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Music Theory entries in Wikipedia
A few months ago, I saw a story about a group hosting a Wikipedia-thon
to correct/update/add entries to Wikipedia. I often tell my students that Wikipedia is a great place to start doing research, especially if the Wikipedia entries they find have any citations. I encourage them to take what they see with a grain of salt (and to never actually cite anything from the article itself), but to follow the citations as they often lead to more solid (and citable!) sources. Would it be of benefit to the world of knowledge to periodically curate the Music Theory entries in Wikipedia, checking to make sure the information is accurate and that citations point to the best possible sources? Perhaps we could host our own Wikipedia-thon during the annual meeting this year. Thoughts?
A few years ago at Buffalo, Charles Smith was asking his History of Theory grad students edit the Wikipedia entries for historical figures and concepts in music theory. I think this is an excellent idea and a good place to start, because unlike potentially well-trafficked articles like enharmonicism, many significant old theorists have only the tiniest of stubs, or simply no article at all on English Wikipedia (though many are better represented on the German, French, or Italian versions). See, for example, Joseph Riepel (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joseph_Riepel), Simon Sechter (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Simon_Sechter), or F.W. Marpurg (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marpurg). Not only are these less likely to be reverted, it also wouldn't take too much effort to make a real difference on entries like these: filling in biographical or theoretical details, fleshing out their bibliographies, adding links to Google Books or archive.org where appropriate, etc.
My colleagues and I are already planning a musicological Wikipedia write-a-thon, to occur sometime in the fall. I invite others to do the same, and I'll be sure to post ours here when the details are more solid, so we can all nerd out together!
A couple of us have edited Wikipedia. As an example, I strongly believe that the article on retrograde is more complete than can be found in any other published source.I wanted to start working on the article on enharmonicism but that is proving to be problematic.
As far as reverting - the key is having conversations with other Wikipedians and convincing them of your points of view -- NOT through your credentials or position, but by the logic of your argument and its documentatiion. (That's pretty much what you have to do in class, yes?)
While I agree with Bob Kosovsky that undertaking some sort of music theory wiki would be a major undertaking, I disagree that it's necessarily a "losing proposition" and that we just have to give in to Wikipedia's broken administrative structure. (I too edited on Wikipedia for a time, mostly quite a few years ago, and I've discussed this on smt-talk in the past.)
To build on Charles's post, the model should perhaps not necessarily be IMSLP, but perhaps something more like the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, which is by far the best online (and free!) resource on philosophy, is edited and written by professional academic philosophers, and actually predates Wikipedia by quite a few years. (The project began in 1995 and was well underway by the late 90s.)
Far from marginalizing philosophy, in my opinion the SEP has always served as a model of the best sort of academic resource available online, created through a wonderful example of scholarly collaboration. (And to respond to Bob's point, try Googling some philosopher's name or some major philosophical idea. Wikipedia may be the first hit, but SEP is often the second. A good quality, professional site would rise to the top of internet resources once it accumulates a critical mass of good articles. And most Wikipedia articles on philosophers, etc. have SEP as one of their top external links for further information.) Of course, there are many issues with trying to follow in the footsteps of SEP -- one notable obstacle would be trying to obtain the sort of grant money that they had to do such a professional job.
I absolutely agree with Bob that those of us who have the patience should continue trying to edit Wikipedia, since it's such a dominant resource. But one further issue that hasn't yet come up here is the ephemerality of Wikipedia and the lack of stability. Even if someone here succeeds, for example, in fighting the Wiki bureaucracy and reforming a few dozen major articles, there is currently no mechanism on Wikipedia to retain a "stable version" of an article once it has achieved a certain level of quality and comprehensiveness. If you spend months of your life trying to create better articles, there's no guarantee that much of your information won't be edited out of existence two years from now by some overzealous editor who thinks some of it is "irrelevant" or "not notable" because it's only discussed in specialist journals and not in Music Theory for Dummies. By contributing to Wikipedia, you need also essentially to commit to perpetual policing of your improvements, which simply seems ridiculous to me.
If nothing else, a music theory wiki could become a repository of material that we have some control over in the long-term. We can set the rules for administration, for stability and quality of articles, for editing, etc. I don't think it would be easy, but I for one would be much more willing to contribute to such a resource than to Wikipedia. And I know of quite a few other scholars who have expressed similar frustration when trying edit Wikipedia who would probably also be interested.
There seems to be a number of possibilities mentioned here.
(1) One is to create something like the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy or the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Note that these two resources are not wikis: both of these are peer-reviewed publications. Do we want something analogous for music theory? If so, how would it be different than the Grove Dictionary entries on music theory? And if this publication is peer reviewed, should each entry be reviewed by an appointed Board, or should the entries be subject to Open Peer Review, such as Kris Schafer discussed in his recent MTO essay
(2) The other possibility is that SMT start its own wiki-encyclopedia, one that could be edited only by SMT members (but viewable for everybody). This would not solve all the problems involved, but it would at least limit them somewhat. I see that other organizations have such wiki resources that are independent of Wikipedia. I should note, incidentally, that the Pop Music Interest Group hosts a glossary onits website, one that I believe is edited by its members. However, this glossary was evidently last updated on July 24, 2005. If we did start an SMT-run wiki-resource, for it to be effective our members would need to take an active role in updating it.
(3) A final possibility is for our members to keep up the good fight at Wikipedia. Has anybody else besides Devin Chaloux and Bob Kosovky been involved with the WikiProject Music Theory? Although, for reasons Devin mentioned, SMT as an organization cannot get involved in editing Wikipedia articles, might it help if a bunch of individuals (such as the people who happen to be following this thread) got involved with WikiProject Music Theory? According to the WikiProject Music Theory page, there are only 29 active participants in this project. Let’s say there were 30 more active participants, all who happened to be from SMT? Would that help?
This is where ground can be made and like you said, with little resistance. On the other hand, it's those hotly contested articles that are, in my humble opinion, the ones that need to get edited so badly just because of how many view them (especially the students we are working with).
I've been on Wikipedia for just over 8 years and I don't take as pessimistic view as Devin. One thing I think people may not realize is that Wikipedia is a social encyclopedia. You can't expect to do anything without interacting with other people, and sometimes this may require convincing them of your arguments - and sometimes it may require you to be more open minded and accepting of their arguments.
In that sense, Wikipedia is a challenge. It's not just about adding factual information, but entering into a collaboration. Sometimes it requires that you be able to defend your decisions. A person entering too enthusiastically will probably get burned quickly. Rather, one should approach Wikipedia starting with small edits, gradually increasing what you do as you receive feedback and understand the culture.
I think Devin's approach is very practical: start by editing those articles which are least likely to be heavily patrolled. Music theory is already a fairly obscure field, and some of the lesser-known theorists even more so. You might want to look at the List of music theorists and see how many don't have articles -- it could be a nice supplement to a "History of Music Theory" class. (But fair warning: editing Wikipedia as part of a class takes a lot of preparation; there's even a separate foundation that deals with teachers who want to incorporate Wikipedia as part of classes: The Wikipedia Education Foundation their website is: http://wikiedu.org/.
Obviously I'm a strong believer in Wikipedia's mission. If anyone is curious, I'd be happy to answer questions.
Thanks to Bill O'Hara for the plug. Actually that plan didn't work out very well, because, as Bob K noted, it isn't that easy to write a Wikipedia article, and most of the class (myself included) didn't have the basic skills in place. (I did submit a major addition to the theory part of the page on Praetorius, and several students managed to upgrade some other pages, though I haven't checked in years to see if any of our contributions are still there...) But that issue aside, I still share the conviction that one of the most useful things that we as theorists can be doing is providing reliable guides to music-theory related topics.
I've already mentioned an idea to Poundie, and will now propose it here: that SMT begin to develop a Theory-Wiki, that would aim to provide a generally available source of information on basic, and eventually not-so-basic, stuff in our field. It would have to be editorially controlled (and thus not a true wiki)—more like the IMSLP, perhaps, or even more so. And controversial issues would obviously have to be presented in complementary ways—perhaps to the point of having separate pages for "Form a la Caplin" and "Form a la Hepokoski/Darcy", and so on. The advantages of creating an SMT-monitored site would be several: certainly, the authority conferred by the discipline, and also avoiding the problems of meddling and reverting that plague a lot of the wiki world.
The society has money; this project seems to me like a good way to spend some of it. It could provide some support for lots of graduate students, who would learn the site's presentational, organizational, and editorial conventions, and would process submissions—under the oversight of some senior folks, I suppose. Or maybe (as was proposed after the fact of the appearance of the first New Grove) the grad students could write drafts, following the conventions, and then senior folks could edit them? Many of these pieces could link to or even adapt current Wikipedia articles, but I for one am confident that the special flavour of the professional society would soon emerge.
We who call ourselves Music Theorists are in an odd position in the world at large, in that most folks haven't the slightest idea what we do, or why we should, or (especially) why we should be supported doing it. (They get epidemiology, or nanotechnology, or earthquake geology, or political science, or cognitive psych, or even French lit and art history, but we are still quite mysterious...) Something like a Theory Wiki could provide a public face for the discipline, and thus be a useful tool for public relations as well as a source we would all end up using a lot.
It's a huge project, of course, but why not think big??
What would be the purpose of this wiki? What audience would it be for? As far as I can tell, it would be for SMT members and the occasional musically-inclined individual. (I'm not going to discuss the construction of such a website which I see as losing proposition due to conflicting ideas and the long-range committment needed.)
Despite its issues, a major advantage of Wikipedia is that it is the sixth most visited website in the world, and the no. 1 most visited reference site. Unlike an individual SMT website, the nature of Wikipedia is one where all information is potentially interconnected. People who have no deep interest in music can still quickly consult music-related articles as the topic may arise, even tangentially.
I feel a major hurdle facing music in today's world is its marginalization. Creating our own website is just marginalizing the field even more than it is. How much better it would be to actively engage with the rest of the world by not only contributing knowledge of music theory, but integrating it with the rest of knowledge.
Like Bob, I have dealt with the issue of music theory articles on Wikipedia for some time. Unlike Bob, I have given up in frustration.
There are some great articles and great contributions. There are several problems with the current state of music theory articles on Wikipedia:
How do we solve it? I'm not really sure. You could get a class together and have them edit Wikipedia pages, but I'd think that there are significant chances that some of the changes will be reverted. Students who might have worked hard on these edits (and justifiably so!) might end up dissapointed to see their article reverted for rather pedantic reasons (and most of the issues behind the edit wars with the music theory pages are just that...pedantic).
I wrote several times on smt-talk in 2011 and 2012 to appeal to our society to take more responsibility over these pages. After all, despite the whole "credentials not mattering" idea, we're still the ones most capable of writing good, clear articles on these subjects. I was met with some backlash and many who really thought it was not important at all. I still fundamentally disagree with anyone who thinks its not important, but I have also grown more tired of fighting the "good fight." I realize that many junior faculty and graduate students are incredibly overworked as it is (I say these groups as they are statistically the most probably age group to edit Wikipedia)--heavy teaching loads and presentation/publication demands obviously are the more primary concern.
I hate to be a downer, but I personally fought many battles on the front lines and I ended up tired, worn out, and frustrated. I will support anyone who wants to tackle this effort, but I hope expectations are somewhat tempered.
Thanks to John for the reference to the SEP, which I did not know about but which I now have prominently bookmarked. An excellent site, and very much what I would like to see SMT aspire to. Signed articles, differing opinions about important topics, all carefully cross-referenced and sourced—wonderful site!
There is, of course, a place for a social encyclopaedia like the Wikipedia, too, but Devin is absolutely right on the difficulties inherent in trying to make it a reliable source for our discipline. (I did just check back on my Praetorius contributions, posted to the article several years ago, and indeed someone has drastically edited it, taking out almost everything except the basic titles...but at least there's now a section on his writings. Before there was nothing, so that someone who came across the article would conclude that he was a composer who never wrote a word about music or anything else, for that matter.) So Wikipedia will always be little more than Music Theory for Dummies—useful in its way, but surely the web should also contain something that operates on a higher level?
I would strongly encourage the SMT board to consider the challenge of creating something akin to the SEP for Music Theory—for the public relations benefit, as a stimulus plan for younger members of the society, and for the health of the society.
Having followed some of the Wikipedia music theory articles and their recent evolution, I think nevertheless that a few of them do fare better than Music Theory for Dummies. It may be because their matter is too specialized for the everyday Wikipedian would-be theorist.
Have a look at some of those that underwent a recent change, often I think under the incitation of SMT members:
I think these pages are among the best short introductions available on their topic, even at a scholarly level. As such, they should inspire our opinion about a possible collaboration to Wikipedia.
The major drawback that I see, however, is that none of this is signed (even if some of us may figure out who the main authors are). Wikipedia has a strict policy to avoid original research, which means that it relies on "authority" (i.e. cited references) in a way that reminds of the medieval 'auctoritas.' The trick is to make original research pass as a mere accumulation of quotations (and, of course, quoting as much as possible from the original sources)...
If SMT were to open theory pages on the model of SEP, this would make the main difference: the articles would be signed. Which may or may not be an advantage, though: consider the Wikipedia articles quoted above, and wonder whether you would more easily want to modify them as they are now (anonymous, I mean) or if you knew their authors.
The question of anonymousness, to me, is the main issue in our discussion. I ain't sure of the answer.
I realize my previous comments may have been construed as wholly negative, but I do wish for something to happen to the wikipedia pages on music theory. As many have mentioned, it is an important resource just because of the sheer amount of traffic that it commands.
I, for one, am interested in SMT in investing in their own Wiki. Like Nicolas Meeùs says, we don't have to avoid the "original research" caveat that Wikipedia has. Rather, I'd like to see that not be the case. An SMT-run Wiki could have enormous benefits especially in creating bibliographies. No one person will be tasked with creating a bibliography...say on Schenkerian theory (I know David Carson Berry worked relentlessly on that bibliography and the sheer amount of research developed since then would require a revision not possible by one man).
If SMT were to run it's own wiki, I would suggest that it would be only able to be edited by members of SMT. This is not too restrictive--anyone can become a member. It would cut down on potential abuse as well. And if there is a committee willing to run the Wiki (so that edit wars, etc. are squelched immediately), then I think it could be a very successful endeavor.
There might even be a way to integrate such a thing into SMT-Discuss, but I'm not sure exactly how that could work entirely. I think the possibilities are endless. But it's something that at least SMT should consider.
I know this discussion has been dormant for a month, but I wanted to alert subscribers to a recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education:
Wikipedia, a Professor's Best Friend by Dariusz Jemielniak
A set of short, interrelated Wikipedia articles that really need attention (some of them have recently been modified, without significant improvement) are the following:
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Unfolding_%28music%29 (redirected from "Compound melody")
Could we not, for the game or as an exercise, discuss, perhaps in a separate thread, what these articles should contain and how they should be organized, and after that ask one of our Wikipedian colleagues to transfer our results to Internet? It'd really boil down to collectively write three or four pages...
I just saw Bob Kosovsky's link to the article from The Chronicle of Higher Education. I frankly used to have this optimistic viewpoint and even assigned students to contribute to or even write Wikipedia articles, in the hopes of improving this resource. But I stopped doing this because at least 4 or 5 years ago I realized that Wikipedia's ability to police and self-correct itself is quite limited by various policies that have emerged in the bureaucratic structure. Thus, while it's a great way to crowdsource the initial accumulation of a first approximation to good content, the further improvement from "okay" to a balanced article which demonstrates an understanding of expert consensus in a field is quite difficult to achieve, and the editing mechanisms and vandalism make long-term maintenance and stability even more difficult.
In other words, I absolutely believe in all of the positive values discussed in the Chronicle article, like our duty as scholars to share knowledge. And I do NOT feel any of the negative "jealousy" that the author postulates as the reason scholars dislike Wikipedia. But I also think the level of inaccuracy and unbalanced articles as well as the extent of vandalism present at any given time on Wikipedia is much greater than we might realize or notice with a casual browsing of a few articles.
I do not want to lead this discussion too far off-topic, but I also think it's important to recognize the opposite side of this positive Chronicle piece. For example, the author states this well-known claim that "as early as 2005, Wikipedia was recognized as not having significantly more errors than the Encyclopaedia Britannica," which is basically a myth which has propagated as an internet meme. That 2005 "study" was not peer-reviewed. (It was more of a journalistic piece that appeared in Science.) And it only considered a very limited sampling of some technical (often rather obscure) science articles, selected in a rather unmethodical fashion, which tend to be among the best on Wikipedia because (1) Wikipedia editors tend to have more technical science knowledge than other fields (particularly back in 2005), and (2) such obscure technical articles tend to be less likely to attract vandals and amateur editors who know little about the topic. (I don't want to mislead people here: subsequent better-designed studies have been peer-reviewed and have had better standards for selection of articles for comparison, etc., and they've often shown Wikipedia performs well in many cases -- but this 2005 article is commonly claimed to say something it didn't.)
But I would mostly challenge the next statement from the Chronicle piece, i.e., "every now and then a spectacular blunder or an academic study shows that it is still far from perfect." It's not just "every now and then." If anyone is interested in tracking how many of these "blunders" attract media attention, have a look at the blog Wikipediocracy. Their most recent post has a list of dozens of media articles from just the last year or two dealing with various major problems and issues in Wikipedia. (I don't claim this blog is an unbiased source by any means -- and frankly I find the writing acerbic and a bit over-the-top -- but it shows the flip-side to the optimism present in the Chronicle piece.) And these are only some major errors and issues that actually come to light.
Again, I really don't want to come across as too negative here. I think there are lots of amazing things about Wikipedia. But I also think there are very, very good reasons for academics to be skeptical about it other than some misplaced jealousy.
Also, to respond to Nicolas Meeùs's idea about discussing specific articles, I think we'd be "walking a fine line" if we started suggesting edits on an official organization forum such as this one. As Devin Chaloux noted, we have to be very cautious about not appearing to be trying to exert influence over Wikipedia articles as an organization, or else anyone attempting to make these edits might end up banned.
One thing I might suggest for those people who see problems with Wikipedia articles and don't have the time or initiative to rewrite an article (or want to fight the bureaucracy): add comments to the Talk Page for an article. Every article has a tab at the top (when viewed on desktop view, not mobile, I don't think) which links to a "Talk Page." That's intended to be a forum on Wikipedia for discussion of improvements to an article. Even if you are not a registered Wikipedia user, you can easily add some comments and suggestions there. Perhaps more importantly, anything you add there is unlikely to be deleted. The rules for what is allowed in a Talk Page discussion are much more lax than actual articles. (Also, anonymous users or new users tend to have their edits to actual articles reverted more frequently.)
For those who don't feel up to the task of editing an article, this can be a way to contribute to the discussion and provide helpful suggestions for editors who may take on the task in the future.
Thanks for your point of view John, although as I said previously, one can't approach Wikipedia without learning the rules -- it's not a free-for-all dumping ground, but like any peer-review process, has a number of rules that--once learned, are fairly easy to adhere to. One should never unleash a class to edit Wikipedia without giving them ample time to learn how it works.
Wikipediocracy is a website made up of people angry at Wikipedia. While there is occasionally some legimate complaints, it is primarily a venue for hate (like Stormfront). Most journalists who criticize Wikipedia know to stay away from Wikipediocracy.
In that vein, I'd like to draw people's attention to an upcoming webinar (November 24) sponsored by the Metropolitan New York Library Council:
WEBCAST: WIKIPEDIA AND EDUCATION
"...On Monday November 24th, the second Wikipedia webcast installment will focus on education and projects that use Wikipedia as a teaching tool..."
A very good article from the New York Times, showing how Wikipedia works in relationship to those seeking information, in this case, on Ebola. My favorite lines:
I'd only like to say that Encyclopædia Britannica has got articles written by scholars, but outside resources can be added once they've been checked by their team of experts. Wouldn't that be a better activity for students?
I realize this topic has been inactive for over a month now, but Mark Doran has just posted comments on Wikipedia's music entries (in contrast to other technical subjects) after he got snookered by transferring a musical example into one of his blog entries without checking it note for note first. FWIW, I find my sentiments about Wikipedia music entries are pretty much alligned with his, which you can read here:
Re: Mark Doran's blog entry: I wonder if the reasons we feel that the music entries in Wikipedia are weaker than others is simply because we know more about music than we do about other subjects. When I view Wikipedia entries in other fields, I often note that the discussions are for the most part good, but not infrequently have a flaw or two. I frequently check Wikipedia for general information; I frankly don't expect the article (or for that matter, any encyclopedia article) to be accurate when it comes to all of its technical, detailed information.
I wonder what purpose it serves to argue that music entries in Wikipedia are weak if at the same time we do nothing to improve them. Mark Doran stresses that the faulty example in the Salome article has been faulty since 2011. Must we feel guilty about that? Is it corrected now?
May I once more urge the Schenkerians among us to have a look at the Heinrich Schenker or the Schenkerian analysis Wikipedia articles and tell us whether these could be improved (and, if so, how) – or whether you are aware of anything better in a similar format?