Nicholas Cook, Music, Imagination, and Culture. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990. 265pp. ISBN 0-19-816154-9.
What good is music theory? This blunt question might well have been the sub-title to this provocative and insightful book by Nicholas Cook. In an age dominated by scientific explanation, is there any room for the seemingly rarefied and esoteric writings of music analysis? Cook answers yes, but in reflecting on Cook's arguments, many theorists are apt to find his defense of the discipline utterly appalling.
Over the course of history, music theorists have generated a rich vocabulary and a valuable conceptual toolbox for coming to understand Western music. Over the past century, however, a parallel stream of experimental research has made significant gains in providing perceptual and cognitive accounts of various aspects of musical practice and experience.
In many cases, traditional theory and scientifically-inspired perceptual experimentation have produced converging accounts. A great number of theoretical concepts relating to pitch, chords, harmony, scale, key, consonance, voice-leading, rhythm, and so on have received empirical confirmation and explication. In other cases, however, various theoretical concepts have failed to display presumed perceptual or cognitive effects. For example, Millar (1984) and others have shown that most serial transformations fail to be perceptible -- even by expert musicians. Research by Francès (1984), Gotlieb & Konecni (1985), and Cook's own empirical investigations (1987) suggest that typical listeners do not hear the hierarchical organization of classical forms, nor is there evidence that listeners recognize (even at an unconscious level) when works return to the original key. Cook (1987), for example, found that key closure has a measureable psychological effect for listeners only when the time-scale is quite short (on the order of about a minute). In general, current experimental research seems to suggest that both typical and skilled music listening occurs on a much more "shallow" or surface-level than some theorists have supposed.
A major portion of Music, Imagination, and Culture examines the perceptual or cognitive correlates of various structural concepts common in Western music theory. Cook's review here is of the form of "the emperor's new clothes" -- documenting how several concepts considered central to much modern discourse in music theory seem to have no perceptual concomitants. Indeed, the concepts which most fire the imaginations of music theorists appear to be those concepts that most frequently fail the test of human perception.
What is one to make of theoretical concepts such as key closure, large-scale hierarchical structure, thematic or serial unity, or formal process? Although many theorists have assumed that these concepts bear some perceptual import, Cook suggests that it is wrong to judge these theoretical notions on the basis of audibility:
"A Schenkerian analysis is not a scientific explanation, but a metaphorical one; it is not an account of how people actually hear pieces of music, but a way of imagining them." [p.4]
"the structural wholeness of musical works should be seen as a metaphorical construction, rather than as directly corresponding to anything that is real in a perceptual sense" [p.5]
Cook refers to this metaphorical or imaginative way of experiencing a work as musicological listening -- a term which he distinguishes from musical listening. By `musical listening', Cook has in mind a direct, non-analytic, effortless experience that, even when we try to listen to music more reflectively, tends to overtake us. According to Cook, it is this notion of musical listening that is at the heart of writings by theorists such as Maurice Halbwachs, Thomas Clifton, Alfred Schutz, and Leon Crickmore.
Conversely, Cook points to a long line of writers on aesthetics who have argued against this form of musical experience -- including Kant, Hegel, Collingwood, Hampshire, Scruton, and especially Hanslick:
"Hanslick described as `pathological' any experience of music in which the listener did not constitute the music as an imaginative object held at an aesthetic distance, but instead reacted to the sound in a directly physiological or psychological sense. Heard in such a manner, Hanslick says, music becomes no more than a drug: it `loosens the feet or the heart just as wine loosens the tongue'. In this way it degrades the listener ..." [p.161]
Given Cook's dichotomy between the `musical' and the `musicological', many scholars might be expected to line up behind one or the other conception, and denigrate the other as the false path. But this is not Cook's inclination; he holds, and vigorously defends both views.
First, Cook presents a spirited defense of the shallow sort of `musical listening.' His approach is overtly populist in tone -- reminiscent of John Blacking or Virgil Thomson. The very fact that certain formal devices have "to be explained to the listener means it is not of any great importance." [p.165] This is not to say
"that analytical, historical, or textual knowledge can play no part in musical listening; the listening of the connoisseur, after all, is defined by just such knowledge. ... [A] technical analysis may uncover aspects of the musical construction that are interesting or elegant or even, in their own way, beautiful. But we are dealing here with a musicological rather than musical beauty." [p.166]In a superb and memorable passage, Cook takes to task theorists such as Benjamin Boretz, Allen Forte, Steven Gilbert, and Hans Keller who maintain that the aesthetic value of a musical work is simply a function of the work's formal structure and who try to divorce themselves from perceptual issues.
So what is the value of `musicological' listening? Cook's defense rests on the supposition that formal theory is culture-specific and so a mythical rather than scientific mode of explanation. It is up to the psychologist or the social scientist, and not the music theorist, to study music scientifically [p.243]. Moreover, according to Cook, the mythical mode of explanation is the bedrock of culture:
"A musical culture is a tradition of imagining sounds as music. Its basic identity lies in its mechanism for constituting sounds as intentional objects, from the level of a single note to that of a complete work. This means that the ubiquitous discrepancies between the manner in which musicians conceive music and that in which listeners experience it are endemic to musical culture." [p.223]Cook continues his defense of `musicological listening' with a lengthy chapter in which he explores may aspects of musical imagination. Cook's writing here is largely inspired by Jean-Paul Sartre's The Psychology of the Imagination. There are some very fine phenomenological descriptions presented, including introspective accounts of trying to recall a dance from Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker, recalling one work while another work is playing on the radio, and a long disquisition on piano fingering. Cook shows that there is a rich set of representations of a musical work that influences how music is produced -- including innumerable kinesthetic experiences of music, visual imagery of the score, and so on. But having illustrated how pianists, singers, oboists, and other musicians hold radically different productive conceptions of a given musical work, Cook abruptly changes course and attempts to down-play these differences. He does so by switching away from talking about performance imagery to analytic conceptions -- especially Schenkerian-inspired notions.
Drawing on descriptive research on Beethoven sketches and autographs, Cook largely agrees with the view that composers conceive of a work as a complete unity, and that the differences in notational renderings (e.g., revisions to autographs) nevertheless remain true to some underlying analytic conception. Although this chapter contains many interesting points, it seems to have little to do with Cook's wider argument in this book. Indeed, Cook seems to have lost his train of thought -- a problem to which I'll return later in this review.
Cook's defense of formal theory is summarized in the following passages. He argues that it is essentially wrong
"[to regard] the music theorist as a would-be social scientist, as someone who observes what people do and attempts to formulate explanations of why they do what they do. Now it is undeniable that, if music theorists are social scientists, then they are generally very bad ones, in that they produce explanations of people's responses to music without ever properly establishing the facts of the matter. But few music theorists do in fact regard themselves as social scientists, and this is because they do not attempt to stand, as it were, outside the phenomenon of music in order to observe it in a detached and objective manner, as a scientist would aim to do. By and large, music theorists regard themselves not as theorists in a scientific sense, but as musicians: the purpose of their formulations and explanations of musical phenomena is to contribute to the musical culture within which they work. And if one sees the thinking of music theorists -- and indeed of musicians in general -- as an intrinsic part of a musical culture, then the divergence between the way in which music is thought about and the way in which it is experienced will turn out to be not a failing, but rather a defining attribute of musical culture." [pp.69-70]
". . . when musicians criticize music or formulate theories about it, they are not trying to account for [music] in a neutral or objective manner; they are not, in other words, trying to be social scientists. On the contrary, they are working within a musical culture . . . And they are doing so as musicians, that is, they are in some sense involved in the production of music, and their criticisms and their theorizing are an integral part of the productional process." [p.3]
Cook's portrayal is problematic, not so much for what it says; but for what is leaves unsaid. Like music theory and criticism, scientific music research influences musical culture both directly and indirectly. In recent years, psychomusicology, ethnomusicology, and other systematic disciplines have approached, and perhaps overtaken music theory and analysis in capturing the interest of practising musicians. Today, both contemporary composers and serious music listeners are as apt to read works on the psychology or sociology of music as to read works of music analysis or theory.
Nor is the influence of the social sciences on musical culture merely an incidental byproduct of a purely descriptive enterprise. Although social sciences begin by endeavoring to provide a neutral description of things as they are, a large cohort of social scientists are overtly committed to changing the world. Clinical psychologists, therapists, and social workers are merely the most visible practitioners of social and psychological change (for better or worse). In short, Cook's contrasting of music theory with scientific approaches to music leaves the false impression that music theory is a part of musical culture, whereas systematic musicology is not.
Of course such an argument will hinge on how one defines musical culture. Again and again, Cook reiterates his conception:
". . . at the core of this book lies the proposition that a musical culture is, in essence, a repertoire of means for imagining music" [p.4]The question here is why Cook would define musical culture in such a limited way? Alternative definitions are legion. For example, musical culture might be defined as all the ways by which music is valued by a given group of people. Or musical culture might be regarded as a shared set of sonic experiences which contributes to a sense of group identity. Or musical culture might be defined as a common repertoire of musical experiences; and so forth. The reason Cook defines musical culture in this way is that he wants to argue that music theory is an imaginative rather than explanatory discipline, and that the primary value of music theory is cultural. The logic is patently circular. If theory is primarily an imaginative rather than descriptive/explanatory enterprise, then if we define musical culture as essentially imaginative, then theory continues to be central and germane. [Footnote 1] This circular logic also serves to buttress the unfortunate yet widespread view that scientifically-inspired investigations of music are really peripheral to the proper business of music scholarship.
A related difficulty in Cook's portrayal is the emphasis on music theorists as musicians. Throughout the book, Cook uses the word "musician" as a synonymn for music theorist (see for example, the opening pages). However, the most common complaint one hears from music theorists is the difficulty they have convincing practising musicians of the musical pertinence of their work. In this regard, the disposition of most performers is similar to that of most listeners -- to modify Cook's terminology, practising musicians tend toward `musical performance' rather than `musicological performance.'
A further problem with Cook's account is his portrayal of music theory as an enterprise uninterested in establishing what he calls "the facts of the matter." This is simply revisionist history. There is hardly a music theorist prior to 1900 who would not have thought they were trying to tell the truth about music. Even many contemporary theorists will disagree with the view that music theory is not a discipline whose aim is to understand how music actually works.
Cook's view is also problematic in that he places no constraints on music theory. Since music theories are imaginative cultural artifacts, they aren't expected to correspond to any reality -- indeed, if they did have such a correspondence, they would cease to have any cultural import, according to Cook. By removing theorizing from any discipline of verisimilitude, Cook, in effect, sanctions any kind of gobbledegook that can gain some currency in music circles as valid theorizing.
But no theorist can truly believe that their analysis of a work is merely an act of fiction, unless they hold an entirely cynical disrespect for the analytic methods they employ. Theorists may believe the methods to be flawed in various ways, but they cannot apply such methods with integrity if they believe the method to have no relationship to reality. Nor need this reality be limited to perceptual concomitants.
Cook makes a common mistake in equating the application of science to music with the discipline of music psychology -- and in particular, the field of music perception. Science provides a set of methodological heuristics for testing any type of hypothesis; it doesn't matter whether the hypothesis is psychological, historical, formal, or whatever. Claims about the organization of music can be tested scientifically, even if there are no perceptual or psychological phenomena involved. More pointedly, empirical methods can be applied to hypotheses concerning the generative or conceptual origin of a work -- a fact which Cook curiously overlooks.
It is true, as Cook points out, that not all musical phenomena should be understood or evaluated from a perceptual point of view. As in the case of human speech, patterns of organization may reflect idiomatic aspects of the means of production (including social constraints) and have little to do with perception. But generative accounts of music are no less susceptible to empirical inquiry than receptive theories. For example, a theory concerning the influence of kinesthetic factors in the repertoire for the Chinese qin can be tested in the same way that the perceptibility of retrograde pitch can be tested. Similarly, Forte's formal claim that the first movement of Brahms's string quartet Opus 51, No. 1 is organized around the interval-pattern (2,1) can be tested scientifically -- independent of the question of whether the set-theoretic structures are perceptible. Even literary-poetic images can be tested empirically. In as yet unpublished work, John Roeder has shown how Schumann's programmatic stories (evoked by Schubert's German Dances, Opus 33) correlate strongly with concrete features in Schubert's music. It would appear that even poetic and imaginative descriptions of music may be susceptible to empirical investigation.
This oversight accounts for much of the confusion in Chapter 2 noted earlier. Cook indeed shows that there are innumerable ways of conceiving of music (kinesthetic, visual, etc.) which are unrelated to perception but still exhibit systematic properties. If you believe that the application of science to music theory is limited to perception, then the chapter shows that there are important organizational aspects of music that transcend scientific investigation. But this is clearly wrong. In fact, the chapter demonstrates the reverse of what is intended. By showing the wealth of musical phenomena that exist apart from perception, Cook merely points out how much awaits the attention of the music scientist or systematic musicologist.
Nor is human imagination itself isolated from scientific inquiry. Experimental methods can be used to probe innumerable aspects of human imagination, including kinematic, visual, poetic, imagistic, programmatic, and other forms, the longevity, flexibility, vividness, communicability, suggestability, characteristic patterns of imagining, the facility of moving from image to image, the plausibility of certain kinds of images, and so on. In short, even were it the case that music theory dealt only with imaginative thinking about music rather than with musical experience, this hypothetical discipline would not be safe from the zealous probing of systematic musicologists.
On the surface, Cook's work is a spirited critique of music theory and analysis in the face of growing illuminations from scientific and scientifically-inspired inquiry. But Cook's careful criticisms are undermined by his apparent reluctance to offend some theorists. Placed in its wider argument, the book is a sober and chilling defense of methodological mediocrity in certain practices in music theory and analysis. Cook's re-conception of music theory as solely an imaginative discipline ultimately impoverishes the whole enterprise. This is surely unintentional on Cook's part.
I don't see how it is possible to paint the disciplines of music theory and analysis with such a broad brush. Music theory has, and will continue to provide a rich source of ideas and insights about music. It will continue to generate sensitive, detailed, and profound observations of musical experience. Virtually all of these ideas will ultimately be amenable to experimental investigation, and so will ultimately attract systematic exploration and elucidation. Some theoretical claims will prove to be fanciful and unfounded; similarly, some experimental results will fall by the wayside as theorists provide more refined or compelling accounts.
Finally, consider for a moment if the tables were turned. If a contemporary psychologically-inspired theory of music were demonstrably false, I doubt that music scholars would refrain from condemning it simply because the theory could be justified as a contribution to "our rich intellectual culture." It is true that even wrong theories are part of culture. Galean medicine, for example, is an integral part of medieval European history; our knowledge of this medieval belief can help us understand period literary metaphors, and makes for a colorful characterization of an age. But we value Galean medical theory primarily for what is says of a cultural period, and less for what is says about medicine. [Footnote 2]
Ultimately, Cook's vision of music theory is sadly desolate. Having argued that theorists are incompetent in establishing the facts of musical organization and experience, he holds out the empty hope that theorists are really fiction writers in drag. This assessment will appeal only to those scholars who hold strong to the post-modernist view that there is no possibility of explanation anyway.
Finally, I cannot end this review on such a critical note. Despite my disagreement with the larger argument, Music, Imagination and Culture remains a first-class work. In the first instance, the reader can't help but be impressed by Cook's command of the literatures in music theory, analysis, aesthetics, and psychology. Time and again his arguments are buttressed by lucid musical examples, or revealing juxtapositions of quotations from well-known scholars. There are some 50-odd musical examples from Gregorian chant to Ligeti. Cook's phenomenological and introspective accounts are vivid and sometimes enchanting. His spirited critiques of the perceptual vacuousness of certain music theoretic concepts, and his penchant for running informal experiments with his students are apt to endear Cook to psychomusicologists.
Music, Imagination, and Culture is a superb book that ought to be read by all scholars who care about the state of music research. Its criticisms of conventional theory demand careful attention -- especially by theorists themselves. However, I fear that Cook himself has underestimated the magnitude of his own critique. If what he says is true, music theory is in deep trouble.David Huron
Cook, N. The perception of large-scale tonal closure. Music Perception, 1987, 5 (2) 197-205.
Francès, R. Perception de la musique. Translated by W.J. Dowling as: The perception of music. Hillsdale: Erlbaum, 1988.
Gotlieb, H., & Konecni, V.J. The effects of instrumentation, playing style, and structure in the Goldberg Variations by Johann Sebastian Bach. Music Perception, 1985, 3 (1) 87-102.
Millar, J.K. The aural perception of pitch-class set relations: A computer-assisted investigation. PhD dissertation, North Texas State University, 1984.