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    Philosophy Today & Music Theory Today: Fellow Travelers?

    "What we can learn about Philosophy's diversity problems by comparing ourselves to Music Theory" -- posted on Robin James' blog, It's Her Factory. (James is an Associate Professor in Philosophy & Women's/Gender Studies at UNC-Charlotte & has a background in music as a DJ & member of the band citation:obsolete.

    (Highly recommended to start a lively discussion. Some of what she says resonates with me vis a vis politics in & of music. Be sure to read the comments for additional thoughts & links. Maybe Fred Maus has something to stir the pot here?)

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    • 4 Comments sorted by Votes Date Added
    • I just recently heard an interview with the chairman of the National Endowment of the Humanities William Adams on the PBS Newshour who opined that many in the humanities field had retreated into their own areas of specialized knowledge and had become removed from an interface with the general public. He did not consider this to be a positive direction for the Humanities.  I believe he meant that the Humanities should be shared and communicated better to a larger audience and not merely the domain of specialists.  Does this apply to musical theory higher education in America?  

    • Maybe musical theory needs a Neil deGrasse Tyson?  Or a Carl Sagen?  Someone who could talk about the importance of musical theory to a more general public and inspire interest in the subject to new gernerations of musicians.  

    • Mainstream musical theory is not of much interest to the general public.

      Mainstream music theory is concerned primarily with modeling music as notes and as patterns of notes (motives, melodies, chords, harmonic structures, counterpoint, and so on). This model is fascinating to those of us who take an interest in it (btw I happen to find it fascinating, and I have an especial interest in Schenker).  But the model has a limited scope, and the scope is not well-aligned with the interests of the general public.

      As some of you know, I have been concerned with how to model the experience of music. I find that non-musicians are usually very interested in this. A good experience-oriented model will address questions such as "Why does music seem to be deeply significant?" "What are the 'emotions' about that I feel when I listen to music?" "Is music a language?" "Why does my attention wander when I listen to a Brahms symphony?" and so on.

      I think a good model for popularizing music theory would be the wine critic Robert Parker - who has helped to transform the field of wine connoisseurship into a theory and discipline that has invigorated the wine profession and also connected with the public.

      The above are summarized comments. I will be happy to elaborate, depending on interests of participants in this thread.



      Isaac Malitz, Ph.D.




    • Excellent comments Isaac!  If Stephen Hawking, Carl Sagen and Neil deGrasse Tyson can make astrophysics more accessible to a general audience then I am sure musical theory can be accessible with work like yours breaking down barriers.  Hawking wrote a #1 New York Times Bestseller "The Grand Design" which is very accessible to the general public based on it's sales.  Authors like Isaac Asimov are also successful  with books like "Atom Journey Across the Subatomic Cosmos" in presenting complex subject matter to a general audience that not only contributes to a modern understanding of physics, but is a rather enjoyable and fascinating read for anyone with the slightest intellectual curiosity about the world we live in today. Tyson is getting sold out crowds for his lectures on astrophysics!  I do believe that attempting to communicate rather complex ideas (the subject matter of much advanced musical theory) in simpler conceptual language is not only good for the musician, but could make music theory more accessible in general.  To often music theory is presented in a horrible manner in books like "Music Theory For Dummies" in which the usual dry abstract fundamentals of music are presented as theory and nothing is accomplished.  A scale is an abstract thing if you don't know what a scale is, where it came from, why human beings use it, etc.  Once in a post tonal theory class we were studying complex relationships in subsets and I asked the professor "how can I use this for composing?" and he really never did answer my question.  I'm sure he thought I was not very bright for not grasping the abstract meaning; on the other hand I think he failed to explain in simpler terms how an abstraction is actually useful for musicians/composers - the reason I was taking the class.