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What does a Musicologist do?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 23, 2024
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A musicologist is someone who studies music. There are a number of branches of musicology, ranging from music theory to comparative musicology, in which the musicologist looks at music from other cultures. Many colleges offer some form of a musicology degree, and some musicologists are also accomplished musicians with a deep understanding of their art. If you are interested in musicology as an academic discipline, it has a lot to offer and you may find a niche of it that you really enjoy.

The history of musicology really began in the 1800s, when several people published studies about music. Previously, music publications focused on duplicating scores and tunes for people to play. These studies began to examine the history of music, looking at its cultural context and impact on society. In addition, early musicologists began to explore music theory, looking at the roles of philosophy, science, the arts, sociology, psychology, and math in musical expression.

Music criticism often relies heavily on musicology, as a critic with an extensive knowledge of the genre he or she is working with can offer more informed and useful critiques. Some anthropologists and archaeologists also study musicology, so that they can apply their knowledge to the cultures that they study. A historical musicologist may look at how different forms of music arose, when new instruments entered common usage, and how music has influenced cultures throughout history.

A modern musicologist may integrate a range of disciplines from queer theory to sociological research. Research on modern music can reveal interesting details about subcultures such as the protest community or rave culture. These musicologists look at music within a cultural framework to learn more about it.

A musicologist may also focus on technical theory, looking at the patterns and math in music. Technical theory can get quite complex, especially when a musicologist starts comparing music from different cultures or time periods. Mathematical analysis of music is actually quite interesting, as math is the building block for music; the principles of math dictate which sounds are pleasing to the ear, and how they can best be arranged. Scientists may also be interested in music, in the form of acoustics, communication methods between animals, and music cognition.

People who focus on music from other cultures are often known as ethnomusicologists. Ethnomusicology is a growing field of study because many people are extremely interested in cultures other than their own, along with their myths, folktales, and belief systems. It can also reveal information about when colonial influences began to penetrate music, and how native populations dealt with people from other cultures. This type of musicologist works in the field, documenting such music along with folktales and information about musical instruments.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a Musical Expert researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By anon190120 — On Jun 25, 2011

Employment options are only as limited as one's imagination. Albeit academia traditionally employs the lion's share, opportunities in soundtrack, recording, and archival consulting exist. Also consider historically informed performances, museums, music libraries, and editing. In addition, I enjoy a career that includes myriad encyclopedia entries, other articles and speaking engagements around the world.

It is always valuable to have a complementary cognate to distinguish your focus. --G. Galván

By Acracadabra — On May 20, 2011

The American Musicological Society is a fabulous resource for anyone interested in this kind of work. It has lots of useful information, contacts and resource links.

I am currently considering post graduate courses which will establish me as an ethnomusicologist. My first degree in is anthropology so this is a great fit.

There seems to be quite a lot of opportunities out there. I was just reading about a guy who works as a forensic musicologist, identifying parts of songs and tunes which may have been used without permission under a copyright agreement.

I use that example when people look at me with a puzzled face, and need help understanding exactly what opportunities there are to forge a musicologist career for yourself.

By Windchime — On May 19, 2011

At my university there was a small but thriving musicology department, with undergrad and post graduate courses on offer.

From reading the alumni magazine I would say most graduates of liberal arts degrees never work in the field they studied. If you are passionate about music then you may as well study this as anything.

There are a few people who went on to do a doctorate program, and they now teach at universities, some in another country.

By CaithnessCC — On May 17, 2011

@Art777 - I imagine that most musicologist jobs are in the field of teaching, theater, and journalism. It is so specialised that focusing on this alone wouldn't leave you many other options after graduation.

By Art777 — On May 16, 2011

This sounds fascinating to me. It seems like an excellent secondary study that may compliment a primary in many fields. I wonder if there are any career opportunities for people who major in musicology, without a minor or any other degree.

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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