’ itself has come to rest on the works of these three masters (cf. Einstein 1992, p. 261). Austrian historiographers of music have now come to emphasize their own musical identity as being distinctly different in substance from a German one. This recent dichotomy is all the more curious since Austrians have frequently been eager to discern the German identity in their Austrian composers. Now Beethoven regains the status of an alien immigrant at best (cf. Flotzinger 1997, col. 1201). Hitler’s former Reich’s Music Chamber President, Richard Strauss, revealed yet another astonishing conviction shortly after World War II. On May 20, 1946 he admitted to his devoted friend and historiographer, Willi Schuh, that in all likelihood cultural historians, German patriots, and the Jewish press would be less than pleased with his tenet that ‘political Germany had to be destroyed after it had fulfilled its world mission: the creation and perfection of German music’ (Strauss 1969, p. 89). Of course, the composer regarded his own music as this ultimate fulfillment, as the end of music history. Uniting the idea of the end of art and the end of politics, his vision placed all future music in a state of a post histoire.

Nowadays, music composed just a few years after Strauss’ remarkable statement, whether serial, electronic, or chance, is considered classic. The histories of all musics have been subject to various readings throughout the course of time, often stemming from a national, ethnic, or otherwise political intention. The genesis of one of the most significant twentieth-century forms, jazz, has been alternately depicted as originating in Africa, Europe, and America. And it is in the New World that the search for a national musical identity during the first half of the twentieth century failed to produce a national school of composition. ‘Each composer found his own way,’ and ‘perhaps this is the way it should be in America’ (Hamm 1983, p. 459). Perhaps this maxim could on occasion be applied to the realm of music history as well.


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