Friday, September 30, 2016

Can Music Treat Cancer? Snake Oil Musicology (or, He Blinded Me with Science)

A friend of mine sent me this link with his apologies—he’s aware that, as a cancer patient, I receive a lot of well-meaning links about things that supposedly treat or cure cancer. I’ve developed a thick skin about it; my treatment is going about as well as I can hope for, and I trust my doctors and nurses. I’m not feeling desperate or hopeless about my condition at the moment, so I’m not as vulnerable on this subject as I have been in the past.

But this video about treating cancer with music strikes a nerve for reasons my friend didn’t even anticipate. It’s odd enough that it’s a video about “musicology” posted by ESPN, a sports network. It’s a little more personal than my usual blog post in that I’ve been in the same room as Nolan Gasser, and my prior experience has left me with a very negative view of his work.

In this post, I will do my best to address my problems with what he is saying, rather than the many problems I have with how he presents himself to the world. While I tend to have an inclusive view of musical scholarship and hesitate to point to anything and say, “That’s not musicology,” ultimately I find Gasser’s take on musicology is reductive and harmful.

First things first: Why is ESPN even talking about musicology in the first place? Well, the video is part of a series from FiveThirtyEight, a site that receives a lot of attention due to its election predictions. Though Nate Silver, the site’s founder, may be most famous for his political commentary, his background is in sports statistics. FiveThirtyEight has expanded its coverage to include statistical analysis in all manner of fields, and since Gasser’s work heavily relies upon statistics, FiveThirtyEight and ESPN thought it fit with their brands.

My personal encounter with Gasser came in 2011, when he was invited to give a lecture at UC Santa Barbara while I was a grad student. He spoke in front of our department’s Musicology/Music Theory forum, a (mostly) weekly gathering of the graduate students and faculty in those areas, geared toward discussion. Very often, the forum gives students and faculty an opportunity to present their own work, getting a chance to practice conference papers and so on. The forum also invites outside scholars to present their work. Gasser’s visit was special in that he wasn’t invited by the music department, but by UCSB’s SAGE Center in an attempt to promote interdisciplinarity. He was a “get” due to his connection to Pandora. Even though all forum sessions are ostensibly open to the public, this one understandably attracted a lot of people from outside the department and the university.

The talk was pretty terrible. In 90 minutes, Gasser attempted to contort the entire history of Western music in support of sweeping statements about the commonality of all things, the cultural “genes” that connect the past to the present. The problem is, he was lecturing an audience that had studied that history in depth; many of us had taught it. We knew when he was glossing over crucial details, and when he was peddling clichés and even “facts” that were outright wrong. It’s been five years, so all that’s left is a general impression of dilettantism, but it was an insult to our collective intelligence. He must have sensed the hostility in the room, because he left before we could have a question-and-answer session.

(At the time I wrote this post, Gasser’s Wikipedia entry claimed that he was a “visiting professor” at UCSB because of this experience.* This is false. Others have pointed out more exaggerations in his biography, but that is not the purpose of this post.)

*(UPDATE: After this post went up, someone edited the entry to say he just visited UCSB. Thanks, defender of truth!)

Gasser’s approach is to find common elements of music, which is at odds with the type of musicology I practice, which looks at social contexts to explain the differences in music. Finding patterns is important; music theorist Heinrich Schenker developed a form of musical analysis based on the premise that well-formed compositions in the common practice of Western art music are all elaborations of the same fundamental harmonic skeleton, and some still find Schenkerian analysis a useful tool over a century later. Critics call Schenker’s method reductive, but he took as his motto, “Semper idem sed non eodem modo” (“Always the same, but never in the same way”) as a reminder that it’s the deviations from the norm that warrant attention.

But Gasser reduces music to those common components and implies that they indicate some objective truth about sound. He borrows the language of science because it makes his claims seem more authoritative, making it more likely that people will buy his certainty.

Once again, this is nothing new. I study 19th-century musical discourse, which was crammed FULL of theorists and historians eager to validate their theories about music as “science.” The evolutionary model was a particularly compelling way to explain history, as historians treated compositions as organisms with a fossil record. Gasser is updating this idea with the modern understanding of gene theory, but it’s a variation on an old theme. There are fundamental flaws with treating music as a living organism. At a certain point, the analogy breaks down.

Now, to the ESPN video. In it, Gasser claims that through statistical analysis, he can find sounds that correlate with “healing.” He implies that, if we can identify some sounds as “healing” and present them in a distilled form, they will form an efficacious treatment.

The problem is that Gasser points to aspects of music as having something in common with “healing”—string timbres, consonant harmony—as though they have intrinsic properties that cause specific reactions in the brain. However, these commonalities are developed through cultural association, not mysterious genetic reproduction. Neurology may be involved, but people have built those associations into their brains from all the music they’ve ever been exposed to. The statistics inform us of what people have learned to associate with certain sounds; they don’t reveal truths about the sounds themselves.

Even the concept of consonance/dissonance, which has been related to the ineffable realm of mathematics since the days of Pythagoras, is contextual. One of my favorite music theory demonstrations is to play the notes F and A-flat/G-sharp, first after playing a D-flat major scale (where it’s a consonant minor third), then after playing an A harmonic minor scale (where it’s a dissonant augmented second).

Not Nolan Gasser, but not too far off.
So, why am I calling this “snake oil” musicology? At the 3:20 mark, Gasser straight-up says he is working on an algorithm to find “the ideal music to treat cancer-related ailments like fatigue, pain, anxiety, and nausea.” I will not deny the power of music to comfort cancer patients like myself. And yes, attitude and emotional state do affect a patient’s response to treatment. But it is intellectually dishonest to present music itself as a treatment of physical conditions. This is not a verifiable scientific claim; Gasser just borrows clinical language to pass it off as one.

I want to point out two other red flags of the snake oil salesman. First, inflated claims to mastery: Four minutes in, he says that he’s “read through the literature on the use of music therapy.” Music therapy is an actual discipline, with a voluminous literature; saying you’ve read and evaluated all of it is a highly dubious claim. Any understanding formed on this basis is probably superficial and…well, reductive.

The second, and much more damning, red flag is cherry-picking results:  Gasser plays his healing music to “cancer survivors.” There’s a world of difference between a cancer survivor and a cancer patient, and I live in it. Cancer survivors are no longer in treatment. So, I’m not sure what playing music to people who no longer have cancer is intended to demonstrate about its effectiveness as a treatment for cancer. (This detail annoys me because my cancer is metastatic, so I will never be a cancer survivor. The most I can hope for is an extended remission, but I will never outlive the cancer.)

Like many people do in the face of quackery, you might ask, what’s the harm? If listening to comforting music helps people, who cares what kind of pseudo-history he uses to back it up? Well, as with any snake oil cure, if something delays a patient from getting a real treatment, that’s harmful. What further concerns me, as a cancer patient who is also a musicologist, is that, thanks to ESPN and FiveThirtyEight, this will be many people’s first exposure to the term “musicology.” But it is so ungrounded that it risks delegitimizing what my colleagues and I do. The people who went to Gasser’s talk at UCSB but have never attended another forum probably walked away thinking that’s the kind of research the music department produces, and that does us a huge disservice.

Gasser’s work appeals to a society that privileges quantifiable results with obvious applications, not the open-ended humanistic inquiries that most musicologists devote their lives to. I strongly believe that musicology has relevance to our society, but not like this. Gasser’s slick PR and easy-to-swallow claims about music overshadow nuanced, humanistic scholarship. Sometimes the “cure” is worse than the disease.

Special thanks to Robert Fink, Andrew Dell’Antonio, and Kevin Korsyn for their feedback on an early draft of this post!


“The Collectors: Musicology” on,

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