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.


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.

We are Mozartians

“The Viennese classics have shaped our musical expectations and values to such an extent that we expect these values to inform any music we encounter. Carolyn Abbate’s argument against plot-centered, as opposed to narrator-centered, understanding of musical narrative exemplifies how widespread the assumption is that all music must be essentially temporal, that the disposition of events in time always matters in music: since all music is temporal, Abbate argues—that is, since music always has a temporal arrangement of events or ‘plot’—it is all ‘narrative,’ and hence applying the term, taken in this sense, to music is redundant. But for music written a mere half century before the Viennese classics this assumption of the primacy of the temporal disposition of events is invalid.” (Karol Berger, Bach’s Cycle, Mozart’s Arrow)

Beethoven Begat Jacob and Esau

Wagner and Brahms, that is.

“In German-speaking lands, the dispute polarized around Brahms and Wagner and around the dichotomies between absolute and program music, between tradition and innovation, and between classical genres and forms and news ones. What is clear in retrospect is that partisans on both sides shared the common goals of linking themselves to Beethoven, appealing to audiences familiar with the classical masterworks, and securing a place for their own music in the increasingly crowded permanent repertoire. All such music became known as classical music because it was written for similar performing forces as works represented in the classical repertoire and was intended to be performed alongside them.” (Burkholder, Grout, and Palisca, A History of Western Music)

Fascinating that Brahms looks at Beethoven and sees pure, “absolute” music, music for its own sake. Wagner looks at Beethoven and sees drama, Gesamtkunstwerk, music (as Tom Wolfe might say) with a text at its center. Ralph Vaughan Williams expresses that whole period’s expectancy for a new Beethoven to unite the two schools here.

A Program of Living Composers (Surely Not)

A History of Western Music notes that “one of the most remarkable developments in the entire history of music” is the shift from concerts that performed living composers to concerts that performed dead ones. This shift represents, to the authors, the emergence of “Classical music”. Performing mainly dead composers in concerts is, as they acknowledge, a strange phenomenon, whether or not we take it for granted.

“In concerts of Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, for example, about 85 percent of the pieces performed in 1780s were by living composers; by 1820, the percentage had dropped to about 75 percent. Over the next fifty years, the situation reversed completely, so that by 1870, fully three-quarters of the repertoire was by composers of past generations, chiefly Beethoven, Mozart, Haydn, and the early Romantics.”

It’s important to note that this is from Leipzig. In Paris, to the best of my knowledge, the premiere of works by eminent living composers continues to take center stage as late as 1912 and the famous riot that accompanied Stravinsky.

So, what accounts for this strange phenomenon? The book gives us a couple options: (a) it could be the popularity Haydn and Beethoven received in their lifetime, or (b) it could be that sheet music was cheaper from the older composers and therefore easier to access from amateurs. But the authors’ personal vote goes to this: “influential musicians and critics actively promoted the music of the past as a counterweight to that of the present.” Critics have always done that, of course, but to this extent is pretty unprecedented.

Apparently the Academy of Ancient Music from the 17th century rejected modern music because they thought these new composers were just silly. Their definition of antiqua musica was over 20 years old. Yeah. 20 years. That’s why our fascination with 300-year-old music (at the expense of modern music) is strange.

Paltry Imitators of the Past

From the Technical Manifesto of Futurist Music (1911):

“Today we find ourselves at the threshold of a glorious madhouse, for we declare without hesitation that counterpoint and fugue, still considered the most important branch of the musical curriculum, represent nothing more than the ruins of the history of polyphony of the period between the Flemish School and Bach.

“We hear laments that young musicians are no longer capable of inventing melodies, doubtless alluding to the type of melodies cultivated by Rossini, Bellini, Verdi, or Ponchielli. But melody is now conceived harmonically; harmony is felt through complex combinations and successions of sounds, thus creating new melodic resources. This development marks the end, once and for all, of paltry imitators of the past, who have no longer any reason to exist, and of various venal purveyors to the low tastes of the public.” (Music Since 1900, 1296)