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Future of musicology cause for concern at Finnish universities

by Lasse Lehtonen

Musicology must engage in closer cooperation with other disciplines and find focus areas for profiling; that might be a summary of the demands currently being placed on tuition in this subject. There are positive experiences of cooperation with other disciplines at universities, but the future of the discipline is a shared source of concern all around Finland.

The university reform of 2010 and the budget cuts to education made by the current Government have led to considerable reorganisations at Finnish universities in recent years. With tightened competition for funding and increasing pressure for research to be marketable, the humanities feel under threat. This trend has led to a situation where the justification for musicology to exist as a discipline in its own right is being questioned.

What does that mean in practice? A quick round of consultation by phone shows that universities are currently concerned about departments being pared down and subordinated to other entities on the basis of financial considerations. Several universities have sought to amalgamate musicology with other disciplines. For instance, the University of Tampere introduced operating models after the university reform of 2010 that have been taken up at other institutions over the past few years.

“We have sort of been in a continuous state of flux since 2010, when subject-based teaching was abandoned and broad-based degree programmes were introduced. It is no longer possible to give substantive teaching in your own subject as used to be the case; instead, we now have subject modules where we are packaged together with other subjects,” says Tarja Rautiainen-Keskustalo, Professor of Music studies at the University of Tampere. “We share teaching duties for instance with ethnographic research and multimodality, although there is no other cooperation, say, in research.”

“One of our specialities – sound studies, hearing and listening – attracts interest across discipline boundaries. Talking about sound might be one channel for music studies to showcase its research traditions."
Tarja Rautiainen-Keskustalo, Professor of Music studies at the University of Tampere

Although the cooperation actually works well, its flip side is that it erodes the identity of music studies as a discipline in its own right. In view of this, Rautiainen-Keskustalo sees the forthcoming merger of the University of Tampere, the Tampere University of Technology and the Tampere University of Applied Sciences into the new Tampere3 university as a mixed blessing bringing both opportunities and threats.

“One of our specialities – sound studies, hearing and listening – attracts interest across discipline boundaries. Talking about sound might be one channel for music studies to showcase its research traditions. But we are also concerned that the university is being turned into an innovation machine.”

Similar trends have recently been seen at the Universities of Helsinki and Turku, where in 2017 musicology was subordinated to larger arts and media entities in the student admissions process. For the time being, this simply means several subjects sharing some or all of their basic studies, but there are also suspicions that the long-term goal is to erode the independent status of disciplines.

Profiling concentrates teaching and research

Musicology at the University of Helsinki has been hit hard by budget cuts and staff cuts in recent years. Professor Kai Lassfolk is worried about the extended negative trend but can still find a silver lining.

“We have been able to keep our teaching and research diverse and almost as broad-based as before, despite staff cuts and people retiring. For example, we have been able to replace the teaching of retiring or terminated lecturers with fee-paid teachers.”

Lassfolk considers that placing musicology in the wider context of Art Studies at the University of Helsinki does not as of yet threaten the independence of the discipline or its research.

“All branches of Art Studies share the view that we want to keep our respective disciplines independent. We have also engaged in collaboration across discipline boundaries, and our students are happy with the new Art Studies degree programme.”

Lassfolk’s colleagues in Turku broadly share his views, but Professor John Richardson is troubled about the motives underlying the merger.

“Cooperation with other subjects is fruitful and interesting, and we have good connections and a working relationship. But we must not forget that all this is driven by financial motives and the desire to achieve savings. This puts us on a perpetually insecure footing,” says Richardson.

“The core of musicology is the study of the content and structure of music, and in the worst-case scenario administrators may see this as elitist and exclusive."
John Richardson, Professor of Musicology at the University of Turku

Resources and their continued availability is a common cause for concern at all universities: the unpredictability of the political climate and constant changes lend an air of lingering insecurity to all operations. One approach aiming to secure continuity different from what has been done in Helsinki and Turku is the idea of university-specific specialisations. An example of profiling may be found at the Sibelius Academy of the University of the Arts Helsinki, where the weighting of musicological research towards the history of music was, according to Professor Vesa Kurkela, a conscious choice.

“It is an area of specialisation that no one else had, and so we decided to adopt it. Our other profiling areas are arts education and artistic research. Historical research is the area that is the most closely related to the tradition of musicological research.”

To be sure, there are examples of profiling elsewhere as well. In Tampere, ‘music studies’ was known as ‘ethnomusicology’ for many years, and by contrast, at the University of Eastern Finland ‘musicology’ is being renamed ‘ethnomusicology’ in autumn 2018. Profiling and focusing on matters such as the study of music in cultural contexts offers opportunities for collaboration with other branches of science, but even so John Richardson voices a concern about future trends.

“The core of musicology is the study of the content and structure of music, and in the worst-case scenario administrators may see this as elitist and exclusive. This is a problem, because this, being the core of the discipline, is what justifies its existence. You cannot have scientific pluralism without a diversity of disciplines.”

We should also remember that profiling and collaboration cannot be achieved by administrative fiat. Ultimately, research and teaching are not mechanical policy decisions; they exist in living interaction and collaboration.

Vesa Kurkela summarises the situation admirably: “Musicology is not made by institutions. It is made by people.”

Translation: Jaakko Mäntyjärvi
Featured photo by Veikko Somerpuro: A detail of the interior of Helsinki University's main building.

In a nutshell: how musicology is profiled at Finnish universities

University of Helsinki

In a reform implemented in 2017, musicology was converted from a subject to an ‘orientation’ in a broader Arts Studies degree programme, which includes a set of common studies. There is no aim to eliminate the independence of disciplines as such. Research and teaching are broad-based, and contents are determined according to the scholars involved and the projects launched. [updated in 2021: see also news on a closer research cooperation with the Sibelius Academy in Oct 2020]


University of Eastern Finland

Ethnomusicology tuition, aiming at a wide range of topics and general musical education, forms part of the curriculum of Cultural Studies (seven major subjects). The aim is to retain the main subjects as disciplines in their own right. The focus in ethnomusicology is on ethnographical and cultural awareness methods, the musical cultures of the world and the cultural analysis of sounds, soundscapes and environments.


University of Jyväskylä

Research and teaching are oriented towards diversity in methodology and content, exploring music from a variety of perspectives. Musicology is a separate subject and can be applied for specifically. Music education and music therapy are also separate main subjects and specialisations at the University of Jyväskylä; music therapy can only be studied at the Master’s level.


Sibelius Academy of the University of the Arts Helsinki

There are three profile areas in research: arts education, arts research and art history; there are several ongoing projects under the latter. The art history area is the most closely connected to the tradition of musicology. Other research areas may be adopted as specialisations in the DocMus and MusTri graduate schools. The Sibelius Academy is planning to launch a Master’s degree programme in music studies in the near future.


University of Tampere

Research and teaching in music studies were separated in the reform of 2010. There is no more subject-specific teaching; instead, teaching contents are packaged into larger entities with other disciplines. Such entities include ‘etnographic methods’, ‘multimodality’ and ‘affectivity’. Research focuses on the study of sound in particular. The subject ‘music studies’ used to be called ‘ethnomusicology’.


University of Turku

Musicology is given as a separate subject, but since 2017 it has been grouped in the admissions procedure with art history and media studies, and these three subjects share the same basic study units. Research and teaching are oriented towards diversity, covering topics such as popular music research, cultural music research, performance research and audiovisual research.


Åbo Akademi University

Since 2015, the subject has formed part of the culture, history and philosophy programme, which has a single admissions process and provides some shared methodology and theory units for cultural studies. The musicology discipline aims at diversity, although one of its specialisations is the musical culture of Swedish-speaking Finns, a natural focus area for a Swedish-speaking university specialising in minority studies.


In addition to the professors quoted in the article, background interviews were conducted with senior lecturer Noora Vikman (University of Eastern Finland) and Professor Johannes Brusila (Åbo Akademi University).