Music Matters. Materiality, Knowings and Practices in Performing Arts


Perspectives from historical musicology

Melanie Unseld

Music is sound, communication, emotion and much more. And thus understood, music is by no means materially unambiguous: it manifests itself in musical notation and sound storage media, in body knowledge and instruments, in writing and images, in thinking, speaking, etc. As unclear as the material is, it is quite clear that music is created in practicing: composing and interpreting, performing, listening and thinking, editing, learning and remembering... A highly diverse bundle of practices is always necessary to realize music. Understanding music as the object of science in this way has been discussed virulently in recent years.[1] So not only have new methodological approaches flowed into historical musicology; reflections have also been initiated on what it means to not reduce music to its existence as a musical text, but to think of its material diversity and realize the bundle of practices needed. This process was associated with a critical reflection of knowledge about music: which codes of knowledge underlie which knowledge? And how does this change our view of music as an object of our subject? Music matters starts from these three perspectives: the materiality of music(s), the knowledge and knowledge production about music(s) and the practices that enable, shape and change music.

Materiality can be seen from the perspective of understanding the interrelation „von menschlichem Handeln und Erkennen einerseits und den materiellen Voraussetzungen und Folgen dieses Handelns und Erkennens andererseits“ [2]. This dual perspective of the material and the social (especially in the historical dimension) is variable and, moreover, not always unambiguous: ambiguity of meaning can emerge between the objects and the use of things associated with them. Thinking from the perspective of materiality starts from objects, their circulation and order, but also from their symbolic dimensions. The central point, however, is that materiality is not meant to be essentialist, but rather historically changeable and ambivalent, so that boundaries of interpretability become recognizable. In the context of music, this perspective can help us to understand the fundamental dual identity of music - music as a process on the one hand, and as a variety of possible artifacts (notes, instruments, sound carriers, images, writing, etc.) on the other. [3]

Practices occur on two levels: ordered and rule-compliant on the one hand (on the basis of conventions, rules, codes etc.), contingent and spontaneous, in a presence of execution, on the other.[4] In relation to music this model is reflected, for example, in the performance of a composition: the score is the rule, the interpretation is the presence of execution. Both can be observed in the present and - at least to a certain extent - in the past. Historical practiceology[5] assumes that (1) materiality should be understood as an objectivation of practices, (2) the reality of execution can also be observed in a historical dimension, and (3) "sämtliche […] Praktiken der Vergangenheit und Gegenwart […] erst vor dem Hintergrund der jeweiligen, sehr spezifischen Sinnhorizonte und Bedeutungscodes"[6]. In addition to these three perspectives, practices rarely occur in an isolated way. Even the performance of a composition cannot be described praxeologically exclusively through composing and interpreting. At this point, the concept of the nexus of practices can be brought into question, [7] which also takes into account the connections and interdependencies of practices.

If the perspective on their materiality and the meaning of the practices changes the view of music, the knowledge about music also changes: new forms of knowledge come into view (e.g. body knowledge, performance, ambiguity, networked forms of knowledge, knowledge hierarchies etc.) and knowledge about music changes as new practices (especially bundles of practices) come into focus. Thus this new perspective also leads to a reflection on the knowledge about music: What knowledge about music arises when materiality and practices become relevant?


[1] See i.e. Nicolas Cook, Beyond the Score: Music as Performance, New York 2013; Nicolas Cook, Music: A Very Short Introduction, Oxford 1998, Reinhard Strohm, "Werk – Performanz – Konsum. Der musikalische Werk-Diskurs", in: Calella, Michele and Urbanek, Nikolaus (Eds.), Historische Musikwissenschaft. Grundlagen und Perspektiven, Stuttgart 2013, pp. 341-355; Stephan Mösch, Weihe, Werkstatt, Wirklichkeit. Parsifal in Bayreuth 1882-1933, Kassel u.a. 2009; Melanie Wald-Fuhrmann and Nikolaus Urbanek (Eds.), Von der Autonomie des Klangs zur Heteronomie der Musik. Musikwissenschaftliche Antworten auf Musikphilosophie, Stuttgart 2018.

[2] Herbert Kalthoff, Torsten Cress and Tobias Röhl (Eds.): Materialität. Herausforderungen für die Sozial- und Kulturgeschichte, Paderborn 2016, p. 11; see also Stefanie Samida, Manfred K. H. Eggert and Hans Peter Hahn (Eds.): Handbuch Materielle Kultur. Bedeutungen, Konzepte, Disziplinen, Stuttgart/Weimar 2014.

[3] Wolf, Rebecca: Art. "Materielle Kultur", in: Daniel Morat, Hansjakob Ziemer (Eds.), Handbuch Sound. Geschichte – Begriffe – Ansätze, Stuttgart/Weimar 2018, pp. 32-38; Melanie Unseld: "Im Denken über Musik eingewoben: Materialität", in: Wald-Fuhrmann, Urbanek (Eds.), Von der Autonomie des Klangs zur Heteronomie der Musik. Musikwissenschaftliche Antworten auf Musikphilosophie, Stuttgart 2018, pp. 23-32; Musiktheorie. Zeitschrift für Musikwissenschaft "Materialität – Musik und ihre Objekte" (1/2019).

[4] Thomas Alkemeyer, Volker Schürmann and Jörg Volbers (Eds.), Praxis denken. Konzepte und Kritik, Wiesbaden 2015.

[5] Haasis, Lukas; Rieske, Constantin: "Historische Praxeologie. Zur Einführung", in: Haasis, Lukas; Rieske, Constantin (Eds.), Historische Praxeologie. Dimensionen vergangenen Handelns, Paderborn 2015, pp. 7-54.

[6] Reckwitz, Andreas: „Die Kontingenzperspektive der ‚Kultur‘. Kulturbegriffe, Kulturtheorien und das kulturwissenschaftliche Forschungsprogramm“, in: Reckwitz, Andreas, Unscharfe Grenzen. Perspektiven der Kultursoziologie, Bielefeld 2008, pp. 15-46, here p. 27.

[7] Allison Hui, Theodore Schatzki and Elizabeth Shove (Eds.), The Nexus of Practices, Abingdon 2017.