A Grim and Humorless Discipline?

We’re among the few comic writers in an otherwise grim and humorless discipline.    — Susan McClary in a note to Richard Taruskin (quoted in RT’s review of the  McClary Festschrift)

It’s a blessing and a relief that Taruskin knows how to employ the comic voice in the OHWM. At close to 4,000 pages, it would be a stultifying reading experience indeed if the prose did not dance. Looking back on the successfully-scaled first major peak of our ascent, I’m struck by how painless it all was. I can honestly say that I never once got bored (of course, ten pages at a time helped in this respect). Nor did I ever get that sinking feeling that comes on occasionally that this is all just a waste of time. (I recall a moment a few years back digging through a dense, hopelessly dull article establishing Dufay’s whereabouts in year X and wondering if I shouldn’t just go to law school.) For all the many minor flaws with the text, the most important element of historical writing is here in abundance – it manages to be continuously interesting, fresh, and relevant. And some of this is due to Taruskin’s mastery of the comic voice.

I’m not ashamed to admit that I often found myself chuckling aloud while reading Vol. I. His style of humor is difficult to pinpoint exactly. Occasionally it is silly, such as when he refers to Bartolomeo Tromboncino  as “the little guy with the trombone” (696). (It’s what his name means, I know, but what a funny way to phrase it.) Sometimes it is ironic: “.. in single stanzas, or ‘through-composed,’ as we now rather gracelessly say in musicologese (a dialect of German)..” (813). Most of the time, Taruskin’s humor comes from a certain lightness of tone. He’s clearly having fun writing his history, and it shows in the text. The OHWM, despite its behemoth dimensions, is not ponderous in the least.

The comic voice developed late in the field of musicology, and as McClary indicates, it isn’t very common still. This is quite a shame. Perhaps Taruskin’s greatest achievement of the history is its sheer readability; the OHWM is actually enjoyable to read. (Initiates into other unnamed texts [ahem, Grout] will know that enjoyability is not on the agenda of most histories of music.) And shouldn’t a book about music be enjoyable after all? I don’t mean to sound flippant about this, but we are scholars of music, perhaps humankind’s most universally adored activity. If we can’t make music fun, then what use is our field to the world?

If musicology is indeed a “grim and humorless discipline,” perhaps it became that way because of a ceaseless desire for recognition and status in the academy. Money is tight, and what musicologists do could be considered relatively trivial. Therefore, in order to justify the “-ology” in our title, maybe some scholars tried to adopt the most scientific, “serious” sort of language possible. With serious-mindedness comes credibility (and funding). Perhaps, therefore, all humor was wrung from the discipline precisely in order for it to become a stable, safe, and respected academic field. Remember: when the first musicology programs were founded, officials were often skeptical (the dean of Harvard quipped, “we might as well talk of grandmotherology.”)

Do you think musicology as a discipline is “grim and humorless”? Why is the this the case (or not)? How might the scholar, conscious both of getting a tenure job and of actually being read by a larger audience, ameliorate this deficiency? Extra points if you use a pun in your reply.


  1. Mark Samples says:

    I echo your feeling that too much of musicological writing drinks from the cup of dreariness rather than wit. But I’m not sure that it is quite so bereft a situation as you let on. And I wonder whether the comic voice indeed developed late, as you say, or if it has just gone through a comic trough lately; let me ponder this a bit more.

    Taruskin indeed seems to write with a special charm, and I too chuckled and shook my head all the way through the first volume. This was not altogether unexpected though, given his tendency towards wordplay in his other writings. One of my favorites comes in _Defining Russia Musically_. On a passage treating Chaikovsky’s Suite No. 2, he stuffs a paragraph with tasty adjectives: the scherzo melody used adds “flavor,” which the composer uses with such “relish” and “taste.” Not to mention how the peasant style of the melody acts as a fine “condiment” to the rest of the piece. All this to make a tongue-in-cheek point about Bertolt Brecht’s pejorative use of “culinary music” (See page 275).

    It is clear that Taruskin is having fun with history, spicing it up while poking a bit of fun at the reader and the subject. As a result the reader devours Taruskin’s words, salivating in expectation at the discovery of what Taruskin has cooked up for him next.

  2. Nathan Baker says:

    Recent theories of humor suggest that it occurs when the brain recognizes a pattern that surprises it. In other words, humor has two effects: 1. it grabs the brain’s attention (and, if you will recall, attention is the first of the two primary keys to memory); 2. it engages the brain in thinking about patterns and associations (the other of the two keys to memory). It should thus come as more of a surprise that our educational texts don’t use humor more often, as it offers some very distinct pedagogical advantages (although, of course, too much humor can be distracting–I still think I’d prefer too much humor to too much dryness, however).

  3. Ralph Locke says:

    Zach W. writes; “I don’t mean to sound flippant about this, but we are scholars of _music_, perhaps humankind’s most universally adored activity. If we can’t make music fun, then what use is our field to the world?”

    Zach’s wording suggests that listening to music is mostly “fun.” But, hey, listening to music is many things–soothing, pleasantly distracting (while one is engaged in repetitious tasks such as driving or house-cleaning), a source of passionate commitment….

    Of these various descriptors (and one could list many more), some are probably not what any of us would like musicological writing to become (a soothing, forgettable background for humdrum daily activities?). But maybe engaging in “passionate commitment” is a nice twin goal to Zach’s mention of providing “fun.”

    Historical note: some long-standard writings on music _do_ resound with strong, passionate views and advocacy. In fact, advocacy of the greatness or significance of this or that composer or repertoire was, for centuries, a hallmark of music criticism and certain kinds of musicological writing. It has been discredited in recent years, in part because it tended to be applied primarily to a small pantheon of dead European masters (though it’s clearly alive and well in writing about rock music and other pop phenomena!).

    Anyway, my point is that maybe we (writers of musicological stuff for various readerships) might want to think not just about introducing a sense of fun into our writing (to which I say Bravo!) but also engaging in some passionate advocacy–without, however, abandoning such principles as accurate treatment of sources (documentable historical information, the evidence of “the score,” etc.), and open-mindedness to other points of view/interpretive readings than our own.

    I do realize that there is much challenge in that prescription!

  4. Rebecca says:

    I’d like to echo Prof. Locke’s call for musical advocacy. I see that as a large part of what I do, both in my writing and my teaching. I entreat my students to form passionate opinions about the music to which they listen, and my only requirement is that they come up with a reason (or several) for their opinions. Therein lies the challenge (and we end up studying aesthetics alongside repertoire).

    I also support humor in musicological writing, but would venture that it is at present, a safer endeavor for senior scholars (both in terms of craft and privilege). I’ve seen many attempts at humor fall flat, or worse, obfuscate substantive scholarship. This is why I encourage my students to read program notes, read blogs, and attend pre-concert lectures–all of which are currently safer havens for humor. Eventually I think we will see more irony and subtle wit inflect scholarly prose, but it I think it should never be at the sacrifice of the musicology.

  5. hannabanana says:

    hi. i just happened to come across this wonderful blog. Remarkably, I am NOT even a “student” of musicology but an amateur who has over the years dabbled in McClary, Taruskin, Tomlinson, Goehr, et al as well as the usual run of the mill stuff, i.e., Grout and Lang. I find Taruskin’s writing wonderful, & very accessible even if I dont get much of the musical analysis he offers. Somehow I continue reading….and part of the reason I do so is because of the wonderfully surprising nuggets of insight the OHWM provides.

    One thing I have come to realize through readings is why, as a youngin, I always recoiled at and resisted the usual “textbook” teachings of music theory which, if my memory serves me, was always purged of context, not just historical and cultural but context of the larger interconnected “work” being composed. I never understood when teachers would tell us how such-and-such a chord followed logically or “naturally resolved” into another suck-and-such, as if the “rules” of “how music works” was ahistorical and autonomous. Musical can never be reduced to a syntax, in my view; and one way you make learning music theory “fun” is by somehow being able to impart or suggest the excitement of historical change, or as Taruskin says, “why and how things happened as they did.” So, why did triads develop in the West? Why did notation take on the importance it did? Why did Mei disagree with Zarlino? And why is it important that I understand this debate? Also, how about studying music theory itself, its structural development and “techniques,” through the historical study of actual musical composition and “scores?” What made a certain Beethoven piano sonata so exciting should be inseparable from music theory!

    Sorry to ramble. But…

    I could be misreading but I also think Taruskin may not fully appreciate the significance of delving into “extra-musical” sources, as, for example, Mei (more like an archeological interpreter than a musicologist,) had actually done. To simply stay within “the literate tradition” of musical composition has obvious limitations which Taruskin acknowledges, (i.e., “Western tradition.”) But it also presumes to know what in fact we’re looking for, what music actually IS on an ontological plane – and therefore can’t sufficiently explore the significance of those who were musically illiterate, (think here an Aristotle or Max Weber) but still had some important things to say, and who, it can be said, indirectly contributed to our understanding of music. Music, in short, is more than “the music.” And premusically literate cultures knew this intuitively…the Muses… how can we forget? And THAT”S what makes music exciting…and fun.

    Again, I’ve taught in a university for decades but am still an amateur when it comes to music. Still, I look forward to reading more of this blog…and will pick up Vol II tomorrow night…

  6. Taruskin can be side-splittingly funny, yes, and it is because he can treat not only the entire history of western music with a deft and loving touch, but also the world of academics, academic thought, and academic writers and personalities. Perhaps I have misunderstood, though: did Susan McClary number herself among the comic writers on musicology, and outside the “grim and humorless” remainder of the discipline?

    Really? Is she including her laugh-a-minute cultural criticism, excoriations of patriarchy and hegemony, and so on? Maybe I have been guilty of misreading her tone. (Or maybe that one remark was an example of lighthearted self-mockery. If so: nicely done.) I’m sure I’m not the only person to have found her writing to be downright wrathful, though, indicative of a personality on perpetual boil.

  7. Sator Arepo says:

    I quietly second Mr. Bellman’s last assessment.

  8. Zach Wallmark says:

    Thanks for all of your contributions to this thread – I feel I should swoop in once again at this point:

    Prof. Locke — I appreciate that you took me to task for boiling down the musicological endeavor to “fun.” Of course, we should never just aim for the most entertaining mode of expression: this would be treating music cavalierly. Humor, where appropriate, really enlivens an analysis, but it should never substitute for sound scholarship. This is where Taruskin accomplishes a great feat, in his ability to be both scholarly and witty in the same sentence (and, as Prof. Bellman mentions, much of Taruskin’s humor comes from his keen, often sardonic take on academia in general). The idea of musicological advocacy is a really compelling one, and your essay in the “Rethinking Music” book is a fantastic place to start in conceptualizing how this might be possible. For both humor and advocacy, the music blogosphere offers many promising forums for passionate opinions without the pressure of publication and conference cross-examination.

    Hanna — Welcome! Your criticism of Taruskin’s project has been echoed in other sectors since the original 2005 publication of the OHWM, and it’s one we should all consider. I agree with you entirely when you say that the literate tradition only tells part of the story, but from a pragmatic standpoint Taruskin had to delimit the scope of his history, which even under the literate rubric is a textbook example of scholarly gigantism. RT seems to be quite aware of this problem; in the intro, he addresses it directly, and throughout Vol. I the “literate/oral” question was always in the foreground. When it gets to jazz and pop music, however, I suspect that discussions of this issue will fall off. I can’t really imagine RT talking about Coltrane and the Beatles, but hey, he’s surprised me a lot thus far in the book. Looking forward to Vols. 4-5 to see how he handles this..

    Prof. Bellman — McClary did in fact place herself within the group of comic writers, but I think Taruskin’s commentary on her self-identification perhaps says more about the situation than McClary’s note itself. RT writes: “There has always been an element of hilarity in McClary’s appeal.” I don’t know if I’ve ever laughed at McClary’s humor, per se, but I can say that I’ve laughed aloud at her hilarity. “Hilarity” implies a certain extreme boisterousness, and much of her writing possesses this quality in droves. I agree in part with your final assessment – her writing can seem “wrathful,” and she certainly doesn’t shy away from polemics. However, is this truly indicative of a “personality on perpetual boil?” I view some of these (hilarious) provocations as a deliberate attempt to shake things up, to get people taking, to enliven what she perceived to be a somewhat dull field. Rather than lashing out in wrath, I view her writings (and her personality, which I am coming to know through our work together) as passionate advocacy in the manner Prof. Locke and Rebecca lay out above. That she is still controversial some 20 years after her initial bombs is proof that maybe the “appeal of her hilarity” has been effective.

  9. Jonathan says:

    I have never worked with Susan McClary, so I cannot disagree with your “passionate advocacy” evaluation with any knowledge or authority. She and a lot of other writers have always seemed, to me at least, to be getting a pass from people who would not do the same for others. Some of her musical readings, if found on a student paper, would occasion “How do you conclude THIS??” or “It doesn’t do that at ALL” but because it’s Susan people smile, look the other way, and talk about shaking up a dull field. I never found the field dull, so the delayed-adolescent anything-to-get-attention strategy never made sense to me.

    I have to say that your phrase “these (hilarious) provocations as a deliberate attempt to shake things up, to get people talking, to enliven what she perceived to be a somewhat dull field” rings hollow to someone who was there at the time, in the wild-west days of accusatory cultural criticism. For hilarity, you might want to try Elizabeth Sayrs’s review of *Feminine Endings*, in which Susan is chided for trying to liken something to the birth experience when she has never been a mother. I she came to Stanford a couple of times in the late ’80s and early ’90s, and there were some real odd moments then too. To a grad student of the late 1980s, it was really scary what was passing for a New Perspective and what that meant for one’s future prospects.

  10. I love this mordant quote by the great conductor Otto Klemperer (1885-1973).
    “A musicologist is some one who knows everything about ology and nothing about music”.

    1. Zach Wallmark says:

      Great quote, although I certainly hope he’s not right! Most musicologists come at the discipline through performance, composition, or something related; I would hope that the music is the great pull, not the ology. Certainly this varies from scholar to scholar, however.

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