Social Mechanisms of Musical Stylistic Change: A Case Study from Early 20th-Century France

Jane Harrison


This study examined notated meter changes in scores by French composers to probe the role of sociological mechanisms in musical stylistic change. The stylistic feature of notated meter changes, which indexed metrical complexity, was conducive to empirical observation and functioned as a salient innovation in France around 1900. The principal sociological variable was membership in the Apaches artistic club, known for its avant-garde identity. A hypothesis that the Apaches would use significantly more meter changes than their peers was supported. Additional explanatory variables were derived from previous historical research on French composers and from theories about stylistic change. A complex relationship between the stylistic feature and social mechanisms emerged, involving multiple, overlapping social structures. The Labovian sociolinguistic approach was especially resonant in this data, as a composer's proximity to certain individuals, groups, and institutions in the social space related to their degree of enthusiasm for metric innovation. In addition, sociolinguistic theories about stylistic variation in human languages were consistent with patterns in this data set. Finally, a descriptive title was also a significant explanatory variable, which implicates the Labovian notion of register and the importance that Meyer gave to aesthetic goals in musical stylistic change.


musical stylistic change; sociolinguistics; 20th-century France; Apaches

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