Illustrations by Romy Blumel

Beyond the Notes

By Jon Spayde
The field of musicology is changing with the times, and Carleton professors are leading the way.

Last fall, Brooke McCorkle was teaching a course that she describes in casual conversation as a general introduction to music history. If you were to assume this class would primarily involve a traditional chronological march from Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms to Tchaikovsky and the atonalities of Schoenberg and Webern, however, you’d be quite wrong.

According to the course catalog, McCorkle’s “Music and Storytelling in the Western World” employs “the concept of storytelling via organized sound [to provide] a framework for students to understand music in the ‘Western’ world and its relationship to people and their values at given times and places.” The course also explores “a series of topics where music and narrative intersect: mythology, dance, religion, politics, instrumental music, and audiovisual genres.”

What’s more, says McCorkle, an assistant professor of music at Carleton who specializes in Japanese popular music and the reception of European opera in Japan, “one of the things we look at is music and nationalism—the American national anthem, and Jimi Hendrix’s wild performance of it on electric guitar; Brenda Hutchinson’s ‘Star-Strangled Banner,’ where she tries to play it on an Australian didgeridoo and it comes out a little strangled. We ask: How is each iteration of this piece telling a specific story? What is this music telling us?”

Figuring out what music is telling us is one of the goals of musicology, an academic discipline that’s related to, but distinct from, the study of music in order to play or sing it. Carleton’s music department has many celebrated teachers of performance, of course, but it also boasts McCorkle and four other professors who are mainly musicologists, and their research and teaching tell the story of a field in rapid transition.

Musicology’s three main branches—historical musicology, ethnomusicology, and music theory—are increasingly responding to the tumultuous times in which we live. As McCorkle’s syllabus suggests, for instance, historical musicology—previously a one-time march through the Great Western Composers—has picked up a wide-angle lens that takes in Hendrix and hip-hop and movie soundtracks, too; and it’s augmenting the analysis of classical scores with critiques of nationalism and racism. As ethnomusicologist Melinda Russell, professor of music and M. A. and A. D. Hulings Professor of American Studies, puts it, “Our fields are grappling with the extent to which they’ve been dominated by whiteness—by white framings of art, white framings of artistic production.”

The broadening of focus is also in line with Carleton’s core values as a liberal arts institution, says Andy Flory, associate professor of music, who has written a book on Detroit’s fabled Motown record label. For him, taking popular music seriously, and addressing issues like race, gender, and social systems, is a way to draw nonmajors to music. “We fill hundreds of seats a year in academic classes targeted toward people for whom these classes might be their only academic experience with music—or their only experience with music, period,” he says.

Ronald Rodman, Dye Family Professor of Music and chair of the department, agrees. “That’s the beauty of Carleton” he says. “There are still plenty of students in orchestra who are focused on Beethoven, but for other students, to have somebody actually show them the history and the structure of the contemporary music they enjoy is very meaningful.”

Ethnomusicology, a field allied with anthropology that looks at music in its cultural and social context, is shifting from a focus on traditional, “premodern” societies into how music manifests social realities and political change in modern societies near and far. And music theory, the study of the fundamentals of music, such as pitch, tone, dynamics, harmony, melody, and rhythm, is branching out into new territory, including how music interacts with the brain and body.

All three disciplines are opening up to influences from fields beyond music itself. Take McCorkle: new to the Carleton faculty, she’s a classically trained double bassist who, in her words, “loves a good score analysis.” But a childhood love for Japanese manga and anime cartoons led her to pursue an MA in East Asian languages (Japanese) at the University of Pennsylvania, where she also earned a PhD in musicology and delved into that nation’s fantastically hybrid musical and film culture. She has a book forthcoming on Shonen Knife (a female garage-rock/punk trio from Osaka) and another in the works on the introduction of Wagnerian opera to Japan in the 1880s. She’s published essays on anime, the ecological significance of Japanese monster movies, and the economics and aesthetics of live orchestral performances of film scores.

Like McCorkle, Rodman is an instrumentalist (trombone). He directs the Carleton Symphony Band. He’s a nationally recognized expert in the pedagogy of music theory. And he’s also an authority on television music—the catchy themes that run under shows’ titles and the melodies, rhythms, and chord progressions that support the stories they tell. (Rodman points out that the musical themes of TV cop shows have evolved over the years from pseudomilitary marches into jazz- and rock-flavored tunes—but, somewhat ominously, are now reverting to military rhythms.)

Justin London, Andrew W. Mellon Professor of Music, Cognitive Science, and the Humanities, is one of the major researchers pushing music theory into new scientific spheres with his studies of how the nervous system perceives and interprets meter and rhythm. One of his many projects is an inquiry into how bodily movement affects our perception of rhythm and tempo, which he is conducting with colleagues at the University of Jyväskylä in Finland.

“This is what’s happening in the life of music and musicology,” says Andy Flory. “It’s not like we don’t have classical music in the curriculum. We still do; it’s just not in the middle anymore.”

Illustration by Romy BlumelIllustration by Romy Blumel


A recent Carleton grad, Gus Holley ’20, now in a PhD program in musicology at the University of California–Berkeley, has been a devotee of the pipa, a Chinese stringed instrument related to the lute, since childhood; he started lessons with Carleton’s pipa virtuoso, Gao Hong, when he was in middle school. As an undergrad, he added a musicological focus, working with Melinda Russell and Chinese-art historian (and the Tanaka Memorial Professor of International Understanding and Art History) Kathleen Ryor to study nanyin, a classical art-music tradition in southern China. He envisions a time when the distinction between ethnomusicology—still mainly concerned with the music of the “others”—and historical musicology—the study of “our” music, whether classical or popular—will disappear altogether, and even music theory will lose its Western orientation.

“A lot of attention is being paid right now to what academic music studies should be doing, and that’s good,” he says. “We should really be asking: What are we talking about when we talk about music, about music theory, and about music history? Because all these categories still carry a hidden assumption that Western art music is the standard against which all other traditions should be measured. Even ethnomusicologists tend to translate non-Western music into Western terms. We need to realize that what we have been talking about as capital-M music is a very, very small subset of what music really is.”

Flory explains that musicology has its roots in 19th-century Germany, when nationalistic scholars made the Austrian and German tradition the only serious field of study for musical academics. One of the discipline’s first evolutions toward a more inclusive vision was the birth of ethnomusicology in the 1950s. Rooted in anthropology, ethnomusicology studies the interactions of music, culture, and society—and like anthropology, it began by looking mainly at the traditional music of traditional cultures in Africa, Asia, Latin America, and Native America.

Ethnomusicologists have since broadened their perspectives to take in the complexities of globalism, imperialism, and the effect of new technologies on ethnic traditions. They have also come to look at how music, culture, and society interact in the Western world, a world that has long seen itself as a privileged place from which to examine “others.”

For example, besides teaching about the traditional music of Asia and Africa, Melinda Russell has brought ethnomusicology’s methods to bear on the contemporary musical life of the small industrial city of Decatur, Illinois—studying community and church choirs, public school bands and orchestras, and other everyday musical phenomena. She’s working on a book about the impact of the 1950s and ’60s folk-music revival in Minnesota: “I think it was one of the ways that Minnesotans worked out the culture they were going to have, or that they were going to have as distinct from the one they inherited from their parents,” she says.

What several members of the musicology faculty call the “decentering” of the field led Carleton to revise its musicological curriculum in the last few years to reflect the shift. Today, for example, music majors aiming to fulfill the history-of-Western-music requirement will choose from a list of courses that include “Women and Gender in Western Art Music” and a study of the social systems that created audiences for composers, and they are required to take one upper-level course in popular music (Flory on Motown is an option) or ethnomusicology.

According to Flory, while the changes in curriculum, and the new topics and emphases that are changing musicology, represent a movement from “depth to breadth,” he adds that “while I can see the downsides of the change, I think the upsides are better.”

For Brooke McCorkle, the breadth Flory refers to is part of a wider broadening of perspective in American society, one that’s long overdue. It’s affecting the performance as well as the study of music. “Carleton is working to incorporate more composers of color and greater diversity into the performance repertoire,” she says, “and it’s going to be challenging for a lot of us in musicology because we were all raised in the traditional framework. It involves a lot of self-education and a lot of baby steps, but we’ll get there.”

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