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  The earliest documented examples of musicology (academic study of the phenomenon of music) are from ancient Greece: Pythagoras\' research into the acoustical properties of vibrating strings, and Plato\'s socio-psychological remarks on the effects of flute music on adolescent boys. Thereafter there is something of a lull, until in the high Middle Ages Guido d\'Arezzo did work to codify the notation of plainchant, and Omar Khayyám researched the psychological effects of different categories of sound. More systematic work began in Europe in the 18th century, perhaps triggered by the Encylopedists. Attempts were made to discover, and to describe, the various ‘national styles’ in music, and to write accounts of those composers who used each of them. It was not, however, until the mid-19th century that musicology became a professional discipline, funded by universities—and it was not until the dispersion of European scholars during the Nazi period in Germany that the discipline became recognized worldwide. It now has two principal branches: ethnomusicology, which is concerned with folk music and non-Western music; and musicology itself, which centres on Western art music of the last 1,000 years or so.

Musicology has a number of branches, each largely self-contained. First and foremost are acoustics, the study (predominantly biological and physical) of the nature of sound and how it is produced, and studies (predominantly physiological and psychological) of how we perceive music, of how and why it affects us as it does. A second main branch of musicology is concerned with performance, and involves instrument history, methods of notation, performance practice (historical and contemporary), technology and technique, and the whole place of music in its aesthetic and social environment. Music history is a minor, but crowded, branch of the profession, and there is a profusion of critical writing which is rejected by musicological purists on the grounds that it is not scientific—a besetting problem in a discipline which is attempting to make scientific assessments of a phenomenon which is essentially indefinable and subjective.

Like all academic studies, musicology is internally riven, and its fads and feuds are sometimes as fascinating to its practitioners as their proper work. But because it is concerned with a performing art, unlike say the academic study of literature, it can be of unique importance (for an academic discipline) on those concerned with primary creation. An example is the late 20th-century fascination with ‘authentic’ performance. Simple questions like ‘Does Bach\'s music as we experience it today sound anything like it did in his own time?’ have led to a flurry of research into instrument manufacture, the nature of halls and audiences, the size of performing groups, and every detail of performance from ornamentation to the bowing of string parts, from speed and attack to the nature and use of vibrato. This research has inspired performers to try to recapture the original sounds and effects, and the result has been that much ‘old’ music, from pre-Renaissance times through to Brahms and Mahler, has been cleaned of the accumulations of practical and theoretical expertise between its date and ours, as an old painting is cleaned of varnish. (After Mahler the task is somewhat different, period recordings adding a direct aural impression of selected pieces—another, and currently eagerly studied, weapon in the musicologist\'s already bristling arsenal.) KMcL

See also academe.



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