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.

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Calvin’s Positive Principle for Music

A lot has been made of the way in which thinkers in the Augustinian tradition—perhaps most especially Calvin—are suspicious of the value of music in worship. Calvin acknowledges Augustine’s concerns in 3.XX.32. “Yet we should be very careful that our ears be not more attentive to the melody than our minds to the spiritual meaning of the words. Augustine also admits in another place that he was so disturbed by this danger that he sometimes wished to see established the custom observed by Athanasius, who ordered the reader to use so little inflection of the voice that he would sound more like a speaker than a singer. But when he recalled how much benefit singing had brought him, he inclined to the other side.” (McNeill, v. 2, 895-896) Thus the Augustinian tradition is, like most of the western tradition, pro-music but always pro-music with a caveat. Augustine’s own language would seem to locate the problem in the sensual nature of music (at least in his more neo-Platonic mindset in Confessions), which is likely to distract the listener from the whole purpose of worship music, which is the glorification of God (read: the text). And so Calvin is often seen to hold a position more or less interchangeable with Augustine’s: suspicious, on a theological level, of music’s worth.

But this is ignoring the better part of what Calvin has to say about music in 3.XX.31-33. It’s worth noting that Calvin does not locate (or mention, anyway) the problem of music in its sensuous qualities. He mentions Augustine as a tangent, clearly as a sort of refutatio, concluding that, unlike the more Athanasian among the Reformers, he thought music “is without any doubt a most holy and salutary practice,” provided that “moderation is maintained.” I’m not arguing that he doesn’t participate in any of Augustine’s dualist tendencies, but I think that an emphasis on that leads to ignoring the most important statement on music Calvin has.

And the statement is this: music is a way of preventing congregants from auto-piloting through the liturgy.

This positive principle for church music has its roots, of course, in a more noetic perspective on human sin. Calvin is inserting this tangent on church singing (3.XX.32 in the 1543 edition) in the middle of a chunk from the original 1536 Institutes where the broader context is prayer. Calvin begins with the typical concern that people don’t actually mean the prayers and the liturgies that they say, citing Isaiah 29:13 and similar verses. “Unless voice and song, if interposed in prayer, spring from deep feeling of heart, neither has any value or profit in the least with God. But they arouse his wrath against us if they come only from the tip of the lips and from the throat, seeing that this is to abuse his most holy name and to hold his majesty in derision.”And it is in this context that he immediately moves in the 1536 edition to a defense of prayers in the vernacular (“not in Greek among the Latins, nor in Latin among the French or English…”), a logical step since Latin in the service commits the same sin of insincerity. All this can only but resonate with anyone in any church ever—a liturgy, once adopted, tends to make its celebrators go onto auto-pilot in very short order. We sail through formations that we’ve done a thousand times and find it difficult to concentrate. Calvin takes this seriously. He doesn’t just treat it as a necessary side-effect of liturgy, nor does he chuck out the liturgy itself as the problem.

Instead, he characteristically identifies the problem in the nous. “Yet we do not here condemn speaking and singing [NB the problem is not external as in Athanasius or Augustine] but rather strongly commend them, provided they are associated with the heart’s affection. For thus do they exercise the mind [emphasis mine] in thinking of God and keep it attentive—unstable and variable as it is, and readily relaxed and diverted in different directions, unless it be supported by various helps.”

And that is Calvin’s positive principle of church music, that it be a supportive help for keeping the noetically-effected worshipper attentive and thinking of God. And this principle is no insult to music: clearly, in order to affect this vigilance and constant awakening, music must constantly keep slapping us in the face and throwing cold water on us. If we say the same prayers a thousand times, like the Lord’s Prayer that Calvin is about to analyze in the following chapters, we say them each time with music that edifies us and glorifies the text. Good church music makes every Sunday feel like we are encountering the liturgy as if it were new.

It’s obvious that certain Calvinist traditions were more affected by Calvin’s tangential warning against music than his capacious endorsement of it, the same sorts of Calvinist tradition that are likely to be down on instruments and florid music and so on. But as for Calvin’s positive comments and his vision for what music could be, what better way to understand the music of Sweelinck, a Calvinist, and his pupils Praetorius and Scheidemann? The predominately Italian Catholic practice of a church toccata or ricercare (whose names “to touch” and “to discover” encapsulate the idea of noodling innocently) turns, through a Calvinist filter in the Netherlands, into a Buxtehude Praeludium whose stylus fantasticus unflinchingly destroys the possibility of not paying attention. This church music principle is a grand thought, not absent in the best church music in the Lutheran, Anglican and, even in the 20th century, French Roman Catholic tradition (Dupre, Alain, and Messiaen). Of course, you don’t need to be a Calvinist to view church music this way, but you aren’t really a Calvinist if you don’t, it seems.

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.

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)

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.

Roman Cavalry Choirs, Because That Was A Thing

A friend of mine aptly pointed out the “meaningful meaninglessness of song lyrics” in a lot of alternative music (wrote about it here), whether it’s “Roman cavalry choirs singing” or “Yesterday I woke up sucking on a lemon, everything in its right place.” This sort of nonsense masquerades as something quite Eliotic or poetic—the conjunction of disparate images or ideas. But, unlike Eliot, the conjunction of these disparate ideas is totally random. As my friend asked, what, exactly, is a Roman cavalry choir? It Means Nothing. It just reminds you of Eliot because it’s difficult to parse meaning. Fortunately, no meaning was actively put into the lyrics, but that doesn’t stop thousands of listeners posting their interpretations on internet forums (always prefacing with a cautionary this-is-just-how-I-interpret-it-and-there-are-many-equally-valid-interpretations).

Chris Martin would probably say that this more or less meaningless mess of sentence fragments allows for a wealth of possible interpretations, more so than if he had carefully crafted his words with actual intent. Chris Martin would say something like that. My friend just called it lazy. If It’s Obscure It’s Profound is the sort of trick you should grow out of in 8th grade English, but, well, gosh, clarity and intentionality require hard work. And they’re much less marketable to the alternative audience, I guess.