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Seeger, Charles (Louis)locked

Seeger, Charles (Louis)locked

  • Ann M. Pescatello

Member of Seeger family

(b Mexico City, Dec 14, 1886; d Bridgewater, CT, Feb 7, 1979). American musicologist, composer, conductor, critic and musical philosopher. His initial interest was in composition and conducting, and he joined numerous young American composers in Europe in the years immediately following his graduation from Harvard (1908). He spent a season (1910–11) as a conductor at the Cologne Opera before returning to the USA as a composer and chairman of the department of music at the University of California, Berkeley (1912–19), where he gave the first American courses in musicology in 1916. Several of his compositions were destroyed in the Berkeley fire (1923). Subsequently he was a lecturer and instructor at the Institute of Musical Art, New York (1921–33), the forerunner of the Juilliard School, and lecturer at the New School for Social Research (1931–5), where, with Henry Cowell, he taught the first courses in ethnomusicology given in the USA (1931). Concurrently he was active in the organization and development of the Composers Collective and other programmes devoted to the growth and dissemination of American composition. One of his outstanding students, Ruth Crawford, later became his second wife. His own compositions written at this time include a number of songs, with piano or orchestral accompaniment, as well as many instrumental works. He also worked as a music critic for several American newspapers and journals, including the Daily Worker, for which he wrote under the pseudonym Carl Sand.

In 1935 Seeger moved to Washington, DC, where he served as music technical adviser in Roosevelt’s Resettlement Administration (1935–7), deputy director of the Federal Music Project of Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration (1937–41), and chief of the music division of the Pan-American Union (1941–53). Under his energetic and far-sighted supervision, much fieldwork was done in North and Latin America, followed by many publications and recordings. He returned to university teaching, as research musicologist at the Institute of Ethnomusicology at the University of California, Los Angeles (1960–70), and lecturer at various New England universities, including Brown, Harvard and Yale. He was a founder (and chairman, 1930–34) of the New York Musicological Society, reorganized with his help in 1934 as the American Musicological Society (of which he was president in 1945–6), as well as the American Society for Comparative Musicology (president, 1935), the Society for Ethnomusicology (president, 1960–61; honorary president from 1972), the International Society for Music Educators, the College Music Society and the International Music Council; he was also vice-president of the Gesellschaft für Vergleichende Musikwissenschaft (1934–6).

Seeger concentrated on general ethnomusicology and its theory, in which he had considerable influence as a largely prescriptive and philosophical writer. He pointed out that the evaluation of all music in terms of Western art music is a cultural anachronism, and emphasized that in much non-Western music the performer, rather than a ‘composer’, is the main creator or re-creator. In his ‘Preface to the Critique of Music’ (1963) he criticized the habit of assessing both art and folk music by way of value judgments in the absence of an objective descriptive method, and in ‘The Music Process’ (1966) he approached the fundamental difficulty of describing music through the distorting medium of speech. The same essay set out his strictures on classifying peoples according to social strata, and on the limitations of the expression ‘national music’. In the 1930s he became interested in the development of machines for music analysis, and he considered the value of automatic music writing (using ‘Seeger melographs’) as an aid to the objective perception and understanding of unfamiliar music. His lifelong interest in American folk music has been continued in his children’s work; he recorded and, with his second wife, Ruth Crawford, transcribed and edited American folksongs, and with Ruth, and John and Alan Lomax he produced a major study of American folk music, Folk Song: USA (New York, 1947/R, 2/1975).

The freshness of Seeger’s thinking, his constant concern for the balance between society and the individual, and the extent and variety of his work have made an outstanding impact on both American and international attitudes to music and its place in society.


  • with E.G. Stricklen: Outline of a Course in Harmonic Structure and Simple Musical Invention (Berkeley, 1913, 2/1916 by E.G. Stricklen as Harmonic Structure and Elementary Composition)
  • ‘Music in the American University’, Educational Review, 66 (1923), 95–9
  • ‘On Dissonant Counterpoint’, MM, 7/4 (1930), 25–31
  • ‘Grassroots for American Music’, MM, 16/3 (1938), 143–9
  • ‘The Importance to Cultural Understanding of Folk and Popular Music’, Conference on Inter-American Relations in the Field of Music: Washington 1939 [last item, 10pp.]
  • ‘Systematic and Historical Orientations in Musicology’, AcM, 11 (1939), 121–8
  • ‘Contrapuntal Style in the Three-Voice Shape-Note Hymns’, MQ, 26 (1940), 483–93
  • ‘Folk Music as a Source of Social History’, The Cultural Approach to History, ed. C.F. Ware (New York, 1940), 316–23
  • Music as Recreation (Washington, 1940)
  • ‘Music and Government: Field for an Applied Musicology’, PAMS 1944, 11–20
  • ‘Music in the Americas’, Bulletin of the Pan American Union, 79 (1945), 26–8, 149–52, 290–93, 341–4, 521–5
  • ‘The Arts in International Relations’, JAMS, 2 (1949), 36–43
  • ‘Professionalism and Amateurism in the Study of Folk Music’, Journal of American Folklore, 62 (1949), 107–13; repr. in The Critics and the Ballad, ed. M. Leach and T.P. Coffin (Carbondale, IL, 1961), 151–60
  • ‘Music and Musicology in the New World’, HMYB, 6 (1949–50), 36–56
  • ‘Systematic Musicology: Viewpoints, Orientations and Methods’, JAMS, 4 (1951), 240–48
  • ‘Music and Society: some New World Evidence of their Relationship’, Latin-American Fine Arts: Austin 1951 [Latin-American Studies, xiii (1952)], 84–97; rev. version pubd separately (Washington DC, 1952)
  • ‘Preface to the Description of a Music’, IMSCR V: Utrecht 1952, 360–70
  • ‘Folk Music in the Schools of a Highly Industrialized Society’, JIFMC, 5 (1953), 40–44
  • ‘Music and Class Structure in the United States’, American Quarterly, 9 (1957), 281–94
  • ‘Toward a Universal Music Sound-Writing for Musicology’, JIFMC, 9 (1957), 63–6
  • ‘The Appalachian Dulcimer’, Journal of American Folklore, 71 (1958), 40–51
  • ‘Prescriptive and Descriptive Music-Writing’, MQ, 44 (1958), 184–95
  • ‘Singing Style’, Western Folklore, 17 (1958), 3–11
  • ‘On the Moods of a Music Logic’, JAMS, 13 (1960), 224–61
  • ‘The Cultivation of Various European Traditions in the Americas’, IMSCR VIII: New York 1961, 1, 364–75
  • ‘Semantic, Logical and Political Considerations bearing upon Research in Ethnomusicology’, EthM, 5 (1961), 77–80
  • ‘Introduction’, ‘Preface to the Critique of Music’, Conferencia interamericana de etnomusicologia I: Cartagena, Colombia 1963, 9–11; 39–63; ‘Preface’ pubd separately as Inter-American Music Bulletin, no.49 (1965)
  • ‘Tradition and the (North) American Composer: a Contribution to the Ethnomusicology of the Western World’, Music in the Americas: Bloomington, IN, 1965, 195–212
  • ‘The Folkness of the Non-Folk vs. the Non-Folkness of the Folk’, Folklore and Society: Essays in Honor of Benj. A. Botkin, ed. B. Jackson (Hatboro, PA, 1966), 1–9
  • ‘The Music Process as a Function in a Context of Functions’, YIAMR, 2 (1966), 1–36
  • ‘Versions and Variants of the Tunes of “Barbara Allen” in the Archive of American Folk Song in the Library of Congress: with Comments on the Words by Ed Cray’, Selected Reports, 1/1 (1966), 120–67
  • ‘Factorial Analysis of the Song as an Approach to the Formation of a Unitary Field Theory’, JIFMC, 20 (1968), 33–9
  • ‘On the Formational Apparatus of the Music Compositional Process’, EthM, 13 (1969), 230–47
  • ‘Toward a Unitary Field Theory for Musicology’, Selected Reports, 1/3 (1970), 171–210
  • ‘Reflections upon a Given Topic: Music in Universal Perspective’, EthM, 15 (1971), 385–98
  • ‘World Musics in American Schools: A challenge to be met’, Music Educators Journal, 59/2 (1972–3), 107–11
  • ‘In memoriam: Carl Ruggles’, PNM, 10/2 (1971–2), 171–4
  • ‘Tractatus Esthetico-semioticus’, Current Thought in Musicology, ed. J.W. Grubbs (Austin, 1976)
  • ed. with B. Wade: Essays for a Humanist: an Offering to Klaus Wachsmann (New York, 1977) [incl. ‘Sources of Evidence and Criteria for Judgment in the Critique of Music’, 261–76]
  • Studies in Musicology, 1935–75 (Berkeley, 1977)
  • with M. Valiant: ‘Journal of a Field Representative’, EthM, 24 (1980), 169–210
  • ed. A.M. Pescatello: Studies in Musicology II, 1929–1979 (Berkeley, 1994)


  • H. Cowell: ‘Charles Seeger’, American Composers on American Music (Stanford, CA, 1933/R), 119–24
  • ‘Charles Seeger: Selective Bibliography, 1923–1966’, YIAMR, 2 (1966), 37–42
  • Obituary, MQ, 65 (1979), 305–7
  • D.K. Dunaway: ‘Charles Seeger and Carl Sands: the Composers' Collective Years’, EthM, 24 (1980), 159–68
  • A.M. Pescatello: Charles Seeger: a Life in American Music (Pittsburgh, 1992)
  • M. McCarthy: ‘On “American Music for American Children”: the Contribution of Charles L. Seeger’, JRME, 43 (1995), 270–87
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International Musicological Society: Congress Report [1930-]
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Hinrichsen's Musical Year Book
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Yearbook, Inter-American Institute for Musical Research, later Yearbook for Inter-American Musical Research
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Acta musicologica
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Musical Quarterly
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Journal of the International Folk Music Council
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Journal of Research in Music Education
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Papers of the American Musicological Society
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Modern Music
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Journal of the American Musicological Society
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Perspectives of New Music
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