From Iceland — WTF Is "Musicology" And Why Should You Care?

WTF Is “Musicology” And Why Should You Care?

Published October 5, 2015

WTF Is “Musicology” And Why Should You Care?
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On Tuesday, the University of Iceland’s Continuing Education Institute kicks off a three-night seminar on musicology, taught by Iceland’s only (by now) music writer-slash-scholar, the wonderful Arnar Eggert Thoroddsen.

We e-mailed Arnar some questions, to try and figure out wtf “musicology” is, and why people should be taking courses on the subject.

Briefly, what is musicology and what practical use does it have in the realm of the music business, if any?
Musicology simply means academic-slash-scholarly research into all things music, just like sociology is an academic research into social behaviour, etc.

The question about practical use is a good one, and I would like to split it in half. If you’re talking about the “music business” in terms of the economic realities of musical endeavours, for instance record labels, radio, gig promotion, festivals and such, musicological research and surveys can inform industry people about the workings of their business, and help them make informed and strategic decisions. But, as is often the case, there’s a wide gap between the efforts being carried out within academia and the industry.

That’s a real problem, and it’s my firm belief that dialogue and a co-operation between the two can be of great benefit. I know that this sounds absurdly common-sensical—but it’s even more absurd that it’s very rarely the case.

If we go beyond the “music business” and think about how music generally works in the world, economically or otherwise (e.g. how people listen, play, compose, interact etc.), a good piece of musicological research can provide an insight into what people are doing, and that is always valuable. Call it old-fashioned romanticism and a blind belief in the power of scholarly enlightenment… because, that’s exactly what it is.

The difference between West Coast and East Coast hip-hop

Why did you choose to study musicology and which skills can a student at your upcoming seminar expect to gain?
I finished a BA in sociology from the University of Iceland in 1999 and wanted to do something academically with music in the aftermath, but I wasn’t sure how to go on about it. I then read the works of Simon Frith, one of the more renowned music studies scholars—a socio-musicologist of sorts—and a lightbulb appeared over my head. I then got wonderfully side-tracked as a music journalist, and a letter to Simon sat in my draft folder for over a decade. I finally decided to take the plunge and was very fortunate to be accepted for a one year master’s programme in musicology at The University of Edinburgh in 2012, where Simon Frith was teaching.

Lady luck was not done with me yet, because Simon agreed to be my PhD supervisor, so I went straight ahead with that research after the MA. The drive for all of this is simply an overbearing enthusiasm for music and academic meanderings thereof.

This spring Viðar Halldórsson, a sociologist at The University of Iceland, asked me to contribute to the music part of a brand new course he was teaching there, on the sociology of popular culture. The course was well-attended, and many of the undergrads were discovering for the first time that it’s indeed possible to apply social theory to popular music. I wish someone would’ve thrust that on me back in the day.

This gave us an idea for the course, “Pop and Rock in a scholarly context.” It’s meant for the general music enthusiast, who would like to take thoughts and theories usually aired on Facebook or in a group of friends to a constructive environment, among similarly inclined individuals. All under the tutelage of professionals, we could say.

The course is thought of as a kind of “Popular Music Studies—The Basics.” We will introduce its key concepts and the various problems/subjects pop music scholars tackle.

Anyone who’s ever wondered about British society’s effects on the music of the Beatles, or the difference between hip-hop from New York and LA, should join us. Hopefully, we can get a lively, engaging and thoughtful discussion going.


Musicology is supposedly both a descriptive and prescriptive subject. As a music critic, do you believe your writing has had any lasting effect for the betterment of local music—and, if so, do you think, or even hope, that your work in the field of musicology will have a similar, or even greater, effect on the future quality of Icelandic music?
An epic question! Before we continue, let me say that I’m not the only Icelandic music enthusiast that has reported from the trenches, but I have to admit that I’m continually amazed at the shortage of people that do so. I’m 41 years old now: Where are the twenty-somethings that can write intelligently about the burgeoning and ever progressive Icelandic music scene? The proportions here are weirdly skewed.

I truly believe that a measured and insightful critique of what’s going on can support and sustain any music scene that’s happening. Any kind of coverage helps, but real analysis, coupled with enthusiastic “I care” writing takes this up a notch. I hope of course that my musicological work will act in a similar fashion, but I look at it as a descriptive thing rather than prescriptive.

I observe things and try to make sense of them but I have nothing to do with the quality of the music. That’s up to the musicians. As I say, coverage can sustain things and keep them active but I think the ability of critics/academics to influence the aesthetics and quality of the music is minimal at most.

Arnar’s seminar on musicology kicks off tomorrow night and will go on over the next three weeks. Registrations are still open – and all are welcome! Find information on the course and how to register RIGHT HERE!  

-A gratuitous sidebar!
Arnar Eggert Thoroddsen began his extended career as a music journalist in 1999, at Iceland’s oldest daily, the once-respected Morgunblaðið, where he eventually headed its popular culture department. Arnar has written for various other Icelandic publications, music trade journals and academic journals—and his writing has appeared in international article collections, books and on various music websites. He also has three books on Icelandic music to his name.

Arnar Eggert Thoroddsen

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