I’ve recently been chugging through a bunch of pre-grad school reading suggestions, and read Guido Adler‘s 1885 article laying out the (then) new “science” of musicology–”The Scope, Method, and Aim of Musicology.” His thoughts, and the article itself, are, of course, products of their time, and have been really influential, and all that. I’m glad I read it in terms of my own edification in the history of a discipline whose cousin I am entering, but his essential notion that music can be studied and systematized like any natural science bothers me incredibly, to say the least. (Maybe it wouldn’t bother me so much if it weren’t still floating around, though.)
I’ve been bothered by this tendency for a long time, since I first became interested in ethnomusicology, and I think what it really boils down to is this: people aren’t simple and neither are things that people create. People are, in fact, inordinately complex, and the communities they create and in which they participate are even more so, and how those communities interact and develop over time even more so. How much more infinitely complex, then, are the often highly-idiosyncratic artistic products of these communities?
This isn’t to say that we can’t possibly begin to try to understand music–but it’s so, so extremely important to do so with the biggest dose of humility we can summon up. People who think about music, and who study music, have to come to terms with the fact that all our thinking and writing, no matter how clear, insightful, perceptive, granular, deep, broad, what have you, is pretty much just a thin crust of simplification floating on a huge mass of complex and at times even chaotic music-making. It’s simplification that is often very useful, but we can’t possibly hope to represent, let alone systematize, everything out there in an exhaustive fashion.
Of course, these are issues with any kind of intellectual inquiry into natural or human phenomena–it’s not something that even a true natural science like biology, for example, can escape. Biological phenomena, though, are quite a bit more regular than artistic phenomena and thus, I think, lend themselves a lot more elegantly to positivist systematization.
I’m not saying anything here that I don’t think a whole bunch of ethnomusicologists would agree with–I just feel it important, for my own intellectual development if nothing else, to lay it out. These thoughts mean that my work has tended, and will continue to tend, I hope and believe, toward the granular; if over time I can create some kind of pointillist image that eventually points to bigger theories, then I’ll go there–but until that time I think it’s wise to be somewhat conservative in what I believe to be the implications of any particular project for anything else.
The other, semantic consequence of these thoughts is that “ethnomusicology” is a rather poor, and unnecessarily scientific-sounding, title for the essentially humanistic and anti-positivist discipline I think it is and/or should be. Unfortunately I can’t think of another term that is quite as short and convenient, but I’ll keep you posted.