Friday, September 6, 2013

More on Scientism

I'll bet some of my readers think my recurring attacks on what I call "scientism" or what seems to pass for scientific research into and explanation of music are eccentric at best. I've just got a hang-up about science. Not true! In fact, there are other people who share the same misgivings. Here is an excellent essay on the subject by Leo Wieseltier, critiquing Steven Pinker's recent attempt to defend scientism.

An excerpt:
The translation of nonscientific discourse into scientific discourse is the central objective of scientism. It is also the source of its intellectual perfunctoriness. Imagine a scientific explanation of a painting—a breakdown of Chardin’s cherries into the pigments that comprise them, and a chemical analysis of how their admixtures produce the subtle and plangent tonalities for which they are celebrated. Such an analysis will explain everything except what most needs explaining: the quality of beauty that is the reason for our contemplation of the painting. Nor can the new “vision science” that Pinker champions give a satisfactory account of aesthetic charisma. The inadequacy of a scientistic explanation does not mean that beauty is therefore a “mystery” or anything similarly occult. It means only that other explanations must be sought, in formal and iconographical and emotional and philosophical terms.
Read the whole thing.

Here is a little chamber sonata by Dietrich Buxtehude, the northern German composer who was an influence on Bach:


Rickard Dahl said...

I think there are mainly two types of scientism in music. One is more broad and could be defined as a mix of acoustics and physchology trying to explain things already well described by music theory and well known to anyone who knows a enough about music. Then there's the kind of scienstism that tries to describe composition/the process of composing mathematically. It fails hard because just like with music theory, anyone can attempt to follow the rules but the results will most often be not good or even pretty bad. Composition is after all a process that involves both logical thinking (organization etc.) and intuition (finding what sounds good basically).

Bryan Townsend said...

Would you be able to provide any examples of the second kind of scientism? Does it have to do with those projects where they try to set up a computer to actually compose music?

Rickard Dahl said...

I don't know if I have good specific examples. I remember that I've heard that someone wrote an analysis of one of Chopin's pieces in terms of matrices. Might have been from this book:

Haven't read it so can't really judge it but the first review below is negative and here's a quote from that review:

"For a work purporting to be an "epoch-making publication in music theory," one thing immediately stands out before the book is even opened. Why are 2 of the 4 supportive quotes on the dust jacket from psychologists, instead of music theorists? The first informs us that the author of this book had publications in the journal Science; therefore we should pay attention to his work in music theory. But the journal Science is not generally concerned with fields like music theory, and the two articles in question (the genesis of this book) were not really music theory publications, but rather a mathematical description of a type of n-dimensional space which the author claimed could encompass all previous geometrical models for music. I humbly submit that I can easily make the same claim, by pointing out that the n-dimensional space of real numbers also could encompass all previous geometrical models for music, with suitable transformations introduced as necessary. Defining an all-encompassing numerical or spatial model is easy (and, honestly, trivial); claiming that it is specific enough to model music and interesting enough to provide analytical insight is a different thing entirely.

The geometrical space defined (not "discovered," as the author claims in this book) in the journal Science is the underlying rationale for the "Geometry of Music" mentioned in the title. This "first music theory article in the history of the journal Science" could best be seen as an attention-getting stunt, and attention it got: magazines in many disciplines having little in common with music theory decided that the author's claims to have discovered the true underlying order of music -- "why music sounds good" in popular accounts and in this book -- must be true, since he was the only music theorist they had ever heard of. This book is the fleshing out of this theory, and it is obviously marketed to take advantage of the exposure in other academic disciplines."

Another example could be the muaical analyses by the author of The Fundamentals of Piano Practice (C.C. Chang) of Mozart's Eine Kleine Nachtmusik & Beethoven's 5th Symphony. He uses for example group theory to describe how Beethoven uses the four note theme in the 5th Symphony. While it's interesting for the sake of curiosity I don't think it accomplishes any more than would be accomplished if viewed from a music theory perspective. We can analyze all we want but that doesn't give us a formula of how to write great music.

Bryan Townsend said...

I had forgotten about Tymoczko's book on music theory. Yes, that review by Athanasius seems like a brilliant, but fair, critique. I am a bit curious and perhaps I will have a look at the book sometime.

Both of your examples (I can't find the second one) seem to be what I might call "virtuoso" music theory, or theory that strives for striking effect rather than deep insight. Another example might be that fascinating book "Gödel, Escher Bach" by Hofstadter that I read with great pleasure quite a while ago. But the thing is that while these seem like impressive insights, in the long run they really don't seem to offer any deeper understanding of music. I think this is partly because our reception of music is only partly intellectual and the intellectual part is not even the most important. Music is an experience that has physical and emotional aspects that are as important if not more important than the purely intellectual ones.