Future Histories of Music Theory

A two-day workshop on current trends and future directions in the history of music theory.


Participants include:

David E. Cohen (MPIEA) 

Roger Grant (Wesleyan University)

Andrew Hicks (Cornell University) 

Nathan Martin (University of Michigan)

Caleb Mutch (Indiana University)

Carmel Raz (MPIEA)

Melanie Wald-Fuhrmann (MPIEA) 

Anna Zayaruznaya (Yale University)


Program and Abstracts

Session 1: “Global Histories of Theory”

Martin,  “Global History, Material History, and the History of Music Theory”  

The history of music theory begins with François-Joseph Fétis’ Esquisse de l’histoire de l’harmonie (1838). Its integration into academic musicology and music theory is due to Hugo Riemann’s Geschichte der Musiktheorie im IX. bis XIX. Jahrhundert (1898) and the subsequent reception and adaption of Riemann’s work in Carl Dahlhaus’ writings, in the German academy, and to the work of Claude Palisca and David Lewin in America. The research and teaching tradition thus established is codified in Thomas Christensen’s Cambridge History of Western Music Theory (2002), on the one hand, and in Frieder Zaminer’s Geschichte der Musiktheorie (1984–) on the other. As thus received, the history of music theory is essentially a kind of textual philology. Its objects are discursive artifacts of a certain age, written mostly in Latin, Italian, French, and German, and its aim is to explicate the doctrinal contents of those artifacts according to received canons of responsible interpretation. To the extent that these local interpretations of textual sources are taken up into any supervening historical narrative, the story that is told tends to retrace the grand narrative of European humanism: the conceptual resources of “Western” music theory originate in Greek harmonics, which, having been distilled by Boethius in late antiquity, are rediscovered after a period of intervening darkness in the Carolingian and twelfth-century renaissances, and then more fully in the Italian Renaissance, where they also become entangled with the beginnings of the scientific revolution. Rameau, receiving this torch from Zarlino, effects a Copernican revolution of his own and in so doing establishes the modern discipline of harmony, which then radiates outwards from Enlightenment Paris to the German-speaking world, where it is institutionalized in the conservatories and universities. From there makes its way to the new world in the form of the Princeton and Yale music departments. Recent work (Gjerdingen, Holtmeier, Christensen) has tinkered with the edges of this narrative, or challenged one or the other of its presuppositions and valuations. But there has been little attempt to rethink the subdiscipline in its fundamental scope and frame of reference.     

Yet even on its own terms, this grand narrative is crucially incomplete. The structuring opposition between musica speculativa and musica practica, for instance—which is absolutely basic to the construction of the discipline from the Renaissance on—is not indigenously “Western,” but rather comes through the Arabic tradition as transmitted in al-Farabi’s Ihsa’ al-‘ulum (De scientiis). More locally, the particular shape that the late eighteenth-century French reception of Rameau’s writings assumed cannot really be understood in abstraction for the contemporaneous French reception of Chinese musical thought as transmitted through Amiot, with which it is thoroughly imbricated.           

 What, then, might an appropriately global perspective on the history of music theory look like? One obvious reflex might be to organize that imagined history in terms of the regional grids of cold-war politics. Yet in artificially cordoning off discursive traditions in their regional silos, such an approach would work against the hybridity built into cases such as the two just above above. My talk explores an alternative organizing principle, one that draws on recent work by Benjamin Steege, David Creese, and Alexander Rehding on the role of material culture in the history of music theory. In particular, I consider the parallel roles played by pitch-pipes and the monochord in regulating pitch space in the ancient Chinese and ancient Greek traditions. In so doing, I aim to sketch out one possible way of mapping the terrain for a global history of music theory.


Hicks: “Listening Otherwise: Hearing the Cosmos in Classical Persian Sufism”

For many Persian poets, Sufis in particular, the ethereal modes through which music communicates with its listeners embodied the somatic “taste” (ẕauq) of the suprasomatic divine realities. Through a dialectic of revelation and concealment – or in the Qur’anic terms often employed by the Sufis, ẓāhir and bạ̄tin, manifest and hidden, exoteric and esoteric – proper musical experience (samā‘) becomes both a means of accessing the transcendent harmonies of the cosmos and conduit to the very transcendence of music itself. Proper hearing is not delimited by the audible range of the material ear, for this external sense (ḥiss-i ẓāhir) must yield to an internal sense (ḥiss-i bāṭin), signified by the gūsh-i jān and gūsh-i dil, the “ear of the soul” and “ear of the heart.” These auricular metaphors of listening through other ears – of listening otherwise – express a deeply Pythagorean, but specifically Persianate philosophy of audition, one not (only) grounded in the rationality of mathematical ratios, deduced through controlled experimentation, but modeled also upon Pythagoras’ cosmic auditory powers, bestowed through ritual purity.


Wald-Fuhrmann, Informal presentation on the Lexicon of Aesthetics


Session 2: “Current Work in the History of Theory”

Zayaruznaya, “A Short History of Prolation”  

Long before prolatio was a mensural level—the one below tempus, defining the relationship between the semibreve and the minim—it was a Latin noun denoting something sounding and active: a bringing forward, a putting-forth, an utterance. This paper explores the journey of prolatio from performative act to theoretical construct. Although the latter has been privileged by scholars attempting to map out the system of notation which the fourteenth century called ars nova, reading the aural and sonic connotations of the term back into its history invites us to see the theoretical construct in a new light, suggesting that the quatre prolations can be fruitfully viewed as ways of singing rather than, or in addition to, ways of organizing time in an abstract sense.


Mutch, “The Printing Press as an Agent of Music-Theoretical Change”

In this age of rapid technological development and societal fracturing, it is tempting to believe that digitization is transforming Western culture in an unprecedented manner.  While the pace of change may be faster than ever, scholars in print and media studies have demonstrated that the introduction of the printing press catalyzed societal changes that are arguably just as profound.  This paper considers how the intellectual and commercial developments enabled by the printing press affected music theory at both a lofty, intellectual level and a mundane, practical one.  With respect to the former, it argues that print technology is a factor in the establishment of an intellectual justification for just intonation by Fogliano and subsequent authors.  As for the latter, this paper contends that the genre of the theory textbook, newly enabled by the printing press, led to new pedagogical experimentation and the democratization of music theory in the sixteenth century and beyond.  


Grant, “Early Modern Opera and the Mimetic Affektenlehre”

Lully’s Armide, premiered at the Paris Opéra in 1686, tells a story of the eponymous Muslim warrior princess and her struggle against the Christian Knight Renaud. The entire opera revolves around the interior feeling life of its protagonist. At its dramatic crux is a scene that so captivated the attention of critics that it became a prism through which eighteenth-century musical affect theory was refracted: Armide’s Act II recitative, “Enfin, il est en ma puissance.” The turbulent reception history of this single dramatic moment demonstrates the assembly of a fragile network of ideas connecting music, signification, mimesis, and affect in the early modern era. It is this set of ideas that I will call the mimetic Affektenlehre: an unstable consensus among theorists that music could employ formal conventions in order to act as a sign and evoke specific affects in audiences. Using Armide as a touchstone, this paper explains how early modern opera and the mimetic Affektenlehre were mutually influential and ultimately fruitful experiments in affective communication.


Session 3: Workshopping Drafts of Works in Progress

Raz, “To ‘Fill Up, Completely the Whole Capacity of the Mind’: Listening and Attention in Late Eighteenth-Century Scotland”    

In Of the Nature of that Imitation which Takes Place in What Are Called the Imitative Arts ([1777]/1795), Adam Smith famously described the power of instrumental music as stimulating the specific mental faculty of attention: “by the sweetness of its sounds it awakens agreeably, and calls upon[,] the attention; by their connection and affinity, it naturally detains that attention.”  Smith maintained that such sounds could “occupy, and as it were fill up, completely the whole capacity of the mind, so as to leave no part of its attention vacant for thinking of any thing else.” Over the past thirty years, music scholars have generally regarded Smith’s depiction of instrumental music as an early articulation of the listening practices associated with so-called Absolute music (e.g. Seidel 2003).    

This essay offers an additional interpretation of Smith’s comments. I argue that his account of listening to instrumental music reflects a distinctly Scottish attitude toward auditory attention, an approach that was shaped by Thomas Reid’s anti-associationist psychology as filtered through music-theoretical ideas advanced by the Scottish music theorist John Holden. I begin by discussing Reid’s innovative model of attention, which is arguably the first theorization of the subject that posits the mind as actively selecting and retaining sensations. I then show how these ideas of Reid inform Holden’s identification of the crucial roles of attention and memory in musical cognition. Finally, I present a close reading of Smith’s account of the power of instrumental music, contextualized alongside the writings of Reid and Holden. Considered as a group, these thinkers relate auditory attention to specific mental strategies involving selection and memory.  This conception differs from contemporary notions of attention as dependent on astonishment, variety, or interest, as well as from early Romantic notions of the imaginative transport afforded by untexted music.  Following Thomas Grey’s recent call for a new conceptualization of the history of absolute music, I propose that we should consider these writings as belonging to a separate “empirical” strand of listening practices associated with instrumental music.


Cohen, “‘The First Foundations of Song’:  The Concept of the Note as the Element of Music”

My title refers to a larger study, only part of which will be presented on this occasion. That study explains, and attempts to resolve, an apparent historical contradiction between two sets of historical “facts,” namely:  

(1) On the one hand, there is firm evidence that medieval cantors possessed some sort of concept of the musical note by the end of the eighth century, if not earlier.

(2) On the other hand, however, there is also evidence that that concept was still new and challenging in the mid to later ninth century (if not later still), even among the most “advanced” musical thinkers of the time.

Of the various questions to which these considerations give rise, I pursue the following. First, when (roughly), and under what circumstances, was the concept of the note adopted by Carolingian musicians, and what was that concept? And second: if, as seems to be the case, the earliest modal classification was carried out without benefit of the concept of the note, how can it be that it was in essential agreement with the later, note-, final- and theory-driven classification?  I shall focus here on the Problemstellung, in particular the evidence mentioned above, reserving discussion of my proposed solution for another occasion.