Cognitive Constraints?

In the waning years of the Cold War, academic modernism began suffering from a gap in credibility, leading many (including defectors) to question its relevance. (In Susan McClary’s words, it was a victim of “terminal prestige.”) Objections to the handsomely brutal aesthetic of “Ph.D. music” were legion, but one of the most devastating blows came from composer Fred Lerdahl and linguist Ray Jackendoff. Drawing explicitly on Chomskyan linguistics and cognitivist paradigms of the “mind machine,” the authors of A Generative Theory of Tonal Music (1983) postulated that there exist universal laws of listening, cognitive constraints that dictate how we make sense of our experience of musical sound. According to Lerdahl and Jackendoff’s research, listeners  intuitively comprehend structures of hierarchy when listening to tonal music, and it is precisely this perceived hierarchy that makes music intelligible. After laying out the theory, the authors go on to argue the inevitable point: some music follows the universal “listening grammar” to a letter; other music does not. Rather than an aesthetic, political, philosophical, or social rejection of the style, the authors play the “nature” card—academic modernism is “cognitive noise” because of the innate structure of human cognition, a biological and psychophysical fact over which we have little control. In this influential move, the authors establish their critique on the ultimate authority of nature (i.e., “Ph.D. music” is, in a sense, “unnatural”).

RT does a judicious job ferreting out the various complexities of this position. Most humanists today bristle at the very notion of “universality,” and with good reason, looking back on the barbarous last century of violence in the name of universalizing truths. Further, arguments of musical universals cut against ideals of human freedom, exposing us to the vulnerability of our own limitations. They also disturb the hard-won claim that music is an entirely culturally contingent social practice.

But can we discount this position so easily? As Leonard Meyer put it: “It is a mistake—albeit a common one—to conceptualize the problem as a search for ‘musical’ universals. There are none. There are only the acoustical universals of the physical world and the bio-psychological universals of the human world” (V, 450). This is a frustrating and misleading claim: the acoustical and bio-psychological factors Meyer dismisses are precisely the constitutive ingredients of all musical expression—after all, what else is there besides the “physical world” (sound) and the “human world” (perception)? (Perhaps he has in mind a purely intellectual, disembodied, transcendent realm of pure Kantian reflection? Or perhaps he’s reifying “Culture” as something that exists outside of material reality?) If there are universals here, as Meyer concedes, it’s hard to imagine how there couldn’t also be universals in the realm of music. Octave equivalency, for example, appears to be a musical universal governed by a fairly simple (since the Greeks first recognized it) psychoacoustic fact (1:2). Granted, cultural context takes over quickly to shape our experience and understanding of such universals, but to not hear a quality of fundamental sameness in C4 and C5 would be to deny many millennia of shared, evolutionary perceptual and cognitive development as humans. Is it not also possible that we are evolutionarily programmed to hear hierarchy in musical sound?

Lerdahl and Jackendoff’s thesis has proven highly influential, and (at least according to my own grad school experience) the early controversy has dropped off in favor of general, if qualified, acceptance. It seems that on this point, at least, “universal” has ceased to be a dirty word, reflecting skepticism with the notion of “progress” and unlimited freedom underlying the ideology of academic modernism. I’ll close with RT: “Behind cultural universals, if they are truly universal, must necessarily stand biological limitations that are transhistorical (‘timeless’) as well as ubiquitous, and that must ultimately come into conflict with faith in unlimited or unlimitable progress” (V, 450).


  1. I’ve read quite a bit of Taruskin and I’m currently working my way through his book, “The Danger of Music and other anti-Utopian Essays.” It’s a collection of his essays over the last 20 years including his excoriation of Julian Johnson, Joshua Feinberg and Lawrence Kramer in a piece called “The Musical Mystique.” I always find the good professor provocative but sometimes he’s as guilty of some of the same proclivities as his targets. I’ve also read quite a bit of Meyer, the three aforementioned authors, Roger Scruton, Allan Bloom, Ed Rothstein, Alex Ross, Bruno Nettl, George Rochberg, David Tame, Denis Dutton, Richard Norton and some Adorno, Hitchens and Paglia too. All of these folks provide great insights about art and the human condition.

    The idea of seeking “universals” in music goes back to at least Confucius. Taoist thought and the I Ching speak of polarity (Yin/Yang) as a universal principle in nature in which complimentary opposites harmonize to create order and community. In that context the tonal idiom, which works in concert with the physics of sound, is very Taoist. Consonance/dissonance, major/minor, tonic/dominant, dominant/secondary dominant—the fundamentals that even Schoenberg begrudgingly admitted were “natural” in the tonal syntax and what gave tonal its “cohesion” (his term) and its emotive power—are manifestations of Taoist philosophy. Perhaps it’s the ontological makeup of the natural world (male/female, stamen/pistil, cation/anion, positive valence/negative valence, etc.) is as close to defining a “universal” as it pertains to music as we can get.

    Taruskin’s essays on Schoenberg, the poietic fallacy, Revisionism and Cage are especially noteworthy. Also, his take on “historically informed” performance practice is terrific.

  2. my beef isn’t even with “academic modernism/” its the abuse of their arguments against universality, etc. by composers and theory teachers in its wake, of alot of contemporary thinking about music enjoys a kind of intellectual sloppiness in employing its obtuse jargon, its obscurantism, its mysticism, its allusions to mathematical beauty, composers continuously indulging in our giving them the benefit of doubt, performances, readings, blithe positivity in support… institutionalization in classes, textbooks, literature, criticism… Its a kind of zombie that’s been chasing us since the later half of the last century in every single composition and theory department in north america.

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