Musicology: A World of Possibilities

Musicology is so broad that it’s difficult to define without restricting it. Although many musicologists are also trained in performance, it isn’t a performance-oriented field. Instead, musicology focuses on the history and cultural contexts of music.

by Caitlin Peterkin

Since the late 1950’s, musicology and ethnomusicology have often been considered distinct fields. Now, many professionals – and college music departments – combine the two under “musicology.”

“They are not different fields. That division is a legacy of the 20th century,” says Dr. Eduardo Herrera at Mason Gross School of the Arts at Rutgers University. “Musicology today encompasses the study of all music in all times and places using all different methods.”

However, the principle distinction between the terms is that musicology studies the development of music through time, while ethnomusicology looks at music in any given culture.

For example, Dr. Steven Zohn, a Music Studies professor at Temple University Boyer College of Music & Dance, says to consider an artifact, such as Australian Aboriginal clapsticks. “Musicologists tend to study the actual musical artifact, while ethnomusicologists are usually a little less concerned with the actual artifact and more with the cultural forces that produced that artifact,” he says.

Professionals also emphasize that musicology, while it heavily examines music in the historical context, is not limited to the past; many examine the popular music of today. “You can go to a conference where you might hear a paper on Lady Gaga as well as medieval music,” says Dr. Zohn.

Do You Need a PhD?

Because musicology is so heavily research-oriented, most programs are at the graduate level. Many professionals encourage pursuing both a Master’s and PhD if you want to follow the traditional musicology route: doing extensive research, getting published, and teaching at the university level.

“Almost everyone who works in the field has a graduate degree,” says Dr. Daniel Melamed, professor and chair of the Department of Musicology at Indiana University Jacobs School of Music. “Most everybody who teaches and publishes has a PhD.”

While several undergraduate programs do exist,
they are typically called “music studies” or “music history.”

“It’s fairly rare to encounter a major specifically called ‘musicology’ at the undergraduate level,” says Dr. Thomas Riis of the University of Colorado Boulder College of Music. If you’re unsure about committing to graduate school, these programs are a good introduction to musicology, especially since most graduate and doctoral programs require degrees in music, music history, or musicology.

“A Bachelor of Arts with a concentration of music is often the best way to prepare yourself,” says Riis. Students should take music theory and history courses, become involved in world music groups, and study traditional instrumental performance. “All of those are good preparation,” he adds.

“Undergraduate students who think they might be interested in musicology should take all the music history classes that fit in their curriculum,” agrees Dr. Melamed, “but should start by becoming the best performers, analysts, readers, and writers they can. There is plenty of time after a bachelor’s degree to take music history and musicology courses – that’s what graduate school is for – but building a foundation of a solid musical and liberal arts education is the best first step.”

Do you need to be proficient on an instrument?

“By and large, yes,” says Dr. Ryan Bañagale, assistant professor of musicology at Colorado College. He received his PhD from Harvard with a dissertation on George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. “You can be an absolute beginner at the outset, but basic keyboard skills and music analytical skills become important tools very quickly.”

“The best musicologists I know are good musicians with solid training in an instrument, voice, conducting, or other performance,” says Dr. Melamed at Indiana. “Most scholars are engaged with music in many ways, including as performers.”

Temple University’s curriculum for music history is very similar to performance, says Dr. Zohn. And while he believes many musicologists are unable to do serious performing because of the commitment to teaching and researching, he says many musicologists approach the field from a performance background. Zohn is a flutist who performs professionally part-time. “Personally, I think it’s an advantage to have a hand on the practical side,” he says. “It grounds you as a scholar, to not get too far away from music as practice.”

“I doubt that anybody who’s not that committed to music will do musicology – it’s a complicated commitment,” says Rutgers’ Dr. Herrera, a trained classical guitarist.

Career Options

While the typical trajectory for a musicologist is earning a PhD, researching and getting published, and teaching at the university level, there are many other options in terms of career choices.

If you choose not to pursue advanced degrees, a background in music history or musicology can be essentially interpreted as a liberal arts degree.“That means you can probably communicate well, write well, speak well, and do research,” says Dr. Zohn. “Those are transferable skills to a lot of professions.”

Alternatives to teaching:

  • Fields with a focus on research, reading & writing, and using critical thinking, including: law firms dedicated to copyright infringement; grant-making; editing; and publishing houses.
  • Museums, libraries, & archives: preserving instruments, manuscripts, photos, documents, and letters.
  • Other positions in education: teaching in high schools and prep schools; working in research centers, university administration.
  • Arts administration and management: concert halls; education departments of symphony orchestras; publishing.
  • Music technology and recording: public radio stations; recording studios; digital music publishing.

Tips for Finding a Program

  • Make sure the school offers flexibility in which courses you can take.
  • Who will teach your courses? Look for potential mentors and private instructors.
  • What ensembles and performance groups are open to you to join? Schools with world music groups, such as African dance ensembles, steel drum groups, and more offer great exposure and education.
  • Keep an open mind. “The best advice on going to college and choosing a major is to not be too preoccupied with ‘What job am I going to get at the end of the line?’ but ‘How diversely am I going to be prepared, how am I going to be challenged in a way that enhances skills or aptitudes I already have?’” says Dr. Thomas Riis of UC-Boulder. “The field you want to be in may not even exist yet, so what you want to do is prepare yourself in the broadest way possible, in the program that matches your learning style as much as your passion for the learning content.”
  • Find a program that offers as wide a range of music as possible, says Dr. Ryan Bañagale of Colorado College. “The greater your exposure to music, the more approaches to musicology you will encounter,” he says.


Caitlin Peterkin is a writer/editor and arts enthusiast who has worked as program manager for Earshot Jazz (Seattle) and has written for, The Chronicle of Higher Education, and Paste Magazine. She graduated from Indiana University Bloomington with a B.A. in Journalism and a minor in Music.

Illustration – Paramount Pictures


  1. John

    Thanks a lot for this very-well written article of yours Ms. Peterkin. This helped me find my direction and strengthened me to continue to work towards my goal of completing a graduate education in musicology.

  2. Liam Allan-Dalgleish

    The chief drawback of graduate study in musicology is the ego. Whereas musicology is one of the Humanities, therefore should serve to broaden the mind, it often has the opposite effect, leading some, because of the admitted challenging difficulties of carrying forth truly original research in, say, the compositional techniques of medieval polyphony, it leads some who are in fact mediocre scholars, not to say performers in music, to appoint themselves gatekeepers to quality in research and teaching based on the simple fact of acquaintanceship with subjects, sources, languages, repertoires, or what not that others might not be immediately conversant with. One always wants to avoid the trap, so beautifully enunciated by the great musicologist Manfred Bukofzer, of becoming an expert in Words Without Song. This tendency has become stronger since musicology embraced subjects not originally remotely part of the discipline, like gender studies or advocacy for arrivistes to the so-called ranks of great composers.

    • Since Musicology is academically-oriented with a focus on research and writing, the GRE is required for consideration for both Master’s and PhD programs. Check with each school you’re interested in to find out what their mean GRE scores were for students admitted in the past year or two.

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