Multidisciplinary Musicology – Science, Philosophy and Subjectivity in Music

by Gerard

Edouard Manet -The Railroad

Since my second year studying music at university I have had it in the back of my mind that I would like to follow some sort of academic career. At that time I had a plethora of interests – I still do – that I could have chosen follow but no single one seemed satisfactory in itself. I didn’t want to be a musicologist, a philosopher, a historian or follow any other academic specialisation. So the thought lay there in the back of my mind as I let my studies be determined solely by whim.

I am now in my third year and only now are my aspirations beginning to coalesce. I’ve been inspired greatly by a number of authors such as Douglas Hofstadter (author of Gödel, Escher, Bach) and Jarrod Diamond (author of Guns, Germs and Steel) who have succeeded in synthesising many usually dispersed fields of academia to create valuable and exciting new insights. Hofstadter combined Mathematics, Physics, Literature, Computer Science and Neuroscience to meditate on the nature of intelligence while Diamond employed Linguistics, Molecular Biology, History and Botany to answer the question  “Why did Europe conquer the rest of the world and not the other way around?” I found both these expositions in the realm of hybrid academia highly engaging and convincing.

After encountering these works I found myself wondering “Why doesn’t this happen more?” Surely there are incredible things to be discovered by challenging academics to interact with each other outside their own and closely related disciplines. I decided, perhaps not surprisingly, that I would like to take an analogous approach to studying music.

While I am not deeply entrenched in the academic culture of musicians, I am in contact with it frequently. My general impression is that musicians are extremely academically introverted, to the point that many performers are reluctant to study harmony and other, as they see them, extraneous subjects. Musicologists are rarely as extreme but, compared to their counterparts in fields such as History, English, Political Economics and to an extent Philosophy (philosophers are also somewhat prone to suffer this blinkered academic vision) they are less inclined to apply the insights and techniques of other fields to their own work.  One caveat, these observations are of course not without exception and I have encountered very interesting work by both musicians working with other disciplines and other scholars enlisting the advice of musicians. Nonetheless, I think that these observations are at least to an extent accurate and certainly enough to prompt a new methodology.

The approach I would like to take to studying music is a multifaceted one. Essentially I would like to incorporate additional, robust methods of analysis drawn from mathematics and the sciences, to compliment, not replace traditional analysis. I think these new types of analysis (new, at least, to the field of musicology. The techniques involved are not extremely advanced.) Will provide increased analytical power, especially, I speculate, when applied to music where the traditional methods of analysis break down, for example in non-tonal and non-western music. Additionally I think working with a better understanding how music affects the listener is of great philosophical and analytical interest. There are also the syntactical and semantic elements of music which have been studied in depth by musicologists but could no less be bolstered by an injection of interdisciplinary steroids. Already I have listed too many possible approaches to take all at once but this is a testament to the number of new syntheses to be made.

I don’t believe that the lack of interest in extending the bounds of musicology is solely due to benign neglect. Indeed I think many musicians do not see music as something to be studied at all. They play music, they hear music, it is beautiful, what else is needed? This reminds me of a fable I vaguely recall in which scientists, or some similarly investigative class of people, destroy something beautiful by the mere act of trying to understand it. Music has long had a connection with the divine and with that association the implication that it is something that cannot be understood by humankind. This view is pervasive today, in countless variations. Of course, religious musicians commonly incorporate music into their faith but even in this increasingly secular society many musicians, and listeners for that matter, who have little or no religious inclination cling to the idea that music is ethereal or divine and separate from the rest of the world just as Plato thought over two thousand years ago manifesting in his famous concept of the ‘Music of the Spheres’. I simply do not believe this. I love music like nothing else, and I take immense pleasure in playing music, and I feel privileged to experience it, but I don’t think that it lies on a higher plane to anything else. It just is. And I think that this is more than enough for it to be. And thus it is by no means untouchable.

If it is enough for music just to be then why study it? Personally, I feel that I enjoy music more the more I understand it; I know others like this and I know some who are not. The more we study music the better we as a society can understand it and enjoy it. Most importantly and understanding and explanation of why music is beautiful (if it is possible) leads to an understanding of why it is important for it to be preserved, fostered and made accessible to everyone. Also if music is studied from a broad spectrum of fields of thought as I have suggested, not only will the process of studying itself encourage us to make exciting discoveries, I am confident that we will learn something profound about ourselves.

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