Music: Art or Science?

(1) The question “Is music an art or a science” is, on one level, a silly one, since it is obvious that music contains both elements.  Pitches that sound good together are good combinations because whole-number ratios can describe their relationship. Strings, when sounding a octave, will have a length ratio of 1:2; when a fifth, 2:3, and so on. Thus far music seems vaguely science-y. It’s also clearly an art in that the goal of music is the expression of an individual or a community and their feelings. So far, so good.

But there is a more important sense in which music is neither of these things—art or science. The fact that we even feel the need to pit against one another “art” and “science” shows that we are following a paradigm, and that paradigm is one of decidedly modern origins. So the question holds little or no relevance to people living before 1600 because they would not have cared and it did not influence how they thought about music, how they composed it, or how they heard it.

Think about it for a moment: when we say “science” in English, most of the time we’re talking about an academic discipline that uses methods of inductive certainty to arrive at conclusions about nature. Music is not that, but do we believe there is a subtle similarity? Most of us assume that music is something that develops more like science than like literature. We assume that is gets genuinely better over time, more advanced, more complex and effective. That belief doesn’t mean we don’t see, say, 150 years ago as a golden era of music, but even if we did believe that was a golden era, we then must believe today is a dark age and 1000 years ago was too. So when we say music is a science, perhaps what we’re really doing is drudging up a positivist approach to music history. After all, isn’t there some sense in which the music of Beethoven or Brahms or Mozart or Rachmaninoff is just more advanced than Medieval music?

Similarly, when we say “art” in English, what do we mean? Art is “the spontaneous overflow of powerful emotion”; art is for its own sake; art primarily is about satisfying the inner needs of the artist and secondarily about the art’s audience and receivers. The reason we have art around is not functional, it is purely that it deserves to be there. Now, this vision of art may be how we see Classical music, including Bach and composers before his time, but it is not how all of them viewed themselves. Beethoven definitely did buy into this vision of his own art, but Dufay from the 1440s definitely did not. Is it any wonder, then, that we see Beethoven as more advanced? Speaking of buying in or selling out, the very fact that we use the words “sell out” in modern popular music is shows that we think that commercial concerns, people-pleasing concerns, functional concerns pollute musical and artistic ones. But the origins of these ideas go back not to ancient Greece or to human nature but to German and English Romanticism, whose ideas still control our thinking.

(2) So is there a sense in which we can say music is inherently either a science or an art? Perhaps yes, if we return to an older understanding of these two words. Scientia is “knowledge” in Latin; ars is “skill”. Surely music requires both. This, interestingly, puts the emphasis on the act of composing music more than anything: you need knowledge to compose music (knowledge of the rules and the literature) and you need the craft and skill (extensive practice and experience at writing music). These two things bookend, for instance, Tinctoris’ De arte contrapuncti, where he begins by quoting Horace “scribendi recte sapere [i.e. scientia] est principium et fons” (knowledge is the first principle and the fountain of writing well), emphasizing the knowledge; at the end, he gives the opposite side of the coin, “Nam, ut Cicero ad Herenium ait, in omni disciplina infirma est artis praeceptio sine summa assiduitate exercitationis, (after all, as Cicero said in Ad Herenium, in every discipline the art’s instruction is weak without the most possible constancy of practice), emphasizing the ars end of things. Music, then, needs both art and science to survive, but only when “art” and “science” are conceived differently from our modern expectations.

But it’s not at all clear that the Medievals actually used these terms to think about music or, if they did, that they agreed upon it. Boethius and Cassiodorus, who both originally categorized music with the three other liberal arts in the Quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, and astronomy) did so because their conception of music was an overtly Pythagorean and Platonic one. Music was dangerous if sensually enjoyed and the sort of music that intellectuals liked was essentially mind-game stuff: arguing about tuning systems or the best way of mathematically describing a minor 2nd. But this conception of music hardly held sway among actual composers of the Medieval period, who mostly considered Boethius’ treatise on music to be stuffy and irrelevant, if they knew of it at all. It behooved Pythagoras, Plato, and Boethius to think of music and astronomy as part of the same game, since they wanted to view them as the same phenomenon of world harmony or musica mundana (Boethius attacks those who think this music of the spheres is actually sensual or hearable music); but fundamentally, these men thought that music of that sort could only be theorized about and that was the highest task music could have as a science. Obviously the western tradition didn’t go the way they thought, since soon the task of Medieval and Renaissance music became coming as close in human terms to that heavenly ideal as possible, which undoubtedly Plato and Pythagoras would have thought blasphemous.

So if we have anyone to blame for either thinking of music as a liberal art or as one of the sciences, it would probably be Boethius and his school of thought, but it was a school of thought that has held little or no influence on the actual composition of music almost from the very beginning.


The other historical shore

“If Bach could still see in harmony a metaphor for God, Goethe was already speaking from the other historical shore—from the world in which metaphors are all we have. In this new world, our world, it is God who has become the metaphor for harmony.” Karol Berger, Bach’s Cycle, Mozart’s Arrow: An Essay on the Origins of Musical Modernity, 129.

Ambrose Singing Some World Harmony

Leo Spitzer, in his “historical semantics” on Classical and Christian Conceptions of World Harmony, explains that Ambrose’s composition of the first hymn focused on world harmony was something that only a Christian theology could have produced. While Hebraic music seemed uninterested in the concept of world harmony, Greek music seemed to believe world harmony couldn’t be imitated in human music at all.

World harmony, the ability to at once “express best the inner depths of human and cosmic nature”, was for the Greeks not only “inaccessible to human ears” but also purely metaphorical. Or, rather, human music was a metaphor for the universal music, but its purpose was purely a spiritual one, to understand the creator (poietes, a poet/musician) and to put one’s soul in healthy order (an idea Spitzer says later attracted Augustine). Thus music is central to Plato in the Republic because of the close relationship of harmony to the soul and the soul to the polis. “Plato establishes the parallel: individual body—individual soul—polis, all three being predicated on order and temperance. There is in man himself a politeia, which bids him attune his body to the harmony of his soul, ‘if he has true music in him’….”

The idea of world harmony, Spitzer points out, is attractive to early Christian thinkers because there is some resonance with passages of Scripture (Job 38:7, Liber Sapientiae 19:17, both of which are connected by later thinkers to concentum caeli and in organo qualitatis sonus). He doesn’t find it surprising, then, that Ambrose would make the connection fully clear in his Hexaemeron, a vision of Christian world harmony syncretized with Pythagoras. But Ambrose’s conception is nuanced or fulfilled. Although it’s quite true that “a human simile can give but a slight reflection of the consonance of the concentus undarum with the concentus plebis,” it’s also true that Christian singing can really be a worthy reflection of world harmony—in fact, even a better one that Greek speculation on it. “The Greeks, on the other hand, ascribed to music the highest place in the universe; and yet, though we are indebted to them for much philosophical speculation about music, it could be said that they have left us comparatively little of the music which should illustrate their philosophy. But in the hymns of Ambrose, we have a ‘performance,’ an ‘incarnation’ of that world harmony about which the Greeks had speculated; and the Church, which was represented in his hymns as echoing the music of the universe, served, actually, as the theater for the performance of these hymns (as it was to serve later as the original state of medieval drama).”

Ambrose, according to Spitzer, gets the “immortal merit…to have assigned to Christian music the task of embodying the Greek world harmony,” and not the ancient Israelites in their Psalms. “The Psalms were full of musical elation in praise of God, but the idea of world harmony was only potentially present; their radiant and resounding similes were symbolic only of the inner wealth of a religious feeling: pictures conjured up to figure the unspeakable.” Certainly it seems like Spitzer’s assessment here is unfair and sloppy. Pictures conjured up to figure the unspeakable sounds like an excellent description of another religion’s music and poetry. And it seems that plenty of Psalms and Hebraic music (19 and 87, the Song of Moses, off the top of my head) would admit a world harmony idea pretty clearly.

But at the same time it’s easy to fall into a trap of feeling the need to find Greek philosophy in the Old Testament, a trap that many thinkers past and present seem to fall into when dealing with world harmony and musica mundana. A fierce desire to make musica mundana a Scriptural idea would presuppose that it ought to be there, merely to fit our Hellenic standards of beauty. The Timaeus is an awfully nice thought, but it is just a thought and it would be silly to wish David and Moses had thought and talked more like Plato. And yet this is what it seems many Medieval authors wished when they spoke of music. I’m content with the thought that Ambrose’s attempt to embody this world harmony would have scandalized the Greeks and struck them as a rash, overly bold and probably blasphemous. You go, Ambrose. Scandalize those stupid Pythagoreans.

Ammerbach’s organ endorsement: variety

I’d like to spend a few posts exploring the reasons the Reformation liked the organ so much. Their reasons are usually not ours. They did not endorse the organ because it was an old or traditional instrument; it was actually because it was so new. It was equipped with new technologies that could produce new possibilities for sound. They did not like it because it was huge and grand; oftentimes, the organs of this period were small enough to be fit in houses. They did not like it because it had religious connotations; the late Middle Ages and the Reformation invented the religious connotations for the organ, which had had a largely secular one in previous eras.

First example is Elias Nicolaus Ammerbach, organist at Leipzig in St. Thomas Church. He published a pedagogical anthology of organ music, sacred and secular, for organ and said this in his introduction:

“Among different musical instruments, however, of which I leave each as established in its worth, the organ—so nowadays employed in our churches and sacred service, and (as some suppose) unknown to the ancients—, in my opinion, justly has preference. For on it, thanks to its abundant stops (Regiester) and many kinds of timbres (stimwercks), one can devise and realize a great varietet and artistic change in the voices, which is not found on other instruments.” (lxxiv, “Source Texts”, Orgel Oder Instrument Tabulaturbuch, Elias Nicolaus Ammerbach)

A provisional definition of “tonality”

Tonality, n. In Western music, a historiographical application of chronological snobbery, arising from the decision by a few men to deify three composers from Vienna, after their deaths, around the turn of the 19th century, whose music they believed to be structurally defined by two ideals living somewhere in the upper west side of Plato’s heaven called “tonic” and “dominant,” and, in so deifying, to define all music with respect to these three dead composers.

All music before this time, then, came to have something of a preludial function—an improvised, sometimes ill-thought, formless groping for tonicization, with one particular German composer of the early 18th century as a final, grand dominant chord that at last resolved in these three Viennese composers. All music after this time, however, had a slightly more ambiguous historical nature. While tonality was implicitly adopted by everyone, it gave rise to two distinct approaches, one which defined itself by manifesting the ideals similarly to the original three, the Classical, and the other, the Romantic, by deviating from the manifestations but still maintaining those ideals. And the dialectic between the Classical and the Romantic shall continue forever and ever, amen.

The Monuments Men

I recently watched The Monuments Men, a George Clooney film about the men who saved European art from destruction at the end of World War II. It was very much a throw-back to the movies I grew up on, like The Great Escape or Bridge on the River Kwai and so on. One of the interesting decisions that Clooney made was to focus the movie on this central question: what is about this art that makes it worth dying for?

And another interesting decision was how he chose to answer that question. He did not choose the obvious answer, that this is Great Art. Clooney’s character (a thin disguise for Clooney’s viewpoint, I guess) was not that this art had some intrinsic value that necessitated its saving. Men did not have to die because Michelangelo’s Madonna and Child was just So Damn Good. The movie obviously doesn’t deny that the art is amazing and repeated study.

The argument is, instead, framed quite elegantly in terms of a thought experiment: if Hitler destroyed all the individual people of Western civilization, it would strangely still pop up again soon enough. If Hitler really wanted to destroy Western civilization, he would have to destroy things like its art. Art is our communal identity.

And here I muse off in my own direction. This art was not Great Art, in that it bore in itself such surpassing worthiness to cost two men’s lives in its protection. No, this art carries with it, sacramentally, who we are. It is molded by us and its greatness is the way it too molds us even further. Western culture molded Michelangelo and he expressed what we taught him better than we ourselves could have conceived. Michelangelo has molded us.

But the value of art is contingent. It is not inherent; it would not exist in a vacuum. It is context-specific. This does not mean that standards go away, or that I am favoring artistic relativism. Those who would insist on an artistic relativism can be refuted easily without insisting on the idea of Great Art that exists in some ideal world of forms. We don’t need to become Platonists to appreciate art.

No, No, Guillaume Was a Composer

“The arts, as they develop, grow further apart. Once, song, poetry, and dance were all parts of a single dromenon. Each has become what it now is by separation from the others, and this has involved great losses and great gains.” (C. S. Lewis, An Experiment in Criticism)

This observation has really molded my views deeply and I think it is more applicable to music than Lewis could have imagined. You could, for instance, paint all of music since 1600 as a futile attempt to recreate the dromenon and all the central forms as essentially a fusion of at least two out of the three: the Romantic opera is music and poetry, the Romantic ballet is music and dance, and the symphony, the ideal Classical achievement of pure music, is music attempting to be the other two without really needing them. But I digress.)

So, then, I was surprised, charmed, and not surprised when I opened René Girard’s The Scapegoat and the first words were, “Guillaume de Machaut was a French poet of the mid-fourteenth century.”