Tag Archives: Marin Mersenne

The Original Musicology

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Musikwissenschaft, the historical study of European art music, began in nineteenth-century Germany and Austria. Johann Nikolaus Forkel’s biography of J.S. Bach (1802) set the tone for the field, which focuses on musical rules, periods, pieces, and personalities. Two more branches of musicology were added during the twentieth century: ethnomusicology, which examines socio-cultural dimensions of global musics, and systematic musicology, which engages the sciences and humanities in investigating musical phenomena.

The three sub-disciplines of musicology have matured and diversified over the decades. Systematic musicology has an especially modern feel, with its interest in acoustics, neuroscience, psychology, and social theory. Guido Adler laid the groundwork for this interdisciplinary approach with his 1885 essay, “Umfang, Methode und Ziel der Musikwissenschaft” (“Scope, Method, and Aim of Musicology”), which divides musicology into historical questions about the development of musical conventions and the succession of “great” composers, and systematic questions about the nature of music and human responses to it.

Today, systematic musicology is itself divided into two areas: empirical/scientific and social/cultural. Its tools of computation and theories of analysis are decidedly twenty-first century, integrating lab studies, computer data, semiotics, and the like. However, the questions it pursues are much older than even Adler’s seminal essay.

Centuries before receiving its proper name, thinkers were systematically assessing music in human life. Around the third century, Greek theorist Aristides Quintilianus was already categorizing musical studies into theoretical/speculative (systematic) and practical/didactic (historical). Franchinus Gaffurius (fifteenth century) examined how musical sounds achieve specific ends. Marin Mersenne (seventeenth century) scrutinized acoustics and the speed of sound. As a rule, European scholars prior to the nineteenth century were preoccupied with the big picture. And, even as music history became the dominant focal point, scholars continued to ponder the larger cognitive and spiritual aspects (see my edited collections, The Value of Sacred Music: An Anthology of Essential Writings, 1801-1918 and Music, Theology and Worship: Selected Writings, 1841-1896).

Systematic musicology has benefited from the growing sophistication of the diverse disciplines it draws upon. Yet, underneath its contemporary garb are questions that have attracted thinkers throughout the ages: What is music, how does music work, why does music move us? Although the sub-field is relatively new, its questions long predate interest in historical periods and cultural practices. For this reason, it can be called the original musicology.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

Theory and Practice

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Theory and practice in music are often portrayed as opposing modes of discernment. Theory is viewed as abstract, analytical and remote from the musical moment. Its tools and methods distill a work to its elemental components and provide the mechanical framework for a piece’s construction; but they hardly account (or attempt to account) for music’s affections or aesthetics. At its most austere, theory becomes what seventeenth-century philosopher Marin Mersenne conceived it to be: the reduction of music to the movement of air. Opponents of this approach, like social critic Morris Berman, point to its apparent spiritlessness. For them, music is a happening, existing to be heard and felt, not dissected or diagnosed.

If we take the extremes of either position, then listening and analysis are two unrelated activities. True, the theorist rarely dwells on the effects of a piece while examining it under the microscope. And the listener rarely ponders specific properties that are stimulating a musical response. However, theory and practice are not as distant as we might presume. Not only are they aspects of the same phenomenon—music—they also address companion human needs for order and wonder.

The combination of formal design and amorphous impact is at the root of music’s appeal. Though features such as pitch, timbre, duration and harmony are susceptible to meticulous examination, their cumulative effect cannot be accurately predicated, precisely measured or empirically determined. It is at the same time science and art.

Mathematician and polymath Jacob Bronowski made a related observation in his influential book, The Identity of Man (1965). Using science and poetry as contrasting pathways of human inquiry, Bronowski explained that while scientific imagination seeks to resolve ambiguities by conducting decisive tests between alternatives, artistic imagination encourages divergent paths without deciding for one or the other. Science is miserly, weeding out the proliferation of new ideas; art is generous, exploiting the vastness of ambiguities. For Bronowski, these two trajectories of the imaginative process—narrowing and expanding—form the basis of human consciousness.

It is intriguing that both avenues exist simultaneously in music. A musical selection is receptive to the scientific approach of the theorist, who separates, labels and quantifies its basic materials. But it is also open-ended, inviting subjective reactions and creative interpretations. These modes of engagement can appear mutually exclusive and certainly call upon different devices and frames of mind. Yet, when we apply Bronowski’s insights, it becomes clear that theory and practice satisfy the concurrent and fundamental human needs for certainty and possibility. Science and art merge in music, enriching the entirety of consciousness.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

Less is More

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

There is an old opera joke that Wagner’s music is better than it sounds, while Puccini’s music sounds better than it is. The humor of this quip lies in the absurdity of judging music—the audible art—apart from how it sounds. It lampoons the elitist’s assertion that accessible music is almost definitionally inferior to more esoteric works, regardless of what our ears tell us. Whatever truth there may be in this musicological system of merits and demerits—and whatever influence such assessments may have—it nevertheless highlights distinctions between listening and evaluating, and between scholars and ordinary folk. It is the difference between experiential knowledge—“I know what I like when I hear it”—and analytical discernment—“I discern its value when I measure it.” These divergent modes of apprehension help explain the often-wide chasm separating popular musical opinions and the rarified views of music critics, theorists, historians and other professionals. “The expert knows best,” so says the expert.

None of this is meant to negate the worth or even accuracy of musical criticism. When a musicologist or respected composer extols or disparages this or that opus, we should probably pay attention. But even the specialist will admit that too much information tends to tarnish the musical experience. What is primarily a medium of emotional expression becomes the subject of cognitive probing.

There is a standard line of thinking in the philosophy of aesthetics that visceral reactions to art are most intense in an art form other than one’s own. For example, a painter will have a primitive rush of emotions when standing in a Gothic cathedral, while the architect next to her closely examines the stonework of the clerestory, the dimensions of the fan vault and so on. The painter excitedly declares, “This place is awesome!” The architect replies, “Did you notice the design flaw in that section of the ceiling?” Similarly, an architect seated in a concert hall will surrender himself to the mass of sound, while the musician sitting beside him busily scrutinizes melodic contours, harmonic density, tonal color and so forth. The architect blurts out, “This is marvelous!” The musician responds, “Trivial rubbish.” The first is wrapped in sensual pleasure; the second is absorbed in adjudication.

It is sometimes said of the music theorist that he has a refined appreciation of the analytical and abstract, but a cultivated disregard for the affective and aesthetic. This “spiritless” perspective was articulated by seventeenth-century philosopher Marin Mersenne, who believed music to be “nothing more than the movement of air, and thus amenable to mechanical and mathematic treatment.” Of course, expertise in the science of music does not in itself preclude musical enjoyment. It is, after all, the musical expert who is most interested in and enthusiastic about musical history, variety and subtlety. But, as the aesthetician readily acknowledges, interest and experience are not the same thing. To paraphrase Aaron Copland, the “gifted listener”—i.e., the musically educated—may hear more in a performance, but as the listener’s knowledge expands so does her distance from the “primal and almost brutish level” of musical emotions. Again, this is not necessarily good or bad; but it does account for the disconnect between the novice’s professed love for this or that conventional fare and the critic’s supercilious remark that Wagner’s music is better than it sounds.

Goethe’s famous saying has relevance here: “Doubt grows with knowledge.” If we replace “doubt” with “critical analysis”—which is the essence of Goethe’s phrase—we begin to recognize how difficult it is for the knowledgeable musician to replicate the relative simplicity and abandonment of the average person’s musical encounter. Proficiency in the art tends to impede purity of experience.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.