Thursday, June 21, 2007

37. Is This For Real?

Many people have an odd idea about science, that something isn't really truly scientific unless you can prove it. And if you can't prove it then it's better if you never even tried, because that would be speculation and speculation is dangerous. This is the attitude I've encountered time and again in music departments, and especially among music historians, who, under the impressive sounding but questionable title of "musicologists," were usually the ones who ruled the roost. These people, who spent most of their time in libraries, dredging up musty, dusty tomes or the occasional score, and keeping track mostly of really exciting things like dates, opus numbers, watermarks and handwriting, thought they understood something about science, though my guess is that very few had ever taken a college level science class in their lives.

My original hope was that Ethnomusicolgy was going to free us from the grip of the historians by opening up the study of music to a whole set of new ideas, new ways of listening, new ways of thinking about music and making it, and all sorts of new possibilities for interdisciplinary research into completely fresh and inspiring realms of possibility. Instead what seems to have happened is that almost all Ethnomusicology programs are still embedded in music departments, run all too often by people with the exact same sort of mindset that drove me nuts as a student: spend your time gathering information, catalog it, then look for more, and by no means speculate because speculation is dangerous, it isn't objective and therefore isn't scientific, and what you really need to do is be narrowly objective at all times, the narrower and more constricting the better, so you can prove that you're "right" even though what you've proven is so trivial that no one other than yourself and your thesis adviser gives a damn.

Most professional scientists see things very differently: that science is at heart an inquiry, a disciplined inquiry for sure, an inquiry based on evidence, of course, but first and foremost an inquiry into certain possibilities, meaningful possibilities that are worth exploring and could lead to further, even more fruitful inquiry. And at the heart of this sort of science is: speculation. What the "musicologists" never seem to get is that, as far as science is concerned, speculation, i.e., meaningful, disciplined speculation, based on the objective assessment of significant evidence, is what it's all about.

So, to answer my own question, there is no way of knowing for sure whether or not the various speculations I've been offering here about the meaning of certain patterns of musical style and the origins of music are really, truly "for real." I do think there are aspects of my argument that could be tested and indeed I'm currently working with geneticists from the University of Maryland to put some of my ideas to the test. Certain of these ideas have already, as I see it, been tested and passed the tests, which is why I have been sufficiently emboldened to share my thoughts here.

But, as with some of the most widely discussed scientific theories of our time, such as the Big Bang, cosmic inflation, quantum theory, supersymmetry, string theory, etc., along with various theories currently being debated about the nature of human origins and early migrations, there will probably never be any way of definitively proving that any are either correct or incorrect -- though some may very well fall by the wayside. What I've been doing here is attempting to demonstrate, not that my theories are "right," but that I am on to something worth looking into, that there are certain possibilities, overlooked in the past, that could lead to some real insights into the nature and origins of music -- and culture as well -- opening the door onto some very fruitful paths of exploration.

1 comment:

Brodie said...

I agree wholeheartedly! Einstein was an avid speculator.