‘Social History and Music History’

I have been reading Trevor Herbert’s chapter ‘Social History and Music History’, which can be found in The Cultural Study of Music. It has been encouraging thoughts about the notion of ‘History’ and how to define it. This can be done in relation to a number of methodologies. Nevertheless, as Herbert’s chapter demonstrates, the conglomerate of these methodologies does not produce a definitive classification of what ‘History’ is. However, I think this is a good thing. It suggests that ‘History’ is potentially a dynamic social organism in itself.

Herbert’s chapter explains that the development of an overall body of historical methodology has produced a dichotomy between two main historical methods: those that fall under the term ‘history’ and are based more on artefacts and autonomy, and those that fall under a ‘social history’ description and consider social and cultural influences during a construction of historical events. Further methodologies fall under these two main methods:  ‘Positivist’ perspectives, ‘Music History’, ‘Postmodernism’, and ‘Microhistory’. After reading the text, I think it is clear that an acknowledgement of the socio-cultural cannot be avoided when assembling a body of ‘History’ from data, and that the historian’s interpretative ‘baggage’ has to be taken into consideration. Herbert states that ‘all history is “contemporary history” because it inevitably interprets the past in light of prevailing conditions.’ [1] I think this is an important point to consider during any musicological research. This not only includes interpreting artefacts, but interpreting the research of others.

The following is a general explanation of several branches of historical methodology and how they relate to each other. It is discussed in further detail in Herbert’s chapter ‘Social History and Music History’.

Social History: Herbert writes that ‘social history developed uneasily and relatively recently as a subdiscipline of history.’ The methods of ‘History’ changed from those of a ‘Great Men’ tradition to a consideration of social and cultural aspects. This was potentially influenced further by a presence of Marxist perspectives and those imposed by the French Annales School. [2]

Positivist: the Positivist tradition entails a neutral, distanced engagement with historical subject matter, and ‘historical’ rhetoric of the modern era. [3] According to Herbert:

[a] denial of imaginative engagement between the music historian and the historical material implies a denial of what is already embryonic in much musicological writing. [4]

Music History: according to Herbert, both ‘History’ and ‘Music History’ share similarities in their constituent disciplines. [5] This is indeed apparent from his text. As with ‘History’, ‘Music History’ involves a relationship between the somewhat distanced matter-of-fact attitudes within ‘History’ and the cultural considerations of ‘Social History’.

Postmodernism: postmodernism does not prioritize a facet of ‘History’ above another, and it concerns itself with developing ‘Social History’ methodology. In Herbert’s words:

postmodernism offers ways of building upon the methods and concerns of social historians in dealing with those whom music history has often overlooked. Social histories of music must as a matter of course expose the interactions between the widest spheres of society and musical practices. [6]

It is not unproblematic, however: ‘at its most extreme, postmodernism relativizes knowledge to the point where it is hardly possible to conceive of any knowledge history at all.’ [7]

Microhistory: the methodological approaches of ‘Microhistories’ deal with the micro-level detail that make up an overarching macro-level historical era. As Herbert writes:

Microhistories take the opposite tack to the large-scale, “grand narrative” approach that deals with major themes running over several centuries: “they build on the obscure and unknown rather than on the great and the famous. [8]


For more information, read: Trevor Herbert, ‘Social History and Music History’, in The Cultural Study of Music: A Critical Introduction, ed. by Martin Clayton, Trevor Herbert, and Richard Middleton (New York: Routledge, 2003), pp. 146 – 156


[1] Trevor Herbert, ‘Social History and Music History’, in The Cultural Study of Music: A Critical Introduction, ed. by Martin Clayton, Trevor Herbert, and Richard Middleton (New York: Routledge, 2003), pp. 146 – 156 (p. 147)

[2] Ibid., pp. 147 – 148

[3] Ibid., pp. 150 – 151

[4] Ibid., p. 151

[5] Ibid., p. 150

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid., p. 152

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