Misunderstanding Music Theory

By Andrew Welch

I’ve a problem I suspect is endemic to academia: the hopeless, near-pathological attraction to disciplines, fields, discourses, and texts I can’t understand, and likely never will. Is there a name for this malady? The worst part is that once a once-opaque knowledge begins to make sense, it loses its mystique. Perhaps this condition would be more tolerable if it didn’t so closely resemble the delusion of chivalric romance—or, for that matter, the troubled frisson of orientalism. I know that I know an understanding is just a calcified and stable misunderstanding. Whatever I think I know, I don’t. And any knowing is always dissolvable and resolvable. But once knowledge starts to feel understood—however poorly—something changes. It no longer exists out there, as something mysterious and opaque: it’s now in here, joined to my conceptual armature. Once appropriated, a concept becomes part of the machinery of appropriation.

I find it reassuring to interpret my own desire in the most grotesque terms imaginable. That way, I transform into whatever it is I’m afraid I might be, and thus receive the satisfaction of having been right about myself all along. In Blake’s words, you become what you behold. Yet I can’t entirely commit to this kind of self-disfiguration, when at root, it’s just a too-transparent “attempt to protect oneself against the possibility of a negative judgment by making it clear that one was already judging oneself far more negatively than any listener could have the heart to”—to cite one of David Foster Wallace’s most charming stories (60).

But all that self-congratulatory self-flagellation is a bit premature. Because expanding one’s disciplinary horizon can’t be entirely reduced to quixotic intellectual colonialism. There are lots of reasons to engage with new disciplines and alien epistemologies—the wayward pleasures of exoticized incomprehension are perhaps just the most visceral and problematic. I want to explore one slightly less dubious benefit: thinking with the methods and practices of other fields helps me understand my own methodological assumptions. I’m particularly interested in how the parameters and constraints of scholarly inquiry shape the production of knowledge. How do phenomena become objects of study, and how do objects of study translate into academic discourse? How does this process focus, form, disclose, obscure?

To exhibit my misguided attraction to the epistemological other, as well as my own ignorance, I’m going to write a bit about music. I reliably pass six hours of the waking day with my head pinned between two tiny speakers. Most nights are spent asleep, or wishing I were asleep, to music. But I know very little about it. I do not sing or play a musical instrument. I can recognize some general formal terms—verse, rhythm, stress, phrasing—that happen to feature in poetry. Major and minor keys inexplicably call to mind not music but Milton. And that’s it. Music’s a mystery to me.

For philosophy, too, music is a problem. Philosophers have deemed it either the purest of art forms, or the most debased. Evaluating the “beautiful arts” according to “the culture they supply to the mind,” Kant assigned music the lowest rank; it “merely plays with the sensations.” Music is pleasant enough, but lacks conceptual content. Kant did find it an excellent accompaniment to dinner, classing it alongside “all games which bring with them no further interest than that of making the time pass imperceptibly” (Critique of Judgment §53). Contra Kant, many process philosophers find music of the utmost ontological import. Suzanne Langer, for one, emphasizes how music renders the unfolding passage of time present, sensible, inhabitable. Kant, of course, didn’t have a Beethoven to think with, and that fact calls to mind some Adornoism to the effect that Kant and Hegel were the last great aestheticians who knew nothing about art. Where Kant dismissed music, Schopenhauer idealized it; the coupling of Schopenhauer and Beethoven gave birth to a Wagner. (Gestational metaphors seem to pervade writing on music; this is a problem for another occasion and a more knowledgeable writer.) Schopenhauer, anyway, understood music to capture “only the inner nature, the in-itself, of every phenomenon, the will itself” (WWR 261). Music contains the truth of pure feeling extracted from all circumstance. From this standpoint, any emphasis upon musical narrative is “perversity.” We can think here of how Clement Greenberg articulated a vision of modern painting as unadulterated visibility, purified of representational meaning. Closer to disciplinary home is Walter Pater’s famous claim that “all art constantly aspires to the condition of music,” wherein the distinction between form and content extinguishes itself (140). For Pater, what music is about is synonymous with what it is. Beyond meaning, music distills and organizes sensation. It’s the opposite of conceptual knowledge, and the other of theory. From this fetishistic perspective, a “music theory” verges on contradiction. Maybe there was something worth keeping in Kant’s crude assessment, which at least placed music in a social world doing cultural work.

Back in literature, we’ve an author, a text, a reader. And, as scholars like Elizabeth Eisenstein, D.F. McKenzie, and Jerome McGann have helped us to recognize, we also have a sprawling apparatus of editorial collaboration and intervention, mechanical reproduction, bibliographic information, commoditization, and distribution. And yet, in the act of reading, these mediations can vanish into the encounter with the text (and author, who seems to persist in some spectral, perhaps undead form). Many of us want to think reading as a kind of performance, in which the reader is both performer and audience. What happens when we take up these dynamics in music? Epistemological chaos! The musical event is a radically distributed phenomenon. On the classical model there’s a composer, a score, a conductor, some performers, instruments, an acoustic environment, and an audience. To say nothing of the complexities of recording. How do these nodes interact? Where is music located? Who’s responsible for the musical experience? How is it possible to think music without cramming all of that evental diversity into a torturously tidy box? A baseless hypothesis: the more collaborative and multifarious the production process, the more crucial the author function. Directors (or auteurs—authors) seem to be the organizing principle for critical engagements with film, allowing us to attribute a controlling sensibility that can enfold the activity of hundreds or thousands of hands into a compositional unity.

So onto music theory. Music theory confronts this problem of focus largely, though not exclusively, by taking the composer and the score as twinned objects of study. This sensible and problematic point of departure is, of course, quite familiar to literary scholars, and makes me feel right at home. Close reading! Except I don’t understand musical notation, which does nothing to diminish its appeal. So I wade into Richard Cohn’s Audacious Euphony, which seems to be a quite-important study of nineteenth century music. Apparently, nineteenth-century composition occupies a vexed space between the classical tonality of the eighteenth century and the atonal or post-tonal twentieth. (That sounds not entirely unlike the situation of nineteenth-century poetry, spanning the fraught interval between Augustan couplets and free verse.) Cohn has developed an analytic system called transformational theory, which conceives of nineteenth-century musical structures not as deviations of eighteenth-century forms, but rather as undergirded by a new compositional syntax distinctive to the era. This looks tremendously interesting, but don’t ask me to explain further, because I can’t.


Well, perhaps I can add one more detail: his argument centers upon the harmonic complexities of the triadic progression. Amidst notation and disputation concerning neo-Riemannianism and voice-leading proximity—for me, basically hieroglyphs—I came upon a discussion of the “uncanny” properties of the triad, which Cohn negotiates by reference to Saussure and Peirce. Linguistics, of the pre-Chomskyan variety! An oasis of understanding in a desert of incomprehension. Cohn’s fundamental question seizes my attention: why does the triadic progression sound so eerie? (Those are my hands.) Over the course of the nineteenth century, in Schubert, Rimsky-Korsakov, Strauss, Schoenberg, Wagner, and Wagner, and Wagner, this progression is used to “depict sublime, supernatural, or exotic phenomena”—a mélange of darkness and deliria that Cohn condenses into variations on the uncanny (21). So Cohn asks, does the progression’s uncanny quality lie in its basic resonance with the human auditory system? Or has this affective force been encoded through accreting convention, a phenomenon best understood on the model of language?

Cohn concedes that the progression’s significance has been reified by convention, but contra eminent musicologist Richard Taruskin, he argues that it is nonetheless inherently uncanny (21-23). His rationale is that the triadic progression produces “contradictory information” that determines its affect. This is because the triad is apprehended as both dissonant and consonant, which makes it a figure for liminality, which then maps onto the blurring of life into death and reality into illusion, transformations that are characteristic of the uncanny. Further, Cohn claims that this connection is not strictly conventional or symbolic, but rather iconic, since the shared feature of liminality subtends both the triadic progression and the uncanny. This is a challenging argument—how, precisely, does a resemblance in “liminality” constitute an iconic relationship? How, moreover, can a near-ineffable feeling/concept like the uncanny participate in a concrete figural resemblance? But rather than pressure Cohn’s maneuvers here, I’m going to focus an earlier moment that helps to situate his claims. Describing the uncanny valences of the triad, Cohn writes,

music-welchAlthough convention is certainly an element of this semiotic system, there is something else at work: the affective power of the progressions in figure 2.3 derives from a paradoxical characteristic that is inherent to them, when they are heard against the expectations of classical diatonic tonality. (22-23, figure 2.3 reproduced for those who understand what I don’t)

Hmmmm. According to Cohn, the uncanny quality “derives from a paradoxical characteristic” inherent to the progression. But this is, as we’ve seen, an interpretive contradiction, in which the hearer hears the chord progression as both dissonant and consonant. What does it mean to claim that the heard contradiction inheres in the chords? How can a subjective contradiction inhere in an object? The second clause of Cohn’s claim so drastically undermines the first that it makes me feel like I’m reading vintage Wordsworth: the paradox is inherent to the chords, “when they are heard against expectations of classical diatonic tonality.” Expectations don’t exist outside of a listening subject, as much as I’m drawn to the idea of expectations having ears. So, for a listener acclimated to the language of Western tonality, the triadic progression by default signifies the uncanny. And for a speaker of English, the text-image “cheese” by default produces the signified cheese, and thus by default makes me hungry. Expectations are produced by conventions. That’s the condition of being a language user: the signifying field precedes us, and any agency we express is formed against prior expectations of meaning.

None of which is to suggest that Cohn’s argument can’t work. But I’m fascinated by the way his syntax naturalizes this phenomenon. As he slides the paradox from the subject to the object, from the listener to the chords, the listening subject’s response is thus located in the sound itself. But at the same time, this naturalization is incomplete because the claim can’t make sense without conventionalized expectations, which are supplied in the follow-up clause. This last clause completes the circulation from listening subject to musical object and back to listening subject, a trajectory that (iconically?!) performs the process of naturalization, and then unwinds its own activity.

I don’t mean to scratch compulsively at a single sentence. Perhaps I got carried away. To be clear, Cohn’s book is by all accounts a seminal achievement. What is intriguing is how the displacements in Cohn’s argument disclose the complexity of the problem he’s engaging—the tortuous passage from sound to feeling. I sympathize with Cohn’s motivation. The triadic progression just feels uncanny, in a way that seems irreducibly physiological. I can imagine “cheese” meaning something else. I can’t imagine those chords feeling differently. We experience musical feeling as the direct evocation of sound, and it’s reflected in our language. Tone signals a formal property of the musical text, a material property of the performed sound, and the subjective mood it evokes. What Cohn is after is the inexplicable potency of musical affect. And that correspondence between sound and feeling is certainly real, whether its conventionalization is arbitrary, motivated, or determined by physiology. It takes pages of argumentation to make the conceptual movement from a chordal progression to the uncanny, but affective response short-circuits these conceptual linkages. I take it that this conceptual bypass is what Schopenhauer has in mind when he writes that in music, “the effect of the tones is incomparably more powerful, more infallible, and quicker than that of words” (WWI 233). Music somehow speaks in an urgent present that leaves the labored elaborations of thought behind. Its power sometimes repulses me, like it did Freud: “Some rationalistic, or perhaps analytic, turn of mind in me rebels against being moved by a thing without knowing why I am thus affected and what it is that affects me” (XIII. 211).

At stake here is the relationship between the syntaxes of language and music. Compositions can be treated textually, as scores, but what of performance, and what of the experience of music? If (big if) music is some kind of organized sound, at what cost do we reconcile it to language? Perhaps a music theory shouldn’t try to avoid Cohn’s syntactic slippage. Perhaps when he elides the listening subject and projects feeling onto the sound itself, we should see this transference as staging the basic disjunction between sound and text. The sudden movement from subject to object marks the resistance of musical phenomena to linguistic conceptualization: it’s the paradox of music’s seemingly unmediated signification. Language deals in distinct subjects and objects, articles and verbs. How can we translate a musical experience that implodes those distinctions into words? It’s boring to say that there is something viral about music. But maybe this trope knows more than it thinks, since music seems designed to infiltrate semiotic systems and scramble their constitutive binaries, collapsing language into physiology, nature into culture, mind into body, thought into feeling. Post-infection, we’re back in Cohn’s liminal space. Maybe it’s not just the triadic progression that’s uncanny, but music itself.

But something here is bothering me. Haven’t I been reducing all musical phenomena to an aesthetic ideology of absolute music—the musical equivalent of a romantic ideology? Music as pure sound and pure idea, uprooted from social practice, seemingly floating in a purified space bereft of culture and context? But of course this thinking is not in any sense universal or cultureless—it can be located decisively on the ominous Beethoven-Schopenhauer-Wagner axis. This aesthetic theory has the dual effect of indulging transcendent claims on music’s behalf, at the same time that it others music into mute alterity. Music thus conceived leaves the world behind, it “builds nests in aerial altitudes of temples sacred from violation;” it carries us “into another element where earth is forgotten”—to quote Thomas De Quincey, that early romantic-ideologist, on what he called the “Literature of Power” or “Literature χατ εξοχην” [par excellence], an ideal so rarefied its name resists earth-bound anglicization (XI. 59, 56).

So I haven’t managed to learn much about music. I’ve latched onto what I recognize, worked it to exhaustion, and missed most of what matters to Cohn and his colleagues. Yet my circuitous course around the borders of music theory has forcefully estranged me from my own practice. Look for the other—find self, as other: literary scholarship now feels rather uncanny. Because, well, are these epistemological and methodological questions relevant only to music? Is poetry somehow reducible to meaning in a sense that music isn’t? Isn’t poetry, too, animated by the conjunctions and disjunctions of meaning and material conveyance, in sound or text? When I start thinking about my own attempts at scholarship, I fall back to ground pretty quickly. What on earth would Cohn think about the claims I make? I can’t seem to write about literature without assuming, at some point, on some level, that meaning inheres in the text. Sooner or later, I’m describing what the text means. But marks on a page (or pixels on a screen) don’t mean anything. That is, until we add Cohn’s second clause, which looks increasingly judicious: against the expectations of a reader. But if this qualifier were appended to every interpretive assertion I make, all of my arguments would collapse, and not just under the weight of stupefying repetition. Perhaps literary scholarship becomes persuasive when it convinces us that the text truly is the agent of meaning. Great readings overwrite the text—I’m left wondering how I’ve always missed what now seems so patently, unavoidably present.

I see now that my ontological understanding of literature collapses into the conditions under which I can make claims about texts. To paraphrase Charles Taylor, this disconcerts. It’s quite difficult to protect the difference between what a text can be and what we can argue about it. And I’m not sure we should or could be expected to continually emphasize what our inquiries occlude. That negative space is ever-present in the act of reading, charged with all kinds of wildly personal associations and affective energies that are scarcely expressible, much less conceivable as potential “contributions to knowledge.” At ICR last weekend, Ian Thomas Fleischman suggested that literary scholarship might be understood to demythologize and remythologize the text. This strikes me, for reasons I can’t quite articulate, as superior to Shklovksy’s still-valuable concept of defamiliarization. I wonder if this notion could extend from texts out to methods and disciplines. Reading music theory doesn’t seem to have threatened my ignorance of musical form. But instead, thinking with music has begun to demythologize and remythologize literary interpretation, scrambling what I thought I knew about knowing texts. Reading feels more perilous and more wondrous.

Andrew Welch is attempting to compile some choice misunderstandings into a dissertation on performances of identity in late 18th century literature. This happens at Loyola University Chicago. 

 Works Cited

Adorno, Theodor W. Negative Dialectics. Trans. E.B. Ashton. New York: Continuum, 2007.

Cohn, Richard. Audacious Euphony: Chromatic Harmony and the Triad’s Second Nature. New York: Oxford UP, 2012.

De Quincey, Thomas. The Collected Writings of Thomas De Quincey. Ed. David Masson. London: A. & C. Black, 1897.

Freud, Sigmund. Complete Psychological Works. Trans. and ed. James Strachey. London: Hogarth Press, 1955.

Pater, Walter. The Renaissance: Studies in Art and Poetry. New York: Macmillan, 1888.

Schopenhauer, Arthur. The World as Will and Representation. Trans. E.F.J Payne. New York: Dover, 1969.

—. The World as Will and Idea. Trans. R.B. Haldane and J. Kemp. London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trübner & Co, 1906.

Wallace, David Foster. “The Depressed Person.” Harper’s Magazine, January 1998, 57-64.

One thought on “Misunderstanding Music Theory”

  1. Really great post. As I am currently writing about Said and Late Style (and his other writings on music), I am grateful for your discussion of (and bringing to my attention) Cohn and your insight concerning the overlap of different artistic mediums.

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