This page contains my personal, unacademically written, academic gig tour diary. With reactions to the gig ranging from elitist disdain and outright boycott, via strong objections, epistemic discomfort, partial scepticism, all the way through to intellectual relief, gratitude and enthusiasm, I feel I must be doing something right. I hope this personal account will be of interest to anyone concerned about the current state and future of music studies in tertiary education.

Updated 2012-04-02

NewcastleLancaster • Nottingham • Berlin • Granada


Since the late 1990s, when I wrote the EPMOW article on harmony, I’ve become increasingly concerned about the inadequacy and ethnocentricity of many basic terms used in conventional music studies to denote, in particular, tonal aspects of musical structure. Some of these problems are explained in Everyday Tonality (2009), in the article Troubles with Tonal Terminology (2011), as well as in the edutainment videos Dominants and Dominance and Epistemic Diffraction (2008). Lively and mainly positive reactions to this sort of work from students and colleagues in several parts of the world encouraged me, once I had retired, to put myself on the guest lecturing circuit in efforts to raise awareness about some cardinal problems of 'music theory'. The basic presentation abstract I send to those who have invited me to talk about such matters has been along the following lines.

‘Central terms in music theory based on the euroclassical repertoire are highly problematic when dealing with the structures and functions of popular musics from many parts of the world. Tonal, atonal, modal, dominant, subdominant, not to mention perfect and interrupted cadences, are just a few of the terms that make nonsense of much of the music that became globally popular during the twentieth century. This presentation discusses such problems and suggests ways in which the denotation of musical structure could be made less ethnocentric, less colonial, more democratic and ultimately more logical. These issues are contextualised as part of a larger epistemological problem: the reluctance of many scholars, both ‘muso’ and ‘non-muso’ to stray from institutionally established paths of intellectual orthodoxy, old or new, in efforts to reintegrate music as an essential aspect of human knowledge and understanding.’ [If you'd like a full written version of this, click here.]

Personal tour diary since October 2011

2 October, 2011: Rome

I’ve been at this dreadful [Euromac Music Analysis] conference for three days now. Apart from the popular music session and a useful poster presentation of analysis software, I’m shocked. It’s worse than being back at Cambridge in the early 1960s, more like listening to Hegelian absolutists from the 1820s. ‘As authority x  has so brilliantly demonstrated’, this ‘masterwork’ is ‘a paragon of thematic development’, ‘original and innovative’, etc., etc. The subtext is of course that ‘our music is better than their music: we all know that, nudge-nudge, wink-wink.’ I had to walk out of three sessions because they were so elitist, conservative and intellectually sub-standard. Besides, I didn’t want to burst a blood vessel. No empirical proof or theoretical deconstruction of anything. Absolute aesthetic values and hierarchies of parameters of musical expression all taken for granted, no problematisation, no will to understand anything outside the canon, but lots of apparent will to falsify it.

I was right to dread giving my presentation here today. First, even though I’d clearly stated my audiovisual needs well in advance, there was no way of amplifying the audio signal from my laptop so people could hear the actual sounds illustrating the points I was making. I should have known better because most of the papers, if they included anything but words, presented notation, not sound. Second, there was no discussion after my presentation, not even an objection. I felt like a complete alien, not even worth disagreeing with, the object of a social and epistemic boycott. Still, my presence there wasn’t totally useless. One of my keynote speaker colleagues (thanks and respect to Richard Parncutt!) engaged me in a really useful dialogue, as did a small group of ethnomusicologists from Sardinia, a couple of local students and Michael Spitzer from Liverpool (thanks, too, to all of them). Of course, those discussions took place in the corridor or outside on the steps, not in the official conference space. Despite that useful feedback, I swear it’s the last time I do anything at an official music analysis conference. It felt like 90% of the participants wished I would just go away and stop causing trouble so they could comfortably plod on with their ‘business as usual’, i.e. with business that is a bizarrely conservative exception to the cultural rule outside their comfort zone. Poveracci!  Geez, I was teaching popular music analysis before many of them were born. Sì, poveracci!

Top 6 October 2011: Turin

Everyday Tonality has just appeared in Italian (La tonalità di tutti i giorni) and I’ve just been to the Università di Torino’s Music Department at the invitation of old friend and colleague, Franco Fabbri, to explain the basic reasoning behind the book (i.e. the troubles with tonal terminology) to his undergraduates and graduates. My Italian isn’t terrific but, with the help of Jacopo Conti (translator of the book into Italian) and Franco, I manage to field some interesting questions about differences between English and Italian terms and about how to name riffs. Several students are interested in the development of aesthesic descriptors of musical structure. Just a short visit to a scheduled course slot at the university but a very welcome change from Rome.

Top 12 October 2011: Glasgow

The postgraduate seminar room at the university’s Music Department was packed to capacity (c. 40 participants). I was justifiably interrupted a couple of times to clarify particular points during my presentation and was engaged in an extremely lively 40-minute discussion afterwards that ran into overtime without anyone leaving the crowded room. One colleague said ‘What you’re saying is perfectly right and logical but you’ve not a hope in hell of making any of it stick!’ A fair comment, I thought, adding that the likelihood of seeing democratic change myself wasn’t going to stop me from trying. One research student wished I’d concentrated more on ways of developing a vocabulary of aesthesic denotation of structure than on the problems of (poïetic) tonal terminology. I agreed it was an even more important issue but too big to include in the hour I had at my disposal. Another colleague made really useful suggestions about the naming of modes (thanks to David McGuinness and to his engaging in subsequent email exchange that improved my conceptualisation on several important points). Thanks, too, to Martin Cloonan and David Code for having invited me and congratulations to the staff and students at Glasgow who have obviously created a very open, keenly critical and enthusiastic environment for studying music. It was a tiring gig but, boy, it was certainly worth it: very productive. Wouldn’t have missed it for all the tea in China!

Top 18 November 2011: Aarhus (Denmark)

The weather’s starting to get cold here but there’s a warm climate in the Aesthetics Faculty (Institut for Æstetik og Kommunikation) of which media studies and musicology (medievidenskab og musikvidenskab) are but a part. Only problem was that I was supposed to sleep in a university room with no proper curtains, no bedside lamp, no functioning electrical socket, a room that smelt of yesterday’s boiled cabbage, opposite a kitchen whose every clatter shattered whatever silence the room may have possessed. I offered to pay for my own B&B elsewhere but my hosts quickly understood the problem and booked me into a really nice hotel and footed the bill. Thanks to Pia!

The musicologists who invited me here interact with media studies on a daily basis and are obviously interested in integrating music studies with those of their colleagues in the same faculty. That’s why I gave a Music for non-musos presentation, optional for anyone in the whole faculty and one about the problems of tonal terminology for anyone specialising in music. Both presentations attracted what I was told was a record audience (c. 50 people). Despite some language difficulties I received many questions, once again several asking me to expand on aesthesic descriptors and several on the niceties of modal denotation. How to reform the absurd use of the word atonal was also a topic of discussion. After the presentation I spent another 30 minutes talking with students outside who wanted to discuss how to refer to musical events in a range of popular music styles.

This has been a very positive and instructive occasion. I’m convinced that the institutionalised interdisciplinarity of this place plays a positive role and that this has attracted the sort of staff and students who both need and want to engage in a reform of musicology. Many thanks to Ola Stockfelt, Pia Rasmussen and Iben Have for organising my visit and congratulations on having created what seems to me like a fertile environment for the reintegration of ‘music as an essential aspect of human knowledge and understanding’.

Top 6 December 2011: Durham

It’s cold here, too, in this very nice renovated medieval room with a view of the cathedral in upper Durham. I just got back from dinner with Max Paddison (respected music philosopher and jazz pianist) and some of the postgraduates who invited me as first speaker (quel honneur!) in a series they run themselves with the blessing and encouragement of the Music Department’s new head, Martin Clayton (respected ethnomusicologist). The seminar was well attended (c. 30 participants) and comments in the seminar room ranged from strong objections (one guy insisted that only triads based on thirds were ‘real’ triads, another argued that there’s really only one tonality) through confusion and ‘you’re stating the obvious’ (which I take as a compliment) to relief and even gratitude that we have to think differently when denoting structure in musics outside the euroclassical and jazz canons. Thanks to Martin Clayton and Laura Leante for their hospitality and many thanks to the postgrads, especially Maria Kouvarou, for encouragement and enthusiasm. The Durham Music Department seems to be clearly open for discussion, not afraid of conflicting opinions or the clash of approaches, ready to think outside whatever box may have previously bounded thinking and activities at the institution.

Top 30 January 2012, Liverpool

Back at my daughter’s flat in Liverpool after the gig in my old School of Music (I was at the IPM 1991-2002), I’m very relieved and quite happy. I had feared that my old non-muso colleagues might find my muso rantings about tonal terminology a bit arcane. But no, Sara Cohen and Mike Jones seemed pleased that a musicologist was questioning the ideologically loaded vocabulary of his discipline and making an effort to produce something more logical, more transparent, more accessible to students of all sorts of music coming from all sorts of angles. Not only that, Robin Hartwell (Honorary Research Fellow in Music, Hope University, Liverpool) expressed the opinion, which I strongly share, that it is plain embarrassing having to explain to students that atonal, triadic and functional don’t actually mean what they say. When asked what should be done to improve things, Freya Jarman-Ivens suggested we examine discontinuities between GSCE and ‘A’ level music syllabuses and produce a document strongly recommending a reform of tonal terminology for educational reasons. I thoroughly concur but have yet to respond. (Sorry, Freya, I will do soon!) In short, a very varied but extremely positive and constructive set of reactions. I couldn’t have asked for better. Thanks to Michael Spitzer (who I met in Rome) for the invitation and hospitality, to my old colleagues (including Robin) for their encouragement, and to my daughter because she's who she is.

Top 22 February 2012, Newcastle

I’m back home in Huddersfield (23 Feb) after my gig yesteday in Newcastle. Invited by ethnomusicologist and good friend Goffredo Plastino to do a research seminar at the Newcastle Music Department, I thought, knowing of Department ex-head and good friend Richard Middleton’s penchant for ‘poststructural’ theory, that it would be respectful to take those special interests into consideration when presenting at what was once ‘his’ department. I even went to the trouble of re-reading Bourdieu on reflexivity and scholasticism so that those attending the seminar with limited interest in modal or cadential denotation could at least have the sort of meaningful discussion I can have at any time with Richard about the value (or not) of canonic metatheory in the reform of musicology. I was looking forward to that sort of discussion and had even added a few new ‘theoretical’ slides to my presentation. But it was not to be.

The talk was well advertised, so, remembering an audience of 20-30 the last time I lectured in the department (in the mid 1990s, at Richard’s invitation), I was expecting a similar turn-out yesterday. Only seven people turned up (plus one latecomer): three PhD students, four members of staff, including three ethnomusicologists (Desi Wilkinson, Simon McKerrel and Goffredo) plus David Clarke who introduced me with great aplomb but who, frankly, seemed very ill at ease. I initially thought that might be due to embarrassment about the poor attendance. So, to put Goffredo and David at their ease, I assured them (senza bullshit) that quality was often preferable to quantity and that I was in no way insulted by having to talk to small audiences. After all, I’d had an audience of two when Simon Frith invited me to the Sociology Department at Warwick University in 1985. But that’s another story relating, if I remember rightly, to paradigmatic fundamentalism and power structures in the university duck pond (or sandpit).

Given that there were to my knowledge no concurrent events of importance in the Newcastle department at the time of my presentation (4.30 p.m., Wed. 22 Feb. 2012), given that advertising for the event was better than for any of the other gigs I’d done so far in the tour, and given that the abstract I'd sent in advance differed very little from those I'd sent to the other places, I had to ask some rather obvious questions. Why did Newcastle’s poor attendance and apparent lack of interest in my topic contrast so starkly with the considerable enthusiasm I had met in Turin, Glasgow, Aarhus, Durham and Liverpool? Why did the Newcastle situation seem to resemble so much more closely that of the Rome gig? If my ideas and I are considered in any way useless, alien, irrelevant or plain stupid, why didn’t at least one or two other members of staff turn up and put me to shame? If I am such rubbish they could so easily have encouraged their students to attend and witness the spectacle of debunking Tagg, that heretical old-timer and intellectual non-entity. That could have been quite instructive, even entertaining. Or am I viewed as some sort of threat? If so, what and who do I threaten? Do the Newcastle colleagues think the staff and students at Turin, Glasgow, Aarhus, Durham and Liverpool, not to mention the hundred-odd individuals that visit this site every day, are all duped and misled by my charlatanism? If they do, that's a serious accusation and it would be the moral duty of any self-respecting colleague to confront me and to expose me for what they think I am. Or don't they have the courage of their convictions? I was hoping for a dialogue but their non-attendance expressed no such interest. What has happened at Newcastle since Richard Middleton left? What could the Department's staff possibly lose by attending or gain by boycotting me? Did they just not want to know? Or was there something they didn't want me to know? However I look at it, the whole thing makes little sense and I can do no more than speculate. The fact remains that similarities with reactions to the Rome gig are striking. In both cases the behavioural strategy was to act as if neither I nor what I have to say exists and, if such denial proves impossible, to treat my presence as an irrelevant and unqualified non-event by ignoring or belittling it and by boycotting it. Weird!

In Rome it was a matter of my being correctly identified as outside the intellectually bankrupt ballpark of conservative music analysis. Fine. A bit sad but more of a compliment. That's why I can’t help wondering if there may be an intellectually bankrupt ballpark of conservatism at Newcastle, too. If so, could it be a fetishisation of barren and authoritarian metatheory in line with what was considered trendy by certain pseudo-radicals around 1990? I don't know. Whatever it was, it was all very creepy.

Despite all the weirdness, I was glad I went to Newcastle. Not only could I usefully register that there may be compact opposition to my ideas in certain circles. As at Rome, I also discovered that what I have to say does make sense to some people, even under unfavourable circumstances. For example, Simon McKerrel's conceptualisation of tonality in terms of recurrent patterns played on the pipes rather than as scalar abstractions, and Desi Wilkinson's insights as a 'folkie' flute player about mode were really interesting. It felt like they had a lot more to say but somehow couldn't..

P.S. (27 Feb 2012). Just in case you think I'm imagining things or exaggerating about Newcastle, let it be known that Simon Frith, in a personal email responding to this diary, wrote: 'I also found Newcastle quite an odd (and small) audience when I spoke there a few years ago (compared to other places)'.

P.P.S. (27 Feb 2012). Just in case you think I'm exaggerating about the Rome gig, yesterday I received two email responses, one from Peter Wicke (Berlin), the other from Jacopo Conti (Turin), both confirming my account of the nonchalance with which popular music research is usually met at gatherings of conventional music analysts.

Top 16 March 2012, Lancaster

There were less than ten people at this research seminar, too, but that's where any likeness with the Newcastle gig ends. The ensuing 45 minutes of discussion was extremely useful and constructive. Invited by Ed Venn (who was also at Rome and quite critical of the event). Great insights and ideas from Alan Marsden,

Alan Marsden

Ed Venn

Deborah Mawer

to be continued ...

Top 20 March 2012, Nottingham

Top 4 May 2012, Berlin

Top 12 May 2012 Granada

Top Encouraging events prior to the Tonal Terminology Tour

Events that encouraged me to ‘take to the road’ as a pensioner in 2011 with the sort of presentation described here (using PowerPoint and video illustrations) were:

  • December 2002 - November 2009. Questions and reactions from students following my courses in Analyse de la musique populaire, Musique et images en mouvement, Histoire de la musique populaire anglophone and Tendances dans l’étude de la musique populaire at the Faculté de musique, Université de Montréal.
  • June 2007. Keynote presentation during the Journées d’études of the Société française de l’ethnomusicologie; invited by young researchers: lively and constructive discussions.
  • March 2008. Five-day seminar in semiotic analysis of popular music at Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (postgrads in music and other subjects; invited by Susana González Aktories): lively and constructive discussions.
  • April 2008. Invitation from ethnomusicology postgraduates to hold a seminar at The University of Texas at Austin; lively and constructive discussions.
  • August 2008. Lively debate in response to presentation Democratic Denotation of Musical Sounds delivered at 15th Nordic Musicology Congress in Oslo.
  • April 2009. Discussion following guest lecture Analysing Music in the Media as a Democratic Right to Know at the University of Virginia, Charlottesville (invited by Fred Maus).
  • May 2009. Discussion following guest lecture Musicology for Non-Musicologists or Terminological Reform and the Democratic Right to Know; at the National Conservatory, University of Talinn (Estonia).
  • September 2009. Positive reactions to contribution Dominants and Dominance given at conference Musicologia y colonialismo, Montevideo (invited by Coriún Aharonián).
  • October 2009. Lively Skype discussion with postgraduate seminar at Universidad Vila Maria (Córdoba, Argentina) in reaction to presentation Music and Epistemic Diffraction.
  • May 2011. Positive reactions from participants at the Music and the Moving Image conference, New York University.
  • June 2011. Constructive debate from participants at 16th IASPM conference, Grahamstown (South Africa).