One of the topic areas of Music.SE that is most exciting and interesting to me is musicology. Because SE, as a system, is richly populated with -- and I use this term with all pride and fondness -- geeks, Music.SE is disproportionately blessed with early musicians and other people with passion for music history. Music.SE's denizens are unusually capable of supporting questions into musicology, as a number of recent questions have demonstrated.

Furthermore, insofar as it is SE's mission to be a repository of good answers to interesting and sometimes recondite questions practitioners of a technical discipline might ask, and to expose those answers to Google so that anyone in the world asking those questions finds those answers, Music.SE supporting musicology questions is not only right in line with what SE is trying to achieve, it is an example of how excellently SE can support sophisticated, deep, knowledgable questions and answers in tiny, under-appreciated academic fields. Answers to musicology questions typically involve pointers to resources -- books, recordings, shows, scores -- that are otherwise hard for questioners to identify as relevant, and in doing so, help bring those musicological resources to wider audiences.

It seems obvious to me that musicology is good for Music.SE, and Music.SE is good for musicology.

But we have a problem. Musicology questions are tending to get put on hold and suspended. I don't think anybody is doing this because they hate musicology, or think musicology questions are, per se, off topic. (Let me know if I'm mistaken about this!) The reasons cited are occasionally "too broad", but more usually "too opinion-based". I think it's because the people voting to close don't realize that that has to do with the nature of musicology itself.

History, as a academic practice and discipline, is, fundamentally, about opinions. Not opinions in the sense of taste preferences, but in the sense of considered hypotheses with substantiating evidence. This is what historians do: attempt to put together the jigsaw puzzle of the past, without the box, missing a lot of the pieces, and with multiple puzzle's pieces all jumbled together. Historians construct hypotheses about how things were, or why, and they marshal the evidence they have, and set them loose in the world. This is what makes history a fundamentally contentious field: conflicting hypotheses contend.

History is a field where you almost never get to know that one answer is conclusively right. The best you are ever likely get is that that the preponderance of evidence supports your contention. But maybe tomorrow somebody will find a score, a recording, an instrument, a picture, a textual description which upends everything you thought. We don't have time machines to go back and check. Is this interpretation how it would have sounded in 1189AD? Maybe, maybe not. You do your homework, and you put it out there, and at best, fellow knowledgable people nod and say, "that's a very compelling case."

Consequently, questions in the history of music don't necessarily have one right answer. You can have five different, even contradictory answers, that all are valid, interesting, and informative. That's not actually different from another sort of question that doesn't get any moderation push-back here: requests for suggestions of approaches to solve performance and mastery problems. When someone posts, e.g. for suggestions how to address the challenge of dyslexia while learning to read music, there can be a nigh-infinite number of different suggestions, all of which are useful to know about. Having "the answer" to a question be a collection of different answers isn't a bug, it's a feature.

Likewise, that there will be multiple, possibly contentious, responses to a musicology question is not a bug, it's a feature. Musicology is like perl: TMTOWTDI. Having one place where all the arguments are represented: that's not a problem, that's an achievement. Having a place where the puzzle pieces -- the bits of evidence -- are collected? That's fabulous. Having a place where the puzzle pieces are discussed, and where are collected the arguments whether or not they are part of the puzzle being assembled? Also fabulous.

The thing that gets me is that the SE platform, with its scoring mechanisms, is a particularly great at supporting that kind of discourse. People who find an argument particularly compelling can upvote it. People who disagree with an argument can object in comments, and the comments themselves can be endorsed by those who agree. People who have additional substantiating evidence can edit it right in to an answer. No one argument has to "win", all, at their varying levels of community support, show up on the page -- and if there's additional future evidence that changes things, well, votes can be added or changed. SE actually handles "opinions" really, really well. And by "well" I mean "in a way which is informative to answer seekers and other researchers".

But for Music.SE to be a home for musicology, it's got to stop unwittingly suppressing musicological questions.

From one perspective, that means relaxing the "not opinion-based" standard. I see it from another perspective: realizing that questions about associations, influences, labels, and tastes are no more "opinion" based and are just as substantiatable as questions like "how do I fix this technique problem?" and that the solution, if there is a problem, shouldn't be to ban or "fix" the question, but to hold answers to a high standard. Same as with any questions.

Regardless of how you get there, it means seeing a question like "Are the works or artists that are considered particularly influential in the development this style, and if so what/who?" and not dropping the banhammer on them as "likely to have opinion based answers", but rather reminding answerers, "Bring evidence".

Let me put this another way: I want, not unreasonably I think, Music.SE to be the place where somebody asking "Should I use Beethoven's metronome markings?" (for those that don't know: a famous, important, unresolved contentious issue of musicology that directly intersects musical practice) winds up, and finds a thorough discussion of the evidence for and against. Right now, when I put "beethoven metronome markings" into Google, you know what discussion site it sends me to? Reddit. (While there are fabulous, thoughtful technical discussions on Reddit (truly!) that... is not one.) But right now, if somebody puts "Should I..." anything it will be shot down as "too opinion-based".

Could we not do this anymore? Because I respectfully submit it's killing off one of the best, most important, most useful parts of Music.SE.

A few examples:

I personally rescued "Why is the saxophone considered romantic?" and have made a stab at saving "Which disco tracks were the most influential in electronic music?" which is still on hold as of this writing. The highly rated question I asked, "Was the viola da gamba or violin particularly associated with England in the late 16th or early 17th century?" was a direct outgrowth of a comment on the merits of "Why is the saxophone considered romantic?" which posited that that question was as absurd and inappropriate to Music.SE as asking why violins are associated with sadness. The question "About note duration"/"Why are only even values used for note duration?" was originally closed as too broad; I recommend checking out both the discussion on it, questioning whether "why" questions are even legitimate to SE (?!?!), and the answer I wrote.

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    Can you point to some examples? I'm not as familiar with musicology as I would like to be, and it would help to see what kind of questions are being closed. Opinion is regularly involved in answers here, but it's drawn out of facts. If these questions cannot have fact-based answers I would think that they won't work on SE.
    – user28
    Commented May 16, 2014 at 20:26
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    This question would be more helpful with specific examples of questions that you think are a good fit for the site and reasons why their closing is inappropriate. And I find the Beethoven example worrisome because it reminds me of OS/editor/app wars the way it's described here. Commented May 16, 2014 at 20:26
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    @Matthew Yes, facts or at least personal experience a la “Good Subjective.” Commented May 16, 2014 at 20:33
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    I think I largely agree, although I believe it is possible for musicology to be on topic and also for bad questions to be closed as "too opinion-based". On any topic, good questions are ones that are answerable and show some effort on the part of the asker. On a similar note, we need to have good criteria for the difference between "music fans" aka Music Appreciation questions and Musicology.
    – NReilingh
    Commented May 16, 2014 at 20:41
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    @MatthewRead Examples added. Commented May 16, 2014 at 20:53
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    @BraddSzonye Examples added. Commented May 16, 2014 at 20:54
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    “About note duration” was not closed because of musicology/opinion problems, but simply because the poster originally asked three unrelated questions in the same post. “Which disco tracks” is a better example, although I agree with the close-voters that the question is too vague and subjective as written. Commented May 16, 2014 at 21:40
  • Mostly though, I object to the notion that we can’t have history/musicology without stretching SE standards. I don’t think an ultimatum is necessary. I need to give it some more thought, but I’ll try to write up an answer-quality response to this post. Commented May 16, 2014 at 21:43

4 Answers 4


Isn't it time to take a good look at the guidelines, to make them more allowing? What we need in order to go out of beta is more questions, and it is clear to me that we have a problem with people having a too narrow view on what should be allowed.

Isn't it better to have a living community, with some question that one might not care about, than one where not much is happening? I don't know the history of this SE, but did the guidelines come as solutions to specific problems, or were they largely inherited from Stack Exchange, where they have other problems? I think we could do with very relaxed guidelines here, without losing quality.

Downvote and editing can solve cases rather than closing. We don't have many questions with low votes, but a relatively high number get closed.

The guidelines are forming the attitude of new users, I've seen it in my own behaviour. I think we need much more of a live-and-let-live mindset. Also, when/if the Music Fans SE goes live, questions can be migrated there (and vice versa).

  • We should have called it musicians.stackexchange :-( Commented May 20, 2014 at 9:16
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    I think we should focus on the expertise of our audience and keep building that. It may need a stretch here and there but including Music Fans questions makes no sense to me. Personally, I have no interest in a site that tries to be everything to everyone; it never works. I also disagree with the "get more questions and suddenly we're public" idea. I believe the main reason we haven't been shut down is because of our tight scope attracting high quality posts and users. Succeeding slowly is better than failing fast. @Lee Agreed, and Musicians is the purposed name if we go public.
    – user28
    Commented May 20, 2014 at 12:20
  • @MatthewRead: I don't know the growth rate of the site, but I do think that we should have more action than currently. I'm a pretty recent user, I did not find the page through google, but through Stack Overflow. There's a will that this should be the home of the scholars, but I think the scope should be broadened. The questions that are being shot down are not "Plz show me the chords of popular song X", but often things which we can gain knowledge from. Commented May 20, 2014 at 12:30
  • @MatthewRead: To clarify, I do not mean that we should broaden our scope to include Music Fans SE too, but when that is lacking there are borderline questions which could fit here. I am curious to find out what we are scared of. I think the current user base is strong enough to cull the truly useless questions so the interesting stuff isn't drowned out. 1100+ days in beta with the current mindset possibly speaks for trying something new... Commented May 20, 2014 at 12:45
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    At the risk of straying from my point, I would agree that maybe we need to broaden our scope in general: I don't get the impression Music.SE has been growing slowly. I'm looking at the sheer level of activity on posts two years ago, and you know, I don't see anything like it today. Obvs a 2yo post has had a lot of time to accrete votes and answers and comments, so it would be nice to see a graph of activity over time. But when I see the usernames of musicians and active SE users I know and none of their comments here are in the last year, it sure looks like we have an attrition problem. Commented May 20, 2014 at 14:56
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    Without giving away the core stats (although we have a post with public stats kicking about) we actually have a healthy questions per day, healthy views, and the growth curve is upwards. The length of time in beta is not an issue, according to the devs. The attrition is also not a worry (I see the stats from various sites I mod) - we are slowly succeeding.
    – Doktor Mayhem Mod
    Commented May 20, 2014 at 15:18
  • I am not against changing the scope (we successfully made major changes on Security) as long as: they make sense, they are agreed by the community as a whole, rather than a vocal minority, and they stay within SE rules. The moderator group is here to support the community majority.
    – Doktor Mayhem Mod
    Commented May 20, 2014 at 15:19
  • Perhaps I am off base... I believe inclusivity and tolerance build a better community than one that finds too narrow a focus. Helping others and ourselves is actually the raison d'etre, not correctness. With some of the other SE communities, the community thrives when people help each other and withers when members spend lots of time judging the quality of the questions. Commented Mar 23, 2015 at 20:57

The only one of those examples I have a problem with is the disco one. Influence is a purely subjective thing that can't be measured. You can get opinions directly, or be pointed to resources that offer opinions, but you can't get an answer based on fact. It also seems to come from the "music fan" side more than the "musician" side as alluded to by NReilingh, but I'll admit that it's valid history.

To comment on the violin question: We have a "Why are minor keys sad?" question that I think has turned out pretty well. There are definitely reasons for them whether psychological or social.

Last thoughts: True "Should I do X?" questions are generally pretty bad. But lots that we get here and on other sites can be reworded into "What are the pros and cons of X?" or, better yet, "I have problem Y, how can I solve it?" where maybe the answer is X. Lately it seems we've had a bunch of people jump on imperfect questions and bombard them with argumentative comments that really have no place on a question page. This does need to stop in favor of positive contributions like editing and simple, polite comments asking the poster to clarify and so on.

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    Yeah, that's pretty much what I'm asking for. My point is that the jumping-on-imperfect-questions seems to arise out of not noticing that the question an asker is trying to posit is actually a musicological one. I'd love if folks would take a moment, when confronted with an apparently off-topic or out of bounds question, to ask, "Hey, is this musicology trying to happen?" And if so, helping the asker better formulate the question. Commented May 17, 2014 at 17:38
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    @Codeswitcher Absolutely agreed. I think this is something of a blip due to suddenly gaining a several new, very active users who are trying to learn the site and system all at the same time. If my "take it to Meta" comments are being missed I certainly won't hesitate to use mod messages or other tools we have to make sure we get a better approach to these questions.
    – user28
    Commented May 17, 2014 at 17:43
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    I do (obviously, I think) disagree with you about influence. For instance, there are something like 200 settings of the "La Spagna" tenor from the last 15th through 17th centuries, which makes it singular. It was clearly very influential (and we don't know why). Likewise, we can talk about how the English style of parallel thirds took the Continent by storm in the 14th/15th centuries, and how influential English composers were (something very well established and documented). I think we can talk meaningfully about influence in the 20th and 21st centuries too. Commented May 17, 2014 at 17:48
  • Those are good points. Sometimes questions like that one will simply come down to community consensus: Overall, do we think it's crossed the line into too-subjective? I don't have a problem with questions being closed, reopened, or discussed, it just had to be done the right way. And honestly I'm usually rather pleased when the community overrules my judgment, because it means the system is working.
    – user28
    Commented May 17, 2014 at 17:52
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    Part of my impetus for posting this was that the pattern of "closed-discussed-answered(!)-reopened" was striking me as hostile to musicology. While in the abstract I don't mind the closed-reopened process, when ~all the questions in a certain subdiscipline go through that, that starts having a discouraging effect on not just the askers, but the experts in that field. Commented May 17, 2014 at 17:56
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    Influence can be objectively analyzed. It's nothing more than specific pattern sharing. Maybe the issue here is lack of communication and interpretation of questions and their context, along with "close vote trigger happy" users. If the question was worded "which patters are shared between x and y" the question wouldn't have been closed, and it's the exact same question. Commented May 18, 2014 at 4:07
  • Sure influence can be measured. Many artists declare their influences, isn't that a standard interview question? There has got to be a lot of sources/articles/references out there attributing Donna Summer as a big influence of the disco era. Commented May 20, 2014 at 8:59
  • ...not sure that it has anything to do with practice or performance though. Commented May 20, 2014 at 9:15
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    @Lee- I'd argue that discussing the who, what, and why of influences is central to musical performance. When I get interested in a new major piece or style I want to try, I spend more time reading about major influences and important concepts, and listening to important works and artists than I do actually playing.
    – Karen
    Commented May 20, 2014 at 10:10
  • @Karen That's valid :-) dunno about central to performance, since you're discussing/reading and not actually playing, but I accept musicians will find value never the less, inspiration no doubt. I don't think I'll ever vote to close a question on here. I like to err on the side of fun. Commented May 20, 2014 at 10:27
  • @LeeKowalkowski, one of the places influence is a huge deal is in the performance of 11th-14th century southern "French" (Occitanian) music. Because there are literary and textual references to the "art of the Sarasins", formal evidence in the lyrics, archeological evidence of similar musical instruments, and it's just over the Pyrenees, there's this open question of how much Middle Eastern musical practice should be used in the performance of troubadour song. (And then there's this interesting fact that by 1000 the music scene in Muslim Spain was expat Persians not Arabs, and...) Commented May 20, 2014 at 14:42
  • @LeeKowalkowski So I will be the first to admit my perspective is entirely warped by coming from the HIP world. :) Paying attention to this sort of thing is What We Do. I appreciate it's irrelevant trivia the way most musicians approach music performance, especially modern stuff. (I just think you're all terribly, terribly benighted. ;) Commented May 20, 2014 at 14:48
  • @Codeswitcher HIP? Commented May 20, 2014 at 15:05
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    @LeeKowalkowski "Historically Informed Performance" Commented May 20, 2014 at 15:06
  • @LeeKowalkowski (I would submit the wikipedia article is too conservative. I've had HIP discussions about mid 20th century music, e.g. how the adoption of broadcast radio changed composition practice and instrumentation in popular music.) Commented May 20, 2014 at 15:12

Perhaps another way of phrasing the problem is that questions as phrased might look primarily opinion based, and thus might reflect only the opinion of the person answering, but many can also be answered through research that gives a longer, well-cited view on what opinions on the topic have been for a long time.

Most of the questions I see posed on music.SE as "fact-based" are as opinion-based as the ones cited here. "Why note B is marked with H in Scandinavia and Germany?" "Was the pitch A given that letter because the minor key was originally the "basic" mode?" "What's the Difference between Baritone and Euphonium ?". They look factual, but for every one of them I can find differences of opinions between different published authors and at different times in the musicological literature. What I've posted is my opinion, that based on what I've read and on my work (in medieval musicology in the former two cases [if it matters, I'm a musicologist on the MIT faculty]) best distills common consensus and my own knowledge. But it's just my opinion about which facts ("X said A, Y said B, Z said C") are worth repeating.


Great question. I come from sites like StackOverflow where there often is a right and wrong answer - with music if you push hard enough nearly every "Why" boils down to "Because it sounds nice" if you try hard enough. For all the theory, which is very interesting, this supports music rather than defining it.

I think compared to other SE sites, we have to reflect that "this is the right way to do X" is very often down to opinion and custom rather than absolute truth, and be a bit less rigid. Or perhaps, try to treat SE rules like music rules - they help us but don't bind us.

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