Music Theory’s White Racial Frame: a non-Schenkerian Case Study

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I have often told the story of the most useful thing I learned as an undergraduate. My tutor had sent me away to read any one of three books by L.B. Meyer and asked me what I thought of it. I said I had found it interesting but wasn’t sure I agreed with him. ‘Good God woman!’ he exclaimed, his fist pounding down on the desk top, ‘You’re not supposed to agree with books, you’re supposed to think about them!’

I don’t believe I have ever told the story of what it was precisely in Leonard Meyer’s Music, The Arts, and Ideas that I disagreed with, but I have been thinking about it a lot again this summer.

Several of the essays in this book develop Meyer’s implication-realisation model of musical meaning, first conceived in terms of gestalt psychology in Emotion and Meaning in Music, but now in terms of information theory. In the essay, ‘On Value and Greatness in Music’, he moves on from the processes by which music communicates to how one might measure the relative worth of such communications. Some music is obviously well-formed but trite, while some music touches us profoundly – can this theory explain the difference?

The essay posited that longer arcs of implication, requiring the listener to invest in more cognitively complex processes, and to wait for longer before reaching cadential payoff when the implications were finally realised, are more artistically worthy than short-range processes. Greatness comes from deferred gratification.

The reading experience was pretty heavy going for a 1st-year undergraduate in her second term of higher education, and I frequently had to go back and remind myself of the meanings of new words I’d learned en route.

So I was not entirely sure of myself when Meyer appeared to be arguing that his account explained why western art music was inherently better than ‘primitive’ music. He was rather ambiguous about what he meant by the latter, saying that he didn’t mean ‘the highly sophisticated music which so-called primitives often play’, but despite his muddying the waters with this, re-reading a few times revealed that, yes, he was being blatantly rude about people from cultures not his own. The key paragraph was this:

The differentia between art music and primitive music lies in the speed of tendency gratification. The primitive seeks almost immediate gratification for his tendencies whether these be biological or musical. Nor can he tolerate uncertainty. And it is because distant departures from the certainty and repose of the tonic note and lengthy delays in gratification are insufferable to him that the tonal repertory of the primitive is limited, not because he cannot think of other tones. It is not his mentality that is limited, it is his maturity. Note, by the way, that popular music can be distinguished from real jazz on the same basis. For while “pop” music whether of the tin-pan alley or the Ethelbert Nevin variety makes use of a fairly large repertory of tones, it operates with such conventional clichés that gratification is almost immediate and uncertainty is minimized.

[Italicised passages are the bits that my 18-year-old had self underlined in my copy.]

After my tutor had helpfully relieved me of the obligation to agree with things, he asked me about what I disagreed with, and I raised this point. I didn’t have the vocabulary at the time to call out the colonialism here, and I’m not even sure I managed to apply the label ‘racist’, but I was able somehow to articulate the idea that I didn’t think it right to use an otherwise interesting and insight-provoking music theory to assert cultural superiority.

It was just as well, it turned out, that I had just been advised that you don’t have to agree with people to learn from them, because my tutor leapt to Meyer’s defence. Prior to coming into music, he (my tutor) had done a degree in economics, and his argument was that deferred gratification was the basis all of advanced economies, and thus what differentiated First World from Third World.

So, there you have it: not only a white racial frame for this theory, but a capitalist one to boot. Looking back through the filter of my PhD in music and gender, I see in this essay a clear hierarchy between the conceptual and the sensual (played out here in contention that Beethoven 9 is ‘great’ while Debussy’s Prélude a L’Après-midi d’un Faune is merely ‘excellent’), reinscribing the well-worn dualism between masculine mind and feminised body. We have a hat-trick: White supremacy, Patriarchy, and Capitalism all pulling together to define what is going to count as valuable in the work of L.B. Meyer.

I still think Meyer has much to teach us about musical syntax within the limits of the repertories about which he was expert. But this essay is a striking cautionary tale of the way that trying to extrapolate expertise to arenas in which you are manifestly inexpert does little except expose your preconceptions.

Thanks for this post Liz, lots to think about here. I agree with your last paragraph about Meyer and lots else. I wonder if you would say though, that there is an intrinsic value hierarchy in music, and if there is how you would express it? In my simplistic way I've always thought of different genres as setting out to do different things and that they can be evaluated as how successful they are in meeting their aim depending on what it was. It seems to me though that there is more content to Sibelius 7 than to a jingle for diet coke and that the ambition to express something more complex, if done well, makes it of more value in some sense? I'm not sure though in what sense, I may well be wrong! I say this as someone who recently taught a lesson on why for me Taylor Swift's Out of the Woods had a similar poignancy to Beethoven 5. Nonetheless I wonder if you would say that someone who can appreciate Taylor Swift but not have the patience to take in Beethoven's longer trains of musical thought is missing out?

Hi Edward, lots of good questions here of course.

To paraphrase the scholar whose work got me thinking about this again, nobody's in the game of arguing that Beethoven wrote much music of great value. The problem comes I think when you try and systematise the basis for that judgement in a way that cuts across types of music in which one has unequal levels of capacity to judge.

Is someone who doesn't get Beethoven missing out? In some ways for sure. Is someone who finds the music of the Mau Maus opaque missing out? Probably, but actually it is very hard to judge from the outside. (I take that example as I examined an ethnomusicology PhD on it some years ago, and whilst I found I was able to form a judgement about the scholarship, I really couldn't have told you if the field recordings I was listening to would have been judged as excellent or as mediocre by the peers of those recorded.)

I am increasingly mistrustful of the desire to stick the label 'great' on works of art; it seems a game as interested in keeping out those not so labelled as anything. I prefer 'This is wonderful; it speaks to me and I want to understand why' as an attitude that honours our artistic responses without needing to create pecking orders, which so often seem to recreate hierarchies that merely replicate those of cultural and economic power.

There you go, making me think again :)

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