American Musicological Society Conference 2017

“On The Timeliness of a Marxist Organology” November 8th, 3pm


Recently, scholars such as Rehding (2016) and Tresch and Dolan (2013) have brushed some of the cobwebs off of the rather moth-eaten musicological sub-discipline of organology. Their important efforts to situate the study of musical instruments within the broader anthropological and sociological study of human practices and institutions opens the door for a Marxist telling of the history of music. The version of this project we envision seeks to conceptualize musical “instruments”—broadly conceived as any enabling device or method that enters into the making of music—as part of music’s historically developing productive forces. Three main theoretical burdens are shouldered by a historical-materialist organology of this sort. The first is to disclose the dynamics that drive the development of music’s forces of production. What determines how music’s instrumental technologies develop and change, and how can Marx’s theory of capital accumulation be of use in answering this question? The second is to demonstrate the manner in which and the extent to which music’s forces of production are determinative of its character and qualities, of the meanings it bears, and of the uses to which it is put. How, and how much, are instrumental productive forces, so to speak, the grounds of the sounds? The third is to address the same Marxian question concerning music’s instrumental productive forces that must be asked about productive forces in general: what, if anything, do these forces have do with transcending capitalism’s “law of value,” and what will they be like once it has been transcended? Our paper argues that these questions are important and overdue for consideration, and is a preliminary methodological sketch of how to go about answering them.