Musicologists study music in a historical, critical, or scientific context. The majority of Musicologists are employed by institutes of higher education, where they conduct research, publish papers, and teach college-level classes.
Professor of Musicology
How To Become a Musicologist
Musicologist Jeremy Smith is a Professor of Musicology at the University of Colorado – Boulder, where he specializes in the music of the English Renaissance, with a secondary focus on progressive rock. He explains, “Musicology is the study of music. It could be historical or critical — thinking about whether something was aesthetically good or not — it could even be scientific, studying acoustical theories and things. [It’s] almost anything that relates to the study of music. Most tend to be historical. They like to grab a certain period in history and study it carefully, but others are more involved in contemporary music. I am a historian.
The summer is very different than the school year. During the school year, I usually offer two classes and I often try to put them at the same time so there are some days that have no teaching and some that are a bit more full with teaching. So I can do a certain amount of research and thinking, as well as teaching, during the week. Even though they meet at regular hours, the schedule is different every time, so it might be different from semester to semester.” In addition to their teaching and research duties, Musicologists employed by a college or university also dedicate a certain amount of time to sitting on committees, designing curricula, and making sure the department functions correctly. In this capacity, they work with other Music Department instructors, such as Ethnomusicologists and University-level Music Teachers, as well as faculty, staff, and department heads.
Musicologists also get to travel as part of the research aspect of their job. Smith adds, “I kind of fell into Renaissance music because of a really good Teacher I had and I got to travel all over England and learn about English culture. The Renaissance is right there, unlike in America where we have about 200 years of history. The rock I study is also English, so that’s a stronger connection than I would’ve thought. I’ve been to Scotland and done work on progressive rock and it takes you to some of the same places I studied Renaissance music.”
Musicologists begin their careers while still in graduate school, honing their skills by serving as Teaching Assistants. After graduation, they may land a position as an Adjunct Professor, Lecturer, or Assistant Professor. The goal for most is to get on a tenure-track, which means paid holidays, insurance, and a lasting position at the university. Tenure-track positions include Assistant Professor, Associate Professor, and full Professor. From here, advancement could mean accepting a position as a Distinguished Professor, a designation which brings higher salary and is often tied to a corporation or individual who funds the role. Professors may also someday become Department Chairs, a role in which they’d oversee the Music Department.
Education & Training
Musicologists in academic settings must have graduate degrees, usually at the doctoral level. However, it’s not necessary to study Musicology as an undergraduate to succeed in the field, and in fact, Musicology degrees at the bachelor’s level are extremely rare. Smith says aspiring Musicologists should “feel free to go as far as they want with studies in Music or History or Art and not feel like they’re getting behind as a Musicologist because I don’t think it works that way. Things might be changing now, but basically, Musicology is something you can pick up in graduate school. All the way up to graduate school you should feel free to study your instrument, learn Composition, take other classes. What Musicology does is blend your musical interests with all your English and History and Art classes, so it’s a good field to come to later. I certainly did. It’s definitely not what I thought I’d be doing when I was young.”
Experience & Skills
In terms of experience and skills required to become a Musicologist, Smith says, “I really think the main one that you need to have is an interest in writing, in being able to express yourself and wanting to write. Many people are excellent musicians who don’t enjoy sitting down and writing and there’s so much of that in musicology you really have to have the interest. As long as you love reading you don’t have to be a good writer yet but you have to want to write. If you won’t want to write, it’s going to be frustrating.
And you need to just be reflective. A Musicologist needs to want to think about things and not just take them as they come but sit and contemplate some things. The process of allowing yourself to think is an advantage in musicology.”
“You almost have to be a Jekyll and Hyde [type], because when you teach, you have to come off as a public persona,” Smith says. “People are going to be looking at you and learning from you and you need to have a way to put yourself in the limelight. But then it’s not like that at all when you write; you have to put yourself in a private place. If I don’t teach after a while I get a little antsy and if I teach too much I feel the need to write. It’s a mixture I feel many academics have to deal with.
I think there’s almost an obsessiveness that comes in the writing stage and you have to push yourself and give in to your internal stuff, then come out of it and speak to people, be interactive and be extroverted. I think a lot of people find that okay, but if you’re only one or the other you might be struggling with the two sides. For me, it feels like a balance, but it also means you’re a little strange to other people who have steady approaches to their work. They wonder why, in May, you’re so worn out: because you’re looking forward to that space and getting all that research time!”
As has been mentioned, Professors of Musicology hold regular class and office hours every week. Smith says, “With teaching, it’s quite nice to really put yourself on a firm schedule, like ‘on Mondays, I’m going to teach the class, then get lunch, and relax.’ So, for my teaching purposes, I try to get myself into a discipline. With my research I kind of feel almost like an amateur; I want to approach things in any way they seem best to do but eventually you need to get more discipline with writing.
I like to feel free to change things around with my writing so sometimes I do work weekends. I love my work to the point where I’m happy to spend more time on it. This [schedule] can be scary in the way you don’t know when you’re going to be productive and how productive you’re going to be. Again there’s the Jekyll and Hyde with teaching and research, in that one part of me likes to be very disciplined and one likes to experiment. I get a lot out of both.”
The necessary training and experience an aspiring Musicologist needs are gained while still in school. Smith says, “The profession is very nicely set up at the graduate level. If you get a Ph.D., unless you really get Teachers who are not doing their jobs, you are training to be a professional in the way you need to be. You get to follow the path you saw coming, you watch your Professors and what they do and try to emulate what they do. Some things maybe are not clear in terms of what they call service — sitting on committees, helping design curriculum, dealing with job issues and helping run the place — but your Ph.D. does help prepare you for what your career will do.
There’s a real settled nature to the career of a Professor in Musicology that I find gratifying. I know how to teach and make sure students learn and how to do research and publish in the right places and publish a lot. I’d say that to students who are worried; I was very worried when I first graduated and I found it all the more rewarding as I got more into it.”
How Musicologists earn income will depend on their job title and duties. For most Musicologists in academia, the goal is to land a tenure-track position. Smith explains, “What I did was very straightforward. I wanted to be on tenure-track so I was looking for full-time employment and I got that. It took a while and it wasn’t easy but I did get on a tenure-track. My situation, I think, is basically in the middle. It’s not an exciting salary but it’s definitely enough. Some of my friends in the field have spouses who are in high-paying fields and that makes them more comfortable.”
He adds, “There are other people who approach musicology differently. I would’ve been very happy if I was in LA doing something with music that paid me a lot and then went off and taught as an instructor in various places. That’s a glamorous way to be an instructor, when you’re famous in the field, like a Music Critic who would come and lecture. Then there are others who don’t get tenure-track positions and are paid per class or are salaried but not tenured. There’s a little too much of that these days and it’s not desirable but people combine that with other work and it can work. If you’re a professional musician and also manage to teach during the day, that can be rewarding. My recommendation is to become so famous you can do this for fun or take it so seriously you get on a tenure-track and make it work that way!”
Unions, Groups & Associations
In regards to resources and professional organizations for aspiring Musicologists, Smith says “there’s one called the American Musicological Society (AMS). We have a big national society and then chapters across the country. I’m in the Rocky Mountains chapter. It’s almost one-stop shopping as an online resource.
They have everything from job postings to bulletin boards, with people discussing what it’s like to be [in the field]. There’s a lot of career advice and opportunities for young people to come sample what Musicologists do, like come to our conferences. The conferences are a great thing the organizations do.”
- “Write your best paper. Polish up a paper.
- Get to know a Musicologist (either a Professor or someone in the department) and interview them. Ask them about their job and what they do. It’s a small enough community that personal connections can be a big help. Get to know other people, reach out. We’re not like Rock Stars so we’re more than happy to meet people and we’re quite flattered by attention. It can really help to make new friends.
- Enjoy music. Be open minded about music and people.
- Reflect on things.”
What is the single biggest suggestion you would give to someone wanting to get into this career?
“Cultivate their writing and thinking.”
What’s the #1 mistake people make when trying to get into this career?
“It’s a funny one. It’s difficult to get into a really good program like Harvard, University of Pennsylvania, or Stanford, etc. Some people come out of those programs with a kind of arrogance. That is the one mistake I’ve seen: people thinking they’re already really good at what they do and too good for what people are asking them to do. You get to be like a Music Critic and give your opinions, people agree with you, and you start to think you’re the one who knows all this stuff. I’d caution against arrogance. I’d say the better thing to do is be interested, engaged with people, and not try to stand above them.”
What is the question people should ask about this career but rarely do?
“The one thing that is weird is you’re working when you don’t seem to be working. I think a lot of academics get this feeling. You’re actually thinking a lot, so much that even you tell yourself you’re not working when you’re working sometimes. To even just be thinking is difficult in today’s society when everyone is so busy and caught up in what they’re doing — so actually, you’re sometimes working hard when you don’t look like you’re doing anything.”
What is one thing I should have asked which I didn’t?
“Do I like it?
I do love it. I’d love to see more young people in our profession. Some people see musicology as a disappointment: that you didn’t get to be a musician or something. I think it’s a really desirable job and something to shoot for. I think there are people who thought they were going to be orchestral violinists or Rock Stars and end up being Musicologists, but some of those people are probably even happier as Musicologists than they would be in those other roles. This is a wonderful job.”
If you could describe in one word what makes you successful, what would it be?
“Curiosity. Why is it this way? Why does that work? Why did everyone print music this way? Why do people love albums? Why is Ozzy Osbourne so interesting? Over and over again, I think being curious has really helped me out.”
Jeremy Smith is a Professor of Musicology at the University of Colorado in Boulder. His primary research focus is on the music of the English Renaissance, with a secondary focus on progressive rock.