Crossing the Disciplinary Divide: Hermeneutics, Ethnomusicology and Musicology

October 1, 2009

The separation of ethnomusicology from musicology attests to an intellectual history whose continuing validity has come into question. Differences between a discipline committed to fieldwork and one that traditionally was devoted to historical research have been blurred from both sides. Increasingly, critical musicologists turn to contextualizing practices in opposition to modernist musicological practices of abstracting works from their cultural, social, and historical contexts.1 Conversely, ethnomusicologists in search of the past employ methods of historical research. Nevertheless, the disciplinary boundaries separating musicology and ethnomusicology remain relatively intact. Despite some overlaps in methods, research interests, and even pedagogical orientation, musicology, ethnomusicology and its one-time parent discipline systematic musicology, are identified institutionally as relatively autonomous fields of instruction, research, and scholarship.

I would not, however, want to pass over an important difference—namely the difference between ethnomusicology’s insistence on the importance of fieldwork and musicology’s orientation toward textual readings. Even here, the impact of cultural studies on both disciplines has tended to narrow the gap between them. Nevertheless, the difference between textual analyses and interpretations of music’s cultural meanings based on observations of, and participation in, performance practices and processes remains one (if not the principle) intellectual and methodological difference that in some measure continues to help define the identity of these two disciplines.

Rather than tackle this seemingly insurmountable difference head-on, I would prefer to follow a more indirect route. The appropriation of hermeneutics by both ethnomusicologists and musicologists justifies this strategy. As the “art of interpretation,” hermeneutics has been viewed from both sides as a way of responding to methodological concerns as varied as the crisis of representation, formalist and metaphysical precepts, and the interpretation of cultures. My recourse to hermeneutics, however, will follow a somewhat different path. After reviewing briefly the historical backdrop to the divisions among musicology, ethnomusicology and systematic musicology, I intend to critique the effects that a tradition of thought extending back to Kant’s subjectivization of aesthetics has had on contemporary disciplinary constructs. Following this critique, I will propose some pedagogical and research directions suggested by my analysis of the hermeneutical presuppositions underlying music scholarship.


Ethnomusicology, Musicology and Systematic Musicology

In the nineteenth century, Guido Adler conceived systematic musicology, together with historical musicology, as the two arms of a comprehensive science of music.2 Adler located comparative musicology, from which ethnomusicology subsequently emerged to become an autonomous discipline, within the field of systematic musicology. By erecting a unified framework for a comprehensive science of music based on the model of the natural sciences, Adler anchored the study of music in the cultural ethos of his time. Opposition to the effects of this positivist ethos on music research has taken many forms, including the recourse to interpretive practices and strategies. Paradoxically, systematic musicology was perhaps most adversely impacted by Adler’s original schema. Until recently, systematic musicology as a research field was defined only negatively in opposition to historical musicology’s subject matter. Today, we recognize that systematic musicology’s identity as a research field centers on the fundamental questions it asks: What does music mean? What constitutes musical expression? How do we understand music’s mode of communicability? These fundamental questions are also basic to the study of music in its aesthetic, social, cultural and historical dimensions.

The institution of music’s aesthetic autonomy within a separate sphere isolated from practical exigencies is one of the enduring legacies of this era. Joseph Kerman has remarked on how theory and analysis served to legitimize and defend a cherished canon of high art cultural works.3 The positivist ethos in which theory and analysis thrived also justified formalist ideals that Eduard Hanslick, for example, set against the nineteenth-century’s metaphysics of feeling.4 The idea that musical works are self-contained entities that can be abstracted from cultural, social and historical contexts is one of the foremost legacies of this era to come under attack. For many ethnomusicologists and critical musicologists, the idea that the musical work is aesthetically self-sufficient is a vestige of a modernist defense of high art culture. At the same time, the idea that music is a cultural phenomenon worthy of study and critical attention has some foundations in the history that venerated musical works. Consequently, freeing ethnomusicological and musicological research from this construct calls for a critique of the system of thought in which the concept of the work’s autonomy plays its formative and ideological roles.

The idea that music, or indeed, the arts as a whole properly belong to a distinctly aesthetic sphere owes its force in part to Immanuel Kant’s transcendental justification of judgments of taste. Kant legitimated taste’s “a priori claim to universality”5 in the face of its empirical non-universality by denying taste any importance as a mode of knowledge. Kant’s justification of taste’s subjective universality discredited theoretical knowledge that did not rely on the methodology of the natural sciences. Hence the transcendental function he ascribed to aesthetic judgment established the foundation for differentiating between art’s aesthetic constitution, and conceptual knowledge and truth.

This radical subjectivization of aesthetics augured musical romanticism’s apotheosis. German idealism erected a philosophy of art by seizing upon Kant’s statement: “Fine art is the art of genius.”6 Moreover, by proclaiming that “art is the practice of freedom,”7 Friedrich Schiller presented the demand to “Live aesthetically!”8 as a moral imperative. According to Hans Georg-Gadamer, “Schiller took the radical subjectivization through which Kant had justified transcendentally the judgment of taste and its claim to validity, and changed it from a methodological presupposition”9 to one dominated by this imperative. Schiller founded art’s autonomous standpoint in opposition to reality by investing Kant’s subjectivization of aesthetics with a new anthropological significance. Accordingly on Gadamer’s analysis, the idea of aesthetic cultivation we derive from Schiller “consists precisely in precluding any criterion of [practical] content and in dissociating the work of art from its world.”10

Aesthetic consciousness and its correlates, aesthetic education and the creation of a cultured society, consequently provide a bulwark against reality. Divorced from the exigencies of social and political life, music and art give flight to the freedom of the human spirit in its purely aesthetic state. Correlatively, the ideal of aesthetic cultivation and the process of abstraction on which it depends instituted the “pure” work of art and the experience of it. The conscious differentiation of the aesthetic object ratified the cult of art-religion’s view that the cultivation of the aesthetic life demands that the art work, and the experience of it, be dissociated from all worldly contexts. The abstraction that aesthetic consciousness performs enables the work to become visible as a “pure” work of art. Music and art establish their supremacy by virtue of this abstraction, which tears individual works from the contexts that sustain them in their creation, performance and reception.

This abstraction, in turn, becomes the focal point of various critiques. From the vantage-point of many cultural musicologists, music’s abstraction from its socio-historical context dissembles its value as a cultural work. From this vantage-point, music’s aesthetic autonomy is a chimera. Correlatively, the principle of music’s aesthetic autonomy appears as the ideological defense of a culturally sacrosanct realm of high art-works shielded from social analysis and critique by the principle that institutes this realm.

The critique of this principle from within the discipline of ethnomusicology also turns against the abstraction of works from their “real life” contexts. At the same time, ethnomusicology’s general rejection of claims and defenses of the Western musical canon’s cultural superiority tended to shift the focus away from the concept of the autonomous work toward social processes and performance practices. The importance of fieldwork, the significance of participatory observation, and the value of bi- or multi-musical competence evinces the difference between cultural musicology’s and ethnomusicology’s investment in overturning nineteenth-century ideals. More importantly, these differences highlight these disciplines’ respective ripostes to the effects of a history from which the concept of a work’s aesthetic autonomy, aesthetic consciousness, and the legitimacy of abstracting works from their life contexts spring.


Crossing the Disciplinary Divide

It is evident from these critiques that one of the main points of contention for cultural musicologists and ethnomusicologists is the idea that cultural values invested in the Western high art musical tradition in reality serve the political and social interests of privileged individuals and groups. The ideal of aesthetic cultivation clearly presages the role cultural works play in the struggle for position and power. Hannah Arendt argues in this respect that culture acquires its social utility by becoming a “matter of social prestige and social advancement.”11 The ideal of self-cultivation through an education to art decidedly turns art into an instrument of social violence. Pierre Bourdieu explains that music exemplifies the demand that the bourgeois ethos of aesthetic cultivation makes of all forms of art: “Music is the most ‘spiritual’ of the arts of the spirit and a love of music is a guarantee of [a form of] ‘spirituality’”12 that disavows any materialist coarseness. Following the logic of the economic world’s reversal, music’s aesthetic autonomy signifies the inner sanctum of a realm of experience free from material exigencies. Hence, as one of the covert forms that violence takes when the use of the direct means of violence becomes impossible, the belief in music’s transcendent autonomy masks the social distinctions that this belief celebrates.13

Critical analysis of the belief in music’s aesthetically autonomous value too often identify music’s social value as a weapon in the fight for position and power at the expense of the work’s capacity to affirm or contest an existing order of reality. This occultation of the work’s ontological vehemence therefore elicits yet another critique. This critique intersects those mounted from the disciplinary perspectives of ethnomusicology and musicology. At the same time, in directing itself toward the alienating effects of aesthetic consciousness, this hermeneutical critique aims at rehabilitating our understanding of the work with respect to our experience of it.

From the vantage-point of a hermeneutical understanding of the work, the abstraction that aesthetic consciousness performs (through dissociating the work from its sustaining life contexts) alienates us from the experiences that originate with our encounters with individual works. This experience is the source of our understanding of a work’s meaning. In order to combat the alienating effects of abstracting works from their sustaining life contexts, Gadamer undertakes an analysis of the ontology of the work of art. In this analysis, the mode of being of the work of art, which is the mode in which we also encounter it, is that of play. Just as play exists only in its movement as such, the work of art has its mode of being in the ordered movement through which the work expresses the world it presents in its unfolding course. Paul Ricoeur comments that, by beginning with the experience of art, hermeneutic philosophy “accentuates . . . the more ontological aspects of the experience of play.”14 Accordingly, the “function of exhibition or presentation (Darstellung)”15 is primary. Hermeneutics withdraws from the “objectifications and explanations of historical science and sociology to the artistic, historical and lingual experience which precedes and supports these objectifications and explanations.”16 Correlatively, the hermeneutical understanding of the work rejoins ethnomusicology’s and cultural musicology’s critiques of the concept of the work enshrined in the ideal of its aesthetic autonomy. At the same time, this hermeneutical perspective supplements, and in a sense surpasses these critiques by thematically investigating the conditions of meaning which music scholarship presupposes, and on which it ultimately depends.


New Horizons

Systematic musicology’s emphasis on research questions basic to music scholarship lends itself to this investigation into music’s mode of communicability, its power of expression, and its capacity to affirm, subvert or contest congealed social representations and understandings. Unlike Adler’s system, which sets systematic musicology against its historical counterpart, a more contemporary view sees this investigation informing research paradigms of the disciplines it intersects. This philosophical investigation supports and informs pedagogical and research objectives of music scholarship by contributing uniquely to our understanding of music and its relation to the world.

I would like to conclude by briefly summarizing three related points of inquiry that indicate some further research directions.

  1. The first point concerns the question of a work’s autonomy. In performing, teaching about, and listening to music from different cultures and historical epochs, we attest that music bears its meaning within itself. This capacity of music to speak in new contexts and situations evinces the hermeneutical autonomy of cultural works. This hermeneutical autonomy contrasts starkly with the concept of aesthetic autonomy inherited from the nineteenth century. Correlative with the ontology of the work of art, the work’s hermeneutical autonomy is the condition of its power to free itself from its original horizons and to reinsert itself in the world anew.
  2. The acknowledgement of this power underscores the mimetic character of cultural works. This productive character consists in the way in which individual works redescribe reality. The retreat from reality that for aesthetic consciousness signifies the institution of a separate realm is only the negative condition for the renewal of reality in the light of heuristic fictions. Every claim that music contests or subverts reality secretly acknowledges the work’s power to break open the real by prefiguring possibilities for alternative ways of inhabiting the world. The power of thought and imagination at work, in what Paul Ricoeur refers to as the creative imitation of reality, stands in stark opposition to the alienating effects of the work’s conscious differentiation from practical exigencies.17 In this respect, works are invitations to think, experience, and feel more.
  3. The last point is perhaps the most challenging of the three. It concerns the relation between music’s mode of communicability and its power of expression. Elsewhere I have argued that music’s mimetic character is intimately bound up with our affective dispositions toward the world.18 Moods and feelings anchor our sense of participating in the world to which we belong by attuning us to it. Martin Heidegger goes so far as to suggest that in “poetical discourse, the communication of the existential possibilities of one’s state-of-mind can become an aim in itself, and this amounts to a disclosing of existence.”19 Heidegger’s comment echoes Aristotle’s notion in his Politics that music is an imitation of states of character.20 Music’s power to redescribe affective dimensions of our experiences is attested most acutely in its figuration of limit experiences, in which time seems to be surpassed by its other. On this further horizon, music’s power to express the joy and pathos of our mortal dwelling conjoins human finitude to the mysteries of time. At this juncture, the study of music merges with a philosophical inquiry into the meaning of time.



Arendt, Hannah. Between Past and Future. New York: Penguin Books, 1977.

_______. Reflections on Literature and Culture. Edited by Susannah Young-Ah Gottlieb. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2007.

Aristotle. Politics. Translated by Ernest Barker, and revised by R. F. Stalley. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.

Bourdieu, Pierre. Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste. Translated by Richard Nice. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1984.

_______. The Field of Cultural Production. New York: Columbia University Press, 1993.

_______. Outline of a Theory of Practice. Translated by Richard Nice. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1977.

McClary, Susan. “Paradigm Dissonances: Music Theory, Cultural Studies, Feminist Criticism.” Perspectives of New Music 32, no. 1 (1994): 68-85.

Mugglestone, Erica. “Guido Adler’s ‘The Scope, Method, and Aim of Musicology’ (1885): An English Translation with an Historico-Analytical Commentary.” Yearbook for Traditional Music 3 (1981): 1-21.

Hammermeister, Kai. The German Aesthetic Tradition. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002.

Hanslick, Eduard. On the Musically Beautiful. Translated by Geoffrey Payzant. Indianapolis: Hackett, 1986.

Heidegger, Martin. Being and Time. Translated by John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson. New York: Harper & Row, 1962.

Kant, Immanuel. Critique of Judgment. Translated by Werner S. Pluhar. Indianapolis: Hackett, 1987.

Kerman, Joseph. Contemplating Music. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1985.

Ricoeur, Paul. Hermeneutics and the Human Sciences. Translated by John B. Thompson. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1981.

_______. The Rule of Metaphor: Multidisciplinary Studies of the Creation of Meaning in Language. Translated by Robert Czerny. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1977.

_______. Time and Narrative. Translated by Kathleen McLaughlin and David Pellauer. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984, 1985, 1988.

Savage, Roger W. H. Hermeneutics and Music Criticism. New York: Routledge, 2010.

_______. “Is Music Mimetic? Ricoeur and the Limits of Narrative.” Journal of French Philosophy 16, no. 1-2 (2006): 122-134. 



1See for example McClary, “Paradigm Dissonances.”

2Mugglestone, “Guido.”

3Kerman, Contemplating Music.

4Hanslick, On the Musically Beautiful.

5Gadamer, Truth and Method, 43.

6Cited by Gadamer, Truth and Method, 58; see Kant, Critique, 175.

7Gadamer, Truth and Method, 82.

8Cited by Gadamer, Truth and Method, 82; see Hammermeister, The German Aesthetic Tradition, 42 ff.

9Gadamer, Truth and Method, 82.

10Ibid., 85. In proclaiming art to be the practice of freedom, and aesthetic education to be the end of the play impulse, Schiller founds art’s autonomous standpoint in opposition to reality.

11Arendt, Reflections, 179; see Arendt, Between, 202.

12Bourdieu, Distinction, 19.

13See Bourdieu, Outline, 192, 171 ff; see also Bourdieu, The Field, 35.

14Ricoeur, Hermeneutics, 117.

15Ibid. According to Ricoeur, this function in principle precedes and supports the linguistic medium it summons.

16Ibid., 19.

17Ricoeur, Time.

18See Savage, Hermeneutics, 93 ff.; Savage, “Is Music Mimetic?”.

19Heidegger, Being, 205; see Ricoeur, The Rule, 221 ff.

20Aristotle, Politics, 309.

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