Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Music and the Sciences (2)

I've titled this series music and the sciences, rather than music and science, because it is telling that we speak both of science as a whole and the sciences as individual parts. Science education usually proceeds one part at a time; we study physics, or we study chemistry, or we study biology, or we study one of the social sciences such as sociology or anthropology.

As I've written here, some conceive of ethnomusicology as a science; Alan Merriam, in discussing an anthropology of music, claimed that ethnomusicology was "sciencing about music" -- that is, studying music as a scientist would study a human phenomenon. Merriam's book, The Anthropology of Music (1964), a period piece now, was influential for a generation and remains today a clear manifesto for a particular kind of ethnomusicology.

Obviously, then, there is science and there are sciences; that is, while individual sciences are different, there is evidently something that all sciences have in common. Often it is said that while the various sciences differ in their subject matter, they share a common method. In other words, while physics is concerned with matter and motion, chemistry with substances and how they interact, and biology with the study of living organisms, all three share something called Scientific Method. In any good high school science course, scientific method is taught along with the subjects of the individual sciences. One learns that scientific method, always identified with controlled testing by means of experiments, consists of a cycle involving, roughly in this order, observation, inference, hypothesis, experimental design and procedure, measurement, results, conclusion--and then further observation, inference, modification of hypothesis, another experiment, and so forth.

Identifying scientific method with the experimental (laboratory) sciences places them at the core of "science" and places experiment at the center of scientific method. This is a move with consequences. First, the core or experimental sciences have become models of "real" or "hard" science--what science aspires to be and do. Those sciences in which conrolled laboratory experiments are difficult, if not impossible, move to the scientific periphery, and their conclusions, unable to be experimentally verified, are thought to be less certain. Second, within the culture of science, experiment is elevated.

The effect of this on the social sciences, where laboratory experiments are difficult, is to orient research in the direction of measurement and quantification, if not toward experiments themselves. Despite late twentieth-century attempts to elevate qualitative methods, the culture of "hard" science moves scientists in the direction of what can be observed, quantified, tested, and measured. College students who wish to study psychology in order to understand human behavior soon find themselves doing laboratory experiments with mice. The ordinary language we use to understand human motives and behavior, such as thinking, intending, wanting, feeling, is thought to be imprecise and therefore unscientific. Consciousness itself is reduced to and understood as the product of the actions of neurons and chemicals in the brain.

Elevating the experimental sciences and Scientific Method in this way generates a crude theory of reductionism. Biology is said to be based in chemistry, and chemistry in physics. Because the universe is composed solely of matter, we could understand everything in it if only we could predict the behavior of its smallest particles. Many high school and college students, whose education in science goes no further, and whose worldview is not based in religious faith, believe in some version of this scientific reductionism; and although they aren't aware of it daily, they continue to hold this belief throughout their adult lives.

But this is not the only way to think about science, and the sciences. Histories of science can turn on many more themes than the progress of experiment and reductionism. One interesting place to look is to the study of what used to be called "natural history." Museums of natural history still exist, a testimony to this older and more holistic way of conceiving of something now called biology.

Most important, a careful look at Scientific Method reveals that the scientist is always moving between the simplification of reductionism (in designing experiments) and the complexity of holism (in drawing inferences). In other words, a more accurate view of experimental science indicates that scientists employ comprehensive, or holistic, strategies as well as reductionist ones. In this way of thinking, the experiment is merely the means, the engineering of the idea that derives from the inference that yields the initial hypothesis. A most important question arises: how are scientific ideas, inferences, and hypotheses generated in the first place--that is, before experiments?

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.