Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Hey, Siri! Are You a Musicologist?

When Apple announced their HomePod in June 2017, press releases and advertising touted its new features, as would be expected of any competent marketing team. For my colleagues and me, one word stood out:
Hey Siri, how many Mass settings of
“L’homme armé” have been discovered?
“By saying, ‘Hey Siri, I like this song,’ HomePod and Apple Music become the perfect musicologist, learning preferences from hundreds of genres and moods, across tens of thousands of playlists, and these music tastes are shared across devices. Siri can also handle advanced searches within the music library, so users can ask questions like ‘Hey Siri, who’s the drummer in this?’ or create a shared Up Next queue with everyone in the home.”
Press Release, 6/5/17
Oh, we had a lot of fun on social media with that!

The Siri-is-a-musicologist meme also led to wryness about the foibles of academia:

(There were fantastic jokes on Facebook, too, but Twitter is a more public platform and easier to embed.)

Under the humor lay barely-concealed defensiveness, as territorial music scholars conjured up the most arcane things musicologists do that Siri (obviously) can’t. We were acutely aware that this would be many people’s first encounter with the terms “musicologist” and “musicology” (unless they’re Prince fans). Wouldn’t this influence the mainstream perception of what musicologists do, as demonstrated in my favorite Tweet on the subject?

Some expressed their annoyance with Apple’s marketing more bluntly:

(In preparing this post, I tried to contact Apple Media Relations to see if anyone would discuss with me how they decided on “musicologist” as the word to describe Siri’s function, but so far they have not responded.)

In February, Siri the musicologist made the news again, with critics noting that HomePod’s “musicology” feature is about the only one that doesn’t fall behind its competitors:
“On the speaker, Siri’s best skill is playing musicologist. It can create certain kinds of playlists on the fly and give you some music trivia.”
So, the jokes made the rounds again, and I get another chance to write the blog post I should have done last June.

Hey Siri! Are you a musicologist?

Of course not, Linda! I’m not a person.

*sigh* Siri, is what you actually do considered musicology?

Searching…I found this information on the web from a blog called “Not Another Music History Cliché.”

(Note: Siri responses simulated.)

Here are the two functions that Apple considers “musicology”:
  1. Creating playlists based on music for which you’ve shown a preference.
  2. Providing trivia about the music you’re listening to.
Now, any decent musicologist can do both of these things—but it’s not what we’ve been trained to do. No part of my comprehensive exam covered which pieces to suggest if someone enjoyed Felix Mendelssohn’s Overture for Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. (The obvious answers: The Overture to Carl Maria von Weber’s Oberon and Benjamin Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.) And sure, we pick up a lot of trivial details as we research, but scholarship is less about accumulating facts than it is about connecting them to larger ideas. Siri’s functions are skills we’ve developed as consequences of our training, not goals.

So, Siri, what do musicologists do?

I have more data from “Not Another Music History Cliché.” Shall I read it to you?

Literally, the word means “the study of music,” with the implication that it’s a scholarly discipline, not the actual performance of music, which obviously also involves studying music. Though some musicologists do study the performance of music, and most of us can play an instrument and/or sing, defining the disciplinary boundaries of musicology is fairly difficult, especially when considering other music sub-disciplines like music theory and music cognition.

The American Musicological Society devotes a page on their website to a list of different ways musicologists study music. It is necessarily incomplete; everyone who gets a doctoral degree in musicology is expected to make an original contribution, sometimes opening new areas that can be incorporated into the discipline.

One way that my friends have explained musicology is comparing it to art history or literary analysis. People in general seem to have no problem understanding what those fields involve, yet transferring that concept to music often gives people pause. Perhaps it’s because the average art-consuming American is more familiar with reading books and seeing visual art than they are listening to art music, or perhaps it’s because music seems so abstract and nebulous in comparison to concrete things like sculptures and books.

A primary motivation for this blog was that it seemed like journalists have no problem consulting an art historian for a few quotes to put a newsworthy painting into context but often don’t ask musicologists for their perspective on an upcoming concert. Lately, though, I think this trend is changing for the better.

Another musicological activity that is easy to grasp (but takes a lot of training to practice) is the discovery and authentication of musical manuscripts. I’ve read two recent novels with very similar plots that involve centuries-old manuscripts that resurface in the 21st century, both featuring fictional musicologists: And After the Fire by Lauren Belfer and The Prague Sonata by Bradford Morrow, both published in 2017. The fictional musicologists in these novels are decent portraits from life, though the authors stick to the aspects of the job that are most easily understood by a general readership.
Composer Florence Price
Siri, can you play me a symphony from the 1930s
composed by a Woman of Color?
For a recent, real-life example of this type of work, there’s the discovery of several works by Florence Price. The circumstances of the discovery also demonstrate how some musical works can disappear from history, especially when the composer is overlooked by a restrictive canon. Fortunately, Price is currently experiencing a revival.

Musical archeology like this is just one area of specialization within musicology. Many musicologists illuminate the interaction of music and other aspects of society. Tracing the dissemination of a particular pre-Gregorian chant melody (yes, there were notated chants before 800!) can reveal aspects of Medieval trade routes. The spread of national styles can indicate the relationships between countries, like when so many monarchs in Europe commanded their composers to write French-style dance music to invoke the glory of Louis XIV.

In the 1980s, some musicologists began incorporating methods and approaches from other academic disciplines out of concern that musicology was too insular and risked becoming irrelevant. “New Musicology,” as it’s still sometimes called, looks at music from the perspective of race, gender, and social class, among other things. In fact, musicologists have been blowing the whistle on sexual inequality in classical music since long before #MeToo and even social media existed.

My specialties are music reception and historiography, which should not come as a surprise to anyone who has been following this blog. Reception is the study of how audiences react to music, and of the cultural associations pieces or composer accumulate over time. Historiography is the “history of histories,” how historical information is presented, and how that has changed over time. I’m fascinated by how and why things that should seem “fixed” actually change. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, I want my readers to feel the reality of L.P. Hartley’s famous observation that “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.”

I’m still just scratching the surface of the many things musicologists research. As for what musicologists do, well, that’s also multifarious. Musicologists who pursue careers in academia are expected to teach, research, write, present papers, and publish with scholarly presses. Not all musicologists go that route, however. Some work for musical organizations, some in media, some write books, some write program notes [*cough*], some blog online, some testify in copyright cases, and a great many engage in multiple activities at once.

Hey, Siri! Are you a musicologist?

No, but I want to be. Can I study with you?

Many thanks to Imani Moseley and Robert Fink for improving drafts of this post before publication, and to #MusicologyTwitter for being so funny and on-point.

Like what you’ve read?

“HomePod reinvents music in the home” on Apple.com, June 5, 2017, https://www.apple.com/newsroom/2017/06/homepod-reinvents-music-in-the-home/

“Siri, already bumbling, just got less intelligent on the HomePod” by Geoffrey A. Fowler for The Washington Post, February 14, 2018, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-switch/wp/2018/02/14/siri-already-bumbling-just-got-less-intelligent-on-the-homepod/?utm_term=.838cf7146686

“What is musicology?” from the American Musicological Society,  http://www.ams-net.org/what-is-musicology.php


  1. In the various discussions on social media, a few people have offered possible explanations for Apple's selection of the word "musicologist." One theory is that they're trying to evoke the word "mixologist," in that HomePod selects and combines music as a mixologist would drinks.

    Another theory is that they got the term from Pandora, who refers to the people working on the Music Genome Project as musicologists (regardless of their educational background and training). It's notable, though, that Pandora's use of the word "musicologist" only applies to humans, not the project. Apple might be the first to call an application/AI a musicologist.

    It may be neither; it may be a little of both. Unless Apple answers my inquiry, we just won't know.

  2. I note with interest that the default voice of Siri, the musicologist, sounds female. Surely there is meaning to be found there...

    1. There have been a few articles online noting that all the virtual assistants have female voices as defaults (because people are comfortable ordering women around):
      Alexa, why aren’t you a dude? How female digital assistants reinforce stereotypes
      Alexa, Siri, Cortana: Our virtual assistants say a lot about sexism

      But hey, another female musicologist! Maybe we can get her to be a music theorist and help their numbers out.