[Smt-talk] Criteria for Old and New

Chris Bonds chbonds1 at willy.wsc.edu
Tue Mar 5 10:33:32 PST 2013

Prof. Ninov asks about how to tell what is old and new, who decides it, 
and why.

"Advances" in music theory seem to me very different from advances in 
the sciences. Theories about how music works have certainly changed over 
time, but for me it is an open question whether to call these 
"advances." [I know that no one here is calling them that]. The question 
is what the implications of "old" and "new" are. "Old" is certainly 
"obsolete" if nobody studies or teaches it anymore. But is it bad? I 
hardly think so, if it is based on sound reasoning. And of course just 
because a theory is new does not mean it's a good theory. The "proof" of 
a theory's value is somewhat subjective--if it helps me to experience 
music in a new way, it's a good theory. Personally, I think Schenker hit 
upon a valuable insight. I think my teachers would have served me better 
had they emphasized that there is no single correct Schenker analysis of 
a musical work, and that the important thing was to develop a deep 
understanding of how every note in a work functions in its particular 
context. One of my favorite examples of how context can make a 
difference is in Charles Rosen's comment that at a certain point in 
Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 4, the composer forcefully introduced the 
tonic triad in root position as a dissonance. And he explained quite 
clearly how such a thing could happen.

As to who decides about "old" and "new" -- this should not be a 
consequence of political power. I am opposed to dogma of any kind, 
because it is a substitute for thinking.

This discussion also reminds me of Nietzsche's comment that "the errors 
of great men are more important than the truths of small men." The first 
name that popped into my head when I read that was Arnold Schoenberg.

Christopher Bonds
Wayne State College, Emeritus

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