The Role of the Natural Sciences in Soviet Russian Music Theory 1920–1928

Sonia McCall-Labelle M. A. (Universität Bonn)

The trajectory of the development of a native music theory in Russia from the mid-nineteenth century was increasingly characterised by the application of a naturalist framework. The 1920s saw fervent controversies concerning core questions of the philosophy of science from the definition of the object and scope of entire disciplines, as in the formalism debate in literary theory, to fundamental ontological questions, such as the broader “extended controversy […] over the relative merits of dialectical and mechanistic materialism”. (Bauer 1952, 24) Music theory was no exception – the period immediately following the October Revolution was one of multiple institutional restructurings, giving rise to a pluralistic research landscape which was increasingly scrutinised along the lines of these fundamental questions.

In 1928 at the Music Department of the History and Theory of Music (MUZO) in Leningrad, a six-point plan was drawn up, which stated that the “examination of music as a sociological phenomenon should be the basic point of view. Therefore, however attractive and interesting may be the independent development of a discipline that analyses music as a physical, biological, or some other phenomenon, it may not have a place in MUZO.” However, two research foci of the proposed “Section of Musical Language” were to be the “genetics of musical material” and “transformation of acoustic phenomena into factors of musical expression[.]” (Ginzburg 1928, 46)

How is it, then, that concepts such as the genetics of musical material were considered valid within an investigation that is primarily concerned with music as a sociological phenomenon? The proposed paper will investigate the application of natural scientific terminology/methodology to music theory in the run up to this six-point plan, analysing the discursive field that allowed for these statements to be made and understood in the two contrasting contexts.


Sonia McCall-Labelle is a British-German musicologist. Having received a BMus in violin performance from the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester, she went on to complete an MA in historical musicology in 2021 at the University of Hamburg with a master’s thesis on Mieczysław Weinberg’s three sonatas for solo violin. She is currently working as a research assistant to the editorship of the Neue Beethoven-Gesamtausgabe at the Beethoven-Archiv in Bonn and is pursuing a PhD in musicology with a thesis on the relationship between music theory and the natural sciences in the late Russian empire and the early Soviet Union.