Critical Sociology of Music

(another paper from my Aesthetic and Philosophical Foundations in Systematic Musicology)

The first of the readings is in fact two readings grouped together, both from Theodor Adorno’s book Introduction to the Sociology of Music. The initial reading, “Types of Musical Conduct,” involves Adorno categorizing each type of listener of music, totaling eight categories. Adorno essentially ranks types of listeners based on how they pay attention to music’s structure, in turn how skilled they are with regards to music knowledge. He begins with the “expert (4),” and ranks listeners in decreasing aptitude until reaching the listener who is apathetic. Adorno describes this listener as having an attitude that “coincides with an excessively, one might even say pathologically realistic mentality (17).” Adorno goes on to state that each listening group possesses flaws and is not a perfect example by any means. He concludes the chapter by stating that his goal of the aforementioned categories is not to “disparage (18)” those who belong to them, but rather put a “humane face (18)” on the discourse between all of these individuals. The hope is that, through this, musical thought will be furthered.

The second reading, and third chapter, “Function” describes Theodor Adorno’s view that popular music, and music as it functions in western society, deludes the listener of the joy and truth they seek. Such statements like “music as a social function is akin to a ‘rip-off,’ a fraudulent promise of happiness …even in regressing to the unconscious,  functional music grants a mere ersatz satisfaction to the target of its appeal(45),” expounds this idea. It seems as though Adorno held to the ideology shown by Plato in his Allegory of the Cave, but instead of shadows on a wall the delusion is empty music. Adorno’s main attack throughout the chapter, however, is directed at popular music, as he believes consumer music to be truly stealing the musical experience from the listener. His ultimate goal with such critique is to create a musical atmosphere that “can use music to learn how…wherever possible in the realm of music disciplines, to work for a competent and cognitive relation to music in place of ideological consumption…and to a music that would be different (54).”

The next reading is by Susan McClary and it is entitled Paradigm Dissonances: Music Theories, Cultural Studies, Feminist Criticism. This text attempts to offer a proverbial olive branch to the factions of the “Feminism versus Music Theory” argument. This peace-offering is manifested in the form of cultural studies, or so McClary claims. McClary goes on to state that she believes cultural studies to bridge the gap due to its lack of a “single methodology (70).” She further continues her argument by pointing to the fact that, either with feminism or music scholarship, there has been a subsequent turn to cultural studies’ research. She cites George Bizet’s Carmen as well as absolute music of Beethoven, Mozart, and Schubert to illustrate this fact. For Bizet’s opera, the portrayal of women as licentious and manipulative is shown to be the reason for research among feminists. In the case of music theorists, Bizet demonstrates an engaging score with soaring melody and intricate harmony. The cultural aspect in which the two disciplines meet in this opera is the fact that Bizet’s opera had and continues to have an “ability to engage and galvanize heterogeneous audiences (75).” With regards to the genre of absolute music, the reasons for research are not as obviously presented (for feminists namely). With a lack of libretto, it may seem impossible to find gender roles in instrumental music, but the truth is that there are numerous writings which contain such techniques as the “feminine cadence (a cadence that occurs on a weak beat).” With regards to absolute music and music theoreticians, the link is, unlike with feminists, quite obvious. The composers like Beethoven and Mozart created music with a progression in the theory (namely melody and harmony) of the past (namely breaking down the rules of counterpoint and expanding the ideas of instrumentation), in turn expanding on an already rich history in European instrumental music. The cultural studies dynamic that unites the two disciplines in Absolute Music is, McClary argues, how the culture of Europe at the time of these composers interpreted the pieces. The only way to accurately conduct this research is to turn cultural studies’ body of research to find the desired answers. McClary concludes the paper by stating her desire for “a future in which theorists, students of culture,and feminist critics can all collaborate in the greater understanding of music (79).” She believes that there is a paradigm shift occurring within music due to the unrest between feminism and music theory. If the disciplines cease being resistant to change, McClary concludes, there will be a new era in music research.

The next paper is by Lawrence Kramer, entitled The Musicology of the Future. This paper addresses musicology’s current resistance to accept postmodern thought-processes. Kramer notes that this ideological strife is quite similar to the objections music scholarship had for the inclusion of language in the study of musicology. The reason behind such objections were that “language is denied access to music, it cannot represent musical reality; music is the very means by which the epistemological limits of language that would-be omnivore, are set (8).” The greater idea within this argument is the belief of music scholars that music is self-contained, therefore there is no need to consider other entities besides music in research. This directly contrasts with post-modern thought which does not hold to the idea that any experience is self-contained.  Kramer goes on to mention Mozart’s Divertimento for String Trio, K. 563, and analyzes it according to both autonomous and postmodern theories. He concludes that, once considering both concepts, that the performance of the work strongly determines the understanding of Divertimento. Furthermore, the work “intimates that the artistic and social distancing of the body is fictive at best, fictitious at worst-something resembling what would later come to be called a defense mechanism (13).” All of this considered, Kramer is clearly demonstrating that musicology’s belief in musical autonomy is not a logical path to continue studying. The only way to truly understand a work of music is to include social factors, the individuals involved, and every other source that exists outside of a supposed “autonomy.” Kramer concludes the paper by reiterating such a belief, stating “Faced with the question, Where is the music? a postmodernist musicology would-will-reply that wherever it may be, we can only get to it by getting beyond it (18).”

The final paper Hermeneutics, Adorno, and the New Musicology, written by Roger W.H. Savage, is in a way a continuation of the topics discussed in the previous reading. Here, Savage seeks to explore the evolution of musicology’s focus in thought, and what factors are influencing said thought. Savage opens the paper by discussing how postmodern thought and Theodor Adorno’s theories are linked. The specific ideas Savage draws on are the fact that Adorno attempted to maintain music’s self-containment, but ultimately failed to recognize that his separating of music from social factors created a massive problem. The main issue, or “impasse” as Savage describes it, “calls for a hermeneutics of musical works (230).” Postmodern critique, as has been stated before, moves music criticism past the boundaries of self-containment and introduces social, textual, and other factors into criticism.  Savage continues by exploring absolute music’s long list of researchers, from Hermann Kretzschmar (who held that analysis of the aesthetic of absolute music was of utmost importance, to Susan McClary’s view that melody and song structure should be viewed through a social narrative. The purpose of this is to show how many scholars are in favor of leaving the autonomy of music behind and expanding their research to consider more than the notes on the page. Savage goes on to further show how Adorno’s desire to separate music from outside factors is paradoxical, and furthermore how postmodern critiques also are inaccurate in their representation of music. Savage specifically states that these “failures (238)” require “a different response to music’s abstraction from its life contexts (238).” He concludes that such oversights on both sides of the postmodern vs. autonomy argument allow for a new venture in musicological research. Savage states that “the vistas this adventure opens transect boundaries dividing music theory, historical musicology, ethnomusicology, and cultural studies (239).” The three major areas this will happen, as is stated in the paper, is 1) a further expansion of the definition of ideology, namely relating to musical aesthetics, 2) the creation of a history of works that considers specific cultural factors not known before, and 3) re-examining the truth of a respective work, in turn leading to a deeper reality never seen before in musicological research.


4 thoughts on “Critical Sociology of Music

  1. This post covers so much ground that I would like to limit myself to a few observations from the viewpoint of a writer, not musicologist.

    In my opinion we will never succeed in bringing culture to the masses. They don’t want it.

    Purely to save having to write it all again, the following extract from the book deals (very briefly) with the idea of socially acceptable criteria being used for artistic evaluation:

    Good taste versus bad taste

    Individuals often protest ‘I know what I like!’.

    To what extent is this point of view valid as a form of objective appraisal? If an individual regards anything he produces as being automatically of artistic merit, simply because he created it, then all schools of art and music, together with the whole idea of development and improvement, become redundant.

    As we develop, our sensibilities become sharper and more discriminating, with the result that we obtain more pleasure from what we like than an individual with a less highly developed awareness. (It is quite common for an arranger, having analyzed and transcribed a piece of music, to find that he has developed a greater appreciation of its appeal.)

    Even this belief is a hazardous one to hold. Since the purpose of art is to provide pleasure, then are we necessarily better than our neighbours simply because they require a constant stream of trivial sensations as opposed to our predilection for a more substantial diet, both methods providing a similar amount of pleasure?

    Philosophers, and oppressive regimes, have striven over the centuries to devise a basis for the appraisal of art based on morally or socially acceptable values. All of these attempts have failed and if we condemn on moral grounds many of our great artists would have their finest work reduced to ashes on the political bonfire. (End)

    I also doubt that music can ever be ‘absolute’ ot ‘abstract’. As I point out in the book, musical forces in motion echo the very nature of a reality that existed before mankind, together with its ideas, principles, hopes and aspirations, even existed. The rising and falling of pitch, together with the tonal recession in layered orchestration, suggest a three dimensional existence. Loud music implies aggression. A melody is a trajectory and possesses definable kinetic properties (that I will leave to the physicist).

    Anyway, thanks for this. A lot of hard work goes into these presentations.

  2. A little light reading for a Monday morning… I agree with the previous comment too much to touch on. In regards to should social context be included in musical analysis, I say yes. It has to be. Even more so from the Romantic period on when music was not so ‘absolute’

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