[Smt-talk] Theorists and scientists - Foundational issues in Music Theory

Isaac Malitz imalitz at omsmodel.com
Fri Jul 6 08:49:26 PDT 2012

My own research is focused on the issues that Prof. Morse has raised. So 
here are some summary comments (I am going to allow myself to rant a 
little - only to allow me to convey the main ideas with brevity. So you 
are welcome to apply a little moderation to what I write below).

My background is that I am a Ph.D. in logic/philosophy, also 
well-schooled in music. My Ph.D. background includes immersion in 
ancillary subjects such as foundations and methodology of science, 
artificial intelligence, and more. This turns out to be useful 
background for a music theorist. Think of me as a bit of an outsider, 
who is knowledgeable, sympathatic, and who has a new outlook to contribute.

[1] I prefer to avoid the issue of whether music analysis/ theory is a 
"science". (The same actually goes for psychology).
      Claims about what is/is-not a science can lead to concern with 
what is "verifiable" and how, and this can distract from other key issues.

[2] What  music analysis/theory definitely has in common with "the 
sciences" is the use of *models*. (The same goes for psychology. One of 
the reasons that psychotherapy has been so successful in recent decades 
is that it is now rich in a variety of models which a skilled 
professional can use in treatment. Some models are mind-based, some 
body-based; the models involve various views about factors such as life 
history, current life circumstances, talk-therapy, medications, etc. So 
a professional has a range of models to work with. Additionally, 
professionals can compare/contrast models themselves and with other 
professionals; this leads to development of improved models, and even 
new models)

"Models" are widely used in the hard science, softer sciences, business, 
and so on. The concept of a model is a modern and very useful concept.

Classic music theory is (almost) all based on a single model, which I 
call  the "note-centric" model of music
This is the model according to which music is thought of as discrete 
notes, which are then organized into motives, phrases, melodies, chords, 
contrapuntal materials, larger architectural structures, and so on.
The note-centric model is an outstanding model: It is well-organized, 
mainly comprehensible, provides insight, is capable of many variations, ...
The note-centric model has a long heritage (over 400 years), it's 
enjoyable to use, it easily attracts outstanding practitioners.
I could say more nice stuff about the note-centric model. But now, for 
the bad news:

[3] There are two major problems with the note-centric model:

[a] It is severely limited in scope. There is a great deal about music 
that is not easily modeled via notes. e.g.: Emotion; the topological 
experience of music; oddity/humor in music; the Dionysian in music; 
beauty; color; (much more)
(btw, the very concept of a "note" can be subject to severe critique)

Of course, there are people who have tried to use the note-centric model 
to explain things like emotion (remember Leonard B Meyer?) but what I 
see is a poor effort-to-success ratio.
Leonard B Meyer's model of emotion-in-music is inadequate in the same 
way that Primal Scream Therapy is inadequate as a model for 
pyschological treatment (they both work well in a limited domain; once 
you get outside the limited domain, the effectiveness drops almost to zero).

[b] The model has monopolized the theory of music for hundreds of years. 
This is not good !! We badly need additional models.

One bad consequence of this monopoly is that almost everyone from time 
to time falls into thinking that "all there is to music is notes". This 
can lead to bad theory, bad analysis, bad performances.
Part of the reason the Prof Knechtges is having some difficulty relating 
music theory to performance is that there is generally a weak 
relationship between mainstream music theory vs performance !

[4] Additional models that are needed that I think are possible:

[a] Listener-centric (performance-centric) models of music. Best attempt 
so far is probably my own work www.OMSModel.com

[b] Models of how music is composed or created. Best I have seen so far 
is "Music In the Head" by the eminent psychiatrist/researcher Leo 
Rangell MD.

[c] Models that look at music as part of something much bigger. The 
first person who comes to mind is Peter Sellars: He is music-aware, but 
his scope is much broader than just music. His outlook could probably be 
examined and turned into something like a model for the arts in general 
(probably even broader than the arts). The model might look like a 
socio-political model or something like that. For these purposes, I 
would not be concerned with Sellars' specific views on (the opera) Don 
Giovanni or whatever. Instead I would be concerned with outlining what 
are the principal kinds of things that Sellars is aware of (in the music 
itself, in the performance environment, in the economic and political 
spheres, ...) in terms of a musical performance. I'd aim at a model that 
has about a hundred moving parts; which is easy to comprehend and apply; 
which can be modified.

[d] I'd love to see some models emerge from the experimental 
(laboratory) side of Music Cognition. But this may be a few decades in 
the future.

Isaac Malitz, Ph.D.
imalitz at OMSModel.com

>   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 Morse
> Trent University
> Peterborough, Oshawa
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