[Smt-talk] Theorists and Scientists

Nicolas Meeùs nicolas.meeus at paris-sorbonne.fr
Mon Jul 9 00:40:52 PDT 2012

I will second this. I myself decided, a long time ago, to become a 
professional theorist. I abandoned any desire to become a composer or a 
performer. This truly was a conscious decision, and one I never regretted.

Recent postings in this thread took a ridiculous turn. If by "pure" 
theorist, we are to understand one who knows nothing of music, the 
debate is pointless. I shiver at the idea of what a "pure" composer 
would be: one who knows nothing of theory? who disdains theory? At any 
rate, musicians disdaining theory and theorists are more common than 
theorists disdaining music and musicians, as some of the recent messages 

One aspect that these exchanges did not enough consider is the complex 
relation between theorizing about music and teaching theory. It is too 
easy, and once again pointless, to answer questions about the scientific 
character of theories by considerations of pedagogy. Theorizing and 
teaching are complementary activities, but not necessarily performed by 
the same persons.

Even the question whether theory is a science is pointless and arises 
from confusion about what a science is. This had been debated, mainly 
between Yizhak Sadaï and myself, after the first European Music Analysis 
Conference in 1989, which I had concluded with a few words about the 
state of music analysis. Some of the debate is published in *Analyse 
musicale* XVIII, January 1990. Sadaï claimed among others that Schenker 
considered music analysis an art, not a science (I doubt Schenker ever 
said that, but never mind). We discussed music analysis, but the 
discussion concerns music theory as well.
     Sadaï had said at the conference: "A true science of music should 
answer the requirements of musical sensibility, on the one hand, and to 
those of reason, on the other hand. Such a science therefore should 
arise within a narrow and intimate relation between observer and 
observed, between hearer and what is given to be heard. In other words, 
it could only arise from a methodology that considers its object as 
inseparable from the subject perceiving it. Such an idea could be 
adopted only at the price of abandoning a deep phantasm of present-day 
music analysis: that of becoming a true science, that is, of behaving as 
exact sciences". And, writing to the journal, he quoted analyses by 
Boulez, "much more revealing, although carrying nothing 'scientific', on 
the contrary vigorously reflecting the (artistic!) intuition of a great 
musician and a great analyst". He added "How could one refrain from 
opposing analyses by Boulez or Rosen, on the one hand, that I [Sadaï] 
would qualify 'musical' and 'artistic', undoubtedly revealing and 
instructing, to 'formalized' analyses that too often represent nothing 
else than a set of truths unable to open on anything else than themselves".
     I answered that if Sadaï had in mind to oppose a truly artistic 
approach to a pseudo scientific attitude and if I opposed a truly 
scientific approach to a pseudo artistic one, we were probably saying 
the same thing. What I had said at the Conference (if I believed my 
notes) was that "I do not believe that music analysis is an art -- or at 
least, if it is an art, it must take the form of a science. It is a 
science about an art." And I repeated in the journal: "Music analysis 
cannot be an art because its productions cannot take the definitive, 
absolute character of the work of art; it must be scientific because its 
productions, as any work of science, must at all times remain open to 
refutation, to 'falsification'. This in no way prevents music analysis 
(or any other science, for that matter) to rely widely on intuition and 
sensibility. There is, in truth, no antinomy between true science and 
authentic art; but we have nothing to do with artistic pretentiousness, 
nor with scientific affectedness".

Almost 25 years later, after a long career as music theorist, I see no 
point to be changed in this.

Nicolas Meeùs
Université Paris-Sorbonne

Le 9/07/2012 05:01, Sheehan, Paul a écrit :
> Dear Readers,
> I have a wish:  that a couple of months pass during which time I would not see contributions to smt-talk (that is, the Society for _Music Theory_'s talk list) from those harboring contempt for "theorists".  I would like to hear some other voices.  By flogging the poor, dead horse of (let us be frank) theorists-are-inferior-to-composers, such contributors betray the fact that they feel threatened by the very existence of "theorists"--of people who think about music in a deep, meaningful way and about how to explain it to undergraduates, graduate students, "the public", and their peers.  Seems to me like a service rendered for composers might be better left alone by those it serves!
> I am interested in new contributors to this thread and others along these lines.  Are some who have remained silent listening?
> Dr. Paul Sheehan
> Instructor, Music Department
> Nassau Community College (SUNY)
> One Education Drive
> Garden City, New York 11530

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