[Smt-talk] Theorists and Scientists

Dunsby, Jonathan jdunsby at esm.rochester.edu
Mon Jul 9 15:37:03 PDT 2012

And as recently as 2006 the great Chomsky was writing about "the quest for principled explanation" in the final (new) chapter of the 3rd edition of Language and the Mind (CUP). It's a chapter I recommend as a follow-up to Nicolas's thoughtful mailing and Eytan's; not that there are any easy answers, but the questions Chomsky is asking seem to me important to musicians, not only linguists...


Jonathan Dunsby
Chair, Music Theory Department
Professor of Music Theory
Eastman School of Music


From: Eytan Agmon
Sent: Mon 7/9/2012 07:52
To: 'Nicolas Meeùs'; 'Sheehan, Paul'; smt-talk at lists.societymusictheory.org
Subject: Re: [Smt-talk] Theorists and Scientists

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 hypotheses).
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 Mee?s
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 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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