Friday, August 26, 2016

Care-Oriented Musicology

by William Cheng

Art by Jess Landau (2016)

The following is an excerpt from the Introduction to the author’s Just Vibrations: The Purpose of Sounding Good (University of Michigan Press, 2016, foreword by Susan McClary), available both in print and Open Access. The goal of OA has been to democratize the book’s accessibility, regardless of readers’ income, class, employment, institutional resources, or professional status. Reprinted with permission from the University of Michigan Press.

Leading up to the 2009 conference for Feminist Theory and Music, Lydia Hamessley shared this memory:
The genesis of the first FTM can be traced to the American Musicological Society annual meeting in Baltimore, MD in 1988. At that conference, there was an unprecedented critical mass of panels and papers that focused on “women in music.” . . . At a Committee on the Status of Women meeting, Rosemary Killam rose in anger when a male audience member (I absolutely cannot remember who it was) suggested that it wasn’t his problem if his female students couldn’t work late in the library because they feared walking across campus late at night. “Oh yes, it is, sir; yes, it is!” she shouted.
What institutional and intellectual alibis could lead a scholar (or any person) to voice a disregard for students’ safety? We can try to guess where this male audience member believed his priorities lay: in musicology, in the study of music—its beauty, import, intricacies. Music served as an out, enabling him to run from extracurricular care.

Maybe this man didn’t mean what he said. No doubt, we all say bad things and lamentably sound off from time to time. Maybe he regretted his words and quickly reformed his views. Most of us would agree, after all, that a professor does bear responsibilities for students’ well-being. It’s common sense and basic decency, an implicit clause in the job contract. Actually, it’s more than just a clause: arguably, it’s the moral bottom line. Students, not least women walking alone at night, have legitimate reasons to be on guard against incident of rape and violence. In September 2015, the Association of American Universities published results of a massive survey on sexual assault. Across twenty-seven universities, “the incidence of sexual assault and sexual misconduct due to physical force, threats of physical force, or incapacitation among female undergraduate student respondents was 23.1 percent, including 10.8 percent who experienced penetration.” Although some writers have since criticized this survey for its methodologies and possible inaccuracies, the disseminated results have helped boost awareness and action across campuses. Skeptics are entitled to continue quibbling about the infamous one-in-five or one-in-four statistic (the percentage of female college students who allegedly experience sexual assault), but at a certain point, the hairsplitting starts to sound apologist. Numerically, any study contains margins of error. The point is that ethically—when it comes to our collective obligations to address these injuries—the margin of error should be zero.

Let’s pose the question of scholarly priorities in a more challenging way. Is musicology about the safety of a female music student? No, it isn’t, if we define musicology starkly as the study of music. But yes, it is, if we envision musicology as all the activities, care, and caregiving of people who identify as members of the musicology community. In a post-Obama yes-we-can era, Killam’s yes, it is! can serve anew as a disciplinary rallying cry. Beyond overtly activist work, what if we regularly upheld care not just as a bonus activity or a by-product of scholarship? In a world where injuries run rampant, what if care is the point?

Riffing on Marshall McLuhan and Andy Warhol, Phil Ford has characterized the discipline of musicology as “anything you can get away with.” By this, he means that rather than categorically insisting on what topics do or do not fall under musicology, let’s conceive of musicology as whatever self-identified musicologists choose to do. Disciplinary boundaries incessantly shift and shimmer anyway—so why not justify their flexibility via people’s diverse, quirky interests? “The primary pleasure that scholarship offers is the chance to encounter other minds and thereby expand one’s own,” Ford muses. “The full range of other minds constitutes the true horizon that bounds the humanist; nothing human should be alien to us.” But if musicology is anything we can get away with, a caveat is that the discipline must simultaneously encompass everything we cannot afford to run away from—care, compassion, and interpersonal concerns that don’t always sound scholarly as such. In other words, the purpose of disciplinary belonging isn’t to get away with your choice of labor, so as merely to survive. The purpose is to thrive and to enable others to do so in turn. For scholars fortunate enough to land on tenure tracks or obtain positions of influence, doesn’t the task of caring become even more pressing? Cynthia Wu declares that we shouldn’t “forget about the original purpose of tenure—to protect academic freedom.” Yet Wu also implores us not to forget the duties of academic freedom—namely, to advocate for people who do not possess such freedom and its privileges. Tenure, Jennifer Ruth believes, “enable[s] you to endure unpopularity for something bigger than yourself.” Academic freedom, then, isn’t a license to be carefree. It’s an opportunity to care widely, assertively, and generously.

Ford points to Susan McClary as an example of a scholar who endured unpopularity for her trailblazing overtures in feminist musicology. McClary’s initial adversity can remind us to “appreciate the license her work gave to all of us coming up behind her. She took a lot of crap—the critical response to Feminine Endings was perhaps the most epic bout of mansplaining in the history of musicology—but she . . . did it with style, and she got away with it.” The flair of McClary’s prose, Ford emphasizes, went a long way in boosting the influence and controversies of Feminine Endings. As academics know, writing and speaking proficiently can carry enormous cachet. Sounding good grabs attention. It gets people to care.

With this in mind, Just Vibrations asks a small question with big answers: what is the purpose of sounding good? Rhetorically, sounding good entails writing and speaking in a seemingly intelligent manner, which can impress people, win arguments, and elevate one’s status. Paranoid criticism, as described by Sedgwick, exemplifies some of these dazzling tactics. An ability to reason artfully and communicate efficiently reaps rewards. Even in our most banal exchanges, we’re constantly navigating tricky tides of verbal and sonic propriety. Recognizing the importance of language to our self-presentation, we choose words and sounds that minimize our risks of being shamed or shot down. Fear of sounding bad, sounding off, or sounding wrong can deter expression altogether. If you write eloquently enough, will your paper get accepted by a top-ranked journal? If you speak normatively enough during a phone interview, can you pass as straight, able-bodied, white, and American, potentially improving your chances? If you sing melodiously enough, will your amateur YouTube recordings go viral? History has shown how mighty pens and silver tongues—just ink on a page, just vibrations in the air—can move mountains and make leaders. In this regard, sounding good is a means of doing well in society, if by well we mean claiming positions of power.

My proposal, simply put, is this: what if the primary purpose of sounding good isn’t to do well, but to do good? In competitive economies, doing well tends to mean pulling ahead of others. Doing good would involve reaching out and reaching back, lending help to those in need, and seeking opportunities for care and repair. Repair is a crucial word here. Its many significations include physical reassembly, bodily rehabilitation, restorative justice, monetary reparation, and disaster relief. But repair also attaches to crass synonyms of fix and cure, notions easily co-opted by a capitalist ethos of purportedly healthy competition and its reinvestments in inequality, resilience, and normativity. In Just Vibrations, I’m interested in the ethical tensions within repair’s connotations, and specifically in reparative horizons where speech acts and other sonic matter converge. Literate societies put huge stock in rhetorical ability—yet for reasons of alterity, disability, or disenfranchisement, some people do not speak well (by societal conventions), some are admonished for speaking too much (oversharing and making noise), some do not speak frequently (due to, say, shyness), some speak unusually (slowly, or with a stutter, or via conspicuous technological assistance), some do not speak at all (from injury or trauma), and some speak but nevertheless go unheard. By the same token, some people hear (neuro)typically, whereas others hear less (by normative standards), hear differently (Deaf Gain), or hear too much (sensory overload, hyperacusis). None of these conditions should be grounds for depriving individuals of compassion and connection. Try to recall a time in your life when you found yourself speechless or supernoisy, whether from joyous news or devastating injuries, from a gorgeous sight or a terrible deed. Amid crushing silence or the din of shouts—at the apex of emotion—you felt, as the saying goes, beside yourself. As such, sounding good likely also felt beside the point, as you stayed mute or snorted or sobbed or hollered. Yet these are often the precise moments when we most desire companionship, consolation, and leeway. Beyond questions of words and feelings, Just Vibrations reimagines the viability of solidarity and optimism through our pressures to sound good and hear good in daily life, where sounding and hearing signify more capaciously than as the literal faculties of able minds and bodies.

As a musicologist, I’ve sometimes heard colleagues from other disciplines tell me how lucky I am to spend my days (they assume) listening to and thinking about music. Studying music, these envious comments imply, must be a labor of love. I’ve been led to wonder, therefore, whether musical skills ever enable or prime us to listen better to people and to take up love’s labors more broadly. Do musicians and musicologists—having undergone so much ear-training—possess any specialized aural capabilities or inclinations when it comes not just to music, but also to human interlocutors (how they sound, what they say, and unvoiced concerns)? People and musical pieces are obviously different entities, yet people routinely identify with music and identify as musical, sounding out subjectivities through melodies, lyrics, and bodies. Without painting an exceptionalist portrait of musicianship, is it possible that people who work with music for a living can lead by example in agendas of interpersonal care and communication? Could we go beyond modest understandings of empathy as a complement to musicality, and venture empathy as a resonant form of musicality? If part of musicianship can involve listening for better worlds, then musicology has the potential to initiate various progressive currents in ethics and critical thinking. To be clear, this isn’t saying that music makes us good people. It’s saying that certain aural positions may hold profound uses outside the music classroom, and that as much as anyone else, musicians and music scholars already recognize the immense challenges and rewards of listening creatively and caringly.

As evidenced by Musicology Now and many other websites (see here, here, here), questions of care and outreach have lately assembled under the umbrella initiatives of accessible musicology and public musicology, both of which push scholars to teach and learn from people outside the academy. Public musicology’s label is recent, but the practice is not. Agendas of justice, social change, and environmentalism have radiated through many of musicology’s siblings and study groups, from music education and music therapy to ecomusicology and applied ethnomusicology. By all appearances, public musicology has been happening for a while. And how could it not, given this wired era of social media and rapid informational exchange? Borrowing from Nicholas Cook: we are all public musicologists now. The only question is what kinds of scholars we choose to be and how to lead by example.

William Cheng (@willxcheng) teaches at Dartmouth College. His most recent book, Just Vibrations: The Purpose of Sounding Good (University of Michigan Press, 2016), calls for an ethics of care, compassion, and outreach in music and musicology. Website here.


  1. Musicology and Aesthetic Discernment

    Dear Professor Cheng,

    I have met a few people who believe that only musicologists, theorists and other academics truly understand music at the deepest level. But this makes no sense to me.

    Based on knowledge and experience, the experience or understanding we individually get from music simply differs.... A musicologist can understand a lot about a work's structure and history but can at the same time be an emotional invalid.


    And isn't the emotional experience also a part of listening to music?

  2. I think you have your answer, Amanda. Sorry that it's not what you were looking for.

  3. Hi Amanda,

    I don't know if this will help answer your question or not (Also, I am no Mr. Cheng), but I believe that these few people you refer to are most likely looking at aesthetics (and more specifically, musical aesthetics) under the belief that an artwork (or any object) can only be interpreted within an historical context. The biggest voice of this idea is perhaps Gadamer(1900-2002), though E.D. Hirsch also puts forward something similar. The argument is over whether the artwork can be appreciated through an ahistoric lense, that is in the sense of Kantian "pure beauty," or whether the signifiers of the work will carry a different meaning to different generations, and therefore require a significant historical knowledge to appreciate. While Gadamer argues that there is no 'true' interpretation of a work, he suggests that the quality of an interpretation is heavily influenced by the listener's historical self-awareness.

    I personally think it is impossible to have an emotionally invalid understanding, but I do agree, and I think many other will as well, that the historical knowledge does not wholly dictate the quality of an interpretation. E.D. Hirsch, however, defines the 'true' interpretation as the understanding of the artist's(composer's) intent. Through this lens, musicologists are perhaps best equipped to understand a piece of Music.

    warm regards,