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    But what do we call “music theory”? Part Deux

    edited November 2017 in Theory

    I just read an excellent essay that reminded me of the discussion about music-theory qua Big-T-theory that we had three years ago started by @Nicolas Meeùs ('But what do we call “music theory”?' and 'Music theory vs music analysis [Was "But what do we call music theory?"]'). The essay is here: 

    Philosophy of Physics by Robert P. Crease (Stony Brook)

    Our previous discussion kept getting stuck on ideas about purportedly different conceptions of 'theory' between science and music such that one couldn't be applied to the other - as if music theory, at its most fundamental level, is incompatible with science theory. E.g., many kept getting hung up on 'falsifiability' as a sine qua non for a theory to be 'scientific' & obviously this doesn't work for music. But experimental verification is not at all a necessity for theory in physics. Theory in science quite often gets way out in front of experimental data or even the possibility of falsifiability via experiment. Verification of string theory, if possible at all, is in an unforeseeable future - but it's still the most generative idea for the questions it addresses. The following about physics hit home for me about music:

    [T]heory-making is not always a matter of seeking something provable and applicable to the world, but can involve articulating a sense of the world that has not yet taken shape, yet nevertheless resonates with current practice in a way that ends up furthering it.

    This puts 'theory', while certainly related, out in front of 'analysis' as I was previously trying to insist. 'Theory' does not need to comport with a pre-existing (observed) object, but can define an object yet to be discovered (created). Theory is the basis for all original composition: THIS is how we get from JS Bach to Elliott Carter. Anything else requires a leap of musicological faith - i.e., nonsense. One cannot analyze what does not yet exist, but one CAN theorize it into existence.

    Before replying, please read the essay which supports other similarities between music theory & physics theory.



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    • 15 Comments sorted by Votes Date Added
    • Stephen,

      So far, you've provided several long posts and have now repeatedly referenced an issue ("The Problem") which you haven't clarified yet.  And, apologies for being blunt, but then you berate me for replying to what you've said.  I actually didn't make any replies to any assumptions about what you might say -- I replied in good faith to what I heard you saying, the quotes from Lewin you provided, etc.  If you perceived this somehow as an attack or making assumptions or whatever, I apologize, but I'm not sure what I said.

      I also admit to still being quite puzzled about the physics analogy you're presenting and where you are going with it.  I was in no way implying that you were talking about "new age" notions of quantum physics; I was only trying to point out the lack of deterministic expectations in the collection of musical "data" (for lack of a better word), which is fundamental to the methodology of physics.  I tried my best to come up with some non-deterministic or "emergent phenomena" in physics that could perhaps be a better analog to musical development, but I don't think I could find a successful comparison.

      As for "argumentum ad populum," when you quote someone who is asking us to examine the music of "our cultural tradition," I indeed think the music of our culture -- including popular music, etc. is at least relevant.  I am by no means excluding the study of any music, and I would strongly advocate for the continued study of the contemporary art music tradition (which I explicitly said is woefully undertheorized).

      In any case, since I'm not sure what the topic of this discussion is at this point, and my attempts to reply are apparently unwelcome, I'll leave it to you and Nicolas to sort things out.  Cheers.

    • Since I was one of the people involved in the previous discussion and pointed out some flaws in the science analogy, I should clarify that I never meant to claim that musical inquiry was completely incompatible with scientific inquiry.  Rather, I think there are serious flaws with a lot of popular perception of the philosophy of science (particularly an oversimplified version of Popper that often gets trotted out by scientists who often don't discuss the last 60 years of the philosophy of science or so), and some of those flaws in the oversimplified methodology become even more apparent when you try to apply them to something like music.  (Naive falsificationism is a bit of a straw man, for example.)

      In any case, the different perspectives from the Crease book are very helpful here, though I agree with Nicolas that ultimately we are dealing with a semiotic system, as well as a dynamic one created by human culture.  That poses significantly different methodological issues from a "hard science."

      I don't want to wade too far into further debate at this moment, but I'll just note the ambiguity in the way "theory" is used in the initial post as "the basis for all original composition."  I think that is either a significant overstatement or presupposes a definition of "theory" that's too broad for me to accept.  Composition as part of a cultural process often depends (as does language) on a lot of "tacit knowledge," to borrow a term.  A lot of that is not "theorized" in any meaningful way.  "Theory," to me, presumes some reflection on practice.  But theory is no more the basis for all original composition than grammar is the basis for all poetry.  Nor is poetry "grammaticized" into existence.  Most music theory, like formalized grammar, is an attempt to reflect on these human practices and generate some underlying principles -- principles that often are only a small portion of that which makes music or poetry great and gives them aesthetic value.

      That's not to say that explicit theory cannot be used to generate new compositions. Obviously it can.  But for me, the path from J.S. Bach to Elliott Carter is not through music theory.  It's often a bunch of incremental cultural and aesthetic steps, many (perhaps most) of which were not based on explicit knowledge (a.k.a. "theorizing") but rather gradual shifts in aesthetic preferences and experiments made in sound without any necessary "theoretical" apparatus undergirding them.

      Perhaps I misunderstood the claims of the initial post, and I don't mean to overstate them.  But I'm also not sure I understand the underlying question or the necessity of asking it -- why does either theory or analysis need to be prior?  Except in cases of "theory for theory's sake" that occasionally throughout history has been adopted by composers, most of the time theory and analysis of practice are fundamentally in dialogue with each other, are they not?

      As for the further details of the three approaches, I'll have to think more on what else I might say about them.

    • Stephen,

      Just a few thoughts in reply to your most recent post:

      (1) I by no means meant to claim that there aren't useful ways of exploring physics as a linguistic or semiotic system, or exploring the language of physics from a semiotic perspective.  Both indeed can be fruitful endeavors.  My point (and perhaps Nicolas's, though I do not mean to speak for him) is that physics is dealing methodologically with the investigation of empirically derived laws.  And theoretical physics is extrapolating on the basis of said empirical investigations.  Generally speaking, a primary assumption in physics is that if you perform a similar empirical test under equivalent conditions, you should find the same result: i.e., there is a consistency to the way nature generates new data.

      I do not think the same thing can be said of cultural practices like musical systems that evolve continuously in dynamic fashion.  To make a comparison with physics would perhaps require us to go down the road of chaotic systems whose behavior cannot be fully predicted from initial conditions.  To be sure, the study of chaotic systems in the past few decades has been a fruitful endeavor in physics, but even there, the analogy doesn't quite work precisely.  Maybe music could be analyzed ultimately in some far future as an emergent physical phenomenon that is ultimately (at microscopic scales in the brains of practicing musicians) as deterministic as physics, but I doubt that's where you're going with this discussion.  And the invocation of quantum phenomena that often happens in humanities comparisons is, to my mind, an even worse analogy -- because even that indeterminism is based ultimately on very well-understood probabilistic distributions.  Again quite different from the predictive element possible in determining how, say, a new composer is going to compose his next piece.

      (2) Can you be a bit clearer about what "The Problem" is?  I get the sense that "The Problem" is different from the questions you actually posed in the initial post and seems to be related to various things you've added on now.  I can guess what many of your concerns are based on that and on your previous posts in other discussions, but if we should be discussing "The Problem" instead of the definition of music theory (and perhaps how it may related to science), it might help to clarify what this thread is about.

      (Please note the previous paragraph is intended as a genuine inquiry to make it clear to other people who might participate here.  I know tone is hard to convey through a written forum, but I'm not being argumentative at all, just trying to understand precisely what you're trying to accomplish.)

      (3) As for point #1 of Lewin's tripartite division, what would that look like today?  There is indeed a flourishing of study of contemporary popular music repertories unlike ever before seen in music theory, and some of that does involve systematic investigation of compositional methods to the extent that can be determined, though it's mostly done by ethnomusicologists who talk to songwriters and performers.  Students at a number of music schools can now learn how to write in many popular and commercial styles, learn the inside mechanics and tropes of film music or advertising music or whatever.

      Or are you concerned about the lack of systematic study of "art music" (or "classical" or whatever your preferred term is) compositional methods?  Because, although I love a lot of that music and advocate for it, it is certainly not at the center of our broad cultural traditions today, not even among most "intellectuals" or educated folk who are otherwise interested in other types of new art.  I concur with you that it is woefully undertheorized, but I guess I want to understand where -- for you at least -- "The Problem" lies.

    • @S_Soderberg, Stephen, rather than announce that you will shortly explain us what 'the problem' is, I think that you should urgently say what it is. Because, for the time being, I wonder whether this discussion is worth continuing. I, at least, see quite a problem in what you recently wrote. You quote Lewin who would have said that one way of going about music theory is:

      2. You study the history of music theory in our cultural tradition, and so far as possible in others.  (There is a question to what extent the whole notion of ‘music theory’ is meaningful when applied beyond our own cultural tradition.)

      And you comment this statement as follows:

      I think #2 should now be modified.  'Our cultural tradition' needs to be replaced by 'our popular culture since ca. 1945 but mostly since ca. 1980 – with the understanding that the latter date will continue to move up based on relevance as each generation is supplanted and forgotten (see Morris Massey)'. But something else seems to be on the horizon here. Perhaps Lewin's parenthetical in #2 ought to now read 'There is a question to what extent the whole notion of "music theory" is meaningful when applied to our own cultural tradition let alone others' – 'cultural tradition' being the appropriate term in this context.

      For a while I wondered whether you were joking, Stephen – it would have made things more acceptable.

      I am at present preparing a paper that I will give next week in a conference in Tunis (see http://www.ismt.rnu.tn/2017/11/22/programme-congres-international-de-tunis-modalite-prisme-de-modernite-2/). I will be speaking of Carolingian (Hucbald) and Arabic (Al-Fârâbî) theories of about 1100 years ago, and their relation to Greek theories of about 1000 years before – that is, more than 2000 years ago, and in cultures that ain't really ours; I may also mention Chinese and other theoretical traditions. My intention is to discuss how and to what extent music was then perceived as a semiotic system and, as such, founded some of the essential aspects of music up to today (and tomorrow, perhaps).

      You seem to imply that theory should not busy itself with anything more than half a century old, nor with any "cultural tradition" other than ours. I wonder whether we are speaking of the same thing, or at least whether we belong to the same "cultural tradition". (Besides, I also wonder what you mean by "tradition", in this context.)



    • @S_Soderberg, Stephen, thanks for reviving this discussion, which had ended years ago somewhat abruptly, without reaching a conclusion – not that I think we could ever reach any, but the discussion is worth continuing, even without conclusion. (I was once told that questions without answer were not worth asking; I think now that, on the contrary, they often are the most interesting.) Your quotation from Robert Crase appears to me too general to really bring anything new in our discussion and, having browsed through his essay, I am not sure I can find any clear relation between music theory and physics theory. It might enlighten our ideas about theory at large, though.

      A first point is that I cannot easily admit the somewhat common idea that there are sciences on the one side, humanities on the other. To the idea that some sciences are exact, and others inexact, I'd oppose the idea that some sciences are human, others inhuman. The whole point is about knowledge, knowledge of the world surrounding us – be it physical, social, cultural, artistic, musical, or any other. And the question about the scientificity of our approach concerns, in my opinion, what opposes knowledge to belief. I keep thinking (perhaps incorrectly) that Popper's idea of "falsifiability" was about the possibility of being proven wrong. As Popper wrote, "it must be possible for an empirical scientific system to be refuted by experience". (The Logic of Scientific Discovery, 1959/2005, p. 18.) Not that it should be proven wrong (on the contrary, a good theory is one that resists that proof), but that it could – that it leave open the possibility of being disproven.

      As you certainly know, this position, in Popper, derives from his rejection of induction. No general rule, no theory, can be induced [concluded, deduced] from a mere observation of facts. An indispensable step in the construction of a theory is the creation of a hypothesis (based on inductions, but also on imagination), from which one may deduce consequences ["abduction", for Peirce]. This hypothesis and the deduced consequences are scientific if formulated in a way that allows proving them false, even if the hope is that they won't. Does this put 'theory' out in front of 'analysis', as you would like it to be? As a matter of fact, I don't really mind which is 'in front'. What is important, for me, is that neither could really exist (or, at least, be of any real interest) without the other.

      I think that the text you quote from Robert Crase,

      [T]heory-making is not always a matter of seeking something provable and applicable to the world, but can involve articulating a sense of the world that has not yet taken shape, yet nevertheless resonates with current practice in a way that ends up furthering it.

      says nothing else. Theory making is not necessarily about proving anything, but about making sense of the world. Even if this sense has not yet taken shape, it nevertheless resonates with current practice – i.e. with an analysis of some kind.

      This, once again, is but too general a conclusion. But it does open paths for further discussions, about the scientificity (or not) or our theories, about the links between theory and analysis, etc.







    • Hopefully theory and analysis are still for musicians who create and perform music.  Regarding physics, sound is frequency, pitch, duration, timbre, and silence.  The extent to which a composer or performer use interrelational elements of sound is determined by musical philosophy and creativity beyond any goal of science.  Music proves nothing except that musicians can organize sound patterns for the sake of coherence, amusement, human expression, intellect or otherwise.  Science and music do have common Western cultural similarities: an examination of elemental relationships and a systematic understanding of functions and logical phenomena.

    • @Nicolas et al – Below is my attempt to summarize in outline Crease's take on three philosophical traditions for approaching scientific theories with 'scientific' replaced by 'music' & 'scientist' replaced by 'musicologist' (in the broader European sense of that term). Note that, unlike previous discussions (as I recall them), this is about different philosophical views of how musicologists do theory, and not about different ways of doing music theory per se, an important distinction. Why I might try to approach it that way & encourage others to do the same is complicated & a discussion for another time. I would like to avoid the term 'metatheory' here since that has been well defined and mined by Ben Boretz & others & I think takes us in a defferent direction than the 'philosophical approach' one. The following outline (sorry, unless I'm missing something the HTML forces paragraphs - <p> but not <br>, thus the double spacing) is an attempt at contrast & compare for three possible philosophical approaches to describing music theoretic work based on Crease's descriptions. There may be more (or less). Also note that the point of Crease's summary of the three traditions is to try to get at difficult problems in physics such as the four he cites. I believe we also have such problems in music(ology) as well, but would like to discuss possible approaches before starting to list our own problems and puzzles.


      Analytic observers (AO)

                              a) position themselves inside music's workshop                       

                              b) are interested in the logic of music

                              c) [posit that musical objects are workshop dependent]

                              d) consider that concepts & theories are judged by testing

                                          models against analytical observations

                              e) tend to focus on epistemology:

                                          – conceptual & methodological difficulties

                                          – how evidence (work, performance, reception)

                                                      is produced & evaluated

                                          – the logic of musicological inquiry

                                          – the conceptual structure of findings

                              f) regard musicologists as logicians of the world of music


                  Pragmatic observers (PO)

                              a) position themselves outside music's workshop

                              b) are interested in how musicologists approach & solve

                                          problems & what the consequences are

                              c) notice that objects appear in the workshop not independently,

                                          but as products of a particular kind of engagement

                                          with the world

                              d) say that a true musical theory is one that makes a difference,

                                          i.e., 'the truth is what works'

                              e) tend to share the views:

                                          – inquiry involves doing rather than just cognition

                                          – theories are descriptions found in the practice of music

                                          – the work of musicology is judged by how well it explains,

                                                          predicts & gives us power over the world of music

                              f) regard musicologists as puzzle-solvers of the world


                  Hermeneutic observers (HO)

                              a) position themselves outside music's workshop

                              b) are interested in musicological inquiry as one mode among many

                                          in which human beings exist & are bound up with

                                          the larger world

                              c) are aware that the workshop is its own world & arises from

                                          a particular way of framing experience

                              d) consider that judgement is an interpretative & self-

                                          interpretative activity

                              e) tend to agree that:

                                          – the workshop gives primacy to things that appear in

                                                      a certain, framed way, i.e., things that can be

                                                      measured & manipulated

                                          – the workshop tends to ignore things that are not

                                                      framed, e.g., pre-music metaphors, images

                                                      & embedded habits of thought

                                          – it is a mistake to assume the original human encounter

                                                      with the [music?] world is cognitive [[non liquet!

                                                      – can a sentient being experience music outside of


                                          – all ways of being, including workshop, spring from the

                                                      pre-musical world

                                          – humans must be trained to approach the world


                                          – there is a danger in forgetting our origins in a broader

                                                      pre-musical milieu called the lifeworld

                              f) regard musicologists as disclosers of the music world insofar as it

                                          is knowable & can be manipulated

    • @S_Soderberg,

      I think we should consider SMT (and SMTDiscuss) a workshop of music theory, and consider ourselves definitely inside the workshop. We may look at what happens inside here, or even step outside for a while, to try and understand what we are doing; but we remain primarily musico-logists (or more specifically music theorists) and we should not forget it. We may philosophize about our discipline, but I don't think we can or should consider ourselves philosophers. I say this among others because I believe that we should never forget the technical nature of the discipline. We cannot be satisfied with an external view of theory (say, that of new musicology) – not here.

      Another point is the nature of our object, music.

      Even if this could be considered naive, I do believe that physics is much more about the real world than music is, and that this fact makes quite a large difference in the conditions of truth in either discipline. For sure, Crease's outline of three philosophical traditions evidences three types of faith in the reality of the world, but even the least believer of the three (I cannot really decide which that is) does take the real world as the ultimate arbitrator of the validity of scientific statement. It is in that sense, besides, that physics can be considered an exact science.

      Music is of an utterly different nature. Most musics may be considered a language, or at least a semiotic system – that is, a system of mental categories. Music is a human construction, it belongs to human sciences.

      In view of this, it appears to me that finding our place within your three outlines should not be that difficult, especially with regard to your points d) and f):

      • concepts & theories are judged by testing models against analytical observations

      • a true musical theory is one that makes a difference, i.e., 'the truth is what works'

      • judgement is an interpretative & self-interpretative activity


      • musicologists are logicians of the world of music

      • musicologists are puzzle-solvers of the world [of music]

      • musicologists are disclosers of the music world insofar as it is knowable & can be manipulated

      I see no incompatibility between these. Your points b) and e) on the other hand, seem to belong to a philosophy or an epistemology of musicology (in the European broad sense): this is another discussion – but one we should perhaps also pursue.



    • Let me add a point that I think we should always keep in mind: the "truth" in music theory (and in theories of humanities at large) is what is validated by history.

      Let's consider, as one example, the situation that may have existed in the time of Lassus, late 16th century. Theorists probably were lagging way behind what was happening in music, but a composer like Lassus must somehow have been aware of what he did. Some of his music evidences a preference for triads in root position: even if the idea of root was formulated only a generation later, he must have realized the importance, say, at least of the particular sonority of these particular triads. Lassus, in addition, shows a strong preference for major triads, often at the expense of diatonicity. His experiments in chromaticism usually concern the third (i.e. the mode) of the triads, and some of his contemporaries (Gesualdo) go even farther in these experiments. And Lassus shows little concern for the directionality of harmonic (or contrapuntal) progressions.

      Early 17th-century theories, recognizing the importance of the harmonic root either in the abstract (e.g. Lippius) or in the practice of unfigured continuo (e.g. Bianciardi), indicate that things might have progressed along these lines. Things turned otherwise, however, and both composition and theory discovered other incentives: diatonicity, descending resolutions of dissonances, directionality, etc., eventually producing what we call "common practice tonality". In retrospect, it might seem that some of the main tonal characteristics were announced in Lassus, but I don't think that common practice tonality was what Lassus could have imagined as the future of music.

      What I mean with this is that our judgment about the truth in music theory is (and must be) quite different when dealing with theory in the making, theory linked with today's music making, and historical theory. I suppose that the situation may not be different in the history of theories in exact sciences. The indulgence of science historians about, say, the late-sixteenth-century belief that the sun rotated around the earth may be similar to the indulgence we may show to theorists of counterpoint in the same period. We know them to have been wrong – that is, we know that history made them wrong –, but we also know that they were sincere.

      But this once again shows a major difference between exact and human sciences. Theorists who believed that the sun rotated around the earth have been shown utterly wrong, while theorists defending counterpoint against harmony might have been right, had history turned otherwise. I have no opinion about theorists of today's music: I am a historian of theory, not a prophet. Yet, I think that the function of history as arbitrator should be a lesson, even for today and tomorrow.




    • The following (whether anyone agrees or not) is relevant personal background, previously published in my blog. It was a slap to me delivered by a (pardon the expression) great man. Consider it a basis for further comments that I may make here on the subject of the place of music theory in music, i.e., a debate more about philosophy of music theory than about philosophy of music -- a distinction that threatens to be misunderstood & lost. We do not like to look in a mirror, do we? After reading, please feel free to ignore it if this affirmation of the source/basis/bias of my own approach is irrelevant or threatening to you . Please feel free to go back to the pedagogical survival techniques that pass as 'theory' today.  But going forward, the following  is one affirmation, not the origin, of my own position. I am NOT saying Lewin is the last word (that would be anti-Lewinian). I AM saying maybe we all should stop to realize that Lewin has something to say to all of us well beyond Morgengruss & the safe-school emphasis on his diatonic writings to the exclusion of his challenging WHOLE-WORLD view of music -- which is not so safe.


      It was around 6:30 in the morning on July 18, 1997. This is one of those dates that I can pinpoint, not because I remember the exact date (I have a lousy memory for facts), but because it was the first day of the second Buffalo Music Theory Symposium – the dates are easily found on the web. I was there to present a paper on an unlikely topic, "The Z-Relation in Neo-Riemannian Transformations."

      I didn't really know why I was there. In the first place, I had (and have) no qualifications that would put me in the company of the small and highly distinguished group of scholars invited to attend, and I had no expectation that what I had to offer would be of any interest to anyone there. In the second place, I have a phobia involving euphemistically named "conferences" where you suddenly realize you've been trapped inside someone else's fable.

      I feel I can now admit that more than once I have fled a conference presentation on a topic of interest to me and rushed back to the sanctuary of my hotel room with a Snicker Bar and a Coke to watch The Price Is Right or Jerry Springer.

      Milton Babbitt may have had a touch of this phobia as well. I was once told, by the organizer of a smallish invitation-only conference [Roger Reynolds], that when the first scheduled meeting was ready to begin, Milton was nowhere to be seen. They waited for a while, then [Roger] called his room. Rather annoyed, Milton said to go ahead and start without him – he would be there as soon as the [football] game he was watching was over. Well, maybe this wasn't my phobia, just a matter of Milton's priorities. In either case, [Roger] didn't seem to appreciate the humor and was obviously inviting me to share in his indignation. [Personally, I loved the story & didn't tell Roger why this is why those who know Milton love him.] But I digress.

      The Buffalo conference was to turn out to be one of those rare meetings out of the admittedly few I have attended that lives up to the name "conference" (thanks to the synectic mix of participants & John Clough's sensitive planning ear). My mounting anxiety was to prove unfounded. Still, when I walked in to the hotel restaurant for breakfast the first morning, I was relieved to find no one else there yet. I just wanted to sit alone, eat my breakfast, and gather my thoughts while pretending to read my free copy of USA Today. I had just taken my first sip of coffee when a voice said, "May I join you?" I looked up to see David Lewin.

      Although we had corresponded, I had never really had a private conversation with David before that – only small talk at a conference dinner once. I can't say exactly that he grilled me, but he was curious and managed to get me to tell him about some of my adventures as a closet theorist (defined as a non-academic theorist who knows enough to keep his mouth shut when visiting the academy [that was then]). Then came a question no one had asked me before.

      "Steve, do you compose?"

      Big G.P. while I chewed on a bite of toast.

      "Well, no, I don't ... I mean, not much any more. ... I used to. I used to try. ... There was a. ... It's not so easy with a 9-to-5 job. ... I just can't find the time. ... It's different than ...."

      He interrupted, quietly, almost conspiratorially:

      "You should make the time."

      No one had ever before gotten to my well-guarded core.

      Others began to straggle in and join us, and then we were all shuttled off to Buffalo (U) for the day.

      I had breakfast alone with David the next morning as well. Evidently we were the only two early risers in the lot. Over the few years left we never talked about "a composing life" again. So I never got the chance to ask the same question back at him – to get at the core that I now realized we shared – more importantly, to get at how he got over the wall of that amazingly beautiful cloister he had built and into the more dangerous exoteric world of personal expression. It was much later, after his death, that I got an answer of sorts.As I looked through his relatively sparse collection of compositions and noted the large gaps between their dates I realized that David's advice to me was advice he must have repeated again and again to himself. He wanted it all, but even he just couldn't find the time.There is a Moses and Aaron tragedy that's played out by all those who seriously struggle through their art. The field for that struggle is what I've tried to describe quasi-metaphorically in the tri-partite model. I now confess my inspiration for that entire fantasy [and the coirage to bungle th came from David Lewin. The following is from a letter David wrote to Oliver Neighbour that is now part of the David Lewin Collection at the Library of Congress. [It may be that only composers will understand the following.]

      Your overriding interest is in the man [Schoenberg] and his music.  Mine is too, when I have my analysis hat on.  That is when I make Dr. Jekyll type statements, from your point of view.  But I have at least two other hats which I wear on occasion, which is when I say those narsty things.  One I would call my Theory hat.  When you get around to Lewin/Cone [“Behind the Beyond: A Response to Edward T. Cone,” PNM 7:2 (Spring-Summer, 1969), pp.59-69], you’ll see what I mean by distinguishing this from my Analysis one.  You probably will not agree with me that it is possible (much less desirable) to distinguish the hats conceptually.  On that issue, you would be on Ed’s side and not mine.  Incidentally, I have a great deal of respect for EC also; among other things, I took several courses from him with great profit at P’ton (or, as we used to call it, the Six and Twelve Store).  Then I have still another bonnet which, however, I don’t wear in print: my Composer hat.  With that hat on, my interest in either AS or serialism is as completely self-serving as my interest in Mozart or tonality … more so as regards tonality in any case.  Baldly, what interests me then is “what’s in it for me to use.”  From that point of view, my tendency is also to try to separate “the system,” to the extent I can, from AS’s personal musical profile; I am interested in using “the system” as a matter of public domain, so to speak, but of course not interested in writing watered-down pastiches of  Schoenberg’s personal discourse.  And of course, in between “the system” and AS’s personal manner lies a large area which one could classify as the “usual” sorts of technical things a composer can learn by studying the work of a great composer of another generation.  This area contains such things as control of rate-of-change that you cite (here one can learn much from Mozart also, and beyond that, from concurrent study of both composers).  And this area merges fuzzily. For me, into “the system” at one extreme and personal manner at the other.  Now one of these fuzzy boundaries exists for any composer: the one between craft and personal manner.  It seems to me that what we are arguing, in this context, is whether or not there is also a fuzzy boundary at the other end, between craft and “method” (to vary the terminology) in Schoenberg’s case.  I am claiming that there is such, and you are claiming there isn’t (more or less, when all the endless qualifications are made).  A lot of the reason I am prepared to maintain and defend that position, personally, has to do with my intuition as a composer.  That is, I feel that I can use “the method” as a vehicle for my own expression, to a considerable extent without feeling bound not only by Schbg’s personal manner, but more significantly by his general “style,” the latter involving predilections for certain kinds of musical situations, and certain ways of treating and working out their musical implications.  I don’t pretend to Olympian stature as a composer, but I’m very sure that every composer who has ever written twelve-tone music has experienced a similar feeling, if he is worth his salt as a self-respecting artist, of whatever rank.  (At least until recently, when it has become possible and even fashionable to write serial music without having heard any of Schbg’s music … or any music at all, for that matter.)  I’m sure Webern felt this, and I’m sure Berg did too, though he probably would never have dared admit it to himself.  It’s more than obvious that Stravinsky felt it.  Were/are we all just kidding ourselves?  Very possibly, it may be that all “the method” amounts to is a certain means by which obscure electrical circuits in the brains, or endocrine secretions in the blood, of many composers at a certain period in history have been stimulated, in such a way as to inspire creative results when the composers play the appropriate mental games.  I’m not being completely sarcastic about this, I think there is probably at least a grain of truth in it, and possibly a good deal more.  I would however, argue that even to the extent composers have been and are fooling themselves, in considering that they can use “the method” without being bound by Schoenberg’s “style” (as above), the illusion was/is artistically necessary, in order to accomplish anything; and it has turned out to be quite productive.  And then, to what extent can one distinguish a tenet which is necessary and productive for artists, from one which is artistically “true”?

      February 26, 1974


    • There is one more relevant quote from Lewin that more succinctly addresses 'what is music theory'. In 1990 he wrote the following blurb for the Harvard Graduate Program in Theory, again using a tripartite division that reflects the three hats description he gave to Neighbour:

      What do ‘music theorists’ study?  Theorists’ opinions vary widely.  Mine: they study the vocabulary, concepts, and intellectual structures in general, through which people talk and have talked about the organization and coherence of music. 
      How do you go about studying this?  Among other things,

      1.     You explore the systematic bases for contemporary compositional methods.

      2.     You study the history of music theory in our cultural tradition, and so far as possible in others.  (There is a question to what extent the whole notion of ‘music theory’ is meaningful when applied beyond our own cultural tradition.)

      3.     You explore the systematic assumptions underlying received analytic methods.


      I bolded #1 because I believe what was once the main point of theory represents the biggest hole in research and teaching of music theory today. Yet just 27 years ago, Lewin placed it first & he's no longer around to even tell us what he meant by this now odd category. I agree there is interesting work being done occasionally in contemporary composition theory, but I have seen very little that would convince me that there is any serious consideration given to encouraging, let alone guiding, students to explore the systematic bases for current or recent compositional methods – or even those over the past century(!)

      I think #2 should now be modified.  'Our cultural tradition' needs to be replaced by 'our popular culture since ca. 1945 but mostly since ca. 1980 – with the understanding that the latter date will continue to move up based on relevance as each generation is supplanted and forgotten (see Morris Massey)'. But something else seems to be on the horizon here. Perhaps Lewin's parenthetical in #2 ought to now read 'There is a question to what extent the whole notion of "music theory" is meaningful when applied to our own cultural tradition let alone others' – 'cultural tradition' being the appropriate term in this context.

      [En passant, I recently viewed the web site for the music department at a highly prestigious university where one may obtain a batchelor in music with just one required course in theory, 'Music Theory I'. There are other examples as I believe most of you know. I have yet to see a survey that either supports or defeats this theory about the death of theory. Outright extinction of a theory-as-we-once-knew-it requirement may be closer than we thought.]

      Re #3: Reading the posts in SMTDiscuss, I would judge that, for now, this category is still alive and well, as long as we just leave out the entire unwieldy 20th century save pop & jazz. Evidently there will always be room for wars over the eternally fascinating 6-4 chord. So all is not lost.

      Back in a while with some remarks about science, music & semiotic systems.



    • Both @Nicolas & @jzmckay made reference to semiotic systems as somehow distinguishing music theory & 'human science' from physics & 'hard/inhuman science'. So far this has only been proffered as opinion and needs to be fleshed out (I trust there will be clarifications coming). I was going to challenge that distinction immediately with reference to John Kemeny's deductive-nomological model mentioned by Crease (with variations by others to save the currently non-verifiable string theory). And I will attempt to show a more precise connection soon. For those wishing to have a preview (a bit dense but shorter than having to read Kemeny's entire book), there is a relevant article by Geoge L. Farr, Remarks on the Linguistic Foundations of Physics (1965), that more throughly demonstrates the DN model as linguistic, even as it is situated within the logical empiricist/analytic tradition in science. I have a much briefer & more intuitive version of the DN 'goal posts' model that I got directly from Farr some years ago, and I will offer that later. But until then, could we put the language issue in the parking lot temporarily and argue why this discussion is necessary at all. I really don't want this debate to devolve into knee-jerk positions (I'm as guilty as anyone). Cambridge Union is entertaining, but this is a serious issue. So I don't want to rush it. I'll return as quickly as I can with my own statement of The Problem – the huge rip in the fabric of music theory today. If anyone believes The Problem is not a problem, or that it is but it is not an existential threat, I'd like to know their justification for that position – If convinced, I'd sleep better.

    • John,

      Are you really trying to make an argumentum ad populum? Seriously??

    • @Nicolas, I suppose I should have preceded my comments with the warning, 'sarcasm ahead'. I in NO way believe that 'theory should not busy itself with anything more than half a century old, nor with any "cultural tradition" other than ours.' But in my experience, others apparently do hold that belief, usually managing to avoid admitting it in so many words. Sarcasm is the only way I know of getting at an unacknowledged bias. I assure you that history holds a central place in my own considerations of this topic. How we each approach history may turn out to be different, but I think compatible.

      @jzmckay, sorry I was short yesterday. I simply don't want to argue from someone else's assumptions of what I'm about to say. Also, you entirely misconstrued the reference to string theory & the current problem that it doesn't predict anything that can be tested currently - thus the serious question in contemporary physics: is string theory a legitimate theory at all? Some physicists (sarcastically) compare string theory to creation science, but most accept that it is a valid theory thus throwing them back to ask 'What do we mean by "theory"?' Sound familiar? You seem to have taken my reference to be a way to suggest I am heading down the path of those silly new-agey notions about quantum physics that pop up occasionally in the 'humanities'. Neti, neti.

    • John, I told you I was going to say what I believe 'The Problem' is. Why don't you just sit on it until I actually say what I indicated I was going to say? The urgency of your reply to nothing – based on your assumptions of what you believe I will say – is telling.