Practical Musicology (21st Century Music Practices)

PDF Practical Musicology (21st Century Music Practices) Simon Zagorski-Thomas, 2022

Book author
  1. Simon Zagorski-Thomas
Practical Musicology 21st Century Music Practices

Practical Musicology outlines a theoretical framework for studying a broad range of current musical practices and aims to provoke discussion about key issues in the rapidly expanding area of practical musicology: the study of how music is made. The book explores various forms of practice ranging from performance and composition to listening and dancing, from historically informed performances of Bach in the USA to Indonesian Dubstep or Australian musical theatre, and from Irish traditional music played by French musicians from Toulouse to Brazilian thrash metal or K-Pop. Drawing on neuroscience, cognitive psychology, ecological approaches in anthropology, and the social construction of technology and creativity, Zagorski-Thomas uses a series of case studies and examples to investigate how practice is already being studied and to suggest a principle for how it might continue to develop, based around the assertion that musicking cannot be treated as a culturally or ideologically neutral phenomenon.


This book is the first in the new Bloomsbury 21st Century Music Practice series of which I am editor and it coincided with that explosion of workload for the majority of academics around the world that occurred when the Covid-19 pandemic meant that we had to transfer our teaching online. As series editor I tried to be forgiving and supportive to myself as author and I was, in turn, generously supported by Leah Babb-Rosenfeld, Bloomsbury’s Music and Sound editor, and subsequently, when Leah went on maternity leave, by her colleagues Rachel Moore and Amy Martin. I would also like to thank Bloomsbury’s anonymous peer reviewers as well as Stan Hawkins, Linda Kaastra, Eve Klein and Nyssim Lefford who looked at an early draft and were very effective and useful ‘critical friends’.

The idea for the book grew out of the 21st Century Music Practice research network and I would like to thank Leah Kardos, Gonnie Rietveld and Chris Wiley for hosting our early events and the wider group of academics who participated in those events and the online activities that we subsequently undertook under lockdown. In particular, a group of colleagues at the University of West London – Andrew Bourbon (now at Huddersfield University), Emily Capulet, Mike Exarchos (now Creative Director at RT60), Sara McGuinness, Liz Pipe, Francis Pott and Dan Pratt – have encouraged the growth of these ideas through conversation and by collaborating in various practice and research projects. In addition, Amy Blier-Carruthers from the Royal Academy of Music was equally important in that regard. There is also quite a long list of research degree students – my own and others, past and present – who have challenged me to think about these issues in greater depth and breadth: James Bell, Isabel Campelo, Louise Cournarie, Jose Manuel Cubides, Agata Kubiak-Kenworthy, Yong Ju Lee, Jo Lord, Anthony Meynell, Christos Moralis, Gittit Pearlmutter, Tyrian Purple, Hammad Rashid, Caroline Russell, Gemma Storr and Susan Thomason.

I am grateful to my employers at the University of West London for providing a six week sabbatical which gave me the mental space to get around the last bend and reach the finish line. Further than that, my ideas have been continually stimulated by the wealth of discussion, presentations and reading that has come from the wider research community – the 21st Century Music Practice network, PRAG-UK, the Orpheus Institute, the Society for Artistic Research, the RMA Study Group on Music and/as Process, the Practice Research Assembly, IASPM and, of course, the Art of Record Production conference and association.

Lastly, and most importantly, I want to acknowledge the huge influence that my wife and daughter, Natalia and Alex, have had on my thinking. Although I am sure they would rather die than read this book, they have, nonetheless, had a massive impact on my thinking on these topics.

Simon Zagorski-Thomas. (February 2022)​

What is Practical Musicology?

I am proposing that Practical Musicology is the study of how to ‘do music better’ and that, for the most part, this will involve researching by ‘doing’ and by studying how we make decisions about what ‘better’ is.

Why is it, just at the moment when everyone is getting fed up with arguments about the nature of practice research and wanting to get on with it, am I weighing in with another ontological argument that appears to be going over old ground? My point is that practice research and artistic research in music, while they have carved out quite a coherent identity, they have done so in a relatively homogenous set of musical practices. Much like artistic research in general, it has flourished in institutions which specialize in conceptually driven forms of creative practice and, as such, focus on particular types of knowledge.
In a recent presentation to the Scottish Graduate School for Arts and Humanities’ Practice Research Assembly, I asserted that a key difference between autoethnography and practice research was that ethnography (of any type) is concerned with ‘what happened’ whereas practice research is concerned with ‘how can I do it better?’. That principle was underlined in the recent reports on Practice Research by Bulley and Sahin (2021) for the Practice Research Advisory Group UK (PRAG-UK) which quotes David Cotterrel as saying it requires ‘a self-reflexive approach to method, which is continuously subject to review’ (Bulley and Sahin, 2021, p. This is then expanded upon in point

This is what Pickering refers to as a ‘dialectic of resistance and accommodation:’ the practitioner chooses between multiple approaches to find what Schön has called their ‘own way of combining them’.

For me, these skirt around a fundamental point: that practice research in particular and Practical Musicology in general involve the process of establishing their own quality criteria as part of the research process. They explore what ‘better’ is at the same time as establishing a methodology for achieving it. This is often implied rather than explicitly stated and is, I think, particularly made less ‘visible’ in creative practice that is conceptually driven. In the Orpheus Institute online video course on ‘Artistic Research in Music – An Introduction’, Paulo de Assis states, ‘It is not research “of ” something lost, but research “for” something to be invented’ (Impett, 2019, p. 1.4 de Assis video (3’ 18”)). The Orpheus Institute course is very much focused on Western art music – from historically informed practice to contemporary art music with a conceptual basis. Thus, while artistic research, as it is emerging from its Northern European foundations, makes no ideological stipulations about the types of art practice that it is concerned with, the work of the European Artistic Research Network (EARN), PRAG- UK and the Society for Artistic Research (SAR) has, perhaps unsurprisingly, a strong leaning towards conceptual art. I say ‘perhaps unsurprisingly’ because these networks are based in university systems which have an obvious tendency towards intellectualizing artistic practice and there is a tendency towards art practice that has pre-existing ties to intellectual thought. Indeed, a lot of artistic research seems to be about exploring complex theoretical ideas through practice. The result – which is, of course, valid, useful and praiseworthy – is often to shine more light onto the theoretical idea rather than on the practice. That, however, provides me with more of a reason to propose a Practical Musicology.

I should point out that not only do I have no problem with conceptually driven art practice but I also ‘do it’ quite often. Some of my best friends are conceptual artists. I also do not think that this is a zero-sum game – that if some of us choose to theorize other forms of musical practice, that our aim is to belittle or reduce the influence of conceptually driven music. Nor am I trying to ‘dumb down’ music research by making everyone study popular music. I am trying to ‘clever up’ forms that are currently under-researched. If this seems like a defensive start to the book, I am only saying it because I have been accused of these things in the past.
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