Warning: Patterns May be Habit Forming [Updated]

Miles Davis, Think DifferentOne 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.


  1. Zach Wallmark says:

    Sometimes I find myself forgetting I’m reading a history of music and thinking that I’ve wandered into a philosophical text on the nature of history and art. These sorts of musings make me scratch my head why this sort of this isn’t the standard. Wise thoughts for every historian to consider.

    1. Mark Samples says:

      I know what you mean. This is juicy stuff, especially for the grad student. I read a phrase once in a review of a book (don’t remember where, or what the book was), that aptly applies to the OHWM: “there’s a dissertation topic on every page.”

  2. Barron says:

    Do you think the same patterns-as-barriers-to-engaging-music problem exists for art historians? Probably so, but I wonder how they would articulate the difference.

    1. Mark Samples says:

      Barron: I think this tendency exists for ALL historians. Historians take it upon themselves to sift through masses of information, then make sense out of them and communicate them to others. Because readers will not have seen the hundreds of paintings, heard the hours of music, or read the thousands of primary docs that the historian has, the only way to do this is to simplify the situation through groupings and patterns.

      I’m not an art historian, but I would guess that part of the problem is a similar one to music. We only consider the masters to be worthy of study (everyone’s heard of Haydn, but how many know the name Carl Ditters von Dittersdorf?), but masters are necessarily exceptional. They stood out from the thousands of other run of the mill artists of their days. Thus we attempt to create patterns out of exceptions.

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