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Musical Instruments and Palimpsestic Identity

Cottrell, S. ORCID: 0000-0003-4019-798X (2024). Musical Instruments and Palimpsestic Identity. Journal of Musicological Research,


Palimpsests are conventionally understood to be manuscripts that have been reused or recycled, with traces of earlier inscriptions identifiable under later writings. Metaphorically, the term has been used to connote ideas about reading off meanings, references or signs that remain recorded below surface appearance.

Here I consider the palimpsestic nature of musical instruments. I draw extensively on the literary typology set out by Gérard Genette in his 1997 work Palimpsests: Literature in the Second Degree, and I consider how this approach may be applied to relationships between musical instruments. Examples include, inter alia: the wholesale redesign of instruments in which the original morphology is barely discernible; the repurposing of local materials on grounds of economic expediency and thus the intertextual signposting of environmental or ecological trends; and the annotation of instruments in ways that reveal something of their socio-musical journey.

Ultimately, I consider how any musical instrument is shadowed by a past that may or may not be visible through its morphology and/or surface ornamentation. It thus conflates diverse times and spaces such that different temporal traces can be seen through and act upon each other in relation to the meanings and understandings that we attach to the instrument.

Publication Type: Article
Additional Information: This is an Accepted Manuscript of an article to be published by Taylor & Francis in Journal of Musicological Research to be available at:
Subjects: M Music and Books on Music
Departments: School of Communication & Creativity
School of Communication & Creativity > Performing Arts
School of Communication & Creativity > Performing Arts > Music
SWORD Depositor:
[thumbnail of Musical Instruments and Palimpsestic Identity - author final text.pdf] Text - Accepted Version
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