Survival of the Fittest:Towards an Evolutionary Model of Music Scholarship

October 1, 2009

In the course of any academic career, a scholar will witness changes—some of them monumental, others more subtle—in the way that research is performed as scholarly interests wax and wane, as new questions emerge and find or elude solution, as methods are developed, tested, instituted, and adapted to pursue various questions, and as neologisms are added to the scholarly vocabulary to describe new discoveries. The field of music is no exception, and in recent memory we have witnessed challenges to the musical canon that have lead to the inclusion of popular music and the music of lesser-known composers into our repertoire of research subjects. We have also seen the emergence and entrenchment of interdisciplinarity in our approaches to research, with unions forged between scholars in music and such seemingly distant and disparate colleagues as feminists, psychologists, sociologists, cultural theorists, queer theorists, art historians, and many others. In music theory—the discipline to which the ensuing discussion will direct itself most specifically—we have added the transformational method of musical analysis to a field of research that was previously dominated by the Schenkerian and set-theoretic methods and, as a result, we have introduced terms like “K-nets” and descriptors like “parsimonious voice-leading” into our scholarly language to explain analytical findings that arise from the application of our newest methods. Given that the players who inhabit the field of music are in constant flux, as new scholars enter the arena with fresh ideas and older scholars hone and modify their ideas over time, it should not be surprising that music scholarship has proven itself to be a dynamic and ever-changing enterprise. Indeed, such a claim about music scholarship might seem too obvious to warrant assertion. However, what lies behind the claim are a series of questions about the growth and development of scholarly knowledge that leads to no obvious answers and that require, instead, that we develop an objective and critical apparatus to explain why we observe and construct assertions about the world in the ways that we do. To engage for a moment in metaphor, while it might be clear at any given moment in the life of a given research field that scholarly opinions are subject to change, we rarely stop to wonder about the life cycles embedded within scholarship, itself – that is, how certain claims to knowledge emerge, become ensconced, proliferate and mutate in work undertaken in certain fields, or die away in the face of competing claims. It seems to me that the life cycle of any research method bears striking similarities to that of a biological species—because it is a product of surroundings to which it must respond and adapt and because its presence within these surroundings has a direct impact on coexistent species of research which, likewise, have an impact on it. Moreover, species of research compete for survival among a cacophony of voices.

Without giving my punch-line away too soon, I believe that this question forces us to place scholarship under a sociological lens, so that we can see, and thereby evaluate, the role played by interactions among individuals in the performance of research. Such a study will allow us to explain why scholars coalesce around certain research questions and methodologies, and how they make decisions about the approaches that they, as a group, will take towards questions that they, again as a group, have determined to be worthy of study. But it will also allow us to examine what individual scholars bring to the group from their experiences in other social spheres, and how these seemingly subjective observations about research objects might alter, even subtly, the course pursued by other scholars within a shared scholarly space. As the title of this talk suggests, my interest lies in speculations about how and why fields evolve—and I believe that any answer to the question of why we perform research in the way that we do, and how or why our orientation towards research might change over the course of our careers, lies in our understanding of who constitutes “we” for a particular community. The answer therefore lies in a sociological study of scholarship, conceived as a dialogue between subjects who occupy different, and multiple, social positions in relation to other subjects and to the research objects that they share.

To illustrate how sociology might play itself out in the agreements and disagreements that constitute academic dialogue, we will examine several examples of academic writing, which I have selected randomly and arbitrarily from scholarly literature that has directed itself towards analysis of works by Franz Schubert. Drawn from a period that stretches back to the early 1990s, my three examples represent strikingly different approaches, but their common focus upon the analysis of Schubert’s music allows us to tease out the dialogue that is implicit between them. Considered as an ongoing conversation in a quest for meaning in Schubert’s music, these examples also reveal deeper connections to a “conversation” with what might be described more broadly as “music theory.” In other words, in the same way that each study represents the opinions of its author, as those opinions are shaped by and directed towards other studies of Schubert, each study is also a manifestation of musical analysis, and therefore arises dialogically from the relationship of each author to the “meta-text” known as “music theory.”

Drawn from the Schenkerian perspective, the earliest of these examples appears in the 1993 issue of Music Theory Spectrum. Here, David Beach comments upon what he perceives to be some problematic aspects of the second movement of Schubert’s “Trout” Quintet, conventionally viewed as a sonata form. For Beach, the difficulty in imposing a Schenkerian reading upon the work arises from the unusual juxtaposition of keys within the movement, which foils his attempt to construct a graph of the movement that would be consistent with its underlying formal structure. He argues that the contradiction between form and tonal design in the “Trout” arises from Schubert’s frequent practice of preserving in the recapitulation the tonal scheme of the exposition, thus making the tonic the goal rather than the point of departure in the restatement . . . sometimes particularly when the dominant is no longer the goal of tonal motion in the first part—the result is a rather odd tonal scheme, as in the second movement of the “Trout” Quintet. . . . the key succession of this movement in relation to three clearly articulated thematic ideas . . . shows that the progression F major—F-sharp minor—D major is answered by A-flat major—A minor—F major. . . . It should be clear from looking at this tonal scheme that there can be no large-scale interruption [consistent with a Schenkerian reading of sonata form], since there is nothing to support scale-degree 2 …1

More recently, in a 1999 issue of 19th-century Music, Rick Cohn sets out to tackle the same repertoire from a completely different analytical angle, and in the process provides a critique of analyses, like Beach’s, that attempt to shoehorn Schubert’s music into an analytical model that Cohn believes to be more effect for earlier tonal compositions. Cohn dismisses the precepts of Schenkerian analysis, and instead tracks relationships between adjacent harmonies and key successions in portions of Schubert’s Piano Sonata in B-flat major (D. 960)—not as they generate from a prevailing tonic but, rather, as they relate to one another through common pitches and step-wise voice leading. Through transformational analysis, Cohn shows how certain key trajectories in the sonata that might prove problematic in conventional analysis—for example, the unusual expository move from B-flat major to F-sharp minor—might be explained in terms of voice-leading—B-flat major is inflected to become B-flat minor, itself changing to G-flat major with the substitution of G-flat for F, with G-flat major then modally inflected and enharmonically respelled to become the key of the second theme, or F-sharp minor. Pointing, like Beach, to aspects of Schubert’s compositions that appear to defy our conventional expectations of tonal music, Cohn argues that

The standard approach to Schubertian harmony emphasizes, perhaps by default, those features that it holds in common with its eighteenth-century antecedents. Harmonies are interpreted in relation to a tonic pitch-class or triad, via their determinate position within, or in relation to, a diatonic system “governed by” that pitch-class or triad. From the moment of their first presentation to the public, however, some Schubertian passages have invited listeners to acknowledge a degree of tonal indeterminacy.2

The unusual key relationships that are exhibited in the “Trout” and described by Beach as an example of an “odd tonal scheme” that seems to conflict with conventional sonata form, would lend themselves well to Cohn’s analytical approach. Through an analysis of voice-leading, the move from F major to D major in the exposition of the “Trout” might be explained in terms of a semi-tonal ascent of the outer pitch-classes of the F major triad, with the resulting F-sharp minor triad moving to D major through the alteration of its upper pitch-class (C-sharp) to D. Cohn does not address this piece, or Beach’s analysis, directly, but leaves the reader to re-examine existing analyses in the light of his new discovery.

Quite different in cast from these earlier studies, which locate the meaning of Schubert’s repertoire in certain innate aspects of the music, David Schwarz, writing only a year ago in his book Listening Awry, enters the fray with a discussion of the psychological impact of certain aspects of Schubert songs. His study of Schubert reaches beyond the music to hypothesize connections between certain musical gestures—in this case, restatements or recurrences of pitches—and their interpretation by the listener. Unlike Cohn, for whom recurrent (which is to say shared) pitch-classes serve to connect adjacent triads in a chain of harmonies that may or may not generate from a common tonic or “key” note, Schwarz imposes an extra-musical interpretation upon pitch repetition. He sets the stage for his interpretation when he argues that there are two meanings to the word “repetition” that obtain to Romantic music in general, and particularly to the works of Schubert . . . “repetition” and “reiteration.” “Repetition” produces a series as in (1, 2, . . . ); reiteration produces the paradoxical notion of a parallel series as in (. . .1, 1, . . . ). Repetition produces a series that is teleological; reiteration goes nowhere. . . . Through repetition, meanings change; through reiteration a moment tries over and over again to register in symbolic space and fails.3

Schwarz applies this interpretation of repetition to various songs, let us consider one of his examples, In “Die Liebe Farbe,” from the song cycle Die schone Mullerin, Schwarz notes that the theme of obsessive love that occupies the first verse of text finds its musical representation in the unceasing reiteration of F-sharp in the piano part. This pitch simultaneously serves as the fifth of the B minor tonic triad and the root of the F major dominant triad, and is therefore the lynch pin through which the tonic-dominant polarity is expressed. However, in the same way that the note “fails to register in symbolic space” (in other words, that it pulls neither in favour of the tonic nor the dominant), the obsession expressed in the poem finds no satisfactory solution in the music. As isolated statements in an ongoing conversation about Schubert’s music, the analytical observations cited here do not address each other directly—Schwarz does not refer specifically to Cohn or to Beach as examples of “how not to proceed” when he constructs his approach (involuntarily) as an alternative to theirs, nor does Beach anticipate the analytical findings of Cohn or Schwarz in his study by setting traps into which he hopes that the later scholars might fall. But despite the distance between them, these statements nonetheless constitute a dialogue because they speak to each other, and therefore lend themselves to comparison, through a set of shared research conventions that define all of these statements as scholarly and that align this scholarship with a specific discipline —in this case, musical analysis. In other words, each proceeds from a shared set of assumptions about music that underpin the very arguments that each makes. The most obvious assumption is that music means, and that its meanings are somehow articulated as pitches that unfold in time—for Beach, meaning lies in the directionality implicit in the tonal system; for Cohn, meaning lies in genealogical relationships between adjacent sonorities; and for Schwarz, meaning lies in the reaction of the listener to certain melodic gestures. Despite their differences, these studies talk to one another through very familiar analytical nomenclature (familiar, at least, to the theorist) that comprises Roman numeral figures, analytical terminology, and voice-leading graphs that derive, to a greater or lesser extent, from the Schenkerian reductive model. Moreover, each study arises from a common orientation shared by its writers towards Schubert’s music. The notion of tonal “conventions” and “conventionality” is common to all the studies, and it serves as the backdrop against which each author positions what he perceives to be a set of “unconventional” compositions. Presumably each has in mind such composers as Haydn, Mozart, or even Beethoven as the basis for their judgment that Schubert’s music seems somehow “odd” or “indeterminate,” that its “meanings change” or fail to “register in symbolic space,” and that it therefore calls for the special kinds of analytical tactics that their respective studies propose and illustrate. How this “oddness” is expressed in the music is also an important link between the three studies, each of which presumes that music has the capacity to “speak” its oddness through pitch and that the key to understanding musical “oddness” lies not in exclusively in the aural experience of the music, but in the examination of its structural details and their comparison to correlates in more “conventional” kinds of music. Each scholar is, therefore, obliged to frame his argument within such conventions of musical analysis as I have begun to list here, otherwise dialogue between these three scholars would be impossible and their statements about music would degenerate into a cacophonous tangle of subjective opinions that would likely remain incomprehensible to anyone but their speaker.

The analytical conventions that we detect in the conversation about Schubert that is referenced here arise from within, and define, a perceptual domain that might be described as “institutional.” The term derives from the sociologists Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann, who suggest that

Institutionalization occurs whenever there is a reciprocal typification of habitualized actions by types of actors. . . . Institutions further imply historicity and control. Reciprocal typifications of actions are built up in the course of a shared history. They cannot be created instantaneously. . . . Institutions also, by the very fact of their existence, control human conduct by setting up predefined patterns of conduct, which channel it in one direction as against the many other directions that would theoretically be possible.4

Institutional knowledge, as Berger and Luckmann suggest, arises from habits engrained in those who participate in its construction. These so-called “habitualized actions” might also be understood as “predefined patterns of conduct” because they are learned from others who populate the institutions in which we work (particularly from those who predate us in our fields of research). Beach, for example, was no more the architect of the Schenkerian method that he employs in his study of Schubert, than Cohn or Schwarz were the founders of transformational or psychoanalytic theory, respectively. Instead, each inherited their approach from others in the field through the process of educational socialization and the work of each is therefore subject to evaluation against other studies that employ the same methodology. But of course institutional knowledge is not the only way in which Beach, Cohn, Schwarz, or any of us engage with musical works and, in fact, this perceptual domain, which appears to provide the static or “habitual” ingredients of any research project, actually contributes very little to a discussion of how and why our knowledge claims might change over time. I think that scholarly change must therefore be explained as it generates from within another perceptual sphere.

In their daily lives, scholars encounter the objects of their research in much the same way as any other listener does, since many of these objects exist in a sphere of reality that is available to all perceivers. Scholars therefore forge their initial relationships with research objects from their positions within a given community of observers, many of whom may have little or no interest in the scholarly potential inherent in the objects that they perceive. What this means for our engagement with musical objects is that music scholars, in the daily relationships that they forge with music as pre-scholarly or extra-scholarly listeners, will develop certain opinions about music and cultivate certain tastes and predilections for musical objects in ways that are similar to non-scholars because both types of observers encounter musical works from within what might be characterized as the “everyday” sphere of their lives. The term “everyday” comes once again from Berger and Luckmann, who describe this type of reality as that portion of human existence that is “organized around the ‘here’ of my body and the ‘now’ of my present.”5 It is, in other words, a world comprised of objects, ideas, and phenomena that we seem to perceive and to experience subjectively from our particular locus within a specific culture at a certain time. However, Berger and Luckmann suggest that any notion that we can, and do, engage purely subjectively with the everyday world is misleading, since we share that world with other everyday subjects who engage with the same objects that we do. Everyday reality therefore arises out of negotiations with other subjects as they travel alongside us through a world of shared objects, in a way that is similar to the negotiations that we must make with our colleagues in our mutual construction of institutional knowledge. Speaking in the guise of the perceiving subject, Berger and Luckman explain that

I cannot exist in everyday life without continually interacting and communicating with others. I know that my natural attitude to this world corresponds to the natural attitude of others, that they also comprehend the objectifications by which this world is ordered, that they also organize their world around the “here and now” of their being in it.6

Like institutional reality, everyday reality is therefore constructed socially, from agreements about the world made between subjects who exist in roughly the same space at approximately the same time and whose perceptions about certain aspects of their world correspond to a greater or lesser degree. Again, like in the institutional sphere in which we exist as scholars, the product of any exchanges between listeners who comprise a social unit within the everyday world will be a set of agreements about ways of “being” and “doing” in relation to music that will be adopted by all agents within a given community of listeners—these ways of “being” and “doing” shape our perceptions of the objects that we encounter and observe in our everyday lives but we are often unaware of the extent of their influence upon the relationships that we develop with those objects. We rarely stop to think about what we do in the everyday world, or to evaluate why or how we engage with objects as we do—we simply exist within the world and tend to accept the parameters that are imposed upon that existence. In other words, we tend to adopt customs or conventions that shape our “being” and “doing” within the everyday world, and we take those customs for granted as our reality. As Berger and Luckmann suggest, “[the everyday world] does not require additional verification over and beyond its simple presence. It is simply there, as self-evident and compelling facticity.”7

Our existence in the everyday world, and the way that our daily experiences are shaped by other subjects in our everyday orbit, has an enormous impact on the kinds of relationships that we forge with musical works—and indeed, upon the musical objects that we will encounter in our daily lives. Like every other observer of the objects that comprise our mutual daily lives, scholars first learn about music from other listeners who inhabit their social sphere—their parents, their peers, their music teachers, and so on—and they construct their relationships with musical objects based, at least in part, on the social dimension of everyday listening. So, while we might think that our musical experiences, and any everyday descriptions that we might offer about them, are unique as a measure of our individuality as listeners, we must also accept that what we understand to be our musical “tastes” and “preferences” might actually be inherited from, or at the very least influenced by, other listeners who provide criteria that we subsequently use in our own encounters with, and evaluations of, musical works. These evaluative criteria, as means to determine what we like and what we dislike in music, exist prior to our appearance in the everyday world of listening as a set of objective conventions available to every member of a particular listening community—and certainly prior to our entry into the institutional world. So while the musical objects chosen by scholars like Beach, Cohn, and Schwarz as the focus of research might appear to reflect their proclivities for a particular repertoire, these proclivities are actually inherited and developed from within a particular pre- or non-institutional context. If these scholars were raised in a different “everyday” environment—for example, in another country, at a different time, or within a different culture—their perceptions that Schubert is “odd” might not arise from comparisons to other Western composers, but to different types of music entirely, or not at all. But more importantly, it is what isn’t shared by these three scholars that points more directly to their daily, or “everyday,” musical experiences. Consider, for example, the possible rationale used by each scholar in the decisions that he makes about the choice of analytical approach that he will use. We can only speculate that, in Beach’s case, the drive to reconcile form and tonal design in Schubert’s “Trout” was born out of his experience of the Quintet as a listener and his auditory comparisons of this piece to other pieces in sonata form. Moreover, Beach’s choice of the Schenkerian model as his analytical tool also reflects something about his experience of tonal directedness as something that should be privileged among other types of auditory observations. Cohn, on the other hand, is more explicit in his outline of the aims of his study, and claims that he is motivated to account for his perception of “tonal indeterminacy” in Schubert’s music. But like Beach, such indeterminacy presupposes that Cohn has developed certain expectations about tonal music (developed prior to his scholarly examinations of music) that seems to be foiled by Schubert. Schwarz, in contrast with the authors of the earlier studies, appears to draw upon an interest in psychoanalysis developed beyond, but likely in conjunction with, his experience of Schubert. The questions that he seeks to answer in his study, as in the other studies, draw from his perception of something unusual in the music – in this case, obsessive pitch reiteration—and the striking impressions left upon him by this curious facet of some Schubert songs. These questions, as elements unique to each study, draw from the everyday encounters between each of these scholars and the music that they subsequently examine. These questions are thereafter filtered through existing institutional methodologies in search for answers to what appears, at least on the exterior, to be a set of questions driven by everyday musical experience.

In conclusion, I would like to return to the punch-line to which I alluded in my opening comments. I propose that in order to understand the fluidity of academic fields, we need to understand the make-up of the field at any given time in its history. And to understand the make-up of the field, we need to take stock of the subjects who both populate the field and who contribute to ongoing and ever changing dialogue that comprises its scholarship. My title suggests that the current essay merely points towards a model for conceptual change in the field of music, and to that end, I believe that such a model would need not only to account for the methodologies that define “institutional” reality for a group of scholars, but also for the questions that arise from their individual “everyday” musical experiences. As music scholars negotiate a shared path towards musical meaning, common analytical methodologies and shared descriptive lexicon begins to emerge in order to allow studies to “speak” to one another. But these methods and associated terminology should not be misunderstood as monolithic. Rather, we should recognize that scholarship changes with the addition—or, regrettably, the subtraction—of new “speakers” to the conversation, who bring with them fresh perspectives developed in their individual “everyday” lives.



Beach, David. “Schubert’s Experiments with Sonata Form,” Music Theory Spectrum 15, no. 1 (1993): 1-18.

Berger, Peter and Thomas Luckmann. The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge. New York: Anchor, 1966.

Cohn, Richard L. “As Wonderful as Star Clusters: Instruments for Gazing at Tonality in Schubert.” 19th-Century Music 22, no. 3 (1999): 213-232.

David Schwarz, Listening Awry: Music and Alterity in German Culture. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2006.



1Beach, “Schubert’s Experiments,” 8.

2Cohn, “As Wonderful,” 213.

3Schwarz, Listening Awry, 32.

4Berger and Luckmann, The Social Construction, 54-55.

5Ibid., 22.

6Ibid., 23.


2473 Last modified on October 1, 2018