Monday, October 01, 2007

What makes a theory of music surprising?

Quite a while ago, a fellow musicologist referred to me as a ‘positivist’. As I was, at that time, not too familiar with postmodern parlance, I thought of it as a compliment (making an association with the Dutch comedy duo De Positivo’s that were sheer optimistic). It turned out that actually the opposite was meant.

Last weekend in Cologne, being invited to speak at the Gesellschaft für Musikforschung, I was reminded of this remark. For some reason the methods associated with positivism, such as those used in the natural and social sciences, still flag a divide in music research between, for instance, the systematic and historically oriented approaches to music. A divide that seems to be fed by a misunderstanding of much of Popper’s ideas on ‘science’ versus ‘pseudoscience’ (see earlier blog).

While the idea of ‘falsification’ is indeed, as Popper showed in some of his later work, not very useful in historical research —as in archeology, a new found manuscript can easily falsify a long established historical theory— this does not make archeology or historical musicology a 'pseudoscience'. In my opinion, it is not so much the inapplicability of the empirical method (and hence the possibility of falsification) for historically oriented musicology, but the apparent resistance to formulate theories that can be tested, that might characterize the discussion. Is it impossible to make a theory about some aspect of (the history of) music that can be tested (or evaluated), independent of empirical evidence?

I like, particularly in this context, Popper’s idea that a theory can be intrinsically compelling or ‘surprising’, even in the absence of empirical evidence. What is intended here is not ‘surprising’ in the sense that a new fact is found that we did not yet knew about, but a prediction that, while we would expect X —given everything we know—, it actually predicts X is not the case, but rather Y. A prediction that is the consequence of a theory (made up of intuition, empirical observations or otherwise) that is violating our expectations based on what we know. I do not see why both historical and systematic musicology could use that as an additional method.

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