"Music Theory"? Or the harmonic style of 18th C European musicians?
September 8, 2020 1:54 PM   Subscribe

Music Theory and White Supremacy a video essay by Adam Neely, where he interviews Professor Philip Ewell about his essay "Music Theory and the White Racial Frame". Topics discussed: Who gets to be a musical genius? What if music isn't a "universal language" after all? What if you needed to dance well in order to receive a music theory degree?
posted by gwint (44 comments total) 40 users marked this as a favorite
 
It's sort of long been obvious to me that there are different approaches to music coming from different cultures. And the study of what we call classical music has been pretty well blocked in to this one framework for a long time. Even just the 12 note scale and the very most basic things like the relation of chords and stuff is probably all pretty much shaped by this one musical tradition.

It would be interesting to see it open up somehow. Or to have parallel music theory streams created to brush up against each other in various ways. Like, I'm not a musical theory scholar -- most of what I think about "music theory" is about chord and scale and note relations. But even at that level, I can see how it's all been about how white europeans decided these are the notes and their relationships.
posted by hippybear at 2:18 PM on September 8, 2020 [3 favorites]


> parallel music theory streams created to brush up against each other in various ways

This is just what I was thinking! He gets close in the video in the part where he talks about two songs from western and Indian traditions which have the same melody with very different theoretic explanations. I would love love love to read/watch/listen to more of that kind of analysis, I wonder if Neely would collaborate with Anuja Kamat and others on it.
posted by mjg123 at 2:46 PM on September 8, 2020


Kinda obvious coming from blues/jazz but he does such an amazing job of explaining it!

In a lot of (white) writing abt early blues and jazz you get a kind of throwing-our-hands-up-in-the-air, ‘this is too wild too even attempt to describe’ or ‘this defies musical analysis’ and it’s basically just, yeah, it doesn’t defy analysis at all, you’re just not equipped for the job. And analysis is so incredibly tinged by this when eg RL Burnside’s style is described as ‘primitive’ or ‘raw’. In fact it has incredible amounts of subtlety and refinement and is very complex, which you will notice if you try to copy him. But from the standpoint of the (well-meaning!) critic, analysis comes down to ‘well nobody plays quite like him!’ which is wildly unsatisfactory.
posted by The Toad at 3:08 PM on September 8, 2020 [8 favorites]


Not sure if it's apropos, but maybe listen to this while reading the essay:

Ry Cooder & V.M. Bhatt - Ganges Delta Blues (A Meeting By The River)
posted by signal at 3:32 PM on September 8, 2020 [5 favorites]


This reminds me of when I was once hanging out with a friend and this really handsome guy she was into, and people were salsa dancing. This guy waxed poetic about how salsa dancing's rhythms were unquantifiable and immeasurable. He may even have mentioned magic. I said they were definitely quantifiable and measurable, otherwise nobody would be able to learn how salsa dance. He then explained to me that I was wrong, see, because he was the conductor of the San Francisco Youth Symphony and, you know, knew better than I did. Never mind that I have a degree in composition.

But that's endemic to the Western classical music establishment. Theory is seen as the source of truth rather than what it is, which is a language to describe what has come before, specifically in the white Western musical canon. So things that don't fit into that theory or are not adequately described by it are either wrong or "unquantifiable."
posted by grumpybear69 at 3:35 PM on September 8, 2020 [15 favorites]


My music-theory-obsessed, piano-prodigy son just introduced me to Neely's YT channel the other day. He'd actually seen this post's video, and it wowed him, because of course so much of what he has learned is Dead European White Guy classical.

Anyway, the kid pointed me to this video, The Girl from Ipanema is a Far Weirder Song Than You Thought, as a pretty good introduction to Neely. And it too touches on the practice of white supremacy, or at least the appropriation and tweaking of a culture's musical style.
posted by martin q blank at 3:51 PM on September 8, 2020 [6 favorites]


I assume references to removing Stephen Foster are “removing use as a neutral example of compositional technique?” Because Foster (and indeed minstrelsy in general) can hardly be removed from the history of American music. I think that’s a thing you’ve pretty much got to address head on.
posted by atoxyl at 4:08 PM on September 8, 2020 [2 favorites]


I will say most music theory people I’ve talked to of my generation are pretty aware and up-front about the fact that (in an American university context) it is a rather narrow perspective, and are respectful of other traditions in theory, even if they treat them as a bit mysterious and unapproachable.
posted by atoxyl at 4:14 PM on September 8, 2020


And don't get me started on how many (white male) music teachers would drive into our heads how classical music was Real Music, Important Music, Music That Made You Smarter And More Sophisticated. Rap, on the other hand, was Not Music. The classical establishment is racist to the core.
posted by grumpybear69 at 4:16 PM on September 8, 2020 [10 favorites]


now i really want to read/hear/see that chopin analysis through the sixth-diminished scale... and dig deeper into george russell and barry harris. which i can (begin to) do, because mr. neely (whose girl from ipanema video also was quite good) shares his sources.
posted by 20 year lurk at 4:43 PM on September 8, 2020 [2 favorites]


Neely links to where I thought he would re: Barry Harris

re: "It’s hard to parse his system from any one video, but there are some other YouTube videos which people break down his theories more systematically, but, IMO, far less captivatingly", you might try this as a quick overview.
posted by thelonius at 5:07 PM on September 8, 2020 [1 favorite]


Even Barry Harris could be a cantankerous crank. No one is safe from sanctimonious holier-than-thou posturing, ESPECIALLY jazzers. I mean, you wanna talk about people who think what they do is so sacred? It's not just the dead old white men. Harris is great and I've obsessively watched many of his videos over and over and over again (the explorations of Giant Steps and Stella by Starlight for example), and yet, mention Bill Evans to him and watch him go full-on racist and dismissive. For Harris, it's classic bebop (Bud Powell, etc) or it's crap. He's entitled to his opinion, but in my view he's no different than a nerdy Harvard western classical theorist.
posted by Chickenring at 7:02 PM on September 8, 2020 [7 favorites]


He has a weird contempt for the very idea of a half-diminished seventh chord ("Ain't no half-diminished chord!" he proclaims in one of those videos), because it seems, Dizzy Gillespie and other early bebop players just thought of it as a m6 chord with the sixth in the bass. Which is an interesting way to theorize it! A minor ii-V-i cadence like D-7b5 G7b9 C-7 becomes instead a iv-V-i cadence, Fm6/D G7b9 C-7, which, ok, that's cool. And who am I to argue with Bud Powell or whoever? But the rest of the jazz world calls that a D-7b5, and it seems kind of quixotic to keep fighting about it.

Why does he think that way? I think the chord doesn't fit in with his theories about diminished chords and scales, in addition to the early-bebop gatekeeping thing. I don't understand his system very well though.
posted by thelonius at 7:12 PM on September 8, 2020 [3 favorites]


In most (all) colleges, music theory is Euro-American music theory. Jazz theory is strangely absent from most theory curricula, even though it is more or less based on European tension/release theory. Even more strangely, 20th Century Music Theory (a course I took) is usually part of the curriculum, even though jazz is a hell of a lot more ubiquitous and popular than Schoenberg.

Regarding African/Asian music theory: nope. There might be an elective or two available.

Strange, really. In my field, World Literature used to be a thing, but now it's a thing of the past. Because, of course, it is "othering" narrative not stamped with the Euro-American seal of approval.

Music theory faces this same dilemma, but also, to be fair, to learn music theory from Bali, North India, South India, Africa, the Near East, Japan, indigenous traditions in Africa, South America, etc. would be a mind-boggling task.
posted by kozad at 8:00 PM on September 8, 2020 [1 favorite]


If you grew up in Western music theory, I could see where it could be nearly impossible to break out of the bounds of what was learned to be able to clearly hear and process the other contexts for music.
posted by hippybear at 8:28 PM on September 8, 2020 [2 favorites]


Figured bass is just old-timey chord charts. It seems odd to focus on that as anachronistic since it is functionally equivalent to writing A6/C or whatever. Totally applicable! And in fact when, in music school, I got to figured bass in my sight reading class, I aced it, because I was already intimately familiar with reading chord charts. Thank you, piano teacher of my youth!

But man, the whole kerfuffle about Ewell's Schenker presentation... damn. I remember a through-line of uneasiness all the way through college, specifically around the Classical Establishment. I knew I didn't want to be a part of it, but I couldn't put my finger on it beyond what I perceived at that time as a general sense of non-belonging. This puts that unease in perspective.
posted by grumpybear69 at 8:39 PM on September 8, 2020


That video was fascinating, but as a mathematician I have a nit to pick with the absolutist ideas about math that Neely expresses while debunking absolutist ideas about music. He repeatedly says that "math is just math" and doesn't have a cultural perspective, unlike music. This very far from the truth.

The Pythagorean theorem is about as culture-neutral as Beethoven's ninth symphony is. You don't need to belong to a particular culture to appreciate either, and there is a sense in which both touch on something universal. But both are very much products of their times and cultures, reflecting the interests and aesthetics of their creators.

More than that, just as with music theory, the kind of math one studies in college is chosen for various historical and cultural reasons. People have been doing mathematics for thousands of years, and we teach only at tiny slice of that, which has been deemed to be the most important/useful/brilliant bit by the powers that be. But just like with music, the kinds of math that people have pursued has very much depended on culture. To this day there are pronounced differences in the topics studied by mathematicians in different parts of the world, as well as in the notation they use, the way they write arguments, what they see as valuable, and so on.

So, yeah, Adam Neely, don't spew nonsense about other fields while setting the record straight on your own!
posted by epimorph at 12:25 AM on September 9, 2020 [14 favorites]


>as a mathematician I have a nit to pick with the absolutist ideas about math that Neely expresses

I know next to nothing about music theory but several comments imply that "western music theory" is unable to describe some non-western music. Does the same hold true for mathematics ? For example Aristotelian logic is taught for historical/cultural reasons there seem to be papers on formalizing Jain and Buddhist logic using paraconsistent approaches that seem uncontroversial.
posted by colophon at 1:21 AM on September 9, 2020 [1 favorite]


When I was little, I was *really* into listening to all kinds of music, especially classical. So my parents got a phonograph and let me play it whenever until I was old enough to take lessons. I took them for 10 years, but they never taught me any music theory. Ever. I think my teachers were just musicians, though one of them wrote his own stuff.

When I got to college, I decided to take some music theory. One year was more than enough. And that's when I understood how it's pretty much worthless.

Listening to music, like enjoying any great art, you don't need to know the head-stuff to truly appreciate it. And as a musician, if you're doing improv/jazz, it's good to be able to talk changes and chords with others ... but again, you're *not playing with your head*. Now and then you *might* want to know enough to figure out how someone did something great, to get a handle on it so you can remember it. For playing or composing.

Else it just gets in the way. If you wanna sing out, sing out!
posted by Twang at 1:48 AM on September 9, 2020


as someone obsessed with noise, this is up my alley. the absolutist and universalist assumptions of music theory lead to people trying to patiently explain to me that I don't like the music I listen to. never mind that there's empirical psychoacoustic research that contradicts their claims. not to mention the personal direct experience of "oh I like this".

one problem here is that people who have crises of faith and meaning often give themselves permission to stop at "math and music are simple and universal", so any actual empirical knowledge (which can quickly show that both in practice are always contextual and situated and based on arbitrary assumptions) is treated as an attempt to start their total mental breakdown over again where they left off.

the other week I was hospitalized for mental health issues after a mushroom trip went too far, and I made the mistake of talking about the ontology of math with one of the math fetishists. he got so angry it was scary. it might be a coincidence that he was then voluntarily moved to a stricter ward, but it's really just very sad that he took an amateur assumption about foundations of math so seriously that he responded to a calm discussion of an alternative viewpoint as if it were a threat to his life. and it hurt that he treated me in interactions after that as if I were a devil trying to doom his soul.
posted by idiopath at 1:54 AM on September 9, 2020 [6 favorites]


....until I was old enough to take lessons. I took them for 10 years, but they never taught me any music theory.

Old-school piano lessons seem to be all about playing by rote from a score, then, if you get advanced enough, understanding your interpretive options and how to make choices about them. You can meet people who studied that way for years, can play complicated pieces very well, but who are entirely helpless to make a simple arrangement of a few chords, if you put the lead sheet to a pop song in front of them. Often they were actually discouraged from learning how to do that. So maybe that kind of teacher considers theory to be something you should study in conservatory, not in lessons? And then to be a suitably academic exercise in parts writing, not any kind of practical knowledge about how to voice chords and do some simple voice leading so they sound nice in progressions.
posted by thelonius at 2:16 AM on September 9, 2020 [2 favorites]


Music Theory as it’s taught in Western schools is a useful toolkit to have at your command, but I’ve never personally known a musician who thinks of it as all-encompassing.

I took a semester of Jazz Theory for fun, and I really appreciated using those tools in a different way.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 2:32 AM on September 9, 2020 [3 favorites]


I did my initial musical training with European baroque music, and you even notice it coming from that - what people usually talk about as "music theory" is a very specific view of a very specific kind of music from a specific time and region. It has to be extended to handle baroque music, further to embrace renaissance music etc. etc.

I also now do European folk music, and that has its own constructs which also need to be described. And are often so tied to dances that you have to either learn to dance or work with dancers in order to learn to play them properly. Whatever properly means - but you should probably know that original intention I would say.

And that's before you even get into modern stuff like microtones, or anything that comes from anywhere else in the world where there are such great sounds to be heard.

So it seems kind of obvious to me, and the way Western classical music has dominated (why aren't we listening to Chinese music, eh? They're studying the piano, but we're still thinking the erhu is exciting and exotic), that it's another expression of white supremacy. It's not like my ancestors would have put much value in the music of the people they were subjugating as they built the Empire.

I then wonder though about the massive influence of black music in America and how it helped build so many popular genres today - jazz, blues, country... is that a bit of the universality of music, or is it an example of white culture absorbing everything and pretending it came up with the idea? Maybe both.
posted by mathw at 4:54 AM on September 9, 2020 [4 favorites]


idiopath: I made the mistake of talking about the ontology of math with one of the math fetishists. he got so angry it was scary. it might be a coincidence that he was then voluntarily moved to a stricter ward, but it's really just very sad that he took an amateur assumption about foundations of math so seriously that he responded to a calm discussion of an alternative viewpoint as if it were a threat to his life. and it hurt that he treated me in interactions after that as if I were a devil trying to doom his soul.

I'm guessing he was a disciple of James Lindsay. They believe that everything which made Western Civilization great is being destroyed by feminists and race theorists and by anyone who can consider an issue from multiple perspectives. They believe that our entire society is falling under this dangerous, evil spell and they are the only ones who can see it. They've been worked into a panicked froth.

You might've been surprised that the ontology of math triggered it, but Orwell's "2+2=5" line in 1984 has become a bit of a fetish for them. If they encounter anyone who has anything interesting to say about math, they take it as proof that we're only half a step away from Orwell's dystopia and that the speaker has been duped by the forces of evil. James Lindsay's interest in math and constant digging up of perspectives in math that he considers politically dangerous is what's driving this particular wave of it.

All it'll take is someone who's seen this video, considers themselves a music theorist, believes that the Western Musical Canon is a precious and unmatched achievement of humanity, and has the ability to vomit out eight thousand word essays on demand which end with something like this:
It is also a replacement of that fundamental logic of civilization with the fundamental logic of something more basic and less able to meet the needs of the people who will still be forced to live within it: self-interest, cronyism, corruption, and an unstable form of uncivilized might-makes-right that will surely eventually collapse into the more brutal and familiar stable sort in which whomever can kill enough people gets to make the rules.
...and you'll be meeting young men who recoil in unfeigned horror at your interest in Mongolian throat singing because they believe that death camps are the end goal of your cultural relativism.
posted by clawsoon at 5:17 AM on September 9, 2020 [6 favorites]


mathw: I also now do European folk music, and that has its own constructs which also need to be described. And are often so tied to dances that you have to either learn to dance or work with dancers in order to learn to play them properly. Whatever properly means - but you should probably know that original intention I would say.

That's a great point. European music theorists didn't even have to travel to the other side of the world to find music that broke many of their rules, they just had to take a stroll through European villages and listen.

But - and this was the hard part - they had to listen without assuming that was they were listening to was "primitive". When someone like Ralph Vaughn Williams finally did that and appreciated the beauty and completeness of what he was hearing - you don't actually need to end a song with V-I to make it complete! - he was able to write beautiful European music for European orchestras which didn't follow what were supposed to be the European rules. The video's replacement of "music theory" with "the harmonic style of 18th century European musicians" really is on-point.
posted by clawsoon at 5:34 AM on September 9, 2020 [4 favorites]


This is great. It reminds me a bit of A Mathematician's Lament. I'm not saying it's useless to learn the language of intervals, chord structure, and rhythm. But damn if the codified language of music isn't antiquated. I'd love it if we started teaching kids in intervals before notation.
posted by es_de_bah at 5:42 AM on September 9, 2020 [3 favorites]


And to expand on my point upthread a little further: The first targets of the European colonial, supremacist drive were other - usually poorer and weaker - Europeans. That's who they practised on before heading out to the rest of the world, whether it was the English in Ireland, or the French in Languedoc, or the Spanish over the Basque, or the orchestra- and music-theory-loving Austrians in the Balkans. Education and cultural systems were set up to wipe out - and, if that wasn't possible, to denigrate - any culture that wasn't from the metropole. The bulk of white Europeans were only recruited to the supremacist cause as imperial Europe realized that it needed the manpower to realize its Europe-wide and world-wide ambitions.
posted by clawsoon at 5:52 AM on September 9, 2020 [1 favorite]


I'm also reminded of Ayn Rand's Romantic Manifesto, the only a book an art-lover needs to read to know that she's full of shit. When talking about instrumental music, she was unable to find an objective way to judge its quality, even thought that was the absolute crux of her philosophy. Even so, she denigrated folk music below classical for reasons (*ahem*racistclassistsjerk) she couldn't place.

Kundera (who I actually love) had similar issues. His father was a classically trained musician and I think he was mostly responding angrily to modernism, which makes sense for someone whose work was obsessed with Soviet fascism. But he loved to get in swipes at the idiocy and ubiquity of 'guitar music.'
posted by es_de_bah at 6:09 AM on September 9, 2020 [3 favorites]


What I find confusing about the video and the essay is the laser-focus on Schenker as being the biggest fish in the music theory pond and also the definition of theory as being strictly limited to 18th century stylings. When I studied composition we certainly started out with Bach and counterpoint (in theory class) but quickly moved past that to serialism, tone clusters, etc. Anyone who, as a composition student, was trying to write like Bach was basically laughed out of the room. And Schenker was one semester, a footnote. How does Schenker relate to Stockhausen? To Phillip Glass? To Webern and Berg? Even if you limit yourself to white western composers of the 20th century, he quickly becomes irrelevant.

So this strain of theorists who idolize Schenker must be stuck in time.
posted by grumpybear69 at 6:48 AM on September 9, 2020 [1 favorite]


es_de_bah: This is great. It reminds me a bit of A Mathematician's Lament.

Interesting essay! I'm only a few pages in, and I'm already thinking about the historical mechanisms of white supremacy and their relationship to math education. Why do we try to hammer the rules of arithmetic, algebra, and calculus into the brains of as many children as possible in our math classes? In historical terms, it's because the nations which started doing that at the end of the 1800s were able to build the most effective artillery guns and battleships and subsequently wipe out or drive underground many cultures which were fragile in the face of this firepower. And since we're in (whether we want to be or not) the societies whose wars destroyed the alternatives, we keep doing it that way.
posted by clawsoon at 7:12 AM on September 9, 2020 [1 favorite]


More on European folk music, the composer David Bruce has a video on Flamenco which illustrates how a type of music developed independent of the German "greats".

On math, think about Srinivasa Ramanujan. He was unique of course, and self-taught, but I think his work also illustrates the difference between how math was done in India and how it was done in Europe.
posted by SemiSalt at 7:17 AM on September 9, 2020 [4 favorites]


Great reads here. The main essay makes it very clear something I've been trying to articulate for some time.

For years and years I would start reading music theory books and quickly get to a point where I hit a wall, and nothing made sense. I blamed my lack of musicality and/or math.

Until one day I tried to learn a folk song I liked, and went to a forum and asked people for help figuring out what scale and key the piece was in, since the first three chords used notes that in combination did not fit in any of the scales I could figure out. Oh my, did it start a big kilopost argument.

Stuff like "you are an idiot! clearly the first chord is a G7b9#9#11b13, 6th degree in stalizalfos mode"

Until someone came in and said "That is called folk music and the author just liked the sound of the same open string droning over the first three chords".

And then it hit me, the usual "music theory" stuff one finds is not like quantum theory or the theory of evolution through natural selection. It is more like if someone took a particular set of dinner etiquette rules and renamed them "human behavior and nutrition theory" (and then went and said that eating tacos at a taco stand is impossible to properly describe, is not dinner, it is not even eating, and it is very doubtful that any nutrition can be obtained from eating tacos).

Now I know that there are way more ways to describe music with words and scratches on paper so that other people can make sense of it and play it on their own, but did I feel stupid for so long.
posted by Dr. Curare at 9:14 AM on September 9, 2020 [14 favorites]


If you are at all interested in understanding the differences in music theory, and the application of that theory to arrive at wildly different forms of music that nonetheless retains an enormous intellectual depth, I would strongly recommend Alain Danielou's work, Music and the Power of Sound. The two major revelations for me were the vast differences in a tonal and modal conception of music, as well as the surprise that modern Western music, in using a tempered scale, largely ignores the very real mathematical relationships of tones and microtones, thereby losing out in the traditional understanding of music as an observation of correspondences in the cosmos, as harmony. A memorable phrase regarding the difference, from the perspective of classical Indian music, is that to someone raised on modal music, tonal music sounds as if it is 'full of holes'.
posted by legospaceman at 10:30 AM on September 9, 2020 [6 favorites]


legospaceman: as well as the surprise that modern Western music, in using a tempered scale, largely ignores the very real mathematical relationships of tones and microtones

The tempered scale is all about being able to transpose music from any key to any other key on a fixed pitch instrument like a piano and have it sound the same. (You might argue that it's to allow the music to sound equally bad in all keys, if you're not a fan of tempered tuning.)

The math of tempered tuning is that there are powers of the twelfth root of two which are kinda close to the fractions of traditional tuning:

3:2 = 1.5 ~= 27/12 = 1.4983...
...and we have the fifth interval, e.g. C to G. Notice that it's 7 steps on the piano keyboard if you go up by semitones, matching the 7 in 27/12.

4:3 = 1.333... ~= 25/12 = 1.3348...
...and we have the fourth interval, e.g. C to F. 5 steps on the piano keyboard.

5:4 = 1.25 ~= 24/12 = 1.2599...
...and we have the major third, e.g. C to E. Four steps.

6:5 = 1.2 ~= 23/12 = 1.1892...
...and we have the minor third, e.g. C to E♭. Three steps.

7:6 = 1.166... ~= 22/12 = 1.1224...
...and we have the second, e.g. C to D. Two steps on the piano.

Everything is just a little bit out of tune - sometimes a little sharp, something a little flat - but it's out of tune in a very consistent way. There's exactly the same ratio between 22/12 and 25/12 as there is between 23/12 and 26/12, so you can transpose from the key of C to the key of D♭ and all your intervals will still be the same. It is a clever engineering solution to a musical problem.

I have a half-baked theory that a bunch of European classical music is about exploring the consequences of this engineering solution - transposing themes up and down throughout a symphony, modulating from one key to another, etc. I have no idea if this is true.
posted by clawsoon at 11:11 AM on September 9, 2020 [9 favorites]


You'll notice in all that math that the minor third is especially out of tune. There has been some empirical and theoretical work suggesting that a common "blue note" of early blues is a correction back to the 6:5 ratio.
posted by clawsoon at 11:21 AM on September 9, 2020 [4 favorites]


Yes I think that is precisely what is argued, that this elegant solution nonetheless is unsatisfactory as everything is consistently out of tune, and that microtones matter - in the Indian classical tradition each tone and microtone is held to have a certain musical/emotional impact.

As far as your theory - I have limited understanding of [modern Western] music theory in general but isn't Bach the proof?
posted by legospaceman at 1:52 PM on September 9, 2020 [2 favorites]


I just want to tell you all how grateful I am for this thread. Viva MEFI. Also, you inspired me to email my high school music theory teacher, who made us practice our intervals, but also did a great job introducing us to different traditions and modern music.
posted by es_de_bah at 3:47 PM on September 9, 2020 [1 favorite]


There are some like Danielou, who feel that the tempered scale ruined the ear of Europeans (because everything out-of-tune) and produced the unholy monstrosity of post-baroque Western classical music. Others prize the kind of rich harmonic transformations that it enabled, of a kind unknown in non-European musics. There's a great discussion of this in the book Harmonic Experience.

It seems classical musicians who don't play fixed-pitch instruments -- which is most of them, especially string players -- do not hew too rigidly to the tempered scale in practice, but realize notes in pitches that are more like just intonation within the local harmonic context of the musical passage. This makes for one of the joys of listening to string quartets, for instance.

I too have run across the idea that pure intervals are behind the phenomena of blues-notes in Jazz and Blues-based music and I believe it, though there is so much going on with pitch in the Blues that I feel it can't be the whole story. The music of India, northern and southern, with all or despite all the complexity of the raga system, seems to me the best way to hear musical scales free of temperament. The legendary emotional depth of Indian music comes, it seems, partly from the total immersion of the musicians in the sound of what Europeans call the pure fifth interval and the Indians Pa.
posted by bertran at 4:13 PM on September 9, 2020 [5 favorites]


So, this is like that post a few days back about the different ways bodies were written about depending gender. I think the fact that Classical Music Theory is very white is a pretty well known thing, but it's great to see it explicitly laid out with facts and figures. It suffers from the same "great white men" filter of history that most academic areas suffer from. There's also a lot of people out there who think of Music theory like they think of Grammar, a set of rules about HOW THINGS ARE, but really it's a way for people to trying to describe rather than prescribe. Even with that difference in mind though, it's still just describing what a bunch of (mostly) white and (mostly) men did in exceedingly white cultural contexts. Which is why it's kind of missing the point to get into the specifics of the theory in this discussion.

I mean, I like geeking out about the difference between temperament and tuning as much as the next person, but that doesn't really help Music Theory departments figure out how the way the think about and teach music isn't at all value neutral. The suggestions at the end of the article have nothing to do with the "Oh, but European folk music doesn't fit into classical theory" and everything to do with pointing out that academic musicians need to do the same challenging work that white people in every social structure infected by racism (which is just about every social structure that white people built) need to do.
posted by Gygesringtone at 4:16 PM on September 9, 2020 [2 favorites]


I don’t mean to imply that only white people are academic musicians, but I missed the edit window to correct it to "white academic musicians".
posted by Gygesringtone at 4:25 PM on September 9, 2020


Gygesringtone: The suggestions at the end of the article have nothing to do with the "Oh, but European folk music doesn't fit into classical theory" and everything to do with pointing out that academic musicians need to do the same challenging work that white people in every social structure infected by racism (which is just about every social structure that white people built) need to do.

Fair point, and apologies for the tangent. A First Nations friend was telling me a few weeks ago about how policing of First Nations in Canada was explicitly based on the British policing of the Irish, and I've been thinking about intra-European imperialism ever since. This discussion wasn't the best place to talk about it, though, you're right.
posted by clawsoon at 4:31 PM on September 9, 2020 [1 favorite]


Even just the 12 note scale and the very most basic things like the relation of chords and stuff is probably all pretty much shaped by this one musical tradition.

Interestingly enough the ancient Chinese independently arrived at basically the same 12 note scale
posted by moorooka at 1:18 AM on September 10, 2020


There's a funny thought experiment about What If? those German/Austrian Classical Composers knew about the concept of blue notes or funky syncopated rhythms?

Ludwig Van was a fan of folk music, he adapted some of his melodies from peasant harvest songs; I wonder what his music would have sounded like if he had ever travelled to the Mediterranean?

(I had the uncanny impression that Angela Hewitt playing Bach held down onto some notes to emphasize blue intervals, but maybe I was reading something into it).
posted by ovvl at 6:31 PM on September 10, 2020


Before this video, I'd never seen or heard Ben Shapiro before -- only heard of him -- and now I feel almost a little sorry for him. He looks and sounds like exactly the kind of twit you'd expect to have his opinions.

Dr. Ewell strikes me as awesome.
posted by Slothrup at 10:10 AM on September 12, 2020 [1 favorite]


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