[Smt-talk] Theorists and scientists

Michael Morse mwmorse at bell.net
Fri Jul 6 05:57:57 PDT 2012

Professor de Velde,
  Although they may not articulate it directly, the reason so many here insist on musicianship and composition skill for theorists is because of the conception of music experience it can provide. Bluntly, the statement "music theory is the theory of music" depends entirely for its sense on that capacity. And even the most tenaciously blinkered positivist would agree that such a conception is not to be established by merely postulating a simplistic and arbitrary definition.
  For those of us who disagree that music theory is or should be a science, there is historical evidence in the futility so far of quantitative methods, and their copious but strikingly meager results. And there is a plain and axiomatic reason for this ongoing failure: qualitative problems cannot be solved quantitatively. Or, more precisely, quantitative analysis only succeeds to the extent that what is being quantified is coherent.
  I do agree that there are scientific dimensions to music theory and musical experience. Pythagorean investigations into the properties of scales and tonal systems are an indispensable part of the theoretical canvas. But these are not exceptions to my blunt generalizations; the calculable differences in intervallic structure of the various maqams, for example, and of untempered pitch systems in western music history, are entirely tangible elements of the music experience. Calculating these differences is substantial and germane music knowledge.
  But not everything in music is calculable. I don't agree that abjuring quantitative methods amounts to embracing anti-rational sentimentality, or some dingbat essentialism that tries to claim with a straight face that music "is" emotion rather than notes or numbers. On the contrary; it is music; that's more than complex enough!
  Music theory succeeds when it remembers its subject matter. And there are still many of us who disagree that psychology is a science, for just that reason. It was the science of "mind"; then, no, it was the science of "behaviour"; now, no again, it is the science of brain physiology processes. The last has worked a charm, because psychologists can poach from a real science. Unless and until it can come up with a substantial subject matter of its own, however, it will remain on the fringes of science. We in the music community have especially strong reasons to feel this way, given the spectacular recent charlatanism of the "Mozart Effect." To tar all psychology with the brush of that incident would be unfair. But, alas, it does illustrate the problem: quantification can never precede clear analysis of the subject matter. It will be "time" for computers to create symphonies when they're human. That's not sentimentality; that's respect for science.
MW MorseTrent UniversityPeterborough, Oshawa

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