Psychology? No, Musicology!

By Yolanda Acker

Like many young children, one of my extra-curricula activities was learning to play the piano. I remember a friend at primary school showing us a scrapbook with all the certificates she had been awarded from competing in eisteddfods, and I asked my parents if I could do so too. As you did back in the day, they had a look in our local paper and found a piano teacher in the area. It was something I pursued with a certain regularity every week for many years from the age of about seven, and when the time came to choose between after-school activities such as ballet and sport, I chose to continue my piano lessons.

I was never a great pianist by a long means, but I enjoyed the challenge of learning new pieces. At high school, I pursued music, always hoping that it would be split from drama, which most of the students probably took it for. Spurred on by a number of enthusiastic and committed teachers, I also developed an interest in history, but timetabling restrictions made it impossible to pursue both at a VCE level and I stuck with the two music subjects available at the time, Music B –as it known– at school and Music A –the practical study– of my own accord.

When it came time to think about university, I remember asking whether I would be able to get into music at the “Con” –as the music side of the Faculty of Fine Arts and Music at the University of Melbourne on Royal Parade is still widely-known today– even though my playing was not up to the standard of most. I was reassured that as long as I had the entrance score and VCE music, I would get in. And so it was. My initial idea was to specialise in Music Education, which I actually began to do, but I soon realised that I enjoyed researching and writing about music, and that perhaps Musicology was the path that was most suited to my strengths and my personality. By third year, such was my interest and application that I actually won a Faculty prize based on my results! Not bad for a very mediocre pianist.

As perhaps the only student in my cohort to complete the Musicology specialisation without combining it with another, I went on to graduate with honours and to successfully win a place and a scholarship in the M.Mus program at the University of Melbourne. By this time, I had moved overseas to Madrid and had to take time out to complete my research. My Master’s thesis focused on a Spanish composer, Antonio José, who was barely known to the English-speaking world at the time and one of only a handful of composers killed at the beginning of the Spanish Civil War in 1936. Today, thanks to the interest of guitarists all around the world in his Sonata and a plethora of recording in recent years, he has become somewhat more of a household name, at least in regard to twentieth-century guitar music. I even had the honour of writing the entry on him for revised edition of The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians.

After completing my dissertation, I began working at a music research institute and archive, putting all of the musicological skills I had acquired at university into practice. Over time, my job would grow to involve everything from cataloguing music, books and scores, to drawing up inventories of personal libraries and papers, editing publications and journal articles, working on major music-reference dictionaries and curating exhibitions. I also assisted students, scholars and the general public with their enquiries and research about particular composers and/or genres. From time to time, I gave the odd paper and participated in short courses, as well as contributed to a number of publications in the area of twentieth-century Spanish music and dance, as illustrated here. Ultimately, my fluency in English as well as Spanish also provided me with the opportunity to work as a specialist music translator for many leading music and academic publishers and record labels, something I can (and still) do from any part of the world thanks to the Internet.

To this day, when I tell people my profession, their first response is to qualify what I have told them with something they are more familiar with, which is almost inevitably “Psychologist?” After I correct them and repeat that “No, I am a Musicologist”, their next question is invariably “But what does a Musicologist do?”, followed by “Can you study that at university?” If you ask Google about Musicology, it is more than likely that it will come back with something related to the 2004 studio album by Prince! Most people will then go on to make the association between Musicology and Music Teaching, but more than this, as the very term indicates, Musicology is literally “the study of music”. As the American Musicological Society webpage ( explains, Musicology is a broad term “encompassing all aspects of music in all cultures and all historical periods” and embracing “a wide variety of methods of studying music as a scholarly endeavour”. Apart from teaching in higher education and publishing, as my own experience has shown, musicologists typically work in museums, archives, libraries, performance-based organisations including orchestras and opera companies, radio and as freelance writers and critics.

While most music students are attracted to the more high profile performance-based university courses, Musicology can also be a very rewarding professional career path for those with a keen sense of inquiry and a flair for writing and reflecting on the music of the past and the present. At the AGME, plans are already underway for it to have a greater presence in the B.Mus. program and in a future graduate research course. In recent decades, Musicology has continued to evolve towards involving a more cross-disciplinary approach, combining many different parent disciplines. Given the nature of my own work I have come to refer to myself as a cultural musicologist, a label that has gained in popularity, but one that has been used for the greater part of the twentieth century. Whether your interests lie with the more practical forms of Musicology, such as performance practice and music analysis, or with neighbouring fields and applications for music research in the humanities and social sciences, it is a job that has the potential to take you around the world.


Yolanda Acker currently works part time as Higher Education Administrator at the AGME and is in the final stages of writing her PhD thesis on “Music in Madrid during the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939)” at ANU.


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