Monday, June 1, 2009

Music and the Sciences (1)

Toward the end of 2008, the editor of the Journal of the Society for Ethnomusicology asked me if I would write a response, for the journal, of about 3000 words to a major essay by one of my colleagues, on science in ethnomusicology, to be published sometime this year in the journal itself along with the article and two other ethnomusicologists' responses. Although I was already over-committed in research and writing projects, this was the kind of invitation I wanted to accept, and I did so. During the spring much of my time, apart from teaching and various other professorial tasks, I spent thinking about the subject and writing my response.

My colleague's essay was more narrowly focused than the general question of the place of science in music, but that didn't prevent me from taking advantage of the opportunity to think more broadly about the topic. Of course, insofar as sustainability theory draws from conservation ecology, science is right in the thick of thinking about sustainability and music. But first, some background.

Although music is considered one of the arts, in terms of the way learning is divided up in colleges and universities, music may be studied scientifically, and over the centuries it has been regarded from a scientific perspective. In the nineteenth century the science of acoustics, or the physics of sound, was quite ambitious in its reach, more so than today, as it was working, in part, with the heritage of an older European (and before that, Greek) belief system that regarded the mathematics of musical intervals as one key with which to unlock the mysteries of order in the universe. Music was given a more important place in medieval education than today; it was one of the four paths of the knowledge called the quadrivium (four roads), along with the other three: arithmetic, geometry, and astronomy. Today, of course, the workings of the universe are explored through particle physics, while the older heritage is regarded as a kind of mysticism; but this does not prevent those who are partial to music from pursuing a path from music to more general knowledge.

The early ethnomusicologists, who called themselves comparative musicologists, applied science to the study of music in a variety of ways, using nineteenth-century models of scientific procedure. Taking their cues from the discipline of philology (what we would call comparative linguistics today), itself much in debt to Darwin's ideas concerning evolution, they asked questions about the origins and diffusion of music, and they sought to gather adequate scientific evidence in order to formulate and test hypotheses concerning music as a pan-human activity. Some of the early ethnomusicologists, such as Carl Stumpf, were trained as scientists; they came to music as a test case for the more general theories they were interested in. I hope to write more about Stumpf and music psychology in a later post.

In any event, as the twentieth century turned, many comparative musicologists singled out the phonograph (which could make recordings, not just play them back) as a scientific instrument that would permit a recording to be played back any number of times so that a trained transcriber could write down the tones in musical notation. The phonograph recording offered a movement in the direction of scientific objectivity, and experimental replicability, as more than one transcriber might have a go at rendering a musical performance in notation. The notation itself, easily read by a trained musician, came to stand for the musical object, one which could be (and was) subjected to description, classification, analysis, and comparison (with other genres, and with the products of other musical cultures). The comparative musicologists hoped for success along the lines of the philologists triumphs in terms of the description, comparison, and history of languages; but for a variety of reasons they were unable to duplicate the success of linguistics; and by the middle of the twentieth century, ethnomusicologists began turning to additional, more promising, and seemingly more interesting goals.

My colleague's paper was addressed to the question of what ethnomusicologists could learn from brain scientists, and vice-versa. That is, what can we learn from brain scientists about music and human behavior? It seems like a natural, and important question to ask; in fact, the general public is interested, and the success of popular books on the topic such as This Is Your Brain on Music, and the writings of the scientist Oliver Sacks, testifies to that interest. But, as my colleague pointed out, ethnomusicologists had largely abandoned this question in the last third of the twentieth century, for various reasons, as ethnomusicology increasingly began to employ the methods of the human sciences, taking what in anthropology has been called an "interpretive turn," away from analysis (which breaks a whole down into parts) and toward a more holistic approach based on the culture concept: music as culture, music as performance, music as identity, music as power, etc. The musical object had given way to the musical subject: no longer were musical transcriptions at the center, but instead the person (subject) making music was the focus of attention.

The Ethnomusicology editor had asked me, he said, to respond to my colleague's hope for a new, or at least, additional, direction for ethnomusicologists, because I had written before about this "interpretive turn" and because my own work exemplified it. I was invested in it. He thought (and may have hoped) that I would be skeptical about a new "scientific turn" but of course I could write whatever I wanted to on the subject. At the same time, he knew that since the 1970s I've also pursued science as a way of thinking about certain ethnomusicological questions, whether in developing a generative grammar of blues melody, or in pursuing ecology as a way of thinking about musical cultures and sustainability. He knew I was interested in considering both scientific and interpretive approaches to music; and he's right: I am.

Well then, what of this particular instance? In her essay my colleague wrote about an experiment that she did, in which she asked whether brain science could reveal something in common among religious ecstatics who fall into trance when involved with music, and those people she calls "deep listeners," those who, although not necessarily religious, are greatly affected by music, to the point where they seek peak musical experiences that result in such responses as chills and tears. For her, interest in science has been latent; her own "scientific turn" came a decade or so ago. But she found that, without scientific credentials, she could not get funding for the experiment, and ultimately was refused publication in the appropriate scientific journal. And so the editor of Ethnomusicology agreed to publish it, with an added call for a rapprochement between scientific and humanistic ethnomusicologists, and the responses from three of her colleagues. This special issue of the Journal will appear later in the current calendar year. More on all this in the next post.

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