Music Archaeology: Some Methodological and Theoretical Considerations

Arnd Adje Both

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

25 Citations (Scopus)


In its broadest sense, music archaeology is the study of the phenomenon of past musical behaviours and sound. This cross-disciplinary discipline comprises a series of approaches, including archaeological and musicological perspectives. The basis of research is music-related material finds, such as excavated and otherwise conserved sound artefacts (or ancient tools for sound and music production), as well as depictions of instrumentalists, singers, and dancers showing musical instruments and performance postures, sometimes including views of the original settings. As various archaeological cultures left such finds, many of the sociocultural contexts and meanings of past music can be studied. Today it is widely accepted that finds and depictions of ancient musical instruments are not only markers of musical traditions in space and time—especially when the archaeological contexts are well documented—but also a valuable means for experimentally testing ancient playing techniques. In the case of original sound artefacts (or their replicas), their acoustic function and the basic acoustic characteristics of a once performed music can also be reproduced and analysed. Additionally, acoustic spaces, such as architectural structures, caves, and other natural places, are the subject of music archaeological studies. The information obtained from the archaeological record can be deepened considerably when ancient scripts, historical treaties, and other written sources concerning music are related. Such documents offer notes on performance practices and their sociocultural contexts. For some cultures, hints concerning ancient music theory and musical aesthetics may also be found and, if ancient notations are related, even clues to aspects of musical structures are provided. Finally, the study of contemporary music cultures in which past musical traditions are preserved is valuable for comparative studies. In this paper the virtues of studying these sources are defined, but the limits of music archaeological research are also considered.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1-11
Number of pages11
JournalYearbook for Traditional Music
Publication statusPublished - 2009
Externally publishedYes


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