A Report on and Response to Studying Music, a Conference Recently Held in Honor of Simon Frith

Jane Harrison


In April 2014, a conference in Edinburgh honoring Simon Frith upon his academic retirement featured three days of paper sessions, enjoyable activities, and distinguished guests. For the benefit of colleagues who did not attend it, this article offers some description of and purposefully subjective commentary on the conference Studying Music. Particular attention is given to the themes highlighted in the call-for-papers: Frith’s position in music scholarship, writing about music, the current relationship among the various disciplines that claim music as a subject of study, and boundaries between different categories of music (high/low, popular/art). Topics of highlighted papers include the socio-semantics of vocal timbre, the etymology of the term “popular music,” historiography of celebrities, sociology of race relations, and a plethora of perspectives on music and technology. Studying Music presented several strengths, especially because its paper and panel sessions encompassed researchers from media, music, and sociology departments. The achievements of Simon Frith and popular music scholarship were duly celebrated, extended, and reconsidered in new ways. Yet, a persistent ideological suspicion of art music scholars and musical analysis among popular music scholars who were present troubled me, as a musicologist who researches French art music. Taking this antagonism as a point of departure, this article concludes with a reflection on both positive and negative social and political implications of art music scholarship based on my own experiences in academic life.

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