Monday, May 30, 2016

Is this the ugliest piece ever written?

"Most musicologists would argue that..." is a Bat Signal for this blog. Okay, so it did take UCLA musicologist Robert Fink to bring this to my attention (thank you!), but I'm setting up a Google alert for variants of this phrase, since I doubt there are many things most musicologists agree on, and the things on which we do agree are probably so mundane that they don't merit comment.

So, what would most musicologists supposedly argue? According to mathematician Scott Rickard in a TEDx Talk from 2011,
Most musicologists would argue that repetition is a key aspect of beauty. The idea that we take a musical idea, we repeat it, we set up the expectation for repetition and then we either realize it or break the repetition. If repetition and patterns are key to beauty, then what would the absence of patterns sound like—if we wrote a piece of music with no repetition in it?
Rickard claims that it would be the least beautiful, therefore The Ugliest Piece of Music. Tim Edwards of Classic FM ran with that idea when he reported on Rickard's talk in an article titled, "This is the most monumentally ugly piece of music ever composed, according to science."

Yes, this is another blog post about "science" and music, and once again it involves Classic FM. In my previous post, I looked at the ways in which Classic FM reports on scientific studies involving classical music in order to confirm their readers' cultural biases. This article reveals a different problem involving music in science: when the scientist (or mathematician) misrepresents musicology (or music theory).

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Science Proves Your Favorite Music is the Best

Instead of examining a single article for this post, I'm going to discuss a trend: using science to imply that classical music better than other styles.

Journalists in all fields love to report on scientific studies, but very often the science is misunderstood or misrepresented, as the journalists are usually not specialists themselves. My previous post shows one example of this lack of understanding (assuming that mistake was in Vanderbilt's reporting and not in the actual study, though I suspect the scientists wouldn't have picked the name "Buxtehude" out of the ether, so someone knew what they were doing). Comedian-journalist John Oliver discussed the media's misrepresentation of science on a recent episode of his show Last Week Tonight; if you don't have 20 minutes available to watch this funny and informative clip, you can look at this diagram from covering the same topic.

When it comes to scientific studies involving music, there's a cultural component that complicates reporting. Very often, scientific studies are presented in ways that conform to our cultural expectations. That is, people love reading that classical music is good for us.

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Buxtehude is not "a fictitious composer"

I'm preparing a longer post on bad reporting of scientific studies involving music, but I came across this in my Facebook feed and couldn't let it go by without a brief comment:

In his book You May Also Like: Taste in an Age of Endless Choice, Tom Vanderbilt writes,
In one study, people liked the same piece of music more when it was described as being by Bach versus a fictitious composer named Buxtehude.

Buxtehude is not a name made up for the sake of this study. Dieterich Buxtehude (1637?-1707) was a superstar in his day. In fact, when Johann Sebastian Bach was about twenty years old, he walked from Arnstadt to Lübeck—280 miles each way!—just to hear Buxtehude play.

You can read more about Buxtehude on the website of the International Dieterich Buxtehude Society. Or you can look him up on Wikipedia. You can listen to his music on YouTube—like Bach, he wrote works for organ, harpsichord, chamber ensemble, and chorus, so choose according to your preferences.

Please enjoy the music of this totally real, non-fictitious composer who did indeed exist, and remember that pop science writers are not experts in everything they write about.

Thank you to Robert Fink for posting the link to this quote!

Friday, May 20, 2016

Beethoven's Humanity vs. Mozart's Divinity

In my previous post, I looked at an article written by someone who probably does not have much experience covering classical music (at least, judging by the other articles she's written). It addresses some of the problems that arise when publishers assign staffers who do not have the background to write knowingly about their given subject. For this post, however, I examine an article by The Telegraph's regular classical music critic, Ivan Hewett. While his article also contains historical falsehoods, I'm more concerned about the way Hewett resorts to the most familiar stereotypes to preach to the choir.

First, some background: In a survey conducted earlier this year by Classic FM, a UK-based radio station, Beethoven had more compositions on the favorites list than Mozart. This was the first time this has happened since the annual survey started in 1996, which is enough of a change to warrant some comment. The first article The Telegraph ran on this coup, "Beethoven beats Mozart to be crowned most popular composer for first time," offers an explanation: Beethoven's seventh symphony serves as the soundtrack to an intense scene in the popular movie The King's Speech, which prompted people to seek out more of his music.

Perhaps this article was a bit too dry in its cold reporting of facts and analysis. Where is the breathless adulation of these Great Masters? So, Hewett offers his own explanation in "Why Beethoven rules supreme over Mozart."  Rather than discuss why people might have adjusted their answers in the poll, he effectively proclaims that the poll has finally gotten it right.

"Beethoven is classical music's titan. More than that, he is the perfection of the romantic artist-hero," Hewett declares. Here's where my perspective as a musicologist differs from that of most music fans. I cannot argue against Beethoven being a "romantic artist-hero," but rather than using that as proof of his greatness, I see it as an interesting product of nineteenth-century culture. Our concept of the "artist-hero" is based on the Romantic perception of Beethoven, so of course he's the best example of it; it's a tautology. This statement should be unpacked and explored, not taken as evidence in itself.

Monday, May 16, 2016

Can this "libretto" prove Salieri killed Mozart?

No. It can't. That's ridiculous. Yet Jess Staufenberg of The Independent wants us to think it can.

Antonio Salieri is now best known for something he didn't do: killing Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. The 1984 movie Amadeus is most responsible for the persistence of this myth into the twenty-first century (and it is a fantastic movie!), but the idea predates the Oscar-winning film by over 150 years. The movie is an adaptation of a Tony Award-winning play from 1979 by Peter Shaffer, which itself was based on Alexander Pushkin's play Mozart and Salieri from 1830, which was based on rumors that circulated after Mozart's death that were proven false.

The story resonates with viewers because it touches on one of our most powerful emotions, jealousy. We all know a Mozart--someone who is just better than you at something without even trying. No matter how diligently you work, someone will always be able to beat you, and it's particularly infuriating if they mock your efforts in the process. It's a common human experience projected onto famous historical figures, which is often a recipe for successful entertainment. It's historically false, but it's really good fan fiction.

So, when a Czech museum finds a collaborative composition by Mozart and Salieri that has been lost for two centuries, the Amadeus angle is the obvious route to generate page views. Frankly, if you don't at least mention the rivalry, your reader will be distracted by the thought, "Wait, didn't Salieri kill Mozart or something?" It'd be irresponsible not to mention it.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Dvořák never tried to be progressive?

This is the article that prompted me to start this blog.

When I found this article about a Dvořák festival, I skimmed past the subhead, so I missed that the author led his story by explaining that Dvořák is "sometimes dismissed as having little to offer intellectually." That statement in itself isn't so bad; surely, some do claim that (including, apparently, the author).

The story never debunks this claim. Instead, Antony Bateman reaffirms it:
As the festival will hopefully remind us, Dvořák’s music never tried to be progressive. It might not engage deeply with the intellect, but it does with the heart and the imagination in the most direct way possible (does music really have to engage the intellect anyway?).
There are quite a few problems with this paragraph. First of all, what does it mean to be "progressive"? This is a loaded term in music history. The idea of music being "progressive" is tied to the nineteenth century and usually implies that the composer is following the ideas of Wagner and Liszt. This is in contrast to more "conservative" composers like Brahms. But "progressive" does not automatically mean "innovative," as Brahms (and indeed Dvořák) developed a lot of original ideas in their compositions. Nor should "progressive" imply "intellectually engaging," as Bateman does here. Plenty of people find Dvořák stimulating.

Not Another Music History Cliché: Introduction

If you consider yourself a classical music lover, chances are you know a lot of stories about composers: Bach had a bunch of children. Beethoven went deaf. Schumann went crazy. Spend enough time reading concert reviews, and any composer's name sets off an array of associated phrases in your brain: Mozart = child prodigy, classical, perfection, crude humor, makes you smarter. The stories surrounding classical music are as familiar and as old as the pieces themselves--or so you might think.

However, not all of these stories are accurate. Some of them were invented years after the fact, then repeated so many times that people came to accept them as truth. Some are not exactly untrue, but they're reductive. Some are actively harmful. Yet people who write about classical music continue to recycle the same phrases and factoids because that's what their readers expect.