Sunday, February 14, 2010

The Music Instinct - the story so far

There are some reviews of The Music Instinct in the Sunday Times, the Independent, the Guardian, the Economist and Metro. Most are nice, but Steven Poole in the Guardian, while sending out some good vibes, has some big reservations too. When I first read his review, it struck me as basically friendly, with some intelligent criticisms with which I mostly disagreed. That interpretation just about survives a second reading, but there are some very odd things here.

Most of all, as someone who has long deplored the scientism-ist (you know what I mean) approach to art that denounces anything which doesn’t meet ‘scientific’ criteria (I’ve gently derided that kind of thing in print before), I was disappointed that Poole seemed so determined to impose this reading on the book. I hope anyone who reads it will recognize that the suggestion that I go through music’s repertoire dishing out gold stars or finger-wagging according to whether composers have obeyed or contravened the ‘laws of music cognition’ is a misrepresentation bordering on the grotesque.

He seems uncomfortable with anything that strays beyond the bounds of the physiology and acoustic physics of sound – that’s to say, with ideas about how we interpret music as a coherent sonic entity, why it moves us, what roles factors such as tonality play in our perception – in short, with most of the field of music psychology. Which is naturally a bit of a problem. Of course, some will prefer to leave all that stuff to the realm of the ineffable, but it’s abundantly clear that this would involve a denial of the evidence.

I agree that it’s crucial to maintain a distinction between understanding how the brain processes music and using that to define ‘scientific’ criteria of what is ‘good’ in music. So I’m frankly baffled as to why Poole thinks I am ‘judging’ music. On the contrary, one of my aims is to suggest ways that might make all kinds of music more accessible. The only instance where I might be considered to be using cognitive principles as a tool for criticism is in the case of total serialism (not simply all serialism – I took great pains to make the distinction). I do point out that Schoenberg was wrong to consider tonality as merely an obsolete convention – it is an aid to music cognition. But as I clearly say, being able to make sense of music doesn’t by any means stand or fall on the issue of whether the pitches as a whole have audible hierarchical organization, and so eliminating tonality doesn’t mean one is doomed to write incoherent music. I don’t even criticise total serialism as such, but only those proponents of it who suggest that audiences’ difficulty with it is simply due to their lack of musical education, thereby failing to understand that this technique tends systematically to undermine our natural modes of organizing sound. Their condescension is misplaced.

Speaking of condescension, Poole seems to detect it in the way I illustrate how cognitive principles can be discerned in the way many composers have organized their music. If one wanted to insist that anyone was being condescended to here (and I can’t for the life of me see why that’s necessary), it would more obviously have to be the music psychologists, given a pat of the back for finally figuring out 300 years later the aids to cognition that Baroque musicians had been codifying and using in their rules for polyphonic composition.

Mozart and Berg reduced to a series of arithmetical tricks: huh? Says who? Compare Bee Wilson in the Sunday Times: ‘Ball never presumes that music can be reduced to some kind of scientific formula’. Well, you can decide for yourself. In any case, what has arithmetic to do with it?

Now, one could certainly read some of the music psychology literature and come away with the impression that indeed all there is to Mozart is a graph of tension and release. But I criticise that view, and point out that not only is it problematic in its own terms but it clearly leaves out something important about music’s affective power that no one has even begun to quantify. Marek Kohn’s comment that I insist on taking the science no further than is warranted directly contradicts Poole’s accusation of scientism.

On performance: I can think of few less controversial statements about music than that performance technique can bring a piece to life or kill it stone dead. To interpret this as saying that the performer does all the work and the composer has next to nothing to do with the way a piece of music is perceived (to what Poole calls ‘superstitions about the supremacy of performance and improvisation’), seems wilfully perverse (not to mention being contradicted by just about everything else I say in the book). But this reflects the dismayingly adversarial way in which Poole seems to have read the whole book. It is science vs art, logic vs intuition, tonal vs atonal, composer vs performer, notated vs non-notated music. And he seems to feel that to praise one side of such dualisms is to condemn the other. I find such dichotomies pointless and unhelpful.

On ‘originality’ of melodies: I don’t ‘praise’ composers for scoring well in this measure, but on the contrary say explicitly that ‘originality’ in this sense bears no relation to musical quality.

On notation: Having played in a big band, I know very well that some jazz forms use and even depend on scored music. Poole is right to point out that my wording seems to suggest otherwise (especially to someone with absolutist tendencies). Must put that right. When I said that notated music can’t evolve (or more accurately, it can only do so within very narrow parameters), I didn’t mean to imply that all music should evolve. I meant only that some forms (such as ‘traditional’, or what tends to be called folk) are best served by reserving that freedom, and therefore by using only very sketchy forms of notation as aides-memoire where it is needed at all. (If my statement here struck Poole as ludicrous, didn’t it occur to him that he might have misconstrued it? Still, I’ll spell this out in the paperback edition too.) As for notation in pop music, I mean ‘pop music’ in the sense in which it is generally used: the popular music coeval with and dependent on the democratization of recording technology and radio, starting roughly in the 1950s, and not ‘popular music’ of the prewar era.

Blimey, all this sounds a bit aggrieved. I’ve no desire to start an argument, especially with someone whose reviews I always read avidly, and especially especially with someone who so recently had kind words for another of my books. But I’m genuinely puzzled about what is going on in this review, and simply want to make my position plain. It is no surprise that some people will recoil at the idea of ‘analysing’ music with scientific methods, but Poole is extremely technically savvy and not in the slightest a scientophobe. I wonder if there is some over-compensation going on here from technophile (something I sometimes suspect in myself.) And if you saw a double entendre in that, you’re right: Poole’s suggestion that techno is a good place to explore for examples of rhythmic violations and the significance of timbre is an excellent one – wish I’d thought of it.

Postscript: I've now had a constructive exchange with Steven. While we don't agree on everything, we're not so divergent in our views either, and I now have a better appreciation of the points of misunderstanding.


steven said...

My reply appears to be too long for your comment box. If you email me via
I can send it to you that way.

Unknown said...

Thanks Philip for sharing great post on The Music Instinct - the story so far.

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