Sunday, 19 August 2012

Explaining Explaining Music

I've always wanted to explain music - to explain the sequences of sounds which have moved me in such profound ways for as long as I can remember. Only 'explaining sex' can compete with my desire to explain music! (and my desire to explain music is older!). When I studied music at University, I realised I wasn't alone in having this fascination: many others over centuries have puzzled over exactly the same kind of phenomena. There was something comforting about that - and I had a sense of feeling at home when I met or encountered the writings of those who were also trying to explain music.

Having said that, their explanations usually left me cold - or at least luke-warm. I'd worked on my own explanations... a strange adolescent cybernetic (as I now see it!) theory of the way that emotion is manipulated through time and the experience of sound. I've still got large numbers of badly-written and messy pages of repetitive hammerings-away at the problems of music, logic and time. The academics I encountered, it seemed to me, were more interested in pinning their colours to a particular mast than really pursuing the problem: so Schenkerians went one way, the set-theorists went another, the Retians another, and so on. But none of them really dealt with the problems of experience - or they may have claimed to (like Meyer or perhaps Schenker) but there were some huge gaps. And of course there were huge gaps in my own theories. And the attempts continue: if anything they are worse now... like Tymoczko's which I commented on here:

Now I'm more interested in the desire to explain in the first place. What drives music theorists to peculiar esoteric formalisms of something which, if nothing else, is incredibly beautiful? If they behaved like this with an analysis of sex, we might simply say that they "weren't getting enough"! Are they not getting enough music? Was I not getting enough music? I think there's something in this...

The question is about the possibility of rational analysis, the value of rational analysis and its motivation. I think that the motivation for rational analysis cannot be separated from the institutional structure which supports its creation: the University. Simply put, the University is a place of discourse, and discourse depends on rational explanations for phenomena. The University is also a political place, and great prizes await those who present the most compelling rational arguments (heaven knows, they might even get more sex!). But that does not explain the fact that such rational analysis often has a formal character. There is a tendency to think "the greater the formalism, the greater the rationality" - of course that's false (although many economists and others seem to believe it!). But given that we do accord extra trust in the appearance of abstractions and formalisms, what does this say about our rationality?

Trust is key to discourse. The point about formalism is that it appears that it can serve to win trust. Why? This is what fascinates me about different kinds of explanation, and its particularly interesting when applied to music. It is a commonplace to say that maths and music are related. I think they are related  because they both express the "limits of rationality" in profound ways. How does expressing the limits of rationality help to win trust? I wonder now if it's because the limits of rationality have a universal quality: that we are bound together by what we can't know. In other words, it is not what rationality and formalism and music can say which is important; it is what it cannot say. It is the fact that formalisms identify limits of rationality in ways that can  be clearly articulated (like the performance of a musical score), that focal points are created for explanation. This is another way of identifying absence as causal, which I have discussed before (see

Does this explain the desire to explain music? No. It might explain the forms of explanation that arise. But to explain the desire to explain, we need to consider the form that explanation takes in terms of working with absence, and to think how this relates to human motivation. Whilst there may be a political motivation for producing the 'killer explanation' of music (or anything else) might be to win academic accolades, etc, I think if this was the sole intent of explaining something, nothing would really get explained at all - what we would have would be simple noisy 'posturing' of opinions (actually, we DO see a lot of this in the social sciences and (I'm afraid) education!). No science there.

I'd like to think that the motivation, the hunger, for explaining something like music is a search for meaning in life. What that means, in a more technical sense, is an ability to anticipate what life might throw at us. With anticipation comes greater robustness and viability, both at an individual and a societal level (and the individual is not separable from the society they inhabit). Of course, anticipation also plays a major role in the experience of music itself.

That trying to search for meaning in life through explaining music is futile only serves to highlight the poignancy of living. I find myself now torn between a drive to articulate formalisms around music, education, (actually everything!), and simply trying to be better at living and trying to take better care of the people around me. I guess I will always be torn in this way - the "explaining drive" fools me into thinking I am right (and others are wrong). And then I am pulled back to the beauty of music itself and a world of love.

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