Saturday, July 12, 2008

Has it been 25 years already?

The Music & Language conference —seeing its second edition this year— is celebrating the 25th anniversary of Fred Lerdahl and Ray Jackendoff's landmark book ‘A Generative Theory of Tonal Music’ (GTTM for short). An important book in the short history of music cognition that is widely cited, from computer science to experimental psychology.

As I wrote elsewhere (Honing, 2006), I believe that the fact that theories —such as GTTM—, with the ambition to formalize certain aspects of music theory, has led to a greater visibility of musicology at large, especially outside the humanities. The fact that a theory is presented in a formal way allows for an easier formulation of hypotheses, the making of precise predictions, and, consequently, the testing and evaluation of these. As such, it makes this style of music theory compelling to both computer scientists and experimental psychologists. This development is an important example of how a methodology (adapted from, and shared with the sciences) serves as a vehicle — a format for the transmission of ideas between science and the humanities— that turned out to be very influential.

However, it has to be noted that there are also examples that were less successful. For instance, theories on music that were developed in the sciences, such as Christopher Longuet-Higgins’ work in the 1970s. This research did not reach the music community in the way one would have expected, even though it is presented in a compelling and formalized form. Thus, the transmission of ideas in formalized form could well be primarily one-directional :-\

On Thursday night Fred Lerdahl and Ray Jackendoff’s both joined the stage and reflected on what happened then, in the period leading up to the publication of the book, the late 1970s. While both went their own ways since then, the memories radiated a close, and mutually inspiring relationship effectuated in meetings at kitchen tables and private homes. One more example that interdisciplinary and collaborative work can lead to important developments and changes in science.

Lerdahl, F., Jackendoff, R. (1983). A generative theory of tonal music. Cambridge: MIT Press

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