Music in a Changing Society – Kurt Blaukopf and the Viennese School of Music Sociology

Kurt Blaukopf is regarded by many as one of the most influential Austrian sociologists of the 20th century. As long-standing director of the Institute for Music Sociology and the founder of the »Viennese School of Music Sociology« he had – alongside Max Weber, Theodor W. Adorno and Alphons Silbermann – a great impact on establishing music sociology as its own discipline. Particularly with his critique of the naturalization of tonal systems as well as his unprejudiced analysis of new media and popular music, Blaukopf set the cornerstone for contemporary sociological research in the field of music.

Picture of Kurt Blaukopf
The Kurt-Blaukopf-Archive offers public access to all publications as well as many unpublished manuscripts and audio recordings by Kurt Blaukopf.

Kurt Blaukopf was born on February 15, 1914 in Czernowitz (today part of Ukraine). After primary and secondary school in Vienna he began to study law and political science at the University of Vienna. Even in the early 1930s, however, his real preference was for a scientific understanding of music. Hitler’s seizure of power in Germany (1933) and the burgeoning Austro-fascism caused increasing insecurity and worry for the Jewish Blaukopf family. In 1938 Blaukopf fled to Paris; he spent the years 1940 to 1947 in exile in Jerusalem. In this period he worked on a manuscript entitled “Musiksoziologie: Eine Einführung in die Grundbegriffe mit besonderer Berücksichtigung der Soziologie der Tonsysteme“, which, however, was only to be published twelve years later.

the cover of the book
A recently published compilation of some selected works of Kurt Blaukopf in English

As the first book with “music sociology” in its title, this study marked a milestone in the development of the sociology of tonal systems, which had first been explained as an extensive field of research by Max Weber in his essay The Rational and Social Foundations of Music. Against the widespread view that the occidental tonal system was »logically correct« and therefore »culturally superior«, Weber points out that there cannot be a »natural« system of tones that is practically applicable, but that each tonal system was the result of particular, more or less arbitrary conventions. Following Weber, Blaukopf argues for the “critical elimination of the fetishism that judges all music of past epochs according to the conventions of our ‘equal, 12-step temperature’. This fetishism hinders a historical appreciation of the music of other eras and other peoples”. Above all, this absolutizing of the occidental tonal system made it impossible to understand “the transformation processes that have been taking place in our music for decades”. According to Blaukopf, the investigation of this transformation process was the main task of music sociology. This demand was thereby not directed only against a Eurocentric world view, but was also implicitly critical of the prevailing orientation in the musicological discourse towards an inherent musical aesthetic. Blaukopf emphasized the interplay of musical development and non-musical factors: “Here music sociology proceeds from the recognition that those social, political and economic conditions not only externally influence and colour the practice of music, but determine its innermost being.”

the flyer of an international conference of music sociology in Vienna, 24-25 September 2015
September 24-25, 2015, a conference will be held on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the Institute for Music Sociology.

In September 1968 Blaukopf became university professor of music sociology at the Vienna Academy of Music (today: University of Music and Performing Arts Vienna). Alongside his sociological research on music, Blaukopf gave attention to cultural and media policy issues: in 1969 he founded the Institute for Music, Dance and Theatre in the Audio-Visual Media (IMDT, today: Mediacult) dedicated to the relationship between technology and art. Contrary to pessimistic assumptions according to which the advance of technologically mediated music would lead to the »death of live music«, Blaukopf’s research showed an increase in musical independence, which was above all evident in the form of youth music groups. The book Musical Life in a Changing Society, whose international reception made Blaukopf a representative of German-language music sociology far beyond the borders of his own country, was published in 1992. This work, which has become a classic of music sociology, largely consists of the presentation of Blaukopf’s research areas, and on the other hand it offers a comprehensive overview of the history of music sociology. At the same time Blaukopf continued his research on the transformation of musical life under the influence of technical media. His work on the “mediamorphosis of music” and its implications for cultural policy were not only received with great interest by writers of music but also by policy makers. His critical analysis of contemporary cultural and media policy, although far removed from culturally pessimistic laments, dealt with the question of the problems ensuing from the intersection of the mass media, economics and artistic creation and the consequences that should be drawn for the development of political measures. Kurt Blaukopf died on June 14, 1999. The last of his articles prepared for publication (which only was published posthumously) is entitled Musikpraxis als Gegenstand der Soziologie [Music Praxis as a Subject of Sociology]. This text, which was written 30 years previously, contains a precise exposition of Blaukopf’s music sociology summarized in approx. 100 paragraphs. It reflects Blaukopf’s early abilities as an impartial observer, an assiduous thinker and a far-sighted scientist. His approach to a range of questions that decisively shaped the 20th century suggests retrospectively awarding him the label that was originally applied to Gustav Mahler: a “contemporary of the future”.


Photo of Michael ParzerMichael Parzer studied sociology and musicology at the University of Vienna. Specializing in the field of music sociology, he completed his doctoral thesis on musical tastes and social inequality. Currently he is a university assistant at the Department of Sociology, University of Vienna. His research interests are in the areas of cultural sociology, social inequality, migration and ethnicity.

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