What is Musicology, and is it even an actual word?


Mozart’s String Quartet in D.

Musicology, in short, is just the academic study of music. As a musicologist, my work is not focused around the performance of a song but the mechanics behind it. Before I get really into what musicology is (and why it’s awesome), I feel like should I answer the most important question, “Is Musicology even an actual word?”

The answer is YES! Merriam-Webster defines Musicology as such . . .

the study of music as a branch of knowledge or field of research as distinct from composition or performance

Now that you know that Musicology exists and is an actual word, why do some people never hear about in their lives? Although you could theorize about that, I’ll try to be more practical. Music as we know it has three major branches: Performance (by far the most widespread study), Pedagogy (How to teach Music), and then Musicology. Although there are tons of disciplines within Music such as: Composition, Music Cognition, Music Analysis, Music Theory, Musical Aesthetics, etc.; let’s try to not get too caught up on having everything in its most proper category.

So not we’ve got some words to work with here, and I’ll be using Musicology and Music Analysis & Music Theory. Music Analysis & Theory are both widely considered subdisciplines of Musicology. My work is technically classified as Musicology, however it is more specifically referred to as Music Theory (or if you want to be meticulous, Music Analysis & Theory). Music Theory is a field of study where you look at the mechanics of a song. Music Analysis is the actual practice of doing it, or application.

In the disciplinarity of Music Theory, we look at all sorts of things in a song to say it briefly. We classify groups of notes into chords (most people are familiar with this), however we go way beyond that. We then organize those chords in a multitude of ways. Chords get grouped into cadences depending on if they are related to the closing of a ‘musical idea’ or passage. Chords get grouped into beats, which are then grouped into measures, which are then grouped into sentences (it’s the actual vocab). Then at the apex of this way of categorizing notes, we have even more words. In short, Music Theory is extremely detail oriented.

There are lots of field in Music, I think we can say that it has been established. So how did we actually get to this? Another field of Music, Music History, is a field which I am not a part of, so I’ll do my best. Music has been around for thousands of years, but the music we Americans are familiar with really originates from the Baroque Era.

In Baroque Era, we have some big names and songs people may not be aware of their Baroque Origin. Some of these things are: The Four Seasons composed by Antonio Vivaldi, Johann Sebastian Bach (he composed this toccatathis fugue, this cello suite, and this minuet), and Johann Pachelbel’s Canon in D Minor.

Portrait of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

After the Baroque Period, we hit the infamous Classical Period which has Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. He composed Twinkle Twinkle Little Star (Listen to the full length version here), this song you know but can’t name, his famous Requiem (here is the beginning and another part of it), and this song you did not know existed but you secretly knew existed. After the Classical Period we go into the Romantic Period. After that, it’s Impressionism, then the Modern Era, and then to now in the Contemporary Era or Post-Modern Era.


So how does all this talk about Music History actually get to the point of answering the question of how our music dates back to the 16th Century. Well to try and make it short, Americans and Europeans like to investigate the relationships between groups of notes (chords) at the same time. This is important, because other cultures can focus on the relationships of notes at different times.

It is because of our cultural acclimation of how chords operate, that has driven the progression of music. All the music that was listed before sounded ‘nice’ right? It didn’t sound weird like this Impressionist Song (atonal music) or this random Chinese Song I found (pentatonic music).

So now that we have all these ideas floating in the air, how do we proceed now? You probably know a whole lot more about music than you did before reading this, but what’s the point of all of this Musicology stuff? That big question has different bearing and meaning to everyone, but for me it’s to answer more philosophical questions like: Why do we like Music, What is ‘beauty’ in Music, and more. This is my field of study, Musical Aesthetics.

Musical Aesthetics is an interdisciplinary field incorporating Musicology to everything else. For me, everything else is limited to Philosophy & Psychology. Although I don’t do as much work with Psychology, I really love being able to get even more perspective on a boundless field. After reading this, I hope you got two things from this article. First, that anything can be made ridiculously complicated. Second, that if Music of all things can be utilized in an interdisciplinary way, so can your field too!




2 thoughts on “What is Musicology, and is it even an actual word?”

  1. This was such a helpful post in giving me a background to some of what structures the work that you do. I feel like I have a better sense of your program now, and I also just love your blogging voice and your ability to pull in just the right links to help me understand your complex ideas more easily. Snappy and engaging post! A great snow day read, so thank you!

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