Friday, September 6, 2013

A Metaphor Gone Astray

I was reading a piece about economics in the New York Times and was brought to a halt by this, the final paragraph:
For the foreseeable future economic theory should be understood more on the model of music theory than Newtonian theory. The Fed chairman must, like a first violinist tuning the orchestra, have the rare ear to fine-tune complexity (probably a Keynesian ability to fine-tune at that). Like musicians’, economists’ expertise is still a matter of craft. They must avoid the hubris of thinking their theory is perfectly suited to the task, while employing it wisely enough to produce some harmony amid the cacophony.
I'm sure that seemed like a really clever metaphor to the writers, a couple of philosophers. There was a time when all persons who thought of themselves as intellectuals actually knew something about music. They probably had a piano at home and could read music. Maybe even knew a little music theory. But the way they word this metaphor reveals considerable ignorance about music and music theory.

There are three parts to this complex metaphor:

  1. Economic theory is like music theory
  2. Example: Keynsian manipulation of the economy is like the concertmaster's tuning of the orchestra
  3. Example: if successful, this manipulation will result in harmony
The conceit that economic theory is more like music theory than Newtonian theory, i.e. that it is non-scientific is based on no more knowledge about music theory than that it is some sort of "craft", i.e. something like basket-weaving or water dowsing. Music theory is a fairly complex endeavor that involves quite a bit of predictive modeling, like a science, but when practiced at the highest levels also involves aesthetics and history.

Music theory, unlike economics, is able to make accurate predictions. Well, not about the future! So it is not science in that sense. But about musical structures, yes, which is a feasible goal. Music theory has no mandate to predict what future composers might do. But it can tell us a lot about what composers have done. For example, here is a typical music theory prediction: every piece written by Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven ends with a perfect authentic cadence. Music theory not only tells us this, but tells us why.

The authors made a rudimentary mistake in terminology when they said "a first violinist" tunes the orchestra. There are a whole bunch of first violinists in the orchestra, the leader of them, and of the orchestra as a whole, is the concertmaster. He comes on stage before the conductor and asks the principal oboist to sound an A. He then oversees the tuning of the orchestra by section. In the clip below, the winds go first, then the low strings and finally the high strings. He does not "tune the orchestra" in the sense required by the metaphor at all.

Finally, music theorists do not try to produce "harmony amid the cacophony". Instead, they try to explain how harmony works and, in some extreme cases, how the cacophony is either not as cacaphonous as it sounds or how it functions in the structure. Music theory tries to show how the music structure works and the aesthetic result. Actually, it has very little to do with either how economic theory works or how scientific theory works.

My recurring beef with scientific research into music is that it usually ignores the fact that we already have a highly developed theoretical way of approaching music, called music theory, that has been developed over the last thousand years. In comparison, these scientific studies seem clumsy and ignorant of how music really works.

Let's have a little orchestral music to close. Haydn, Symphony No. 104:


Anonymous said...

I enjoyed this article very much; I am a neophyte to music theory, but very much enjoying the study. Your article reminded me to question or at least research what I read in lay literature.

Bryan Townsend said...

Thanks Anon! Once you get past the rudiments, music theory is actually pretty fascinating.

Anonymous said...

Fascinating already - harmony is what is difficult for me. Thanks for the encouragement - your blog is my wakeup look each day and helps steel my perserverance to carry on learning.

Bryan Townsend said...

I couldn't ask for a higher compliment! Thanks.

I assume you have looked at my earlier posts on harmony? There are quite a few...

Anonymous said...

Yes thanks - I've also searched further back and now found more.