Social Historian or Musicologist?


It’s no secret that my PhD thesis was about brass bands, the north and the working class. I explored how and why brass bands became such a powerful metonym for northern working-class culture. As Dave Russell maintained,  this image of the northern working-class brass band ‘has become so taken for granted in the national comic grammar that it is easy to smile (or wince) and move on.’[1]  Yet, even though I encountered some criticism that bands were   too ‘parochial’; what mattered was that the bands created strong and influential social networks that made me question whether, in the current research environment, I am a social historian or a musicologist? It’s an interesting  question, because how I see myself in academia has implications for where my research impacts. Am I a social historian or a musicologist? Or, am I both?

To a large extent I have now left brass bands behind. What I found, however, was that the social networks of musical groups create social history, at least the social history that speaks to me. Music, therefore, remains at  the centre of my work, and the notions of region, class, culture, community and gender are the corners of this research. Amongst other things I am I am exploring the role of women in military bands, jazz in 1950’s Staffordshire and punk in the Rossendale Valley. The significant point is that there are few if any musical quotes in this research and it is led by local archival work. In that definition I am a social historian who explores the social networks of musical groups. Any one of these papers would work in a social history conference. Yet, musicology research -since the 90s – is embracing this approach. Musical research without musical examples is becoming the norm.

My Research as Social History and Musicology

The approach taken in my current research bridges a gap between musicology and social history. Whilst some work has been done to fill this gap, a great deal remains. In 1979 William Weber saw that musicologists and social historians had similar interests. Yet he still saw musicologists as scholars who tried to find meaning in musical scores, and social historians as researchers who tried to find historical significance in social groups. The link between music and the development of social networks had not yet been fully formed. Weber wrote:

I see strong similarities between recent interests of musicologists and the search among social historians for a clearer historical vocabulary. Just as musicologists are trying to arrive at a more accurate sense of how scores used to be played, so social historians are struggling to define what social groups meant to people in the past. Even if unanimity is in short supply in both fields, we all respect the past and ask that it be heard and seen in its own terms.[1]


Dave Russell made a call to study music to understand social history, together with the need to embrace an interdisciplinary approach, in his 1993 article, ‘The “Social History” of Popular Music: A Label Without a Cause?’[2] Major inroads into exploring music as an interdisciplinary study were made by the ‘Music and Cultures Research Group’ in the Open University’s Music Department, consisting of Trevor Herbert, Martin Clayton and Richard Middleton. The group’s stated purpose was to ‘pursue research in the cultural study of music, with an emphasis on interdisciplinary approaches drawing on musicology, social history, anthropology, ethnomusicology, cultural theory and other relevant areas.’[3] The key text that resulted from this group was a collection of essays covering many aspects of the conjunction between music and culture.[4] Their proposal to the publishers shows the influence of their work on my own research; they wrote:

A tendency to increasing concern with ‘culture’ has been manifested in music scholarship for some time, and in a variety of ways. It would be too much to say that various trajectories are converging, let alone that all will crystallize into a single field of ‘cultural musicology’. Nonetheless, different approaches are interacting, and with increasing intensity, such that it is clear that a new paradigm may well be on the horizon. All the disciplines involved in the study of music will continue to be changed by this process and, for some, reconfiguration seems inevitable.[5]


Significant research also emerged from the conferences of The Royal Musical Association’s Biennial Conferences on Music in Nineteenth-Century Britain, from 1997 onwards. These conferences have been crucial gathering points for scholars from a wide range of disciplines including musicology, cultural social and economic history, politics, sociology and cultural geography.[6] Significantly the work has been enriched by interdisciplinary dialogue.[7] This engagement with leading historians and cultural theorists has overturned the accepted view of nineteenth-century Britain being a musical wasteland.[8] Critically, as Rachel Cowgill maintains, these conferences ‘have long since squashed the notion that musicologists are not interested in the broad contextualization of music and its significance as a cultural practice.’[9] This evolution and acceptance of social history within the discipline of musicology was recently expressed in 2012 at the Centre for the Study of Music, Gender and Identity (MuGI), based at the University of Huddersfield, who argue they are ‘unique within the research context of music as a discipline in our exploration of the relationship between music, gender and identity in diverse cultural and chronological contexts.’[10]

Musicologist or Social Historian?

The answer then lies  in my own preferences. Social history is clearly musicology and musicology is clearly social history. The point is to convince critics that musical groups do indeed produce important networks that allow us to understand how people lived their lives. That, then, I suppose , makes me an advocate for the social history of music. If I attend a social  history conference  or a musicology conference the themes of region, class, culture, community and gender emerge again and again. The challenge is not only to bring music into the mainstream, but also to break down barriers in other disciplines. So, am I a musicologist or social historian? The answer is I’m proud to be both. Musicologists do the best wine receptions, though.

[1] William Weber, ‘The Muddle of the Middle Classes’, 19th-Century Music, Vol. 3, No. 2 (November, 1979), p. 185.

[2] Popular Music, 12/2 (May 1993), pp. 139-155.

[3] <> accessed, 6 October, 2011

[4] Martin Clayton, Trevor Herbert and Richard Middleton (Eds.), The Cultural Study of Music: A Critical Introduction (New York, 2003), <> accessed, 6 October, 2011.

[5] Martin Clayton, Trevor Herbert and Richard Middleton (Eds.), The Cultural Study of Music, p. 1.

[6] <http:/> accessed, 15 May, 2013.

[7] See, for example, Bennett Zon (Ed.), Nineteenth-Century British Music Studies Volume 1(Aldershot, 1997); Jeremy Dibble (Ed.), Nineteenth-Century Music Studies Volume 2 (Aldershot, 2002); Peter Horton and Bennett Zon (Eds.), Nineteenth-Century Music Studies Volume 3 (Aldershot, 2003); Rachael Cowgill and Julian Ruston (Eds.), Europe, Empire and Spectacle in Nineteenth-Century British Music (Aldershot,2006) and Paul Rodmell (Ed.), Music and Institutions in Nineteenth-Century Britain (Farnham, 2012).

[8] <http:/>

[9] See the previous website.

[10] <> accessed, 2 January, 2014.



[1]Dave Russell, Looking North: Northern England and the National Imagination (Manchester, 2004) p. 2.


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