Sense and Sensibility: What Can We Know About Music? (What Do We Want to Know?)

Wallace Berry

A "value" in music scholarship I take to be an accepted quality of worth for which objective standards are unattainable, while a "fact" is a proposition generally, if provisionally, held to be true, in a matter admitting conclusive verification. And I shall coin the term "nonfact" to mean, not untruth, but a reasonable hypothesis likely not subject to proof.

It follows that historical musicologists are concerned with facts, but also at times with mind-stirring nonfacts about such things as causal relations, interpretations of documents and of musical practice, theories of stylistic categories and evolutionary tendencies, and concepts of direction and meaning in history. Musicologists, while essentially preoccupied with fact, will thus at times reflect fashion and bias in interpretive aspects of historical philosophy.

Nonfacts are of vital importance to ethnomusicologists, in consideration of anthropological and sociological theories, in posited musical constructions often reliant on unwritten sources, and in interpretations of cultural traditions.

And music theory is perhaps the least scientific of our scholarly disciplines, if one takes science to embody methods in which hypotheses, derived from systematic data, are tested empirically.1 As a music theorist, I ask to what extent an art work and the experience to which it conduces—beyond patently obvious or trivial factors—are susceptible to scientific revelation in the confirmed responses of sense as distinct from our introversive sensibilities as musicians. While some kinds of analytical nonfact may be subject to corroboration in the cognitions of listeners, one doubts that research into the experience of complex interrelations in challenging musical contexts can often eventuate in irrefragable conclusions.

However music analysis is thus circumscribed, there is that vital question: Does this analytical image of the piece make sense when heard? Is it consonant with our best critical sensibifities—musicianship—cultivated in long and arduous training? Even so unscientific a test is not consistently applied, and it is open to rationalizing claims.

Thus, music theory, an inestimable and indispensable medium of learning, labors between sense and sensibility—between the limited objective data of direct sensory apprehension, as in "seeing is believing, " and subjective inference, as in "that's how I hear it." There is validated fact, sometimes of seemingly trivial implication, against a dominant realm of nonfact, of informed—not metaphysical—interpretations of musical organisms, exegetical studies of pieces, and speculations as to how these are heard, for most theorists a prime concern.

A scholar committed to rationality must of course value significant fact wherever he can find it, resisting the impression and adoration of ineffable mystery in art experience, as in Theodore Greene's suggestion that "the unique character of the artistic quality of a work can only be immediately intuited, and though it can be exhibited and denoted, it cannot be defined or even described."2 And in the invigorating circumstances of prevalent nonfact in analytical music theory, for which an evidentiary indication is the disparity among satisfying performances of any piece, we can in the understandable yearning for solid ground be enticed into Procrustean constructs which constrain musical elements into simplistic and predestinate terms, representing as facts analytical attitudes of sensibility. Indeed, wishfully pat assertions of "fact" can mask the true complexities of implication in musical experience, ironically impeding understanding in essentially nonfactual areas of research. One recalls in this context Robert Frost's characterization of poetry as "a way of taking life by the throat."

To be sure, even in the most determinate fields of scholarship we are wise to hesitate in claiming factuality, while admitting the passion of conviction, where passion is not blind. History teaches the fickleness of assumed verities, as does science, whose findings are always provisional: witness the apparent immutability of Newtonian mechanics until the present century, or Hegel's "proof " of seven planets shortly before discovery of the eighth. And in matters immune to proof, accepting that what is not FACT cannot be KNOWN, we seek persuasive substantiation,

. . . basing our beliefs upon observations and inferences as . . . much divested of local and temperamental bias as is possible for human beings.3

Two fundamental values in fact and nonfact are those of interest and of significance, while any judgments of these are themselves nonfacts. The things we say are thus: interesting and significant; uninteresting but significant; interesting but insignificant; or uninteresting and insignificant. In music analysis, "interesting" may mean intellectually challenging, "significant" pertaining to a property which, transformed, transforms the experience of a piece, or to a conception which, as a factor in that experience, enhances and illuminates it.

Thomas Clifton's book4 poses, passim, issues of value in statements about pieces; and Charles Smith, in a discerning review,5 notes that the phenomenologist prefers the formulation that "we hear a piece as such-and-such," to "a piece is such-and-such." But whatever the utility of such a distinction, many a piece is such-and-such, and a plain fact of identity may be significant and may be interesting. While for Clifton a fact about a piece is not "necessarily" interesting, Smith asserts that "listing facts about pieces is (a) fruitless activity," even as we often disparage matters of significance which seem uninteresting. (Probably Smith means that any facts of which nothing can be made are useless, a creditable proposition.)

We may pursue these issues in a series of statements about Chopin's Prelude, Op. 28, No. 7, an accessible example, asking what is fact, what nonfact, what interesting, what significant. And while we cannot adduce objective criteria of interest or significance, we may usefully ask of a known or conjectured property: How would the piece and its effect be transformed were this not so?, recognizing that the answer may itself be nonfact.

My seven statements are, to better serve a purpose, widely variant in direction, the nonfacts "asserted" rather than "affirmed," where the former is "to state positively ... but with no objective proof."6 Interestingly and significantly, we may feel that values deepen where we move from fact into nonfact.

  1. The Prelude's key is A major. [FACT: This statement, which it would be pathological to question, bears, but hardly requires, substantiation. An interesting fact? Is the Prelude a different piece in A-flat? The matter of its position in Opus 28 suggests a critical distinction between mere identification and questions of interrelation, germane to signiflcance, a determinant of interest. Ease of tracing a plain fact is thus not a suitable criterion of value.]

  2. The Prelude is 16 measures long. [FACT? Yes, assuming we conceive "measure" patently as to expedient barlines. The question appears, if interesting, significant and, if significant, interesting.]

  3. The piece is a two-phase period. [A NONFACT, whose validity depends upon the problematic concept of phrase, the statement interests some, not others. And the issue seems of imperative significance as to the Prelude's form.]

  4. Not every dissonance resolves in the register in which it arises. [This approaches FACT, given premises of dissonance, resolution, and register; alternatively, some dissonances—e.g., the upper-voice f#2 of m. 14—do not resolve, a notion at variance with our learned sense of tonal music. This not-quite-fact seems interesting and significant as one factor belying the Prelude's apparent innocence.]

  5. The upper-voice melody can be heard as of two broad metric units (Ex. 1). [NONFACT: There might be general interest in the idea of such an encompassing metric unity, of putative significance if, short of any ultimate validation, the diminution is appreciable as evincing something essential in the real piece.]

    Example 1
  6. A four-note melodic succession (Ex. 2) spans the Prelude, and is manifest at two levels.7 [NONFACT: The question of one such fundamental structure, inferred by Cone, is of likely interest and potential significance.]

    Example 2

    Example 2
    Edward Cone, Musical Form and Musical Performance (New York: W. W. Norton and Company, Inc., 1968), p. 41.

  7. An underlying, overall upper-voice meter is counteractive to that of the bass and to the Prelude's harmonic rhythm (Ex. 3). [A highly speculative, and to me interesting NONFACT, significant if it can be upheld as a particular reaction of sensibility making sense to the educated ears of others.]

    Example 3

    Example 3

No claimed value can, any more than any ethical dictum, be proven intrinsically good. As Bertrand Russell puts this:

. . . if two men differ about values, there is not a disagreement as to any kind of truth. . . . If we all agreed, we might hold that we know values by intuition. . . . questions of value . . . lie outside the realm of truth and falsehood.8

Individual values are conditioned according to promulgated doctrines, instilled systems of thought and belief, and other influences. Our professional values pertain narrowly to specific lines of commitment and broadly to the choice of music research: as a meaning to live by; out of convictions about import and utility; for pleasure; as unquestioned ritual; for personal recognition; as habit triggered by some capricious, antecedent circumstance; in emulation of an esteemed model; or perhaps for tenure.

Whatever standards underlie individual motives, a matter best left for the confessional, it seems clear that particular directions of work and method often reflect group values—positive or negative. We see the latter in any dutiful parroting of ideas and jargon; in intricacies of formulation gilding primitive concepts, ascribed exaggerated worth; in a climate of disdain for this or that material or mode of research; and in any pervasive orthodoxy.

Groups—organizations, coteries, institutions—can thus ordain particular professional values, at times ritualistic, catechismal, even scriptural in substance, and often inhibiting, in supra- and subliminal psychological influences, unsanctioned avenues of effort in what would be, ideally, a boundless scope of inquiry. A colleague observes that "fashions" accorded unquestioning fidelity are "cultural phenomena," representing a "need for certainty in an age of anxiety," and "for respectability in a technologically dominated academy."

It is difficult, yet a measure of wisdom, to examine critically those accredited creeds most passionately embraced, and most painful to question, persisting in those to which value, however tentative, can rationally be ascribed. Here is Russell again:

The demand for certainty is . . . natural to man, but . . . (is) nevertheless an intellectual vice. Instead of saying "I know this," we ought to say "I more or less know something more or less like this." It is true that this proviso is hardly neces sary as regards the multiplication table, but knowledge in practical affairs [read: most professed knowledge] has not the certainty of arithmetic. . . . it is not enough to recognize that all our knowledge is, in greater or less degree, uncertain . . . ; it is necessary, at the same time, to learn to act upon the best hypothesis without dog- matically believing it.9

A distinction between religion and science is that the former enjoys certainty while the latter knows enough to doubt, as in Einstein's poetic avowal: "Even as the circle of knowledge increases, so does the circumference of the darkness surrounding it." In an open environment of learning and teaching, we scholars share uncertainty no less than firm commitment to the value of deepening understanding.

The ideal scholarly community is one of vibrant eclecticism, acting in many directions of procedure and purpose. In music theory, for example, some are schooled in external disciplines whose methods can be applied creatively; some in historical bodies of thought from which we draw stimulation; some are gifted performers and composers who have special insights and questions; and others are merely sensitive listener-readers who, sharing their hearing and reading, may at times point to uniquely arresting, absorbing ideas of the musical experience.

I note again, and finally, that in music history fact is an inescapable imperative, while interesting, unproven but substantiated nonfact is of consequence—even of the essence—for all music scholars, especially for theorists in their lofty engagements. Ideally, we enter the realm of nonfact moved by challenge and promise, informed by rigorous training, uncorrupted by bias, and steeped in the experience of music as the subtlest medium of human, humane, and humanistic expression. The strata and systems of elements functioning expressively in truly rich music comprise a multifarious network of actions and interactions whose penetration and illumination demand an active scholarly community manifesting the vibrant eclecticism to which I referred nostalgically a moment ago.

There are inevitable ups and downs, hits and misses, achievements and blind alleys in our search of music's evolution and meaning. My concluding, maudlin observation is that, in such a perspective, it is warmly reassuring to bear in mind that, whatever we as students conceive and misconceive in our subservient role, the art which we revere forever outlasts our efforts. Substituting "music" for "literature," we read that message in these affecting lines from Virginia Woolf.

Literature . . . has lasted long . . ., and it is only a short sight and a parochial mind that will exaggerate these squalls, however they may agitate the little boats now tossing out at sea. The storm and drenching are on the surface; ... continuity and calm are in the depths.10


  1. Webster's New World Dictionary of the American Language, 2nd College Ed. (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1980), s. v.

  2. The Arts and the Art of Criticism (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1940), p. 389.

  3. Bertrand Russell, History of Western Philosophy (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1945), p. 836.

  4. Music as Heard (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1983).

  5. In Music Theory Spectrum, p. 210.

  6. Webster's New World Dictionary, s. v.

  7. Edward Cone, Musical Form and Musical Performance (New York: W. W. Norton and Company, Inc., 1968), p. 41.

  8. "Science and Ethics," in Religion and Science (New York: Oxford University Press, 1961), pp. 230-31. Emphases mine.

  9. Bertrand Russell, "Philosophy for Laymen," in Unpopular Essays (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1950), pp. 26-28.

  10. "How It Strikes a Contemporary," in The Common Reader (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc., 1925), p. 245.