Musicology in surround sound: avoiding aesthetic reductionism

This is another post in our occasional series considering what it means for us to acknowledge Christ as Lord over our different academic disciplines. Briefly put, my own scholarly activity consists of listening to pieces of recent music; trying to understand how it works and its connection to the rest of the musical world; and using my findings to help others engage with the music. Like any discipline, musicology has its own ideological tensions, which any new scholar is expected to learn to navigate. It’s in dealing with some of these tensions that I’ve found it especially helpful to remember Jesus’s lordship over my study. Today I’m going to focus on one tension that’s been central to my own work, which has to do with the attempt to avoid reductionism in discussing musical experience.

The danger of reducing reality to one of its aspects is a central theme in reformational philosophy (it’s cropped up a few times before in this blog; see for example ). In the field of musicology this danger comes through particularly in the way that scholars discuss the aesthetic aspect of reality. Some (particularly older) musicological scholarship can tend focus on music as a purely aesthetic phenomenon – writing about works as if they were perfect Platonic forms, accessible to anyone equally regardless of context, independent of their historical or performance situation, and so on. This is seen in the popular idea of the masterpieces of Bach or Beethoven as somehow perfectly manifesting some timeless, inevitable aesthetic law. In reaction against this approach, much late-twentieth-century musicology has gone in the opposite direction, attempting to dispense with the idea of the aesthetic as a distinct category of experience. Instead, it reduces musical works to other dimensions: the socio-cultural circumstances of their composition, or particular philosophical or linguistic elements which are seen as standing behind them. Discussion of ‘the music itself’ is seen as a sleight-of-hand to avoid talking about the ‘real’ contextual questions music raises.

What difference does Christ’s Lordship make here? When I affirm that He created all facets of our experience, it puts these other approaches in their right perspective. The first is a kind of idolatry, ascribing transcendence to something that is not God. If a work like Bach’s St Matthew Passion seems timeless, it is not because the work itself is immortal or somehow detached from the circumstances of its composition. Bach’s works were written by a human for specific circumstances; they are wonderful, but they are not perfect. The sense of timeless wonder I experience in listening to them arises because God in His grace has created a real, physical world in which such aesthetic sensations are possible, under the right circumstances – in order to inspire wonder and yearning in our hearts for Him, who truly is transcendent and immortal. On the flip side, because these experiences of aesthetic wonder are so central to the value of music, we cannot and should not simply explain them away as merely artefacts of context – that would be to forget that all of creation declares God’s glory.

In response, as a Christian musicologist, I want to value the power of the pieces I study, whilst acknowledging the root of this power in God’s common grace on His creation. As I learn more about each piece I study, and share that with others, my intent is to reveal more about the wonder of God’s creative works.



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Hi Mark,

I like this post and think that it exemplifies just the kind of discussion Christian academics need to be having more of. I think you make an error though. It seems that you reject a masterpeice’s being transcendent becuase transcendent things are immortal and immortal things threaten God’s aseity (God being the only thing that cannot cease to exist). But universals only threaten aseity if they cannot cease to exist. But it seems to me that someone could argue (indeed it has been argued) that God could create and destory universals in which case they’re not immortal and so do not threaten his aseity.

Also, I prefer to speak (and encourage others to do the same) not of ‘immortal’ objects threatening God’s aseity but of ‘eternal’ objects threatening his aseity. i.e., it seems to me that you could have an object that is immortal purely becuase God allows it to continue to exist (perhaps he miraculously stops it from ceasing to exist). Moreover, you could have an immortal object that is created by God i.e., it had a moment that it came into existence. But if God can create/destroy it then it doesn’t threaten his asetiy (or, at least, it’s not clear why it would). Whereas, if an object is ‘eternal’ i.e., it necessarily exists from everlasting to everlasting (like God) then this might threaten God’s aseity. But I don’t know why we need to accept the claim that universals are eternal either.

I can heartily recommend this book:

Hi Thom, thanks for your thoughtful reply and book recommendation! I see what you mean and you’re right, that if I were casting the ideal of a transcendent masterwork as idolatrous in the sense that it represents a threat to God’s aseity, this would be problematic. That’s not really what I meant, though. I was making the charge of ‘idolatry’ more in the pragmatic sense that once you reduce a particular situation to a single aspect that is seen as transcendent (here the musical work in its aesthetic aspect), you have abstracted it from the rest of creation to the extent that your theories about it are largely unaffected by belief in God; this stands in contrast to the Christian ideal (certainly as promoted by reformed philosophy) that belief in God impacts everything we know. In that sense, my claim for this reductionism as ‘idolatry’ is a paraphrase of passages from Roy Clouser’s excellent The Myth of Religious Neutrality, especially pp. 197-204.

As an aside, you write about the question of existence, ceasing to exist, being destroyed, etc. in connection with universals. It’s really interesting to try and apply some of these terms to pieces of music, and does help (I think) to clarify why aesthetic reductionism is really problematic when we apply it to music. What does it really mean for a piece of music to exist? If I destroyed every score (or CD, or listener who could remember it) of Beethoven’s Symphony no. 5, at what point would it cease to exist? When we say a piece is ‘immortal’, which bit of it doesn’t die – the sound in the air, or the memory in society’s collective consciousness, or a collection of manuscript pages in a library? These are all age-old questions, of course, and I’m sure you’d already be familiar with them (and they are the main reason that aesthetic reductionism is not really accepted in mainstream music-philosophical thought any more, either). But actually, I think they can point us in a really helpful way towards more general questions that arise whenever we try and reduce any real-world concept or situation to a single aspect.

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