Musical Thought and the Scientific Imagination: A Study Day

Music has always been entangled with science and technology. From ancient Greek music theory, to acoustic science; from the musical repurposing of military technologies like the radio, to hearing aids: it has never been possible to say where ‘music’ ends and ‘science’ or ‘technology’ begin. For musicologists, not only have musical and scientific worlds that are deeply imbricated supplied the objects of our work, they are likewise embedded within the systems and approaches we have used to understand and engage music and its contexts. Musicological interest in these intersections has waxed and waned over the last few decades. But questions about what these objects and methods mean for the discipline (or the hybrid ‘inter-discipline’ of music) and the challenges they pose have persisted.

On 16 November 2018, roughly 20 participants braved the first snow to take part in a Study Day at Harvard Music Department, titled ‘Musical Thought and the Scientific Imagination’, and organized by Emily I. Dolan and Emily MacGregor. Three invited chairs led free-form seminar-style discussion sessions during the day: ‘Setting the Stage’, chaired by Joseph Auner (Tufts University), ‘In Search of (Human) Nature’, designed and led by Deirdre Loughridge (Northeastern University), and, finally, ‘What is a Musical Experiment’, with George E. Lewis (Columbia University). A pre-circulated pack of reading provided the fodder for discussion; a ‘cyborg playlist’ of millennial hits inspired by the reading (Ann Powers’s Good Booty) set the tone in the breaks.

Launching the bagel-fuelled morning session was a set of four-minute microtalks from advanced Harvard graduate students Caitlin Schmid, Diane Oliva, Etha Williams, and William Bennett, as well as Joshua Navon from Columbia and (in absentia) from Joseph Pfender from NYU. Each speaker highlighted methodological sticking points they had encountered in thinking through how musical and scientific/technological knowledge-producing discourses coalesce.

Developing the exploratory critical register set by the microtalks, the day was envisaged as a space for collaboratively delving into some of the knottier methodological, ethical, and disciplinary areas in this field of research. Partly, this was some intellectual groundwork towards the London conference in June 2019. As such, alongside the reading pack, we (the organizers) also circulated a set of questions and concerns for participants to consider in advance. In it, we began by observing that musicologists seem to be experiencing a decisive ‘moment’ of converging preoccupation with scientific and technological areas. Tentatively taking stock here, we parsed out two broad impulses. These, not mutually exclusive, tend towards opposing extremes of scale. The first leans toward the micro historical and toward fine-grained, up-close materiality; the second is preoccupied with vast, overarching systems—cybernetics, networks, medicine, acoustics—or with interrogating the scientific theories that have shaped sound. In place of score examples, it seems we often now find scientific graphs and charts. It appears there is a need for critical frameworks that negotiate the middle ground.

With this research landscape in mind, then, we set up some core questions that lurked in the background throughout the day’s discussions, centring on what work science and technology are currently doing when we bring them into musicological research. To be sure, musicological engagement with scientific and technological methods, material, or praxis is nothing new, but our engagements right now seem somewhat specific in character, and we wanted to probe what they respond to—or, perhaps worse, what they avoid confronting. Politics? Economic pressures? The relative prestige of the hard sciences or of modern tech companies? We also asked whether there is a theoretical canon coalescing, at least as far as musicologists are concerned. In light of the imperative to de-colonize theoretical corpuses and geopolitical priorities, it seems an important moment to reconsider our priorities in relation to some of the ethical considerations of humanities scholarship more broadly. Finally, we posed some questions about disciplinarity: do the different disciplines this research straddles antagonize or complement one another; which is dominant?

As the day progressed, new concerns emerged: about the ways in which so-called ‘musicality’ has been scientifically coopted through history to index ‘humanity’ and its others; about machine consciousness and the alliances between human and machine interactions; about the place of animals in discussions of machines and the limits of the human; about how technologies in music can be excavated through, and reciprocally reveal, social worlds and networks. A robust discussion of transhumanism explored bodies, entitlement, rights, and consent.

Huge thanks to everyone who helped make the day so productive and enjoyable.