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Do We Need “populäre Musik”? A German Perspective

Dietrich Helms - pag. 129-156

The question in the title of this special issue is hard to answer from a global perspective. Local scholarly and institutional traditions but also local definitions of the term “popular music” have a strong influence on our way of thought. This article discusses the conceptual history that is associated with the German “populäre Musik” in following it back to its origins in the 18th century and distinguishing it from equivalent expressions like Volksmusik, Unterhaltungsmusik, Gebrauchsmusik, Umgangsmusik, Trivialmusik and Popmusik. None of these terms comes up to the standards of scholarly terminology; they are ambiguous, sometimes even contradictory in themselves and in no way neutral and unprejudiced. By now all attempts to define populäre Musik as a set of objects with similar characteristics have had only limited success in German scholarship. Therefore most scholars have retreated to a position understanding populäre Musik as a discourse. This, however, would reduce popular music studies to discourse analysis and discourse history, excluding musicological methods like e.g. music analysis. As a consequence this article suggests to use the term populäre Musik only in contexts concerning the politics of our discipline, musicology. For research, however, musicologists should find and define better terms that precisely describe the subject-matter they actually want to study.