One can form a mental habit of looking for sameness instead of difference, which can lead to an actual (perhaps unconscious) preference for simplifying sameness, and a concomitant (equally unconscious) antagonism toward complicating difference. (I, 63)
In other words, our brains look for patterns. It’s how we interpret the mass of information barraging us everyday, from navigating the freeway to shopping for groceries. It’s how we organize the kuchka of historical data required to pass our comprehensive music history exams. Further, we use patterns every day as musicologists to categorize and engage with musical repertoire by genre (“that’s a sonata, not a concerto”), or form (“this movement is in sonata form, not rondo form”).
But sometimes patterns work against us. The first and most vicious way is that they can keep us from truly engaging with music. All too often, when I am studying a piece of music (say, the first movement of a late 18th-c. symphony), I catch myself listening for what I’ve been told should be there, rather than what I actually hear and see. The patterns that musicologists attend to—genres, music theory, form—exist because they can be useful descriptions of a repertoire. The shift we need to watch for is when that description becomes anachronistic prescription, and forms a barrier between us and the music.
After posting this, I started in on today’s reading. In the first paragraph was the following, about the effects of 9th-c. Frankish music theory (a cumulation of Aurelian, Hucbald, Alia musica, Dialogus de musica) on ensuing composition of chant:
For that theory, modest in its intention, was huge in its effect. […] From a description of existing music it became a prescription for the music of the future. (I, 80, emphasis mine)
Coincidence? Perhaps. It is another reminder that we need to be able to recognize the effects of the descriptive/prescriptive process as a catalyst in history, but also be sensitive to its effect on our historical judgment.