[Smt-talk] Music theory on Wikipedia

kos at panix.com kos at panix.com
Thu Jul 14 15:48:02 PDT 2011

On Thu, 14 Jul 2011, Nicolas Meeùs" <nicolas.meeus at paris-sorbonne.fr> wrote:

> I spent some time wondering about Wikipedia entries about Schenkerian 
> analysis in various languages; I'll restrict my comments to the English 
> version of the article "Schenkerian analysis"

Which, unfortunately, is not a great example of a well-written article.
(From what I see, many of the science and biological articles are extremely 
well done.  Examples of good music articles are the ones on Arthur Sullivan and 
Richard Wagner.

> We, music theorists, certainly cannot leave such things in the hands of 
> amateurs, and we *must* do something, if only because our students will read 
> Wikipedia and will take it as a basis to judge our teaching. Let me however 
> warn against some problems inherent in the functioning of Wikipedia, which 
> deserve consideration:

Last semester, when I started my Schenker 101 course, a student responded 
to a question by reciting some of what was in Wikipedia.  I did not hesitate to 
show my disappointment with that person's research skills.  But it 
confirmed my suspicion that Wikipedia is the first place many students go for 

> -- the impossibility to solve, on Wikipedia, problems that we did not first 
> solve among ourselves.

There have been a number of contentious articles on Wikipedia that are 
insoluable (e.g. most articles involving Israeli-Palestinian issues, and 
numerous political issues).  The articles involved recognize the differences 
of opinion and state each one, trying to be as neutral as possible.  In so 
doing, I would suggest that such articles are one step to approaching the 
insoluable (by not solving anything, but stating the issues and the sides 

> -- the (illusory) anonymousness of Wikipedia contributions: it is very much 
> against the usages of our scholarly community. I cannot see any reason to 
> hide ourselves while contributing, especially in fields where we can rightly 
> consider ourselves experts (I did it myself, publish anonymously, and I 
> wonder now why). The matter is not one of making use of the argument of 
> authority, but of knowing at what level one is discussing, and with whom.

This is a social skill just as it is with face-to-face encounters.  Some 
people in life are very contentious, be they family, coworkers, colleagues, 
or that person on line at the store.  It's a skill to find the words 
that will make them consider your point of view.  In a way, it's an 
advantage:  on Wikipedia, one's academic credentials and published work is 
meaningless; what counts is how you can express yourself and your ability to 
back up what you write with reliable sources.

> -- nothing said on Wikipedia can ever be withdrawn.

Right - it never goes away (even if it is amended, the original is in the pages' 
"history").  All the more reason to really learn how Wikipedia works (it's 
actually much more complex than it seems), and if one intends to get involved, 
to do it at a deliberately slow pace, asking experienced editors their 
opinions on a variety of matters - and of course, studying the various 
and numerous help guides.

> I do believe, with Bob Kosovsky, that we cannot remain passive in front of 
> the Wikipedia project. But I believe that we must impose on it some of our 
> justified usages, mainly that of taking the responsibility for what we write, 
> by refusing anonymousness and irresponsibility -- at least between us 
> scholars.

I once planned a syllabus for a semester-long course in Wikipedia, 
most of which involved the social dynamics of argument and debate.  In the 
context of music theory, I could see planning a subsection of a kind of 
"History of Music Theory" course which would involve the research 
and construction of Wikipedia articles by students, all of which would then 
have to critique and amend/correct each others' articles.

I still think it's a worthwhile idea, if anyone is interested. ;)

Bob Kosovsky, Ph.D. -- Curator, Rare Books and Manuscripts,
Music Division, The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts
blog:  http://www.nypl.org/blog/author/44   Twitter: @kos2
   Listowner: OPERA-L ; SMT-TALK ; SMT-ANNOUNCE ; SoundForge-users
--- My opinions do not necessarily represent those of my institutions ---

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