[Smt-talk] Theorists and scientists

Michael Morse mwmorse at bell.net
Fri Jul 6 17:52:21 PDT 2012

Michael Gogins:

I absolutely defend the idea that music theory can be a science and
that a theorist does not need to be a practicing composer or
performer. As a science, music theory has an intrinsic value just like
mathematics or physics, and does not require any practical
justification.Fine; of what is it the science? Musical sound? (As Charles Ives famously asked, what does sound have to do with music?) Of harmonic relations, perhaps? As Stephen Jablonsky pointed out, and Carl Dahlhaus before him, the wild imbalance of music theory to harmonic considerations, not seldom bluntly at the expense of other dimensions, reducing them to mere parameters, should continue to animate skepticism. Is music harmony, in some emphatically yet-to-be-demonstrated ontological sense? "Essentially harmonic," whatever that might mean? "More harmonic" than other things? At least you have to hand it to Rameau that he wasn't just aware of this problem, but made a conscious effort to solve it.  While I do agree that a theorist needn't be a practicing composer--in the absence of available standards of relevance and merit, such claims have no more validity than the qualifications for admission to a boys' tree house--I make bold to quibble with your suggestion that "music theory can be a science." It's not the statement per se, but the nature of this potential that concerns me. Is a scientific music theory necessarily better than an artistic one? This may be; but that's far from clear to me, and I would vehemently deny that it is self-evident, certainly not until there are far better arguments for it than any I've seen. The better such arguments, such as Helmholtz's, are extraordinarily tentative and reserved; the worse, such as Schenker's betimes, are shot through with unacceptabilities. Or does anyone here accept that Schenker "proves" the Meistersinger Overture doesn't work? Or that Rameau is musically inferior?Michael MorseTrent UniversityPeterborough, Oshawa
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