Critical Theory is an Art, Not a Science

Critical Theory and Postmodernism frame themselves as science with absolutist position that there are no absolutes and all knowledge is subject to relativity. Robert Greenberg's explanation of why "Music Theory" is not theory, but art, serves as an excellent retort to the postmodernist intellectual snobbery.

Folksonomies: culture art empiricism two cultures postmodernism cultural relativity

Summary of Postmodernism

The teaching that there is no objective reality, but rather many subjec¬ tive realities, or in this case, that the subjective realities are on an equal par with the objective reality (you're dead!) in turn influences students' views of the primacy of knowledge. To critics, history is no longer the search for what really happened, but rather the victor's interpretation as seen through the lens of power and oppression, and it bears a cultural and political focus. Literature is no longer a study of what the author meant, but of the feelings it arouses in the reader because of his or her cultural perspective. Reading the classics is no longer required because they're sexist and racist and not germane to today's political realities. Truth must be evaluated in the context of the speaker's socioeconomic frame of reference, and teachers, when they lack the political authority of having the same cultural identity as their students, cannot presume to teach them, but can only be "guides at the side."


The relativity of knowledge.

Folksonomies: postmodernism post modernism


The Problem with the Term "Music Theory"

Music Theory. You will forgive me for turning, as I always do in moments of intellectual want, to my Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, which defines the word "theory" as, and we quote, "The analysis of a set of facts in their relation to one another." My friends, few words offer as much rational solace as does the word "theory." Examining the plausibility of a theory demands that we analyze facts, reason logically, think objectively, and examine comprehensively. Having done so, we will assumably arrive at a conclusion that is the end product of a process of scientific method, which is itself defined as, "Principle and procedures for the systematic pursuit of knowledge involving the recognition and formulation of a problem, the collection of data through observation and experiment, and the formulation and testing of hypotheses." Ergo, if something is a theory, it is knowable. It's something we can study. It's something we can learn. It's something that is explicable. It's something that is rational. The theory of relativity. The theory of evolution. Game theory. Complex, yes, but concepts that can be understood, compartmentalized, absorbed, and digested.

Music Theory, implied in that compact and oh so innocent-sounding phrase is the idea that there is a knowable, graspable, all-encompassing set of truisms that, once understood, compartmentalized, absorbed, and digested, the very essence of music will stand revealed, it's various elements and expressive content united int oa singularity the whole greater than the sum of its parts.

Wrong. Speaking for myself, I dislike the phrase "Music Theory" almost as much as I dislike the phrase "Music Appreciation." What we call "theory," what we call "Music Theory" is in reality a huge and varied syntax, a syntax that deals with the various ways sounds can be arrayed across time to create a musical experience. We don't grasp musical syntax the way we grasp facts and the analysis of the facts. Rather we first learn to distinguish different sonic and temporal phenomenon. Then we come to understand how those phenomenon are interrelated; after which, we can begin to understand how and why we perceive structural integrity and expressive meaning in a given section of music.

Learning musical syntax is very much like learning a language. We start with the rudiments and every so slowly accumulate understanding and insight as we comprehend that language in evermore sophisticated ways. The phrase "Music Theory" implied that there is a science of music, a set of rules and regulations of absolute rights and wrongs that govern what composers can and cannot do as they create a piece of music. Wrong again.

In reality, Music Theory, like music itself, is an art and not a science. Something much more akin to language, with all its idiosyncrasies, quirks, eccentricities, and inexplicable idioms than it is a "body of knowledge covering general truths or the operation of general laws especially as obtained and tested through scientific method," which is how my web.col defines "science."


"Theory" implies facts and scientific understanding through observation and testing. Music is an art, filled with idiosyncrasies, and no hard rules.

Folksonomies: science art two cultures theory hypothesis critical theory music theory