Monday, October 10, 2016

What is unique about classical music? (Snobbery in Classical Music, Part 4 of ?)

This blog is almost exactly five months old, and in that short time I’ve noticed a bit of mission drift. I started this blog with the intent of correcting mistakes, acting like a classical music Snopes to inform people that no, Salieri didn’t murder Mozart, and Tchaikovsky didn’t commit suicide after writing his Pathétique symphony. But as I started thinking about what gives these myths their staying power, I found myself explaining my view of history and articulating how I practice musicology. This morphed into a defense of the discipline, calling out misunderstandings, misapplications, and snobbery.

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.
I’m not a jazz or pop music scholar, so I’m not the best person to explain how their harmonies work, though to my ear the chords do not sound “self-contained.” An ethnomusicologist could refute the second statement. Even as a casual fan of classic rock, though, I know that the last two statements are completely wrong. I can think of lots of non-classical music that modulates, and not just the trite Truck Driver’s Gear Change for the final verse of a song. Johnny Cash’s “I Walk the Line” features a new key for each verse, eventually winding up in the original key, but an octave lower.

Carole King won't be confined to seven pitches!
If that isn’t functional enough for Halle’s teacher, then I direct him to “Pleasant Valley Sunday.” (I’m about to get more technical than I usually do in this blog.) This Monkees song, written by Carole King, modulates from A major in the verses to C major then E major in the bridge. These are chromatic mediant relations, used by such composers as Schubert, Mendelssohn and Brahms, followed by a move from dominant to tonic to return to the verse. Even if you argue that these key changes are too fleeting to be considered “modulations” and are merely “tonicizations,” they still contradict the Teacher’s assertion that pop music is restricted 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,

Additional blogs on musicology:


  1. Linda,

    This is all a tempest in a teapot and in the scheme of events mean nothing.

    We have to make a distinction between what is ‘untellable’, unable to be spoken of because, as in the case of death, 'there is absolutely nothing to say’, and the 'ineffable’, which cannot be explained because there are infinite and interminable things to be said of it’.

    Music embodies the qualities of the ineffable: it creates a kind of enchantment that bewilders the mind and puts it at a loss for words. Of course, that music is a thing of mystery and wonder that eludes the grasp of words is a truism to which we all pay lip service. We all know that music is radically other to the words with which we approach it, and yet, in our busy professional lives, where music becomes the object of our scholarly enquiry, we work as if that were not so. To be sure, a few individuals do produce valuable and fascinating work — as history, criticism, theory, philosophy, or analysis. But somewhere, like a ghost in the machine, the music haunts such systems to which it remains perpetually elusive.

    If musicologists and scholars were able to step off the professional merry-go-round for a few moments, they would realize that ALL of their theoretical discourses around music add up to a kind of avoidance of something more urgent, a way of holding music’s power at arm’s length, an ordering in rational networks of what might otherwise be too disturbing. The rush into hermeneutics of any kind (amateur or professional) expresses a kind of anxiety — a refusal of the music, a fear of allowing it to persist on its own terms, a compulsion to render it safely into the verbal. At the very least, when confronted with the degree to which music exceeds the ways in which scholars frame it, they should lapse into despondency, surviving only by separating out their professional writing and their 'real’ (private) experience of music.

    We cannot talk about music. I oppose the way in which music is appropriated by analytical and discursive practices that remain always outside its substance. There can be no great writing on music.

    Music is not amenable to hermeneutics. We have to question the discursive framework through which we attempt to speak about music and to make that hubristic claim — 'to understand music’. All the terms with which we attempt to grasp hold of music are always and only metaphors and analogies, redrawing the lines between the ungraspable nature of music — resistant to logical schemes at every turn — and the structures in which we seek to ‘make sense’ of it. The language of music theory, whether in aesthetics or analysis, is spatial not temporal. Music is not a discourse and the idea of development, a process of thought unfolding through time, is misplaced in relation to music. References to development are merely 'manners of speaking, metaphors and analogies, dictated to us by our habitual discursive ways’. There is nothing in the music ‘to be understood’ and we should pour scorn on the idea that the music can be ‘followed’, as in the tracing of a succession of themes. I have no time for technical analysis, which I characterize as a resistance to the music’s enchantment, an activity that is both 'manically antihedonist’ and yet frivolous at the same time. It is the separation between the hermeneutic act and the music that we have to take issue with. Thinking about music, in technical analysis or in other discursive forms, entails a separation from the music that makes the music peripheral.

    All of the above should disturb the comfortable state of musicology (old and new alike). Everything that musicologists do falls short of the music and they all know this.

    1. At the risk of confirming my optimism, I don't think that most research/academic discourse in music intends to reduce it to some codified, neatly boxed-up set of ideas. Certainly music embodies the qualities of the ineffable—I cheered when you said it—but that doesn't mean that research into its more tangible qualities somehow resents the parts it can't pin down. We may never be able to fully understand music, in scholarly terms or otherwise. That has never given my research pause, or thrust me into despondency—quite the opposite. I'm inspired by such a simple fact: even as a field, we cannot possibly discover or understand all of music.

      Perhaps you're right, and musicology as a field has moved away from the reverence and pure experience that music is due. Any attempt at understanding, however, is not anathema to enjoyment or experience. There will always be a snob who says that without the proper formal education nobody can "appreciate" anything: I say, let them have it. There's plenty of writing and talking and thinking about music whose scholars' sole intent is to enhance the experience of anyone who reads it and listens. That has always been my intention in both teaching and writing, and I know that I'm in good company (at least in my own social bubble).

      In terms of experience, I admit that reading analysis of fugues by Bach fundamentally changed my experience of them. I genuinely enjoy reading the analysis, not because afterward I can hold forth on the differences between tonal and real answers or the merits of different developmental processes, but for the pleasure of watching it work. I take the same pleasure in watching a mechanical watch or a Rube Goldberg machine. I also enjoy the cameraderie such scholarship offers me: if I enjoy reading it so much, surely the author took *some* pleasure in writing it, and I am therefore not alone in my enjoyment. How pleasant.

      Should the snobs, old and new, be disturbed? Probably. But musicology as a whole? No.

  2. Great work, as always, Linda. Hopefully Musicology Now takes note and institutes a more careful editorial process that reflects an understanding of the reach of "public musicology."

    Amanda, I'm not sure what your background is, but I would argue that there exists no "comfortable state of musicology" if the past year of dialogue is any indication. I think to argue that "there can be no great writing on music" indicates that there's a large set of musicological writing that you haven't read or approached yet.

    Arguing that music cannot be analyzed, interpreted, contextualized, or understood sets up a potentially dangerous stance where music is some sort of otherworldly, mystical, universal power. This view obscures the social coding that is (can be) present in music, based on context, which has very real implications for how human beings relate to each other and how power and social justice are afforded and distributed. Music is created by humans, it is a process and product of our intellect.

    Writing about music doesn't replace music (I know of virtually no musicologist who would argue this), and it isn't a substitute for our personal relationship with sound - it was never intended to be. Analysis isn't antithetical to appreciation, it's a process of it. Moreover, arguing that rationality and logic are completely opposite to "enchantment" or an "ungraspable nature" plays in to a centuries-old trope of intellect vs. creativity (Style and Idea, craft vs. art, etc.). This is a false binary.

    You're certainly welcome to disagree with musicological approaches - to ignore them - but to argue in absolutes that "EVERYTHING that musicologists do falls short of the music and they ALL know this" is simply incorrect, and it's weak reasoning. But, if it's your perspective, it seems it would make more sense to spend energy admiring the music you find compelling, rather than reading the discourses that you find "mean nothing."

    1. Sarah,

      I really don't believe that you get more from music if are a musicologist or if you study a score than someone who listens to music and just feels it on an intuitive level. How can we even meaningfully compare how much one person truly experiences a work compared to another? By how well they can talk about their experience? Does than not say more about the person than it does about the actual music? I think the problems come indeed when people try to tie those musical experiences down into words and imagine that there is only one way of perceiving a work.

      Even the most respected of musicologists and critics couldn't possibly come to a consensus on what makes a piece of music great, or even whether a performance of a work is good or not, let alone explain why.

    2. Well, it very much depends on how you define "more." Studying and analyzing anything - history, a painting, cell structure - gives you a different understanding, whether or not you consider that a "better" perspective is something else entirely. I'm not sure what musicologists you've interacted with who have postulated that *only* they can understand music and *only* in this way, at the expense of the so-called untrained listener, but that's definitely NOT a foundational belief of the field. In fact, if anything, that's more likely to be a trait of those that consider Western classical music as the only tradition, or the one most worthy of critical study. It's exactly that viewpoint that Linda is arguing against.

      I would challenge you to find a scholar of pop, country, hip-hop, EDM, ethnomusicology, or any number of other traditions who would say the experience of a listener is irrelevant. Actually there's an entire sub-field of audience studies that is focused around listener experience. And there's many of us who work within the canon and the Western concert music tradition who consider listener experience to be vital.

      Beyond that, musicology is not a comparison with the end goal of judging or quantifying who has the most meaningful relationship to a work. It's not even about defining what makes a piece great (that in itself is a whole different discussion bound up in the creation of canon, cultural context, and hegemony), or judging the value of a performance. Again, I'll stress that if that is your impression, it's not because alternative approaches do not exist within the field, but because you haven't encountered them yet.

      If you've been told by a musicologist that the only point of music is to decide if, how, and why it's great, and that the only person to do that is them, and only in the way that they do it, you've had a really unfortunate experience with someone who does not speak for the whole field.

      I'm more than happy to point out some literature that will give alternative perspectives, if you're interested.

      Or, continue listening to what you love how to want to. It doesn't matter what somebody else says about the work - there's many ways to relate to music and it's not a competition to see who does it best. And, you're right, if someone says that they alone can appreciate music or makes you feel as if you have no right to enjoy or participate in a musical tradition, that does say quite a bit more about them than anything else. But, they don't own the music.

    3. Sarah,

      "Well, it very much depends on how you define "more." Studying and analyzing anything - history, a painting, cell structure - gives you a different understanding"

      Yes I completely agree!

      What I am referring to is the fatuous pomposity of those who claim that the highest echelons of music appreciation are reserved for individuals with formal education in ear training, analysis, theory and technical music concepts.

      These are NOT essential for high levels of musical understanding.

      We need more people to defend concatenationism.

  3. I am reminded of Tommy Tallarico's continued (and largely successful) efforts to change the conversation around video game music, consistently reminding his audiences that video game audio is no longer "bleeps and bloops," that it is no longer constrained by the limitations of technology, and is worthy of both consumption and study by the public independent of its beginnings.

    We need musicologists to engage in similar efforts -- as academic departments struggle to justify funding, we should all be making the case for music's application to modern life. By dismissing popular music (let alone music for mass media), we are effectively saying that we have nothing to do with modern culture, and therefore cannot justify funding in the same ways that sociology, anthropology, philosophy, and history can.

    Nothing could be further from the truth.

  4. Greetings Linda,

    I am a master student in musicology and only recently taking the plunge into the world of musicological blogs. Naturally the American Musicological Society (AMS) blog was the first that came into my radar. And then I read John Halle’s post about the dialogue between a student and a harmony/counterpoint teacher, and I read your comment, and finally I arrived at this blog. This issue of classical music snobbery catches my attention because of how much I can relate to it. I was in (classical) performance major too, and I know that feeling when I had to endlessly defend my choice in life (it’s a radical choice!). I also have to admit that I know that feeling of taking non-classical music as less supreme than ‘my kind’ of music. But, I completely agree with you that Halle’s post is touching deeper philosophical issues.

    I think this snobbery cannot be separated from Eurocentrism and its tradition to see non-European things as the Others. Kofi Agawu has brought forward the cases in which European musicologists defined African music as “strange” because of its differences with European music. Musicologists also tend to reduce African music into an essence, like the distinct complex rhythm, or distinct vocal style. Agawu argues that uniqueness is indeed needs to be recognized, but not by facile attributions from Europeans. I think Agawu’s points are very relevant in this issue of snobbery. Snobbery is what appears on the surface, but there is much deeper issue under it. Hence I also completely agree with you that this snobbery—the definition of Western classical music as good and others as bad—is socially constructed.

    The good news is, there is a way out of this (if we are willing). Agawu proposes embracing of sameness. There’s no method for this, Agawu says, only “a presence of mind, an attitude, a way of seeing the world”. I think this is an excellent proposition. Personally, although not a European, I am not free from the snobbery, and I would really like to take an inventory of my mindsets and reassess it with Agawu’s proposition in mind. Quite in the similar vein as Agawu, Reinhard Strohm is currently chairing The Balzan Project which intends to “…explore historical interactions between Western thought and that of other musical cultures.” With these propositions as starting points, I think musicology still has some hopes.

    I might have taken this snobbery issue a little bit too far; but nevertheless thank you for the excellent blog posts which stimulated this newbie’s brain!

    *Kofi Agawu’s article: “Contesting Difference: A Critique of Africanist Ethnomusicology.” In The Cultural Study of music: A Critical Introduction, edited by Martin Clayton, Trevor Herbert, and Richard Middleton, 227-238. New York: Routledge, 2003.

    *The Balzan Project:

    1. Thank you for your post, Aniarani, and I hope you had a good time in Vancouver! There's definitely a geo-political component to classical music snobbery, and in the current cultural climate, it's essential to keep that in mind. Sometimes people say "popular music" and REALLY mean "black music." I don't want to ascribe that to Halle here; I don't know him well enough to tell whether he's intentionally speaking in code. Nevertheless, that is the code that we've inherited, whether people realize it or not.

      I hope you have more to say on future posts (as soon as I climb out from my pile of work to write them)!