I bring this up because it’s important to point out that my definition of “musicology” is not shared by everyone, even fellow musicologists. Fortunately, the internet is a big place, and there are plenty of other musicological bloggers out there doing their own thing and showing the world how they do musicology (I list a few of my favorites at the end of this post). Anyone can read these blogs, which makes blogging a powerful activity in the practice of “public musicology”—another term on which musicologists have yet to achieve a consensus.
Many musicological blogs are like mine in that they’re the independent musings of one (or maybe two) scholar(s). This blog is not affiliated with any institution; the views expressed are mine alone. While I’d like to think of myself as a good example of a musicologist, I don’t speak for the discipline. However, there is an American Musicological Society (of which I am a member), and in addition to publishing a prestigious research journal and holding a huge academic conference as its annual meeting, it has an official blog: Musicology Now. Given that the blog’s header describes it as “lively facts and opinions on music, brought to you by the American Musicological Society” and is hosted on AMS’s website, one might assume that it’s representative of the discipline, and it’s the way the society chooses to present musicology to the public at large.
But a few of the posts that have been featured on Musicology Now have been controversial because of the way they represent our field of study. Last February, a post about teaching Mozart’s Don Giovanni in prison sparked a HUGE debate (which some musicologists refer to as “the Kerfuffle”) due to racially coded language and a mischaracterization of rap music. I don’t want to rehash the entire argument here (you can see the comments on the original post, though a lot of the outrage was recorded on Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr), but one of the phrases that came up in defense of the post was that Musicology Now is “just a blog” and shouldn’t be held to the same standards as an academic journal.
I agree that a blog post shouldn’t be held to the same standards as a journal, but it should have some editorial standards. A blog has a much wider potential audience than a journal, and those readers are more likely to be non-musicologists. For that reason, Musicology Now should be even more careful about how its writers present the discipline. I understand that not everyone does the same kind of research and that musicologists have different opinions on fundamental aspects of the field, and it’s important to present many viewpoints on the blog.
But that particular post bolstered the stereotype of a music historian as an ivory tower elitist who raises classical music above all others and doesn’t deign to inform himself about other, lesser musics like rap. My problem with the post was that the author displayed a genuine lack of awareness about the racial implications of his phrasing and ignorance of non-classical music, things an editor should have caught before publication. The former is embarrassing for any academic, but the latter is particularly embarrassing for music scholars.
You’d think that Musicology Now would have learned from that experience, but this week they published “A Harmony/Counterpoint Teacher/Student dialogue” by John Halle of Bard Conservatory, which repeats some of the same mistakes. A longer version appears on Halle’s own blog, but I’m focused on what appears on the Musicology Now blog, as that’s the section they’ve chosen to highlight.
The Teacher in the dialogue coyly hints that he understands that his belief in the superiority of classical music puts him in the minority. He quotes Robert Fink saying “the canon of classical music is only one among many, and by no means the most culturally prestigious,” then indicates that he disagrees with that statement. I agree with Fink on this point; I think that much of classical music’s value comes from extrinsic properties accumulated through history, and that there are other traditions just as complex and “important.” Over time, I’ve come to believe that classical music is not intrinsically better than other styles of music, and that ignorance of other music is never anything to be proud of. So, from the start I have a fundamental philosophical disagreement with Halle’s Teacher (and likely Halle himself).
The Teacher makes several claims about how classical music is unique and more complex, and therefore better than other styles. However, several of these claims are superficial, facile, and based on willful mischaracterizations of non-classical music. Among his claims:
- Jazz and popular music doesn’t have functional harmony (that is, the chords don’t progress from one to another).
- Classical music is pretty much the only style of music that’s entirely notated.
- Non-classical music restricts itself to 5- or 7-note scales, not using the 12 notes available in classical music.
- Modulation is unique to classical music.
|Carole King won't be confined to seven pitches!|
The Teacher may not represent Halle’s views exactly; he may be just a character that Halle has created as a caricature of the clueless classical music professor. But the dialogue itself doesn’t invite the reader to criticize the Teacher’s statements. The Student questions the Teacher and occasionally disagrees with him (or her), but the Student doesn’t challenge the Teacher’s statements or offer counter-examples, like I did above. Even when the ending tells the Student to continue the dialogue (Halle’s original post was an assignment to his class), it’s to resolve the Teacher’s apparent contradiction, not to take an opposing position. The dialogue structure is a very old and established teaching technique (at least as far back as Plato putting words in Socrates’ mouth), but it’s so easy to fall into the trap of the Strawman Fallacy. The Student isn’t there to present an argument, but to set up the Teacher’s next point. It’s not an accurate representation of an opposing viewpoint because I don’t think Halle really understands the other side, or at least that’s the impression I get from this excerpt.
My biggest question about Halle’s post is why Musicology Now chose to feature it on its blog. There are members of AMS who actually do study popular music and styles other than the Western classical tradition, and they could have caught and corrected the inaccuracies before it made the jump from Halle’s personal blog. Instead, AMS has published something with obvious errors that might lead the casual reader to dismiss musicology for being too narrowly focused. These mistakes damage the discipline’s credibility. Even worse, the smug superiority and snobbery makes it look as though the Teacher takes pride in his or her ignorance, which goes against the ethos of my own work.
Perhaps Halle’s post will spark a discussion, and perhaps it will touch on those deeper philosophical differences. But if those discussions happen, they will mainly occur between musicologists and theorists themselves, on social media and listservs where outsiders don’t know where to look.
Musicology Now and AMS should reconsider what they choose to publish on their blog, or at the very least, how they choose to frame this material. Their decisions reflect on the discipline as a whole, even if it is “just a blog.”
Many thanks to Andrew Dell’Antonio and Imani Mosley for their feedback on this post!
“A Harmony/Counterpoint Teacher/Student dialogue” by John Halle on Musicology Now, http://musicologynow.ams-net.org/2016/10/a-harmonycounterpoint-teacherstudent.html
Additional blogs on musicology:
- Settling Scores: http://www.settlingscoresblog.net/
- Sounding Out: https://soundstudiesblog.com/
- Trax on the Trail: http://www.traxonthetrail.com/
- The Avid Listener: http://www.theavidlistener.com/
- Dial M for Musicology: https://dialmformusicology.com/