Wednesday, 10 September 2014

Music, Science and Status: An exploration in search of an efficacious social science

Stravinsky’s famous remark “Music is incapable of expressing anything but itself” tends to be taken to refer to his antipathy to "sentimentalism" in music, or to the idea of a correlation between notation and emotional experience of either composers or listeners. Music has no reference - so how can it express emotion? The mystery is that whilst music might express nothing, it certainly communicates. How does this happen when there is no proposition about a state of affairs which is asserted? All that there appears to be is a declaration that “this is music”.

John Cage made a way of marking out what music is by simply declaring the sounds of the world as music: his 'silent' piece 4'33'' is simply a declaration of "this is music" - a declaration which many experiencing it might disagree with, although few could be unchallenged by it. When a number of people are drawn to the declaration "this is music", there is some kind of communication (even if it's about the fart that rang out in one of the early performances of 4'33''). Would this communication be possible without the declaration that x is music? 

What is interesting here is that declarations like "this is music" can serve to raise the status of somebody making it. Cage's reputation suffered no loss with 4'33''. Equally, scientists make declarations like "this is gravity", or "this is a Higgs Boson". Equally, there is a network of status mechanisms which are called into play following such a declaration. These mechanisms implicate the person making it, social institutions like universities, learned societies and journals, popular opinion and the media which conveys it, analytical criticism, and (crucially) the internal content of the work (the internal details of an artwork, or the veracity of theoretical claims and their foundations). How do these factors relate?

There are many reasons for focusing on musical work as a case study for exploring this question about status. In particular, the absence of reference in a musical work (unlike a scientific theory) specifically throws the spotlight on status mechanisms themselves. In effect, it helps us explore the conditions under which the declaration "this 'nothing' is a something" might be upheld. In turn, we go on to argue that this insight helps us understand that although scientific theories present apparently rational criteria for judgement, there are also many aspects of scientific claims which are no less lacking in reference than an artwork, as Feyerabend has argued. 

The declaration of something as something and its relation to its internal content

A declaration may be thought of as what Searle has recently called a ‘status function’. Searle situates status functions as those speech acts which articulate different bits of social reality. The social reality he considers he divides into the “ontological subjective”, “ontological objective”, “epistemic subjective”, “epistemic objective”. What kind of statements apply to music? To answer this question we have to compare “Beethoven died in 1827” with “This is Beethoven’s 5th symphony” with “Beethoven’s 5th symphony was written between 1804 to 1808” with “Beethoven’s 5th symphony has four movements” with “Beethoven’s 5th symphony is beautiful”. The statement about Beethoven’s death is epistemically objective: a statement of normative fact. By this token so too is “This is Beethoven’s 5th symphony” and “Beethoven’s 5th symphony was composed between 1804 and 1808". Normative facts have truth values attached to them. “Beethoven’s 5th symphony is beautiful” on the other hand, is a statement of “epistemic subjectivity”. It is like saying “I don't like red”. At the same time, the statement “Beethoven’s 5th symphony has 4 movements” appears to be a statement of ontological objectivity - like "the speed of sound is 340.29 m/s"; but perhaps it could be that this is epistemic objectivity too - after all, the status function "this is a movement" is epistemically objective. However, the tension between the statements “Beethoven’s 5th symphony has 4 movements” and “Beethoven’s 5th symphony is was composed between 1804 and 1808” reveals something about the difficulties in establishing a clear position regarding the declarations that surround music.

But all these declarations are oriented practices and conventions involving people and technologies who come together and make a particular sound. What are they doing? Why are they doing it? Can they not see that there is nothing there? Are we all victims of the kind of misapprehension that afflicted all but the little boy in the story of the "Emporer’s new clothes”? If that is the case, what are the status functions concerning the naked emporer which leads everyone not to see that he is naked?  The issue concerns the relation between status declarations and truth.

Status functions exist within the context of power structures. The status function “'Tristan and Isolde' is a fantastic opera" is not only an expression of opinion (or normative opinion) - it can also be an expression of expectation in a situation between a boss and a subordinate, which will result in the subordinate being forced to sit through hours of opera in order to curry favour. The consequence of such an unfortunate episode is that if one’s taste in music would never be stretched to agree to listen to Wagner for hours, then one would expect a certain kind of inner tension to arise. Similarly, we might look at the status functions that are imposed and supported by the radical Islamists in arguing “This is jihad” – What does the status function “This is Jihad” mean? What about “This is an academic conference”? The tension is brought out through the interplay between the content of experience and the status declarations that are made about it.

The declaration of the status of music relies on a network of status functions which constitute power structures ("x is the boss", etc). We might start to unpick these, but among the different responses to the conflict between power structures is the maintenance (and contribution to) of certain kinds of practice. The tension between maintaining status functions contributes to the conditions for reproducing them. This seems particularly important with regard to statements about things which apparently have no reference - like music. Yet music has content, and musical practice communicates without reference (Stravinsky never denied communication). Alienation arising from impossible power relations frequently gives rise to emotional artistic expression. Why? And what is the relationship between the content which forms the substance of a status declaration and the social structures which uphold it?

The Content of Music

What is declared as “Western art music” has certain features which analysts make further status functions about: "harmony", "counterpoint", "melody", "form", "tonality", "instrumentation", "rhythm", and so on. Music analysis is the practice of making status functions about the parts of the content of music. Sometimes these declarations of parts are then used to reconsider the status of the utterance of music itself: Schenker famously thought there was no great music after Brahms – largely because he was not able to fit any music after Brahms into his remarkable analytical scheme.

In analysing the parts of music, theorists hope to identify those components which appear to be causal in the way that music communicates. By abstracting patterns and comparing them with feelings there have been various ways in which things get codified, Schenker sought to identify the components of experience as they related to the fundamental structures of music so as to understand the way that music itself was ordered.

Musical content exhibits a structuring which appears in many aspects to be universal. It is rather like the way that the structures of mathematics exhibit a content is independent of discourse. Whilst other forces may create situations where universality of feeling or meaning are not expressed, there are enough examples (particularly from ethology) where universality is sufficiently exposed between people - matters of love, attachment and loss provide the most compelling evidence. This is where music communicates – and it does so without the need for a common reference.

Our question is therefore, What can be said about the content of music as it relates to its social context? This may be the same question as “What is to be said of truth in society?” Whilst music expresses nothing but itself, it communicates in the interaction between its social context and its intrinsic qualities. In this process of interaction, what emerges are shifting patterns of expectation between players.

The Communicating of Music

For Schutz, communication in music occurs through a mutual ‘tuning-in’ between participants. In bringing together the thought of Husserl with that of Weber, Schutz’s idea of “mutual tuning-in” is based on his  idea that music offers the chance to share in the lived experience of others. For Parsons, and later for Luhmann, utterances in ordinary communication (with reference) were the result of a calculation of the relative expectations between individuals of the likelihood of success of a particular communication within a social context. Schutz argues that the grimaces and the bodily contortions which are associated with the engagement with the material content of music and music-making are the means by which we gain access to each others lived experience. It is this insight into each others’ lived experience which is, for Schutz, the means by which music communicates.

The sharing of a performer's lived experience involve some acknowledgement of the limits of someone else; just in the same way as we are amazed at the acrobat's manoeuvres because we understand something of the limits they face in performing. What is required is an understanding of how limits emerge, what causes them, how they are reached, how they are surpassed. The limits of society entail status functions which conflict. Within any social situation, agents find themselves having to negotiate a complex web of limits and restrictions. Agents have to make choices. We might speculate the rationale that sits behind choices, but in reality it is hard to be able to understand the motivation behind the selections that are made. This entails a logic of expectation where the overlapping of expectations is causal in the production of utterances.

Expectation play a role in artistic experience. If the nature of expectation is seen to be structured, or to reveal a structure then the question about expectation must be related to the ability to determine the elements of probability which surround a particular utterance. Here we are faced with a fundamental situation which is at once artistic and communicative: any utterance, any picture, any sound exists within a context. There is always figure and ground.

In information theory, the characterisation of figure and ground is characterised as a balance between entropy (or the 'negentropy' of 'information') and redundancy. Redundancy frames messages in the way that grammar frames language. In the work of Ernst Gombrich (see his "The Sense of Order"), he analysed particular patterns of redundancy in the patterns of background in decorative art. In music too, the redundancy associated with Alberti accompaniments, together with the grammatical forms of tonal structure all testify to repetitions upon which variations are situated.

In human communication, to say that a set of expectations must be consistent for communication to take place is to say that there must be a set of expectations between people which are effectively redundant. This is a turn in Shannon’s own theory, for it turns out that communication is not measured in the transfer of information (negentropy) but rather in the overlapping of redundancy of expectations.

The 'ground'-nature of redundant forms in artistic communication suggest that there might be a relationship between redundancy and absence (I gather Lacan says something about this with regard to his concept of 'lack' and redundancy). What is absent is what is all around us, but which we fail to notice. Here we might bring the notion of limit together with that of absence and that of redundancy. A limit is a point of balance in the mid-point of two sets of structures. One might imagine the limit between different interpretations of a law, or a moral dilemma. Limits exist against a background – absences ('empty' sets) maps on to all objects between which there might be tensioning of limit. Feyerabend argues that paradigm shifts in science may occur not only with critique of different theoretical positions, but when the background to those positions changes. This is like a melody played in one context appears entirely differently with a different accompaniment. So here we can start to draw a picture of the ways that different status functions might overlap in the context of redundancies or absences and different status functions are held in check.

If the absences pertaining to redundancy of expectation holds other limits in place, then situations are possible where status functions are held in place within a society because of the redundancies of expectations of members of a society. Here we might find the conditions for the mutual maintenances and stability of a set of contradictions such as exist in Bateson's 'double-bind'. Indeed, most institutional structures seem to embody different 'knotted' structures of the double-bind (think of Church, university or the family). It might imagine that absence or redundancy ‘bends’ an arrow which maps members of one set onto another - thus producing knotted structures like the Trefoil knot. Another way of conceiving this is to consider a relationship between classical logic (the logical of the excluded middle) and dialectical logic. This relationship between classical and dialectical logic is a relationship between degrees and strata on the one hand (dialectical) and truth and falsehood on the other (classical). Category theoretical structures enable us to characterise both kinds of pattern. The determination of truth and falsehood is dependent on the ‘sub-object classifier’ within category theory, whilst the structuring of objects is dependent on the relationship between initial and terminal objects.

Limits in Scientific Rationality

Scientific rationality depends on the determining of regularities in scientific experiment. But what is this determining of regularity if it is not also the determining of probabilities of expectation? The question with regard to this process is the problem of being fundamentally unable to determine the parameters around the totalities about which the probabilities of events might be calculated. In determining the parameters of the fundamental totalities, there is a patterning and an ordering of reality which results in the ways that totalities are determined, and this patterning and reality is connected with the fundamental structures which are themselves related in some way to truth.

Another way of saying this is to say that the space of mutual expectation, or mutual redundant expectation is the space where theory arises. Here we see both a logical (analytical) construct for thinking about music, and a measurable practical component. Given forms of redundancy and absence, the process of theory-building is to determine the relationship between the redundancy that is identified through experience and the object to which it aims. It is to determine this both in an abstract theoretical way and in a way which is linked to empirical measurement. With the joint status functions of empirical evidence and logical characterisation, a new limit of critical orientation can be formed, which in turn produces new redundancies which in turn create new scientific ideas. Naturalism is a process of defining the limits (defined socially) which relate the status of the empirical with the status of the logical.

The structure of musical experience and the nature of empirical objects

Musical experience is structured. Levels of redundancy are revealed and wash over one another: one accompanimental pattern over another; melodic fragments become accompaniments; the redundancy of rhythms overlap with the redundancy of harmony and the redundancy of melodic patterns.  When we think about this, are all the redundancies different levels of expectation? As they overlap, so the nature of truth (the tendency towards resolution and finality - the arrival at unity) and falsehood change over time and the nature of status objects. The truth of music is revealed in a process of establishing a limit which converges to resolution. This process both specifies ordering of ideas (in the sense that the subobject classifier identifies an ordering) and at the same time time it configures the relationship between a possible initial starting point and a likely end-point. The declaration "This is music" is itself analysable as a limit between social relations, personal identity and musical content. It is sustainable when the three forces constraint each other in a stable co-dependence.

Whilst the shifting patterns of redundancy within the musical content are both synthetically (empirically) and analytically (logically) determinable and give a sense of the ordering of the musical structure (this is perhaps not dissimilar to Schenker's graphs). If the characterisation of the logical structure can extend beyond the music content to the social matrix within which the status function "this is music" is made, then richer and more contextual descriptions can be made about the relationship between the content of a creative process and the social structure within which claims (status functions) might be made about it. Moreover, if we can determine the relationship between the content of a creative endeavour and its social structure in both an analytical and a synthetic way, then a possibility arises for deep contextual assessments of status functions relating theories (analysis) with experiment (synthesis).


Arguments between Kuhn, Popper, Lakatos, Feyerabend and many others rest on difficulties of establishing the connection between the content of scientific creative work and the social structures within which they are made. Understanding the relationship between creative artistic works and status focuses the challenge in formulating both analytical and synthetic explanations and presentations whose coherence at a deep level might provide a deeper basis for both theoretical development and practical innovation. 

No comments: