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Interdisciplinary Thinking: Is Music(ology) a Discipline or a Topic?

At a recent interview I was asked when I first engaged in interdisciplinary work. My PhD was, at first thought, the answer. For my PhD I studied the eighteenth-century overture, focusing specifically on how the overture prepared the listener for the events and actions of the opera. In short, I explored ideas of musical narrative and whether music can communicate a story in a similar sense to a literary narrative. This project required not just a study of the music, but a study of literary, narrative, and aesthetic theories as well as philosophy and semiotics.

When I began my PhD it never really crossed my mind that my project was interdisciplinary. It only really became clear to me during the write-up stage when I came across the difficulties of balancing the various methodologies and sufficiently explaining the cross-disciplinary concepts and ideas that I had employed. To overcome this, the text required various rewrites, editing, and a lot of thought about how I could explain my broad approach. In essence, I had to provide the reader with a validation criteria for my PhD, because if judged from a single disciplinary perspective it may have seemed lacking in some areas. It was tough, but I learnt a lot about my discipline and how to construct a cohesive argument when combining multiple methodologies.

However, my PhD was not the answer I gave in the interview. As I gave the question some more thought, I realised that I have always engaged in interdisciplinary work. In my first few weeks as a first year undergraduate at Oxford University I was exposed to the ideas of Susan McClary, a musicologist who draws heavily on cultural history to understand musical works. In my second and third year I had a similar interdisciplinary epiphany, as I began to look and understand music from the a gender studies perspective. For the purposes of the interview, I came to the conclusion that musicology for me is not really a discipline, but a topic, a focus for study.

Although it could be argued that musical analysis forms the essential core of the discipline, as so much modern musicology is fused with ideas and methodologies from other subjects and disciplines I don’t feel this would be truly representative. For instance, although my PhD is heavily analytical in places, the analysis was as much informed by literary ideas concerning narrative and drama as it was musical ideas of structure and form.

All this begs the question, then, of how useful disciplinary boundaries are today, especially in the arts and humanities. Indeed, I would like to think that I could write as much about film or literature as I could music, and I feel I my understanding of music enhanced by this broad interaction of disciplines.

What are other people’s views on this and do they think their discipline still holds sway or do they think it can be inhibitive? Comments encouraged.

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4 thoughts on “Interdisciplinary Thinking: Is Music(ology) a Discipline or a Topic?”

  1. I like the issues you’re raising. It is my belief that the rigorous demands on contemporary scholarship in the arts & humanties is causing a breakdown of traditional lines between disciplines. This is not unlike the breakdown between traditional disciplines in the physical sciences that occurred during the 19th & 20th centuries.

    It would seem to me that we are witnessing a similar trend in the arts, humanities & social sciences as the scholarship in these areas is attempting to hold itself to standards akin to the physical sciences. I for one am excited to be around to observe & participate in this.

    1. It is definitely an exciting time. I think one of the most difficult barriers to negotiate is the formal structures currently in place at universities and at publishers etc, although I know there is considerable work going on to foster interdisciplinary environments.

  2. From a completely different perspective (social sciences), I did my PhD within an area studies department, so the whole dept was interdisciplinary, which helped. I drew on all sorts – sociology, anthropology, development studies, public health, gender studies, amongst others (though I wasn’t able to shoehorn in any music – one day my ancient music degree will come into its own, but not just yet!) – and so it’s hard to say that my PhD is *in* any one discipline. Which is great as I can potentially publish all over the place, but was less ideal when it came to applying for jobs – a journal which is high impact in one discipline is next to meaningless in another, so it was hard to sort out any kind of strategy. I find that the whole publishing/REF/early career merry-go-round is a bit behind actual practice when it comes to interdisciplinarity, although that might be because as I said I had the luxury of working within a thoroughly interdisciplinary department.

    1. Thanks Jackie. I think that is a really helpful viewpoint as I think our stories are quite similar.

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