Monday, October 10, 2005


Too often in academia, students and aspiring scholars lose sight of the bigger picture. In music, a harmonic analysis of a Beethoven is great and all but what's the point? The ultimate goal of a harmonic analysis isn't itself but the support of some greater musical point. Seen as such, the study of analysis per se is not a particularly worthy endeavour unless you are doing studying meta-theory or the historiography of analysis. But then the subject isn't music but rather the analysis of music.

On the other hand, encouraging students to grapple with broader issues sometimes sacrifices technical precision. Let's say somebody threw a Stravinsky piece for you to look at. As is often with Stravinsky pieces, an aural sampling of the music yields, from the perspective of traditional (common-practice and romantic) harmonic and rhythmic practices, a level of discomfort. Much of Stravinsky's music pointedly sets up and then destroys expectations. One point a student might make as a first-level analysis is that despite the static nature of the surface (static because expectations are continually disrupted) belies meticulous planning or perhaps some sense of a goal.

That point could be a good one but it needs some kind of evidence to support it. One can not just opine that there's a feeling, out there somewhere in the ether, that underneath the disruptive rhythmic figures a deeper teleology exists. The buzzwords are there but the more precise analystical back up isn't. One can't sacrifice one for the other. A less musical parallel would be to opine that there's some relationship between the American intellectual atmosphere post World War II and immigration patterns during and after the War. Surely there is a correlation and a honors thesis in there somewhere but the opinion can't stop there. It's a matter of scope and ruthless academic consistency and it is a never ending struggle for the scholar.

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