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The contribution of Theodor Adorno to Musicology

The contribution of Theodor Adorno to Musicology

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An essay for the 2011 Undergraduate Awards Competition by Andrew Maloney. Originally submitted for Issues in Musicology at National University of Ireland Maynooth, with lecturer Dr Lorraine Byrne-Bodley in the category of Modern Cultural Studies
An essay for the 2011 Undergraduate Awards Competition by Andrew Maloney. Originally submitted for Issues in Musicology at National University of Ireland Maynooth, with lecturer Dr Lorraine Byrne-Bodley in the category of Modern Cultural Studies

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Published by: Undergraduate Awards on Aug 29, 2012
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10/27/2013

 
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“Only sick music makes money today” was a famous quote
referring to the music of the midnineteenth century by the notorious philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche.
1
This quote could quiteeasily have come from the theorist Theodor Adorno in the twentieth century, the pioneeringmusicologist who first understood the sociology of music and who in turn separated musicinto two categories; the superior art music and inferior popular music. Theodor Adornocontributed so much to musicology that it is impossible for me to outline them all in thispaper so I will instead focus on the contributions that I feel have had the greatest influenceand impact on music itself. As Stephanus Muller
states, “It is [...] difficult to overestimatethe degree of his influence on musical thought in the twentieth century”, something which
nobody can deny whether you agree or disagree with his views.
2
Adorno certainlycontributed to musicology positively but sometimes his contributions were not always so and
in this respect I will seek to analyse how his writings on jazz damaged jazz‟s reputation as a
serious discipline within musicology and how this scholarly stigma is still attached to jazz tothis day.Before I begin looking at some specific contributions of Theodor Adorno I wish to brieflydiscuss his theory of mass culture, a theory which had an impact on his greatest contributions.He was the first musicologist to apply social theories to music and he understood that societyinfluenced music in all ways whether rejecting certain kinds and accepting others. Indeed hiswritings on music from a sociological point of view (while still criticising the aesthetics of the music) were mould breaking and in his writings we see the impact that the consumerist
1
 
 Nietzsche, Friedrich, „The Case of Wagner‟,
The Works of Friedrich Nietzsche
(trans. Thomas Common,Macmillan, London, 1899) pp. 21
2
 
Muller, Stephanus, „Music Criticism and Adorno‟,
 International Review of the Aesthetics and Sociology of  Music
, 36, (2005): pp. 101
 
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capitalist society had on music, such as the acceptance of popular music over art music.Everything in this new society is given a value and something like art music which is deemedvalueless by it (or priceless to some depending on how you view it) has no real place due to
the fact that it is “art for art‟s sake” and cannot be used as a commodity in which “its
suitability for use permeates its production in terms none other than its marketa
 bility”
3
 From his writings on the theory of mass culture came a very important article in 1931 aboutmodern music entitled,
Why Is The New Art So Hard To Understand?
Adorno himself, asupporter of the modernist school who had a special admiration for the work of Schoenberg,wanted to address the concerns of the general public and their issues and fears surrounding
this new strange music, “I speak, therefore, only of 
that art which all of you experience as
specifically modern in the sense that it is accompanied by the shock of its strangeness”.
4
Hequestions why there is a fear of modern music and what causes this, asking sociologically,not aesthetically.
5
 The hostility towards art music arises from the impulse to point to the past as an era whichmust be recovered and Adorno himself vilifies the common notion that the history of western
music was a coherent progression until “the isolated aberration of artists assoc
iated with
modernism”.
6
It was not a wrong turn in his opinion but rather a true reflection on society asit had struggled to maintain its own autonomy from the mass culture, a culture which, by
3
Adorno , Theodore, „On Jazz‟,
 Essays on Music
(selected, ed. Richard Leppert, Berkeley, Calif., 2002), pp. 473
4
Adorno , Theodore, „Why Is The New Art So Hard To Understand?‟,
 Essays on Music
(selected, ed. RichardLeppert, Berkeley, Calif., 2002), pp. 127
5
I feel that in this article, unlike many others of Adorno which I have read, he is speaking directly to a verywide audience, the general public, not just academics, theorists or philosophers.
6
 
Adorno , Theodore, „Why Is The New Art So Hard To Understand?‟,
 Essays on Music
(selected, ed. RichardLeppert, Berkeley, Calif., 2002), pp. 128
 
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aligning itself with repetitive pop tunes, denied itself the search for truth in art. Older art hebelieved possessed an immediacy of effect that makes it understandable but this immediacy
does not exist in the new art and he states that “the new art needs some helping operations
that are required in order to
 penetrate into its centre”
.
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One could say that a general lack of understanding and respect of this new art could be to blame for the fears of the general publicbut Adorno goes further than this and blames the divide between two very important factors
 – 
 the production of art and the consumption of art.Adorno believed that due to the fact that this new art music was not a commodity in this
newly formed „mass culture‟, it was being replaced by music which could be
made into acommodity but by doing so lost its true art value accordingly, namely popular music and jazz.
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For the first time we clearly see this divide now in music, a deep divide between whatAdorno describes as the modern art music and the popular music, something that still existstoday in m
usicology. For Adorno, popular music tended “to lag behind in unchangingexistence”
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, lacking creativity which the art music at the time of his writings in the 1930s hadin abundance. Due to the fact that the modernist art music had no specific function in societyit began to be hated and feared as a result. Adorno was the first musicologist to realise thatthe capitalist ideology of encouraging anything that can become a commodity in society anddiscouraging
anything for its own sake (like art for art‟s sake) had much to do with society‟s
7
 
Adorno , Theodore, „Why Is The New Art So Hard To Understand?‟,
 Essays on Music
(selected, ed. RichardLeppert, Berkeley, Calif., 2002), pp. 128
8
 
Witkin, Robert W., „Why did Adorno “Hate” Jazz‟,
Sociological Theory
, Vol. 18, No. 1 (March, 2000), pp.155
9
 
Adorno , Theodore, „Why Is The New Art So Hard To Understand?‟,
 Essays on Music
(selected, ed. RichardLeppert, Berkeley, Calif., 2002), pp. 131

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