Counterpoint on the M-Word

Jonathan Bellman

I have to comment a bit on the eternal “what is a musicologist?” issue, particularly when one is dealing with those who either don’t know what the word means or willfully misunderstand it. Simply, I can’t make this a problem no matter how hard I try. Here is what I take to be a somewhat parallel example:

Take a professional football player. Ask him what he does. If he says, “I play football professionally,” or even “I play in the NFL,” more people will understand him than if he says “I’m a reserve wide out.” He may be a wide out, but he’s also a football player, and especially if he’s a reserve player he spends far more time training and practicing than he does actually playing. Should he say instead, “I train, and wish I played more?” Even if true, that sure comes into the category of Too Much Information.

“So, how ya doin’?” “Well, if I didn’t keep picking up STDs from underage people, my parole officer thinks I would have a better chance for a reduced sentence…”

My answer to the “what do you do?” question is either “I’m a prof” or, if I really don’t want my interlocutor to recoil in intimidation (and every academic knows this reaction; some people are uncomfortable around us), I’ll say “I teach,” and if the person wants more information he or she can ask. Since it is natural for people to assume that those involved with music play something, it doesn’t bother me when people make that assumption; I simply say “I’m a pianist, but I teach music history…so my job is on the academic side.” Everybody understands, no one is threatened. In my community–in my country, in fact–often the people who *go* to college are the intellectuals, so telling people you teach and evaluate those special souls can result in sensory overload.

A sufficiently small number of people know what a musicologist is that the self-definition is often counter-productive. I might thunder, “Ich bin Musikwissenschaftler!” but what would be the point? I have had enough conversations in which someone thought that “musicologist” meant “hoity-toity, really really educated classical pianist” or something of that nature, with the result that one is often conversing at cross purposes anyway. Who is really helped by the greater accuracy of “I am a psycho-acoustician”? (Psycho-Acoustics is, in fact, not my area, but it sounds even more abstruse than musicology.)

Another angle: how should a professor of philosophy answer the question, “What do you do?” “I’m a prof” or “I’m a philosophy prof” will have a much better effect than “I’m a philosopher.” What’s the rejoinder to that? A gentle smile? Uproarious laughter? What’s more, more people know (or think they know) what a philosopher is than what a musicologist is. “I’m a philosopher” (or, for that matter, “I’m a musicologist”) might provoke unwelcome witticisms—“Still haven’t finished the dissertation, eh?” or “Right. ‘Want fries with that?’ Heh heh heh…” Since conversation is about communication on a shared level, and less about (at least, to me) perfect clarification of every last idea, I go for the shortcuts and don’t take offense unless offense is clearly meant.

Now, when I had the original introductory conversation with MY doctor, him of the fly-fishing and Iron Man competitions, it turned out his father had been music professor, run the college collegium in his hometown, and so on–no need to explain “musicologist” to him!

Envoy: This past weekend I was at the Bard College Festival, providing concert commentary as part of my short residency there. People–New Yorkers, supporters of the arts–were *extremely* grateful when we reached out to them, put things in understandable language, injected a bit of humor, etc., and they really resented when they felt they were being talked down to or, worse, when their lack of academic experience was not being acknowledged by the presenters. To me, a word like “musicologist” is always going to make the most sense in a certain small and relatively well-educated community, and there’s no point in pushing the definition on other people. Let’s give them what they need to know, without scaring them! The conversations will be a lot more pleasant.

About jonathanbellman

Professor of Music History and Literature and Head of Academic Studies in Music at the University of Northern Colorado. Author, *The _Style Hongrois_ in the Music of Western Europe* (Northeastern University Press, 1993), *A Short Guide to Writing About Music* (2e, Longman, 2008), *Chopin's Polish Ballade: Op. 38 as Narrative of National Martyrdom* (Oxford University Press, 2010), Editor, *The Exotic in Western Music* (Northeastern University Press, 1998), author of bunches of articles and reviews and so on. Likes to play the piano, the mandolin, and even guitar sometimes. A. M. and Jo Winchester Distinguished Scholar at UNC, 2011.
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1 Response to Counterpoint on the M-Word

  1. Mary says:

    A long-standing tradition at UNC on preliminary orals was that the first question was “What is musicology?” I thought then, and still do, that it was an invalid question, and said so. After everyone got over the shock of a mere student challenging a treasured question, they asked me what I considered to be valid. My response was “What do musicologists concern themselves with?” I’m still trying almost 40 years on to figure out what the answer is. The rules keep changing, the old categories are dated, and still we ask the same questions. If, in the next 40 years, I come up with an answer I’ll gladly post it.

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