Postcard from a music analysis conference

Last weekend, the Society for Music Analysis held a two-day “Celebration of Music Analysis”, to mark the 30th anniversary of the founding of the journal Music Analysis. The organisers brought together an impressive group of scholars who gave largely excellent papers on a variety of music-analytical topics. Sounds great, right? Well, it was. But here’s the thing: none of those impressive scholars was an ethnomusicologist. And, as far as I am aware, I was the only ethnomusicologist in attendance. I thought this was a shame. Close musical analysis has always been a big part of my own work on North Indian classical music and I am convinced that most ethnomusicologists and music analysts have a great deal to learn from each other. I do not wish to bore you all with a comprehensive, blow-by-blow account of the conference. Rather, in the hope of promoting future engagement, I’m going to highlight a few ideas that came up in the conference that I think would be of interest to ethnomusicologists.

The universal human tendency to analyse?

In the general discussion session that concluded the event, the conversation briefly touched on ethnomusicology and the analysis of world music. I was very happy to hear Richard Cohn mention the excellent, so far North-America-based collaboration between what the Americans call “music theorists” (who mainly work on Western classical music) and ethnomusicologists, as part of the Analytical Approaches to World Music (AAWM) conferences and journal.

Defending music analysis against the claim that the discipline is moribund, condemned to disappear alongside (Western classical) musical literacy, Jonathan Dunsby then spoke of its apparent universality. He brought up anecdotal evidence suggesting that most musicians, all over the world, like to talk and think about how music works and what it means, which he is happy to label “analysis”.  (I’m paraphrasing: I can’t remember the exact words he used, but anyway that was the general idea.)

I quite like the idea that analytical thinking about music is some kind of basic human tendency, a natural complement to music-making. It certainly holds true in the case of North Indian classical music, in which there is a lively scene of musicians and connoisseurs who love to talk about the fine nuances of musical style and performance. Musicians encourage this at concerts when they introduce their performances with lengthy verbal explanations of what they are about to sing. Audiences signal their close engagement with the music they are hearing when they respond out loud to particularly interesting musical events, such as temporary departures from the main rāg in semi-classical performances. (In a Western classical concert, this would be roughly the equivalent of audience members’ turning to each other and saying “Wow!” out loud after an especially interesting or surprising modulation.) In the context of North Indian classical music at least, not to write about those fine musical details would seem to be doing an injustice to the musicians and audiences who consider them important. And this idea of a universal human tendency to analyse would seem to be a good starting point for dialogue between music analysts and ethnomusicologists.

I’d be interested to hear what you all have to say about this. Is analysis really as universal as I want it to be? Have any of you noticed anything similar in the various types of music that you study? How widespread is analytical thinking about music? How is that different from any other kinds of thinking about music, or should we label all thinking about music analytical? Even if musicians aren’t interested in analysing their own music, should we do it anyway?

Embodied understandings of music

A number of EDG (the discussion group that accompanies this blog) are interested in relationships between music and the body and ways in which types of musical understanding might be embodied. (In fact, we dealt with this issue at length at the last EDG meeting, earlier this week.) It would seem that this issue is also on the radar of our analytical colleagues. In a lovely paper on a Chopin performance by the pianist Alfred Cortot, Daniel Leech-Wilkinson drew attention to a link between the pianist’s use of rubato and the shape of the melodic line he was playing, such that he sped up as the pitches got lower and slowed down as they got higher. He compared this with the bodily sensation of cycling over hills: we speed up on downhill sections and slow down when we’re going uphill. I was quite taken by this idea: amongst other things, it resonates with my experience of listening to Cuban music through my iPod and feeling the dance steps I would be doing if I were dancing to it. It would also seem to sit very comfortably alongside, say, Martin Clayton and Laura Leante’s work on physical gesture in North Indian classical music.

Music / theory interactions

Elizabeth Eva Leach’s inspired Lacanian reading of converging melodic lines in medieval two-part vocal music was an exemplary demonstration of how one might read music through theory. This is something which some of us at EDG (and at the IMR reading group with overlapping membership) have been attempting repeatedly over the last couple of years. We often (with varying degrees of success) devote the last portion of our discussions of non-musicological texts (Freud, Spivak etc.) to considering how our chosen reading might shed light on the various types of music we all study. I, for one, have been exploring ways of doing this in my own work, too. Leach’s work would suggest that this is another area in which we might well benefit from dialogue with our analytical colleagues.

In that it dealt with aspects of musical interaction, Leach’s paper wouldn’t have seemed out of place at this year’s annual British Forum for Ethnomusicology (BFE) conference. In fact, I suspect it would have gone down very well there. Her ideas about “distributed cognition” in musical performance (explained here), for example, would have provided an interesting counterpoint to Joe Browning’s provocative discussion of the distribution of agency in shakuhachi performances. (I wonder what Joe would say about this…)

This blog post, already too long, could have been far longer. I could have written about Michael Spitzer’s paper on emotion in music and noted parallels with Indian theoretical discussions of rasa and bhāva. I could have discussed Nicholas Reyland’s theories of musical narrative, which he himself told me in conversation that he thought might apply outside the Western classical canon. I could focussed on the subject of metre: Richard Cohn, one of the two keynote speakers at the event, argued persuasively that metre is a topic which promises not only to bring together analysts of Western classical music with analysts of other types of music, but also to bring together analysts with performers. And I could have recounted Adam Ockelford’s stimulating descriptions of imitation in music therapy: his “zygonic” theory of music is applicable to music-making in many more contexts than just Western classical ones. But I will stop here. I have gone on long enough. I hope at least to have made the case that it’s worth it for ethnomusicologists to think about attending future music-analytical conferences. (And of course I don’t think this should be a one-way street: analysts would, I think, have a lot to learn from ethnomusicologists too – but that probably deserves a blog post of its own.) And then maybe we will be able to continue the discussion with our analyst colleagues in person some day…



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5 responses to “Postcard from a music analysis conference

  1. Thanks for the nice comments on my paper! I think distributed cognition/creativity is a concept with wide applicability in music-making — I’d been very inspired by the way that historians of early-modern theatre had used it. As for dialogue between analysts and ethnomusicologists, do you know the two edited volumes by Michael Tenzer (the second with John Roeder)? and

    • chloezadeh

      Yes. I would love to hear what other ethnomusicologists think about your ideas about distributed cognition in music-making. (I wonder if there are possible fruitful connections to be made with Latourian actor-network theory, which seems to be coming into vogue in ethnomusicology at the moment?)

      Thanks for mentioning the two Tenzer volumes, which both contain some great stuff. Michael Tenzer himself has been a big driving force behind the AAWM (analysis of world music) projects that are taking place on the other side of the pond. I get the feeling that the North Americans are more eager for such projects than we Brits tend to be. Still, even the AAWM events give little opportunity for ethnomusicologists and Western classical analysts to engage with one another, since the subject matter is limited to world music alone…

  2. Hi,

    We can chat about this on Friday when we meet. I think musical analysis is one thing, but are we not talking about ‘critical’ analysis here? I’m sure that was mentioned several times and perhaps taken as a given that the purpose of musical analysis is to reflect critically on it.

    I wonder to what extent such analysis reflects actual performance, which relates to concerns I have about the actual usefulness, at a grass roots level, of ethnomusicology. How many people outside of academia actual make use of the research that we do?

    I’d be interested to know how Martin Clayton’s work on entrainment is progressing since I last heard him speak on it years ago (see It is a very important aspect to performance … I wonder how much it has actually been used to inform performance?


  3. Veronica

    Thanks for the post Chloe (this is Anna btw). It seems like you’re talking about musical analysis as being generally ‘discourse around music’ and I wonder if it’s useful to distinguish between speech/writing as a response to music which you love (other responses could be movement/dance, tributes/copying the performance), and analysis which could be conceived of as a more detailed, conceptual response to it? I’m not sure if I would make a distinction between the two, but that means that musical analysis of whatever kind is no different to someone trying to learn a piece of music that they love, and getting to know the detail of it that way. You could distinguish ‘analysis’ as being more rational/detailed/academic, but I don’t know if that is a meaningful distinction, for me.

    let’s talk more on friday! I will be at the IMR seminar although not the EDG meeting as I seem to be unable to ever come to the reading group, I will have to resign myself to not being a member.

  4. chloezadeh

    Thank you both for your comments! You’re both absolutely right to point out that there are problems with terminology here. Decisions about which kinds of discourse about music warrant the label “music analysis” are neither obvious nor ideologically neutral.

    Paul, I would be interested to hear more about what you think the possible differences are between “critical analysis” and “musical analysis”. Anna, when writing the blog-post I had actually not really wanted to label as “analysis” all discourse around music. I had been operating on the assumption that, at the very least, music analysis should involve some consideration of the sounds of musical performance, asking questions like “Why these sounds in this order?” or maybe “What meanings and associations do these musical features evoke in particular cultural contexts?” etc. Perhaps you think that this not a particularly meaningful distinction, either?

    As for relationships between scholarship and performance, this is a very important discussion that I would love to continue. In fact one of the keynote speakers at the conference, Richard Cohn, dealt interestingly with this issue: he suggested a situation in which analysis could be of help to a young piano pupil who is struggling with the metrical ambiguity of Beethoven’s “Fuer Elise”. This topic surely warrants a discussion of its own: Paul, perhaps you could outline your ideas on the subject in a blog post or even choose a relevant reading for an EDG meeting soon?

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