Future Histories of Music Theory

Conveners: Carmel Raz, Nathan Martin, Lester Hu, and Thomas Christensen

The history of music theory bridges between conceptual understanding and hands-on savoir-faire in ways that link current concerns with richly textured investigations of the past. Over the past few years developments ranging from the proliferation of online and digital resources to vastly improved communication technologies have opened new opportunities for innovative scholarship in the field. The “Future Histories of Music Theory” Working Group aims to foster discussion around recent and emerging trends, including global and material histories; cognition, embodiment, and affect; and digital and empirical methods. The group sponsors workshops, seminars, research residencies, and publication projects with the aim of advancing research on historical music theory in the broadest sense.

Project: A Global Anthology of Sources in the History of Music Theory

Editors: Carmel Raz, Nathan Martin, Lester Hu, and Thomas Christensen

Music-making is a ubiquitous human activity. But so too is the urge to understand music. Across countless geographically and temporally distinct cultures, people have developed accounts of musical materials and techniques: what they believe music is, what it is made of, and how. People have also marveled at—and sought to comprehend—music’s mysterious power to affect us: to induce trance states, provoke religious epiphanies, heal physical, psychic or social ills, inflame or quiet the passions, or enhance social bonds and group identity. The insights afforded by musical experience and intuition crucially shape religion, ethics, cosmology, and metaphysics, support or contest regimes of governance, and influence the formation of scientific disciplines.

At the same time, cultures around the globe have developed various practical methods to teach music by helping musicians understand its empirical elements, thereby reifying systems of pitch relationships, timbres, rhythmic patterns, and so on. This can involve constructs such as notes, intervals, modes, mensuration signs, meters, and claves. These elements are then transformed into skills by regimes of practical training in which students learn to perform, compose, or improvise music by incorporating these abstracted materials. Much of this pedagogy, we should note, is orally transmitted, with no textual basis. An extension of this pedagogical regime might be the analysis of musical works or performances that the student might undertake in order to learn composition or performance, or maybe simply gain greater understanding and appreciation.

All these many activities—speculative, practical, and analytic—constitute the expansive global field of endeavor that we can call “music theory” (Dahlhaus, 1980). It is thus surprising that until recently, Western scholars of historical music theory have largely restricted themselves to a narrow geographical range of textual traditions and institutions. The field’s two most authoritative reference works, for instance, the Cambridge History of Western Music Theory (2002) and the 15-volume Geschichte der Musiktheorie (1984–2022), make little mention of theoretical traditions outside the North-Atlantic sphere (Christensen 2002, Christensen 2003/2005, Zaminer et al. 1984–2022; see also Eggebrecht 1972). The result is the effective exclusion of many of the world’s other great traditions of musical thought—Arabic, Persian, Indian, or Chinese to name just a few. Whether this parochialism is simply a consequence of the field’s having been cultivated chiefly by scholars associated with various European and North American academic institutions, or more invidiously, a legacy of imperial and colonial mentalities (Christensen 2019, Irvine 2020) are questions to be pondered. In any case, the time has clearly come to question the prestige automatically accorded to European sources, to dismantle the boundaries that elevate these sources above all others, and to expand the field’s purview to recognize and appreciate music-theorizing wherever, and in whatever form, it occurs.

The Global Anthology of Sources in the History of Music Theory  aims to capture the range and variety of human music theorizing by offering excerpts (with commentary) of more than three hundred documents selected from across the world’s musical traditions. Supported by a team of over thirty scholars, the volume presents a multitude of perspectives on the discipline of music theory, its concepts, and its practices. The documentary material included will range broadly from both textual as well as non-discursive sources. All sources will be introduced and contextualized, including with suggestions for further study. By filling this acute gap, the Global Anthology of Sources in the History of Music Theory will provide a valuable resource for several overlapping scholarly communities: music theorists, graduate students in music studies, and musicians, but also ethnologists, anthropologists, and sociologists.  It should be emphasized that our anthology is not—and obviously could never be—a comprehensive anthology of music theory across all peoples and places over human history. Instead, we aim to offer a selective, carefully curated anthology of textual excerpts and documents that together illustrate the multiple and varied ways music theory has been represented and practiced over global history.

Project: Database of Sources in the History of Music Theory 

Director: Caleb Mutch

We plan to build an open-access database featuring digitized original-language versions of all of the music-theoretical sources included in the anthology described above. It will then gradually expand to include sources beyond the reader. The database will fulfil two main functions. First, it will serve as a repository for newly digitised documents in a range of formats (including audio, video, images, and text). The second function is to link already digitised materials from other websites. Researchers will then be able to search for related sources by author, time period, subject, topic, language or so on and be directed to digitised sources, whether hosted in the Primary Sources database or elsewhere. This database will comprise both textual sources as well as complete audio or transcription of interviews, additional images, and sound recordings of the instruments and artefacts that are featured in the anthology. Our goal is also to create a sustainable and equitable digital infrastructure so that new contents (sources, commentaries, bibliographies) can be easily added and updated in the future as the study of music theory continues to expand and diversify. 



June 6-7, 2023: Towards a Global History of Theory Workshop: Antiquity-1750

March 27, 2022: Sources in Historical Music Theory Workshop 

June 17, 2021: Workshop, "Future Histories of Music Theory: Problems and Possibilities"

July 19 — 20, 2018: Workshop, "Future Histories of Music Theory"