Posted in Project 2: String Quartets

Research Point 5.3: An ever-changing, multi-faceted discipline of musical analysis

The aim of this research point is to carry out a small-scale investigation into different methodologies of musical analysis in order to create an overview on how to approach various aspects of music to refer to later on in the degree. Along these lines, the instructions specified to look at both the musical analysis in a broad sense, as well as more particularly at some key practitioners and their individual methods, all while referring to some personal thoughts on the subject.

To begin, after spending considerable amount of time trying to find different definitions of musical analysis, I realised that despite all my previous training in music, I was never once asked and likewise, never considered to ask myself, what this discipline actually was. Instead, I was always given different tools by my teachers in order to ‘unpack’ a musical piece, without knowing precisely where these analytical devices had come from, what makes them valuable, as well as why use them in the first place. As such, this was my first opportunity to not only inquire more into the analytical tools I’ve learned how to use prior to the course, but also generally start to reconsider what I’ve been taking for granted in my previous studies.

In this direction, I first turned to Bent’s (1987: 6) all-embracing outlook that musical analysis is “the means of answering directly the question ‘How does it [musical phenomena] work?”. This question, I believe, puzzled the minds since the advent of sound and even humanity itself. A curiosity that evolved into early systematic, yet still ‘auxiliary’ tools in the Middle ages, and finally grew into a kaleidoscopic and labyrinthine discipline of its own right from the mid-18th century onward, attracting answers that differ from analyst to analyst, who developed their own methodologies.

In this sense, as Zatkalik, Medic and Collins (2013, x-xi) argue, musical analysis is “an intricate web of readings and interpretations … a contextual, but above all a creative act… not a fixed body of facts, but an evolving practice that continually reassesses the musical past” with “a multitude of narrative explanations of musical phenomena”. In this broad sense, it is also important to mention musical analysis in relation to music theory, which “establishes fundamental concepts and defines terms that generalise across pieces and applications” often using “mathematics as a metalanguage for creating new theories of pitch space, harmony… formal models of musical structure and syntax” (Hanninen, 2012: 3). Thereby, music theory “inscribes a realm of possibilities”, while musical analysis focuses on particular, distinct moments, features or qualities in the musical experience of a specific composition.

Changing the discourse now towards more specific types of musical analysis, being itself an intricate web of approaches, it was very interesting that I managed to find no standardized classification of the methodologies. For example, relating back to the research I carried out for sonata form, Hepokoski and Darcy (2006: 3-6) in their book on sonata theory grouped the English-based musical analysis into four groups – two being broadly ‘musicological’, and the other two, broadly ‘music-theoretical’:

  1. Eclectic analytical writing of Tovey, continued by Kerman and Rosen in terms of coherence and dramatic qualities of a musical piece. For example, sonata form is understood to contain ‘identifiable’ points of climax, denouement and similar devices analogous to the 18th-century drama.

2. Historical-evidentiary-empirical writing, such as LaRue based on stylistic traits, which are analyzed through prose-based SHMRG cue sheets (sound, harmony, melody, rhythm and growth) (Fig. 1), and Ratner based on musical topoi – sets of musical entities with extra-musical meaning around which 18th century composers based their works around.

Fig. 1. An example of a cue sheet based on LaRue’s method of SHMRG analysis

  1. Schenkerian and post-Schenkerian analysis based on unique form of musical notation (Fig. 2) with the main focus on the linear-contrapuntal-harmonic units of a musical piece, whereby a composition itself is understood as a fundamental structure (ursatz)

Fig. 2. An example of Schenkerian notation

  1. Analysis based on identifying thematic development and phrase-shapes by Shoenberg, Reti, Keller, Ratz and Caplin, in which motifs are understood as the smallest complete units from which larger divisions are formed.

On the other hand, according to Bonds (1991: 13-4), different approaches can be divided into two views: those that adhere to conformational view, whereby a musical piece conforms to a model, the formal functions of which are established by composers in a particular era, or generative view that the musical form of a piece is a product of material development such as motivic or contrapuntal processes. Interestingly, under this criteria, Hepokoski and Darcy (2006: 10) define their own theory as a new kind of view – dialogic, which considers how a musical piece is in dialogue with historical conventions not only by conforming, but also through deformation of established practices in the positive sense of bringing innovations to a particular musical form.

In addition to the above, I have encountered yet another classification of methodologies, based on their underlying philosophical modus operandi by Viljoen (2004, 3-4). On one side, this includes the formalist, semiotic/structuralist and semiotic/stylistic forms of analysis, that ‘overburden’ the musical text and fail to consider it as “multi-faceted, complex ideological form” with “intricately interwoven discursive contexts” in the production and reception of the work. On the other lies the new-musicological/postmodern analysis that results in single-sided readings “propagating a specific… socio-historical or cultural agenda.”

Despite being very useful, I found the differing criteria for the three classifications a bit confusing once compared one to the other. For instance, I discovered that Agawu’s semiological methods are based on both the topical theory and Schenkerian analysis, while Schenkerian analysis itself, though often classified as generative, is actually quite separate in its reductionism. Futhermore, although non-identical, perhaps the way the classifications systematise methodologies into fixed, formulaic moulds is altogether too narrow and partial, as I don’t think the categories fully reflect the complexities of each of these analytical approaches. For example, the narrative analysis, which adapts the theoretical tools of literary narrative theory as I have encountered while carrying out research for assignment 2, would be very difficult to place, as it is often eclectic, semiotic and topical, though in varying degrees depending on the author and still relies on music-theoretical findings in all three modes – conformational, generative and dialogic alike.

At any rate, with regards to my own experience, these classificaions helped me identify where some of the analytical tools I’ve been using stem from. In this sense, I’ve recognised that the motivic analysis is the one that was taught to me mostly by my theoretical teachers, while practically, my violin and piano teachers preferred their versions of the Shenkerian analysis with some discussions on style and historical circumstances. Here, I’d like to recall my Part 2 research on interrelation between performance and notation (click here to read), and in this context, musical analysis is a valuable practical tool with a unique function to aid the projection of certain notated ideas given by the composer. Nonetheless, once I started studying at OCA, as I became more and more interested in programmatic music, I started developing a more topical, dramatic and narrative-based approach to analysis, which in assignment two even turned a bit postmodern.

Having said that, Viljoen’s classification in particular motivated me to look into the underlying ideologies behind musical analysis. In fact, Kerman (1980: 314) goes as far as to argue that “the true intellectual milieu of analysis is not science, but ideology” itself. In this sense, the overriding, hegemonic aesthetic values of Palestrinian counterpoint, Bachian fugue and German, especially Viennese, instrumental tradition, can clearly be observed in music studies in general, but especially in musical analysis. As such, the content of analysis is not as objective as it might seem, and doesn’t represent any matter of indifference. Instead, like most things, it is subject to social constructionism as posited by Solie to operate not under “universal criterion of value, but rather a historical construction of strictly limited applicability” (Cook, 2001: 170).

Moreover, there has always been an opposing force to music analysis, which Varese summarized by stating that “to explain by means of it [analysis] is to decompose, to mutilate the spirit of a work” (cited in Bernard, 1981: 1) And indeed, I believe different methodologies always contain a type of distortion, particularly in relation to the past works as Wingfield (2008) denotes, since most of them presuppose a twentieth-century lens of ‘generic layout’, when composers really participated in a creative engagement with syntactical conventions of their own time. On the other hand, according to Kerman (1980: 314-20), the history of musical analysis also developed from many dualities which I have discussed in Part 2 of the course – the notions of spontaneity vs. authenticity, the Hegelian myth of the artist that divided the composer and performer into distinct hierarchies, as well as the controversial philosophical debate of programmatic vs. absolute music. Towards 20th century, when tonality, which has long rooted the Western musical system, came under attack by modernism, musical analysis was once again divided, now into the ‘Brahms-line’ defended by the musical analysis of Schenker and later Tovey, against Strauss and later the new-Viennese school that developed their own analytical tools.

In view of the foregoing, I’d like to conclude this post by saying that although sometimes slightly distortive and not as objective as I initially thought, musical analysis with its labyrinthine and kaleidoscopic range of methodologies is still immensely useful for trying to understand music in various ways, from the more theoretical to the more performative and compositional contexts, but perhaps even more so in the way it outlines different ways of how we can/can’t or do/don’t understand music. Against this perspective, musical analysis in its ever-changing plurality of methodological narratives provides multi-faceted avenues for us to continually question and reinvestigate our relationship to the meaning of music and helps us attune ourselves to its different emergent properties in relation to different frames of reference.

With all this said, I believe this post has been very beneficial to inspect some broader and narrower pros and cons of musical analysis, from the more practical to theoretical and ideological factors. While I was already familiar with most of the methods I’ve noted down, this was a great opportunity to learn more about their origin and function, while some like Larue’s and Schenkerian approaches, I have only used partially in relation to my teachers, so it would be really interesting to look at them on their own right in the future. In any case, it was also very worthwhile to learn about the slightly disfiguring side of musical analysis and how the plurality of analytical methodologies aren’t there to actually offer absolutely objective facts about music, but possible ways to form our own individual interpretations of its characteristics, which is a great thing to remember for any musician. As such, I hope to combine these various methodologies of musical analysis to continually probe into different mechanisms of music, thereby revisiting over and over again Bent’s assertion that will forever puzzle the human mind and by which I started this research: “How does it work?”

List of illustrations:

Figure 1. An example of a cue sheet based on LaRue’s method of SHMRG analysis. From: Randall, R. R. (2006) ‘A General Theory of Comparative Music Analysis.’ [PhD thesis] Department of Music Theory, University of Rochester. (Accessed on 14th February 2020)

Figure 2. An example of Schenkerian notation. From: (Accessed on 17th February 2020)


Bent, I. (1987) Analysis. London: Macmillan.

Bernard, J. (1981) ‘Pitch/Register in the Music of Edgard Varèse.’ Music Theory Spectrum, 3, pp. 1-25.

Bonds, M. E. (1991) Wordless Rhetoric: Musical Form and the Metaphor of the Oration. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Cook, N. (2001) ‘Theorizing Musical Meaning.’ In: Music Theory Spectrum, 23 (2), pp. 170-195.

Hanninen, D. A. (2012) A Theory of Music Analysis: On Segmentation and Associative Organization. Rochester: University of Rochester Press.

Hepokoski, J. A. and Darcy, W. (2006) Elements of Sonata Theory: Norms, Types, and Deformations in the Late-Eighteenth-Century Sonata. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Kerman, J. (1980) ‘How We Got into Analysis, and How to Get out.’ In: Critical Inquiry, 7 (2), pp. 311-331.

Viljoen, M. (2004) ‘Questions of Musical Meaning: An Ideology-Critical Approach’ In: International Review of the Aesthetics and Sociology of Music, 35 (1), pp. 3-28.

Wingfield, P. (2008) ‘Beyond ‘Norms and Deformations’: Towards a Theory of Sonata Form as Reception History.’ In: Music Analysis, 27, pp. 137-177.

Zatkalik, M., Medic, M. and Collins, D. (eds.) (2013) Histories and Narratives of Music Analysis. Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing.

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