Latest news

Byron will give a keynote paper at the conference "Schoenberg at 140 "

Subscribe to

Enter your email and press the 'Subscribe' button to receive blog posts via email:


Subscribe via RSS

What is RSS?

Follow @avior on Twitter

People reading Bymusic now

Translate this page now

Who is Behind

Avior Byron

My name is Avior Byron and I am a musicologist, blogger and composer. I write books, articles and a blog about music, performance, research, and theory. Read more at my about page

What next?

 Subscribe to the Blog

Click here to add site to your favorites

What I'm doing just now


What is THE best way to find scholarships?

Musicology, Science and Postmodernism

There is something annoying about being a musicologist and a postmodernist. As a musicologist one is expected to be a scientist, to reach an objective truth and to say things with authority. As a postmodernist, one is expected to doubt the idea of one truth, to show various perspectives of a phenomenon and to deal with the elusive thing called: meaning. Being a musicologist and a postmodernist may seem a contradiction in terms.

There is something extremely attractive about science. It tells us stories about the truth: one truth. It gives us a sense of revelation, almost a religious one. It gives us miraculous power to control the world and to dominate it. It cures illness (often creating new ones) and promotes technological progress (are we happier?). For me, the notion of “progress” is nothing more than a superstition. Glenn Gould was aware of it, as are many others.

In the realm of music, many are still worshiping idols. It may be the romantic notion of the composer-idol. It may be a cold notion of cognition, by seeking the “grammar” behind the music. The common act of this idol worshipping is that it bypasses the concept that music meaning is something that is affected by performers, listeners and the social and cultural contexts that they live in.

Dr Flora Jersonsky-Margalit kindly pointed out an article that is relevant to this discussion. Avshlom Alizur wrote what seems to me as a simplistic article about postmodernism. I will not spend my time demonstrating why it is simplistic. Who ever is interested in reading a more comprehensive understanding of postmodernism in welcome to read first chapter of Religion Without Illusion (in Hebrew) by Dr. Gili Zivan. דת ללא אשליה

It is shocking how much time is spent on teaching how music is built while ignoring how it is experienced. A music student learns hours of harmony, counterpoint, and ear training (of the type that teaches you how to identify simple building blocks of music). The music student learns about the history of the composers (less about the history of music). Music analysis often focuses on analyzing what the composer did in his score. A better way to do things is to teach how harmonic grammar changes its meaning in different contexts. How context affects the meaning of counterpoint rules in the music of Bach and others (yes, also other composers used counterpoint…). How the same chord receives different meaning in different contexts and how very different chords sound the same in certain contexts (the music theorist Edward T. Cone wrote in 1967 a wonderful article called “Beyond analysis”).

It is true that some students start learning music with the aim of becoming composers. Yet, others simply want to play music or learn more about it in order to further enjoy it. As Eric Clark suggests in his recent articles, the crucial question is what music means. In order to deal with this question one needs to speak about performance. Performance is something social. It is a scene where certain things become more important than others. Performers, no matter whether they admit it or not, no matter whether they are conscious about it or not, always emphasize things in their performance.

Dealing with performance is one of the ways to deal with musical meaning. It is not by chance that performance studies became such a vibrant and important field in the world, when much of the academic world is increasingly influenced by postmodern thought.

Why does one cry from music? Is it because of Schenker? Is it because of the score? The score has something to do with it. However, it is only one important factor among many that play a role in the creation of musical meaning in performance.

It seems to me much more reasonable that students should compare recordings with the score and discuss the issue of interpretation. Why one interpretation is good and one is bad (the postmodernists will not like this…). Not only whether the performer is “faithful” to the score, but whether the score is “faithful” to the performer. I find both questions slightly ridiculous.

Musical meaning is a negotiation between cultural signs that are interpreted and reinterpreted. The scene is fluctuating and the “truth” depends on the performers and listeners. We can write all day about the “structure” and the “rules” of perceiving it. Yet, if one redefines in performance what in fact the structure is, than how “objective” can one be a priory to performance?

So what is the difference between a poor musical critic, who may speak about food when writing about music, and a musicologist who is supposed to transcend personal subjective metaphors and speak with slightly more authority? I will deal with this question in one of my forthcoming posts.

No Comments

Add your own comment...

Copyright Avior Byron 2023 .