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Dr Thomas Irvine 

Associate Professor in Music, Alan Turing Fellow

Dr Thomas Irvine's photo

Thomas Irvine is Associate Professor and Director of Undergraduate Programmes in Music, and an Alan Turing Fellow.

Like many students and staff in our department and university I have an international background. I was born in Munich to American parents and grew up in Stony Brook, NY, USA. After studying viola at conservatoire (at the Shepherd School of Rice University and Indiana University Jacobs School of Music) I moved to Germany and played professionally, mostly in Early Music ensembles but also in symphony orchestras. I also taught for a year at the Frankfurt International School and worked as a manager for a large Early Music organisation.

In 1999 I found my way to musicology and back to the US, studying performance practice and musicology at Cornell University, where I took my PhD in 2005. In 2002 I crossed the Atlantic again as a DAAD scholar at the University of Würzburg Institute of Musicology, where I stayed on as a postdoctoral fellow in 2005/06. I have lived and worked in Southampton since 2006.

I am a Fellow of the Alan Turing Institute (the UK’s national institution for AI and data science), a Non-Executive Director of the Southampton Web Science Institute and currently serve as an external examiner at the Royal Academy of Music. I co-chair the American Musicological Society study group ‘Global East Asia.’ Outside of my teaching and research I am trying to learn Chinese and follow Southampton FC. Both can be challenging! I also sing a little.


Appointments held

Research interests

  • Global and transnational music history
  • Postcolonial studies
  • Music and the British Empire
  • Sound studies
  • Jazz
  • Music and Science and Technology Studies
  • Music, AI and machine learning

I started my career in musicology as a Mozart scholar. It’s always a pleasure to come back to such amazing music! But my more recent work has been in the global history of music and Science and Technology Studies.

My interest in global history led to a book about the Western sonic experience of China around 1800 published in 2020 by the University of Chicago Press. This project was supported by a Mid-Career Fellowship of the British Academy in 2015-2016.

My current research is in Science and Technology Studies, particularly the history, theory and practice of musical social machines. My project ‘Jazz as Social Machine’ explores the problems raised by the use of machine learning algorithms to make jazz, a music that most would agree is highly social and often very political. This work is supported by a fellowship from the Alan Turing Institute.

I am also continuing to work in global music history, with the special interest in East Asia. I am currently working on two book projects. One, Freedom to Improvise: Jazz in Modern Hong Kong, explores how jazz found a home in one of my favourite cities. The other, co-authored with Christopher J. Smith, is a large-scale history with the working title Labour, Energy and Data: A Music History for the Anthropocene: 15000 to the Present. Together with my colleague Mark Everist I co-direct MOGS (‘Music on the Global Stage’) a working group in our department that brings together staff and postgraduates with interests in global perspectives on music history.

My work in European music history focuses particularly transnational crossovers between Britain and Germany. A volume co-edited with my colleague Neil Gregor (Dreams of Germany: Musical Imaginaries from the Concert Hall to the Dance Floor) came out in 2019 from Berghahn Books. My own contribution focuses on Hubert Parry’s racialised understanding of German music history and the effect this had on his work as a teacher, administrator and composer.

Listening to China: Soundscapes of the Sino-Western Encounter, 1770-1839

From bell ringing to fireworks, gongs to cannon salutes, a dazzling variety of sounds and soundscapes marked the China encountered by the West around 1800. These sounds were gathered by diplomats, trade officials, missionaries, and other travellers and transmitted back to Europe, where they were reconstructed in the imaginations of writers, philosophers, and music historians such as Jean-Philippe Rameau, Johann Nikolaus Forkel, and Charles Burney. Thomas Irvine gathers these stories in Listening to China, exploring how the sonic encounter with China shaped perceptions of Europe’s own musical development.

Through these stories, Irvine not only investigates how the Sino-Western encounter sounded, but also traces the West’s shifting response to China. As the trading relationships between China and the West broke down, travellers and music theorists abandoned the vision of shared musical approaches, focusing instead on China’s noisiness and sonic disorder and finding less to like in its music. At the same time, Irvine reconsiders the idea of a specifically Western music history, revealing that it was comparison with China, the great “other,” that helped this idea emerge. Ultimately, Irvine draws attention to the ways Western ears were implicated in the colonial and imperial project in China, as well as to China’s importance to the construction of musical knowledge during and after the European Enlightenment.

‘With this book Irvine makes a vital contribution to the emerging field of global music history. He demonstrates the necessity of looking beyond Europe to discover how the West reflexively re-created its own sonic identity through engagement with China. From the desks of scholars to the throne room of the Qianlong emperor, and from the noisy streets of Canton to the decks of trading ships, Listening to China takes the reader on a journey that reveals how sounds from East Asia shaped a new wave of Western musical thought.’
David R. M. Irving, ICREA Research Professor at the Institució Milà i Fontanals–CSIC, Barcelona

‘Irvine has given us a brilliant study of Western sonic encounters with China around 1800. While musicologists have been interested in the history of Sino-European musical interaction for some time, Listening to China is original in the breadth of the archive Irvine has assembled and in the canny combination of postcolonial, global historical, and sound studies approaches he brings to bear on it. Writing in the tradition of Jürgen Osterhammel, Irvine is always attuned to the macrohistorical implications of the pasts he documents, yet he also brings a music historian’s ear to the nuances of sound and sense-making that he finds there. Irvine has a knack for historical narrative that makes this book a real pleasure to read, ponder, and teach.’
Olivia Bloechl, University of Pittsburgh

PhD supervision

I have supervised PhD students in eighteenth-century music, Sino-Western music history, British music from 1750 to the present, jazz history, performance studies and Web Science. I welcome proposals in all of these areas, and any others that fall in the broad area of global music history from 1700 onwards.

Research projects

Jazz as Social Machine

Coronamusic: A Data Observatory for the Covid-19 Pandemic

Freedom to Improvise: Jazz in Modern Hong Kong

Listening to China: Sound and the Sino-Encounter, 1770-1839

Dreams of Germany: Musical Imaginaries from the Concert Hall to the Dance Floor

Research group

Musicology and Ethnomusicology

Affiliate research groups

Southampton Web Science Institute, Southampton Marine and Maritime Institute, Southampton Centre for Eighteenth-Century Studies, Music on the Global Stage, Alan Turing Institute

Research project(s)

Listening to China: Sound and the Sino-Western Encounter, 1770-1839

Listening to China, funded by the British Academy, explains changing Western views of China at a crucial turning point in the history of Sino-Western relations, and illuminates new discourses about the nature of sound, music and listening in the West emerging in this period.

Jazz as Social Machine

The project takes the idea of the "social machine" as its point of departure. Jazz is made on the basis of "operations" (interactive improvisation) performed on "data" (song structures, rhythmic conventions etc). The project argues that jazz as a global practice is a "social machine" (e.g. Wikipedia). It aggregates the "energy" of networked participants - their data - and converts this via interaction into meaning.

Director of Undergraduate Programmes in Music

Non-Executive Director, Web Science Institute

Co-Chair, Global East Asia Study Group, American Musicological Society

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Book Chapters

I am Director of Undergraduate Programmes in Music. I teach on the following modules (not all are offered every year):

  • MUSI1014 Global Transformations in Twentieth and Twenty-First Century Music
  • HUMA2021/3017 Music and the British Empire
  • MUSI3026 Jazz History
  • MUSI2146/3147 Haydn in London
  • MUSI3153 Adventures in Musical Research
  • MUSI6022 Critical Practice in Musicology
  • MUSI6036 Artists and Repertoires

As Director of Undergraduate Programmes I manage all our BA programmes, encouraging students and colleagues to use our department’s fantastic resources to create and maintain one of the best learning atmospheres for Music in the UK.

My goal in the classroom is to help students understand the musical histories we all carry around with us—nowadays in our smart phones! One of my greatest pleasures as a university teacher is hearing from former students who have gone on to find powerful musical voices—as teachers, managers, performers, composers and scholars. I am just as proud of Southampton music graduates who contribute to the ‘wider world’ as lawyers, civil servants, engineers, entrepreneurs and in businesses and charities of all stripes. I want all of our students to leave Southampton prepared to become advocates for the ‘musical’ way of doing things that brought us all together in the first place.

I teach undergraduates and postgraduates across our entire course. I work with students on music history from 1600 to the present on topics including eighteenth-century music, jazz history, music and the British Empire and British musical modernism. In 2020/2021 I will be teaching ‘Global Transformations in Twentieth Century Music’ to first-years, and a module on ‘Music and the British Empire.’ In these modules I work to bring my research on music’s global perspectives to bear. This year I am giving particular focus to exploring issues of systemic racism and racial injustice. I contribute to our large Postgraduate programmes as well. I especially look forward to working with students on our new MMUS Pathway in Music Education and our new MA in International Music Management.

I have a strong interest in how music interacts with science and technology: I also teach and supervise postgraduates in Southampton’s Web Science Centre for Doctoral Training.

Dr Thomas Irvine
Music Department
Building 2
University of Southampton
SO17 1BJ

Room Number: 6/1095

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