[Smt-talk] Theorists and Scientists

Eytan Agmon agmonz at 012.net.il
Mon Jul 9 04:52:26 PDT 2012

To Nicolas’ excellent post let me add the following immortal words of Noam
Chomsky (Aspects of the Theory of Syntax, 1965, pp. 20-21):


“One may ask whether the necessity for present-day linguistics to give such
priority to introspective evidence and to the linguistic intuition of the
native speaker excludes it from the domain of science. The answer to this
essentially terminological question seems to have no bearing at all on any
serious issue. At most, it determines how we shall denote the kind of
research that can be effectively carried out in the present state of our
technique and understanding. However, this terminological question actually
does relate to a different issue of some interest, namely the question
whether the important feature of the successful sciences has been their
search for insight or their concern for objectivity. The social and
behavioral sciences provide ample evidence that objectivity can be pursued
with little consequent gain in insight and understanding. On the other hand,
a good case can be made for the view that the natural sciences have, by and
large, sought objectivity primarily insofar as it is a tool for gaining
insight (for providing phenomena that can suggest or test deeper explanatory


In any event, at a given stage of investigation, one whose concern is for
insight and understanding (rather than for objectivity as a goal in itself)
must ask whether or to what extent a wider range and more exact description
of phenomena is relevant to solving the problems that he faces. In
linguistics, it seems to me that sharpening of the data by more objective
tests is a matter of small importance for the problems at hand. One who
disagrees with this estimate of the present situation in linguistics can
justify his belief in the current importance of more objective operational
tests by showing how they can lead to new and deeper understanding of
linguistic structure. Perhaps the day will come when the kinds of data the
we can obtain in abundance will be insufficient to resolve deeper questions
concerning the structure to language. However, many questions that can be
realistically and significantly be formulated today do not demand evidence
of a kind that is unavailable or unattainable without significant
improvements in objectivity of experimental technique.”


How very relevant to music theory


Eytan Agmon

Bar-Ilan University


From: smt-talk-bounces at lists.societymusictheory.org
[mailto:smt-talk-bounces at lists.societymusictheory.org] On Behalf Of Nicolas
Sent: Monday, July 09, 2012 10:41 AM
To: Sheehan, Paul; smt-talk at lists.societymusictheory.org
Subject: Re: [Smt-talk] Theorists and Scientists


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 evidenced.

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
    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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