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 :)

I undertand that you're a person who has accomplished a PhD, and that this makes you an expert in music and gender.
I will certainly consider your opinions more important than my own on such matters very generally.
As a person who did not accomplish a PhD, I'm an expert in why I did not accomplish a PhD:
I'm an expert in the collective psychopathology of Schenkerism.
Your expertise and my expertise do overlap, but not entirely.

So Ima' mansplain at ya for a bit. Go ahead and disagree. I'm not your tutor. I'm just some loudmouth on the internet.

[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!’]

And, from this, we already know your tutor was not a Schenkerian.

[Several of the essays in this book develop Meyer’s implication-realisation model of musical meaning,]

Even my thesis advisor who, at least at the time, seemed to be a nominal Schenkerian, liked to point out that meanings are assigned, not derived.
Nonetheless, the assignment of emotional meaning is not an essentially rational process, because the emotional process is not essentially rational.
Thus, music being, more than other things, a form of emotional communication, while possibly created rationally, nonetheless produces most of its value ("meaning") from irrational listening processes.

[first conceived in terms of gestalt psychology in Emotion and Meaning in Music, but now in terms of information theory.]

NB that while Schenkerians may also invoke these things, Schenkerism in no way depends upon them, and is often at odds with them.

[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.]

Meyer seems to conflate the value of the emotional content with the cognitive cost of producing it.
As a left-leaning capitalist, I'm still a capitalist, so I still have to disagree with the idea that value derives from effort rather from utility.
It's amusing for me to consider that while this is a Marxist idea, Schenker, an ardent anti-Marxist, also seems to have subscribed to it.
And if anyone's personal highest utility in listening to music is just to burn up surplus cognitve energy,
I have to wonder why more people don't also do calculus exercises while they sit through Wagner in concert halls.

[Some music is obviously well-formed but trite, while some music touches us profoundly – can this theory explain the difference?]

Meyer's work and, later, Narmour's work can be used to approach aspects of the question which are worthy of approach,
but this seems not to be the core utility of their work, or at least not for me.
By comparison, that is practically all that Schenkerian theory seems to continue with the intention to pretend to do.

[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.]

Apparent teleology (even after the fact) and delayed fulfillment of expectation are both valuable aesthetic elements in the arts, including music.
But to assign these as the most important aesthetic elements would be extremely arbitrary, even if it were not also culturally biased.
To do so disdains all emotional experience which is not best approached teleologically, essentially invalidating the drive to such experience.

This is close to a form of psychological abuse.

We are more or less told that real surprises are forbidden,
and that we must instead derive satisfaction from the feeling of superior control we get from never really being surprised by anything more than once.

Moreover, it pathologizes curiosity.

[Greatness comes from deferred gratification.]

And here we have the most basic classist lie that wealthy Victorians continued to flog as a dead horse many years after the pertinent data were in.
Other manifestations include that 3000 American men are still dying each year from prostate conditions mathematically attributable to insufficient ejaculation.
I don't see the Vatican or LDS stepping up eagerly to pay for their treatments, either, which, you would think... OK, nevermind.

[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.]

That's not really how it works with Schenkerism. In Schenkerism, words mean whatever the more senior Schenkerian says they mean.
Consider the word "analysis", for example; Schenker never called what he did analysis. Schenkerians have also translated "ausrottet" as "get rid of", here:

https://schenkerdocumentsonline.org/search/?fq=all&kw=ausrottet

[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 would do that because he's the product of a culture that fetishizes teleology, including false teleology.
My own rough measure of whether someone should probably be cited as a bigot is whether they are clearly any more bigoted than their culture of origin.
Thus, my problem with Schenker's apparent bigotry isn't essentially about Schenker, but essentially about current Schenkerians working to hide it while also claiming there's no reason to hide it.

[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’,]

To acknowledge that such a thing must even exist puts him a notch above Schenker for me.
Schenker's postive statements about certain "negro music" did not include the opinion that it was sophisticated.
Not having heard it, myself, I can't actually render an opinion.
I'm just saying Schenker never acknowledged the probable existence of sophisticated music by "so-called primitives".
Let me emphasize that I cite Schenker as considering "negros" to be primitive, and that that's what's necessary in order to make my point here;
to make the point I'm making here, I don't have to agree with him.

[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.]

Mere cultural chauvinism is not really a western invention.
The better reason to discourage western cultural chauvinism is not that it makes westerners look like jerks;
the better reason is that cultural chauvinism, of any kind, just isn't great.
But we need to check our own chauvinism first, certainly.

[The differentia between art music and primitive music lies in the speed of tendency gratification.]

Here, Meyer seems to be channeling Schenker, which is funny, considering Meyer's connection to Narmour, and Narmour's angle on Schenker.

[The primitive seeks almost immediate gratification for his tendencies whether these be biological or musical.]

This would seem to be one of the defining elements of what we broadly consider to be primitive mentality,
so it seems like he's not saying anything; his statement is essentially circular.
But, then (ah yes, finally) we can see the subtext.

[Nor can he tolerate uncertainty.]

Now that is funny. If Meyer doesn't think people under comparatively primitive conditions develop a greater tolerance for uncertainty,
then he hasn't slept on garage floors or eaten out of dumpsters. So let me tell ya', Lenny... OK, not today.

[And it is because distant departures from the certainty and repose of the tonic note and lengthy delays in gratification are insufferable to him]

Meyer apparently missed the fact that while even very amateur jazz tends to avoid the tonic, it's actually classical music that seems to keep going there for no reason, and then abruptly changing its mind.

My guess would be, instead of the things Meyer describes as being insufferable to the primitive, that whoever Meyer is talking about probably just DGF about dominant prolongation.
If that's really it, then maybe I'm one of Meyer's primitives.
I'm sort of OK with that.
I hear dominant prolongation, but I really DGF.
Let me explain what it sounds like to me by means of analogy to this joke I wrote:

A: Knock-knock.
B: Who's there?
A: Passive-Aggressive
B: Passive-Aggressive who?
A: Knock-knock.
B: Who's there?
A: I ALREADY TOLD YOU!

[that the tonal repertory of the primitive is limited, not because he cannot think of other tones.]

Of course not, at least not compared to the pet composers of Schenkerism,
who feel they need to explain almost every accidental as producing a new dominant chord of some kind.

[It is not his mentality that is limited, it is his maturity.]

The maturity card in my specific culture of origin (12th generation New England Yankee) is ONLY to be played by a person who knows himself of herself to be chronologically older than the person whose behavior is being critiqued. I can't really speak to Meyer's assumption that he should dare to play the maturity card on an abstract person who might be chronologically older than him. Really, it's bizarre.

[Note, by the way, that popular music can be distinguished from real jazz on the same basis.]

By "distinguished", I hope what he really means is "differently characterized".
The complexity of popular music and the complexity of jazz can each be assessed on multiple spectra, using multiple criteria.

[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.]

I don't disagree with this. I disagree that Mozart and Beethoven really do much more than simply stretch out the joke.

A: Knock-knock
B: Is that Passive-Aggressive again?
A: Who wants to know?

[I didn’t think it right to use an otherwise interesting and insight-provoking music theory to assert cultural superiority.]

And that was about all I said at the same age. As my spoken critiques became more refined, I found myself being more and more often deterred from further scholarship by the actions of persons to whom I had asked forbidden questions.

[...that you don’t have to agree with people to learn from them,]

And if learning what YOU hope to learn were the point of a formal education, that would be really convenient.
But guess what.

[because my tutor leapt to Meyer’s defence.]

I can defend Meyer's work in developing analytics without defending his apparent motives.
If something is truly good enough to do, there is ultimately no bad reason to do it.
I'm not a Christian, but I can nonethelss cite Paul as telling other Christians that they must allow non-Christians to also perform acts of charity.
From a a Buddhist standpoint, if I understand correctly, the best Buddhist might never even have heard of Buddhism; he or she would simply be the person whose actions are the most Buddha-like.

I can at least credit Schenkerism with more consistently supporting teleology fetishism than are various heirs to Meyer's theories; the racist causes and racist consequences of Schenkerism show a much more directed line.
Of course denying that you and I could possibly see this would be consistent with their de facto claim that they can all see deeply hidden lines better than you and I can see or hear comparatively obvious subsurface lines... because anyone who doesn't agree with Schenkerism is a pattern perception idiot, I guess.

[his argument was that deferred gratification was the basis all of advanced economies,]

Except that it's NOT.

[and thus what differentiated First World from Third World.]

That's a basic lie of colonialism; that exploiting colonies is justifiable on the basis that they will otherwise waste what they produce.
Before the potato, Europe was a dark, sleepy backwater occasionally mentioned in the literature of China and India.
Then Colombus got so angry at the sinking of his ship to prevent trade between Britain and Genoa without paying taxes in-between that he decide to get revenge by sailing around the hard way, no matter how far, and cutting out the middle man. Then he got so lost that to get more lost, you'd have to go into outer space, and he somehow found his way back.

Then potato. Then suddenly Goa belongs to Portugal. Then everything.

On the upside, the inevitable war between the Aztec and Inca that Columbus accidentally prevented might still be going on today.
By now it could even be unflinchingly nuclearized.
It's hard to say. Meanwhile, "guns, germs and steel"; chronological advantages provided by continental morphology are narratively replaced with abstract, often supernatural explanations of why someone colonized someone else rather than the other way around.

In Colonial New England, people who didn't subscribe to delayed gratification did in fact often die from their decision, despite extensive help to prevent their deaths. But that's not the whole story, for sure.

[So, there you have it: not only a white racial frame for this theory, but a capitalist one to boot.]

That's not precisely capitalism. I used to play in a band with a guy who had grown up in the USSR.
He assured me that what he saw of socialism as practiced in the USSR was even more demanding in terms of delayed gratification.
He made it sound like an endless Grumpy Cat meme: "No can has cheeseburger until all cat can has cheeseburger."
In capitalism, poor people struggle in futility to save in order to get ahead and, sometimes, as if in a casino, they succeed.
In the USSR, they were told everything was being saved for them, but, in various ways, it was not.

[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.]

As an ex-feminist (for now, anyway), I still can't disagree with your point here, but there's more. I know it seems like I always have more.
Part of the unstated deeper conflict being sloppily played out in the Ewell-Jackson feud is an even simpler demand for basic relevance.
Every year the Long Tail gets longer and income opportunities through music become slightly more de-corporatized.
Millenial musicians are very justified in asking why music education institutions aren't providing them with the tools they need in order to find their own viable niche markets, but are instead wasting their time teaching them to create more of what rich people in the 19th Century thought the 18th Century should have sounded more like.
Not in these, terms, of course. But that's what it boils down to.

Conservatories are certainly available for anyone who wants to participate in musical aspects of psychohistoric revisionism by retroactively reconstructing and dubiously purifying white musical history. As sickening as this is to begin to contemplate, if they at least do it with all their own resources, there's less for me to complain about.

But universities, though not commercial trade schools, are also not conservatories; the public ones, at least, have some obligation to provide some kind of economic value by means of instruction.

The core of the consumer pool for profitable music, as Ralph Murphy explains, is a 30 year old white woman driving to work at 7:00 AM.
Since Murphy published that statement, the market has been slowly shifting toward India, while it also continues to expand into nonwhite consumer pools elsewhere.
I have always considered mere commercial viability a legitimate reason to analyze a piece of music in various ways, so I have long since come to terms (by means of a single shrug) with the revelation that the market is shifting toward India.

But as the mainstream pop charts are threatened to become slowly inundated by things that sound gradually more and more like Chutney Soca, there are people who are looking for new ways to not precisely say that they're scared the n****ers are taking over.

Schenkerians are some of these people. Some afficionados of Implication-Realization might also be, but they need not be.

The Implication-Ralization model is not ultimately culturally dependent and does not make any inherent prescriptions about what should or should not happen in a piece of music.
I am as free to use it to write more intensely boring or more intensely irritating music as to write anything else.
Moreover, where Schenker is useless for understanding melodies by my 3 favorite melodists, Implication-Realization is not useless.

Do the melodies of Kassia (the Byzantine Kassia), Hildegard von Bingen, and Vashti Bunyan sound the way they do because they're all women?
Maybe. And let be clear that that's a hard maybe.
It's difficult for me to imagine men writing such melodies without getting the sh** beat out of them one way or another for not performing maleness,
and not necessarily just by other men.
In my case, if learning to write such melodies means also getting the sh** beat out of me, I'm still in.
I haven't completely cracked those melodies, but I've got something. I'm on it.
Without reading ACBMS (Narmour) I would never have figured out what I was really looking for, which only took me about 20 years because Narmour really does come dangerously close to actually saying something about it a couple of times in his many hundreds of pages of other stuff.

[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.]

White supremacy, yes. Patriarchy, yes. Capitalism... I think is an imprecise term when used as you are using it here.

Cultural hegemony is not essentially capitalistic; it actually goes against the principle of earnest market capitalism in which the consumer gets to decide what's culturally important. A complaint against teaching the analysis of commercial popular music in public universities that seems to come first from rich white men, but is then also parroted by various futile wannabees trying to acquire social privilege by performing social class is essentially that, in commercial popular music, the music is the medium and the marketing is the product. As a sincere and reflective Cynic, I have to point out that we don't really have any reason to think that this hasn't been the case for a really long time,
that the dynamic does not extend far beyond popular music, or that the people complaining just don't like competition for their own privileged hegemonic culture.
Beethoven, for example, was a composer whose music, by itself, wasn't really very profitable. Beethoven's real product was his music as combined with an interesting biography that rich white men could exploit after his death for their own culturally hegemonic interest.
I don't think of this as essentially socialist, either; I think it conceptually combines the worst aspects of both philosophies.

[I still think Meyer has much to teach us about musical syntax within the limits of the repertories about which he was expert.]

My own contact with Meyer is through Narmour. Narmour uses what I think are an admirable number of nonwestern graphic examples, considering that he could easily have used none.
ACBMS and ACMC are primarily intended to explain the least improbable cognitive responses of the most neurologically typical listeners, and not to make cultural value judgements.
There are no perfect theories or perfect models of anything. But Narmour's work at least shows compellingy that it matters to him whether what he does is more imperfect or less imperfect in terms of not simply giving in to cultural bias.

[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.]

I happen to agree with this.
But Schenker's work and Meyer's work are not otherwise analogous in terms of their long-term cultural consequences.
I thank you for pointing out that one of my own pet theoretic traditions actually leads back to someone with white cultural hegemonist sympathies.
I had really not read the citation you share here before today, and I consider that I'm capable to accomplish quite enough as a hypocrite without also refusing to read it or try to understand it from all possible angles. It's important that critics of Schenkerism, including those many naively jumping this year onto what they don't yet realize has long been my one-man-bandwagon, do not use the demonization of Schenkerism as a way to excuse other problems in music theory culture.

If Schenkerism simply ended, the whiteness would still have many other ways to continue.

Please, please don't let me forget that.

- Joshua Clement Broyles

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