Congratulations! You’re Wrong

Congratulations! You’re Wrong

In a lesson I had with the master composer David Rakowski, he pointed to a cadence in a new piece of mine, stated, “This gesture occurs exactly where it should,” and paused. I waited for him to continue, beaming internally at my success. As a student composer, correcting the timing of cadences was one of my biggest struggles, and therefore I was thrilled to finally nail one perfectly. When he continued, Uncle Davy expounded at length as to why he found this meeting of expectations to be dissatisfying. In short, I had done something perfectly to standards. And that made my piece much poorer.

In classroom situations, developing student’s expectations for the musical styles being covered often serves as the foundation for their study. Students need to understand what the musicians who were contemporaries of the composer considered acceptable at the time, because otherwise they will never be able to appreciate the odd choices made by our favorite composers.

The list of anomalous compositions that were lambasted by their peers and yet eventually found their way into the canon is a large and illustrious list, including some of my favorite works by Monteverdi (Cruda Amarilli), Mozart (“Dissonance” Quartet, K. 465), and Beethoven (Op. 59, No. 1 and the Grosse Fuge stand out in this regard), among many others. (Some of these discussions are included in Slominky’s Lexicon of Musical Invective—a fascinating compendium.) In nearly every case, the composers who ideally exemplify any style create music that I find boring and insipid. Rules for composition and analysis can comfort a beginning student, but any exploration of masterpieces that we find moving and enjoyable will quickly encounter works that disregard these processes—to great effect. In my opinion, the best classroom teachers help pupils to understand the underlying basis for art within context, while inculcating an appreciation for individual deviations from the rules of the day.

Two recent books discuss wrongness as a concept, and whether or not to embrace this state of being. According to the New York Times review, Kathryn Schulz argues in Being Wrong for error as “a humane, courageous and extremely desirable human trait” that is essential to human cognition and is the basis of research. I find this characterization to be highly comforting.

The main difficulty is figuring out how to be wrong in exactly the right way. While neophytes might create original solutions through their ignorance, as they gain knowledge many artists lose the energy that characterized their early work. One solution is to remain blissfully unaware of the rules (or what advertisers are calling “stupid”). The problems with this proposed path are twofold: first, when we refuse to improve our skill set, we don’t develop as composers and we are forced to accept simple replications of our initial successful forays; second, when we lack awareness within our field, we are unable to recognize the difference between our greatest achievements and our worst failures.

As artists, we should constantly seek to improve ourselves and to increase our range of expression. Ideally, we can reach a state where our firm foundation of hard-won and prodigious knowledge provides us with the freedom to tweak systems, to challenge rules, to be deliciously, humanely, courageously, and satisfyingly wrong.

And so I find myself working very strenuously in order to create something incorrect, something that engenders expectations and then thwarts them, something that defies its own internal logic. Because the moments that I truly adore in the works of others are those moments that shock, astonish and—ultimately—delight me. Songs, instrumental music, photographs, paintings, sculptures, novels, stories, and poems compel me to return many times to experience their wonders when they are gloriously wrong. The visceral joy of their illogical logic and their beautiful ugliness rarely fades.

NewMusicBox provides a space for those engaged with new music to communicate their experiences and ideas in their own words. Articles and commentary posted here reflect the viewpoints of their individual authors; their appearance on NewMusicBox does not imply endorsement by New Music USA.

30 thoughts on “Congratulations! You’re Wrong

  1. Armando

    What a beautiful column, David. Bravo.

    You know, I couldn’t help but think not about my own activities as a composer (although this search for “wrongness” is one I am engaged in myself, especially at the moment) but, rather, my work in the classroom. This very notion of the wrongness of Beethoven or Mozart in the context of “the rules” of their contemporaries’ music came up two years ago in my form and analysis class, when an astute student pointed out how every piece we seemed to be looking at by Beethoven and Mozart seemed an exception to every rule we’d taught them in Theory I. It gets me thinking, how DO we teach the rules when the musical examples we use to teach them are made up entirely of exceptions because most of the repertoire that assiduously follows the rules is, as you say, boring?

  2. philmusic

    “…The list of anomalous compositions that were lambasted by their peers and yet eventually found their way into the canon is a large and illustrious…”

    I’m not sure that being lambasted by one’s peers is the same as being wrong. They did not recant. Did they?

    Rather I like to think that they were creating answers to questions that no one else had even imagined.

    Phil Fried
    Phil’s page

  3. Colin Holter

    It gets me thinking, how DO we teach the rules when the musical examples we use to teach them are made up entirely of exceptions because most of the repertoire that assiduously follows the rules is, as you say, boring?

    I think this points to a fundamental problem in theory pedagogy, something I’ve observed from both sides of the desk: The idea that there are “rules” in common-practice music suggests a prescriptivism that’s kind of meaningless for both composers and theory students. I think it makes more sense to talk about what’s normative in this music rather than what’s correct – “anomalous” pieces, as David pointed out, have complex relationships to the normative (which is different from saying that they’re flatly “wrong”). The problem is that it’s much easier to get a theory class to grasp the significance of “right” and “wrong” than the significance of “normative” and “complex relationship to the normative.”

  4. philmusic

    “…how DO we teach the rules when the musical examples we use to teach them are made up entirely of exceptions?…

    Armondo I believe it was Heinrich Schenker who first drew a distinction between the teaching of “theory” and of “practice” or what he called free composition. You might want to look there.

    Phil Fried Phil’s low budget theory page

  5. robteehan

    David, can you give me an example of a composer who “ideally exemplifies” a style, and which works of theirs you find boring and insipid?

  6. smooke

    Fair is fair

    You are certainly entitled to ask. I could be disingenuous and cite an example from the earliest works of Mozart or some other piece that’s universally disregarded. But I’m going to take your question seriously.

    First, though, a caveat. You are asking about my tastes. Something that I find boring.

    So, when I cite Palestrina, specifially the Pope Marcellus Mass, I understand that this is music that many people, including many of my closest friends and colleagues, absolutely adore. It was designed to exemplify a style. And I just can’t stand it. I’ve tried and tried, but I can never make it through a movement or two.


  7. Armando

    Colin, you make an EXCELLENT point. I think my conservatory education shows every time I talk about “rules” in music composition. Of course you (and Phil) knew what I meant, and you’ve both, interestingly, hit on the view that I’ve taken on in my classroom teaching (a view that is, however, easier to espouse and develop into an approach once certain basic musical norms–the type of basic musical norms established in the first year of undergraduate music theory, say–have been established, at least in my experience). I’ve grown distrustful of the educational model I inherited from my teachers. It just seems to assume music exists in a vacuum and that things are the way they are because they’ve always been the way they are.

  8. rskendrick

    Great post David. I’m reminded when Yoda says to Luke, “you must unlearn what you have learned.”

    In all seriousness though, I think it’s helpful for a composer to learn how to compose “in the style of someone else” or several ‘someone elses’ early on in their training. I think it’s important to have a good foundation of compositional chops before branching out to pursue one’s own discoveries.

    Ralph Kendrick

  9. robteehan

    Well, if I could write a choral work as clear and tightly-balanced as that, I’d be pretty happy.

    I asked because I’ve never known any composer to “ideally exemplify” anything; they are only composers, and labels that we apply such as exemplifiers, mavericks, rule-breakers, etc. must come after the fact, as do most of the so-called “rules” of compositions. This one work of Palestrina’s, which he wrote to appease a call for clarity of text, does not make him a “by the book” composer.

    Can you predict when the cadences in the Pope Marcellus Mass occur? I can’t. They are delayed and delayed forever. I think this is the kind of “wrongness” your teacher was getting at. If you can predict exactly what’s going to happen, it’s going to be boring; little surprises make it interesting. But the piece follows its own internal logic too; the counterpoint is airtight. A fortissimo cymbal crash would certainly sound “wrong”, but wouldn’t make the piece any better.

    Anyway, my feeling on the matter is that it’s good to keep the listener guessing, but there’s something to be said for sounding “right” too. Someone like J.S. Bach, for example, is never predictable, and yet his music has a sense of inevitable flow to it; the surprises are micro, not macro, and somehow that makes it feel more solid.

  10. lawrence

    I’ve had some success using the Tools Not Rules approach to relieving my students of some common misconceptions. Simple example: Do you want a rich texture of independent voices? Avoid parallel octaves. Do you want to bring a particular line into the foreground? Use parallel octaves.

    All a matter of knowing your objectives, then finding the tools to achieve them.

  11. philmusic

    “.. Do you want to bring a particular line into the foreground? Use parallel octaves…”

    Perhaps I misunderstand your comment, but I believe that there is a difference between octave doublings and parallel octaves.

    The emphasis created by octave doubling is orchestrational not harmonic so they are in no way related.

    Phil Fried Phil’s well orchestrated page

  12. lawrence

    Can’t imagine how they could be completely unrelated, Phil.

    Let me put it this way: a student comes across a line that is doubled at the octave in Beethoven and cries foul because such things are not allowed in counterpoint exercises. The response, of course, is that Beethoven is emphasizing a line by reinforcing it at the octave because he is writing music that requires that particular emphasis at that particular moment. He is scoring the emphasis. He wouldn’t have done it if his objective had been an equally-balanced texture of independent voices. The objective determines the means, or what I have called the tools.

    This is a very simplistic example, but it illustrates the point: in music, anything is possible (no rules). Specific techniques help us achieve specific results (find the right toolbox).

    I’ve found it’s helpful to teach musical principles this way, because teaching Rules makes students experience music as existing in a vacuum, as Armando put it, while the Tools approach helps them see music as a realm of possibilities.

    So I start a 2-voice counterpoint class by stating our objective: to create a texture of two independent lines that are equally balanced. Then I ask which type of motion will best help us achieve our goal – parallel, similar, oblique or contrary? Students rarely get the right answer, but they know right off that parallel motion won’t do it – not because I gave them a rule, but because they understand what we are trying to accomplish.

  13. mclaren

    Armando touches on a crucial point when he remarks: It gets me thinking, how DO we teach the rules when the musical examples we use to teach them are made up entirely of exceptions because most of the repertoire that assiduously follows the rules is, as you say, boring?

    The issue here goes far beyond “rules.” We would like to have some assurance that the patterns musicologists claim to find in modern compositions actually exist.

    As more and more complex data is collected, the number of variables being studied grows, and the number of apparent correlations between them grows even faster. With enough variables to test, it becomes almost certain that you will detect correlations that look significant, even if they aren’t. (..)

    This is known as the “curse of dimensionality.” It means that while a
    large amount of information makes it easy to study everything, it also makes it easy to find meaningless patterns. That’s where the random-matrix approach comes in, to separate what is meaningful from what is nonsense.

    Source: “The ‘incredible proportions’ of random matrix theory’s strange descriptive power,” U.S. News and World Report: Science Background,

    At first glance, it surely seems absurd beyond imagining that the composer of modern pieces like Le Marteau sans Maitre could have composed a piece of music with no demonstrable coherent system to its pitches, and even more outlandish that a musicologist could then come along and deluded himself into imagining he had discovered an overall plan to the composition when there really wasn’t one.

    But it’s easy to see how this could happen if you think about it. Consider a concrete specific example: Ramsey Theory tells us that when you flip a coin n^2+1 times, there’s a high probability of getting a run of at least N heads or N tails. So if you compose a piece of music by flipping a coin, say, 101 times, you’re very likely to get at least one specific melodic pattern that lasts for 10 notes. But Ramsey Theory tells us this is just statistical artifact; it was never planned by the composer, it’s just an artifact of the random behavior of a data set.

    Now let’s carry this a little further. Suppose you flip a coin 12^2+1 times (145 times)…Ramsey Theory tells us you’re very likely to get at one 12-tone row which you’ve written down beforehand. Now, taking that row, can you not concoct some elaborate mathematical procedure for generating the entire rest of the random “composition” from that supposed source row you have “discovered” in the composition?

    And now let’s take this one step farther. Let’s say you use a rigorous system for selecting the pitches in a composition and 100% of the pitches are accounted for by that system. In that case, there’s no question that the composer has used a specific system to create the composition. But suppose you allow 10% of the pitches to be chosen “for expressive purposes” — how well does the resulting composition fit into the alleged underlying rigorous system? Suppose you let 20% of the pitches fall outside the system “for expressive purposes”? 40%? 60%? 80%? 90%?

    You can see that at some point, when enough of the pitches are allowed to drift freely outside the underlying mathematical scheme for “expressive” reasons, it becomes impossible to account for the extraneous pitches regardless of the system the composer claims to use. The most obvious proof of this occurs when the number of pitches chosen for “expressive” purposes reaches 100%. But long before that point, the composition will become so difficult to parse that any underlying system becomes more a matter of self-delusion than reality. IN fact, it’s reasonably clear that well before you reach the 50% mark, any attempt at analysis will break down.

    What percentage of pitches in serial compositions were chosen for “expressive purposes,” outside the rigorous confines of the alleged underlying system?

    We don’t know. There are statistics on this. No serial composer has provided any evidence to address this point.

    No musicologist had used skeptical critical thinking to find an answer to these kinds of questions.

    Surely, though, it seems even more outlandish to suppose that an analyst could come along and “discover” an alleged organization scheme which in fact does not actually exist. Right?


    As it turns out, this kind of thing has happened before. In fact, there exist many cases in which apparent underlying organizational schemes have been discovered in large data sets…yet these alleged organizational schemes are entirely imaginary, a matter of classic self-delusion.

    The best modern example of people “discovering” alleged complex systems of organization in large data sets when they don’t exist involves Bible codes.

    Several years ago the book The Da Vinci Code became all the rage, in part because it exposed to the general public the practice of numerically analyzing the text of the Bible. People who used statistics to analyzed the text found amazing “hidden messages” in the Bible, including alleged predictions of the assassination of the JFK in 1963, the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, and so on.

    These predictions appear so specific, mentioning particular names and dates, that at first glance any reasonable person would conclude that the Bible must indeed contain magical hidden codes predicting all the world’s future events.

    Unfortunately, mathematics informs us otherwise.

    It turns out that a dedicated analyst can generate “hidden” text from the Bible using such methods of so-called “analysis”…and the text can come from any source desired. The “hidden text” can be dirty limericks, the
    contents of a shampoo bottle, headlines from the National Enquirer, or jokes from Monty Python skits — providing the analyst is willing to engage in sufficient mental and mathematical gyrations.

    “`Hidden messages’ can be found anywhere, provided the seeker is willing and able to harvest the immense field of possibilities. But do they mean anything?”

    Source: “Hidden Messages and the Bible Code,” Dave Thomas, The Skeptical Enquirer, Vol. 21, No. 6, November/December 1997.

    If you follow the link to Thomas’ debunking of the alleged “Bible Code,” you will find that the analysts who purported to discover these nonexistent “secret messages” in the Bible used methods remarkably similar (indeed, virtually identical) to the methods employed by Lev Koblyakov. Namely, skip through the data n data points at a time (in the case of the Bible, skip through the text n letters at a time; in the case of Le Marteau, skip
    through the alleged source tone row n pitches at a time) and then:

    …rearranges the letters into a huge matrix (which he calls a “crossword puzzle”). The matrix is n letters wide, and inside this puzzle, the letters for the “hidden message” line up together vertically. (Sometimes, a slightly different procedure is used to make the hidden word run diagonally, every other row, and so forth.) The analyst or the computer can then look for more keyword-related “hits” around the given hidden word. Secondary matches can be picked off vertically, horizontally, or diagonally. [Thomas, 1997, op. cit.]

    Notice the startling similarity to the current methodology for “finding” supposedly “hidden underlying compositional plans” in serial compositions — as, for instance, Koblyakov’s purported “analysis” of Boulez’s Le Marteau sans Maitre.
    Just like the Bible Code crackpots, Koblyakov arranges the pitches in matrices, then he claims to “discover” hidden patterns in diagonals by skipping pitches in the matrices — every second pitch, or every third pich, or whatever. But this is exactly the same bogus scheme used to “discover” fraudulent nonexistent “messages” supposedly hidden in the Bible — absurd messages like “Elvis lives” and other nonsense.

    In fact, we have an example in which a mathematical system has already been “discovered” to underlie musical compositions which was clearly and provably not present in the original composition. See the article “Linear recurrence relations in music” for more details.

    The point here is that the so-called “hidden system” represented by the recurrence relation that is supposedly encrypted in the musical composition doesn’t actually exist as a real compositional device…just as the alleged “secret messages” supposedly encrypted in the text of the Bible don’t actually exist. They’re statistical artifacts. They pop up when we apply such methods because, as random matrix theory assures us, there are always lots of unexpected correlations between elements of any large data set. Unfortunately, the people who thought they had found these amazing “hidden messages” in the Bible’s text did not know enough about statistics to realize that the messages were a self-delusion.

    The collected set of pitches of Le Marteau sans Maitre forms a very large data set…and so we would expect to find statistical artifacts there too.

    What assurance have we that Koblyakov’s analysis of Le Marteau or Forte’s analysis of Rite of Spring has uncovered a genuine underlying system in the vast data set of pitches of these modern compositions, as opposed to a self-delusion, a mere statistical artifact like the so-called “messages” in the Bible code?

    Does Koblyakov or Forte have enough knowledge of mathematics and statistics to perform the required mathematical tests that would allow us to reject this hypothesis?

    More to the point — do the people who have gone along with Kovlyakov’s or Forte’s analysis (because it seems like a good story, just like those Iraq WMDs) have sufficient knowledge of mathematics and statistics to perform the required mathematical tests that would allow us to conclude that Koblyakov’s or Forte’s music-analysis schemes are not mere statistical anomaly like the Bible code, but instead something real and credible, significantly outside the realm of likely statistical abberration?

    It seems clear that the answer to both these questions is a resounding NO.

    Before anyone accepts as credible the highly elaborate and extraordinarily shaky analyses of modern compositions like Koblyakov’s alleged “analysis” of Le Marteau or Forte’s supposed “analyses” of various modern serial compositions, shouldn’t we run some experiments to test the sweeping claims made by people like Forte and Koblyakov? Especially since those sweeping claims come with a great many unexplained gaps in the musical analyses…places where the alleged “underlying scheme” breaks down for long periods, and which Forte and Koblyakov and other specialists in modern serial music explain away with hand-waving and smoke and mirrors about “breaking the rules for expressive purposes.”

    Here are some experiments that would test the validity of modern analyses of serial compositions:

    [1] Get together some music theory students and divide the class into two groups. Give one group the original score of Le Marteau and give then Koblyakov’s analysis. Give the second group of music students a score containing random pitches and rhythms and also give them Koblyakov’s analysis. Inform each of the groups of the music students that Le
    does not follow the organizational scheme rigidly, but that departures in pitch are allowed “for expressive purposes.” At the end of the analysis session, if both groups of students have come up with an analysis which follows Koblyakov’s scheme, then Koblyakov’s analysis should be rejected out of hand.

    [2] Run a statistical analysis of difficult modern serial compositions like Gruppen and Le Marteau in accord with random matrix theory. This would require a mathematician of some expertise.

    Determine whether the alleged correlations musicologists found when they analyzed these compositions are beyond the bounds of what we would expect for random correlations in large data sets from random matrix theory. If Koblyakov’s correlations (i.e., the supposed 5
    permutations, etc.) are not beyond what we would expect for random correlations for a large data set, then Koblyakov’s analysis should be rejected as self-delusion.

    [3] Generate an alternative analysis of difficult modern compositions like Le Marteau which explain some of the pitches of the composition, but leave large gaps — which should be easy enough. After all, given the size of the data set of the total number of pitches, and given the fact that as Gann points out “[Koblyakov never] stuck with even one musical passage long enough to show how Boulez derived it from beginning to end, [that] would be immensely more illuminating, but instead he goes concept by concept and jumps all over the piece with each new concept” it seems at least as likely that a wide variety of wholly arbitrary and entirely contingent mythical “organizing systems” could be ginned up for Le Marteau in addition to the one Koblyakov alleged “discovered.” Now present the original Koblyakov “analysis” and the new entirely bogus underlying organizational scheme to a group of musicologists and ask each musicologist which organizational scheme is the real one and which one is fake. If the musicologists give answers which are not more than one standard deviation different from what you would expect from flipping a coin (i.e., within 1 standard deviation of a 50-50 split), then Koblyakov’s supposed “analysis” should be rejected.

    [4] Compose five new pieces from scratch by using a computer to generate pitches and rhythms at random without any plan or overall organization. Now analyze 5 classic existing total serial pieces (for example, Babbitt’s “All Set,” Boulez’s “Structures I,” etc.) and recompose them, chaning the row to a different set of pitches and the rhythms to a different rhythmic row in each case. Now run a computer program of the type described above in the Bible Code examples to obtain plausible patterns from the randomly-composed pieces. Now give this set of 10 compositions to a group of specialists in modern music along with the analyses of all these pieces. Ask them to identify the random pieces with no organization and analyses generated by computer-matching from random patterns, as opposed to the actual serial pieces with verified analyses. Can the modern music specialists reliably distinguish between the two groups at a level significantly better than a coin-flip?

    Has anyone bothered to perform these kinds of experiments?

    If not, then what reason do we have to believe that the supposed analyses of modern compositions (like Forte’s alleged “pitch-class set” explanation for the pitches in Rite Of Spring, or Koblyakov’s purported “analysis” of the pitches in Boulez’s Le Marteau sans Maitre) is anything other than a self-delusion like the so-called Bible code ginned up from a large data set by people who mesmerize themselves into seeing patterns where there are none?

    The essential problem here is obvious. The musicologists have cooked up good stories to explain the pitches in difficult-to-explain modern compositions like Rite of Spring. But as Einstein remarked, “Beware of a good story. An explanation is not necessarily true merely because it’s convincing.”

    As soon as we start dragging math into the analysis of musical compositions, we necessarily find ourselves required to use the scientific method. Mathematics is a science…and if we want to invoke it, we had damned well better have some solsolid convincing reason for doing so. OtOtherwise, the result is no different from the bogus Bible Codes…self-delusion aided and abetted by pspseudoscience.

    “Pseudoscience is something that looks like science, but isn’t,” as Michael Shermer has pointed out (author of the superb skeptical handbook Why People Believe Weird Things.)

    To put it bluntly, so-called musicological “analyses” like Alan Forte’s so-called “analysis” of the pitches of Rite of Spring using pitch class set theory and Koblyakov’s purported “discovery” of the supposed “hidden plan” underlying Boulez’s Le Marteau sans Maitre qualify as pseudoscience.

    These analytical schemes use tortured and absurdly overcomplicated methods to tease out fragmentary patterns which fail to provide a full explanation for all the pitches in the composition. In fact, in these kinds of so-called “analyses,” there are always big unexplained gaps that get papered over with the claim that “the composer broke the pattern by inserting extraneous pitches for expressive purposes.”

    But how do we know that? Where’s the evidence?

    How do we know that these ridiculously complex analyses have any basis in fact?

    What assurance do we have that any of these supposed analyses of difficult modern compotiions like Gruppen are anything other than self-deluded fantasies exactly like the deluisional messages of the Bible Code?

    No musicologists have applied the scientific method to test whether these so-called analyses are actually valid. No specialists in modern serial music have actually taken the challenge and conducted experiments of the kind I describe above to test whether anyone can actually detect the difference between a set of random pitches and rhythms for which a Bible Code-type computer program generates a plausible but fraudulent “analysis,” and a real serial composition with the actual analysis.

    What we’re talking about here is known as anosognosia.

    Anosognosia is a condition in which a person who suffers from a disability seems unaware of or denies the existence of his or her disability. (..)

    An anosognosic patient who is paralyzed simply does not know that he is paralyzed. If you put a pencil in front of them and ask them to pick up the pencil in front of their left hand they won’t do it. And you ask them why,
    and they’ll say, `Well, I’m tired,’ or `I don’t need a pencil.’

    Source: The Anosognosic’s Dilemma: Something’s Wrong but You’ll Never Know What It Is (Part 1), Errol Morris, New York Times, 20 June 2010.

    In recent years, we have seen many highly public examples of this kind of anosognosia.

    Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan spent his entire life believing the crazy delusion that unregulated financial markets would not exhibit behavior so self-destructive that the entire system would collapse…yet that’s exactly what happened in 2008. And Alan Greenspan found himself forced to admit that his entire lifetime belief system had been self-delusion.

    The BP engineers believed implicitly that even though they cut a few corners in the safety procedures for their drill rig in the Gulf of Mexico, thing couldn’t possibly go so drastically haywire that a hole would open up in the ocean floor spewing out 2.5 billion barrels of oil for years on end…yet that’s exactly what happened in 2010.

    And the highly-educated PhDs who planned the Afghanistan invasion in 2001, trained at the finest foreign policy institutes, knew with absolute certainty that even if the invasion of Afghanistan hit a few trouble spots, nonetheless it was absolutely utterly totally impossible that the greatest military power the world has ever seen could ever be defeated and driven out of Afghanistan by a bunch of tribesmen armed with nothing more than bolt-action rifles…yet that’s exactly what is happening, right now, as we speak.

    The Dunning-Kreuger effect explains why this happens. In their paper “Why People Fail To Recognize Their Own Incompetence,” by David Dunning, Kerri Johnson, Joyce Ehrlinger and Justin Krueger, Current Directions in Psychological Science, 2003, the authors explain that

    …People tend to be blissfully aware of their incompetence. This lack of awareness arises because poor performers are doubly cursed: their lack of skill deprives them not only of the ability to produce correct responses, but also of the expertise necessary to surmise that they are not producing them. [Dunning, Johnson, Ehrlinger and Krueger, 2003, op. cit.]

    Let’s ask a simple question: what if modern compositions like Le Marteau sans maitre actually do not use any coherent definable method for selecting its pitches? Suppose (just for a moment) that the pitches in that composition were selected arbitrarily, without any overall method of organization, but that the composer deluded himself into imagining that there was an overall plan to the music’s organization which is not in fact actually present.

    Now let us ask: what is the difference between that situation, and the current situation, in which no one seems able to explain the alleged method of organization of Le Marteau without great difficulty, and in which the supposed “analysis” of the composition proves riddled with exceptions and pecularities and oddball pitches in which the claimed overall “system” breaks down, or in which the composer supposedly feels free to select pitches which were not part of the system, allegedly “for expressive purposes”?

    Now let us ask: what is the difference between that situation, and the current situation, in which no one seems able to explain the alleged method of organization of Le Marteau without great difficulty, and in which the supposed “analysis” of the composition proves riddled with exceptions and pecularities and oddball pitches in which the claimed overall “system” breaks down, or in which the composer supposedly feels free to select pitches which were not part of the system, allegedly “for expressive purposes”?

    We would like a way to test this hypothesis.

    I’ve outlined hypothetical experiments above. To date, every modern composer and specialist in modern serial music has violently rejected even the very idea of conducting such statistical experiments.

    Ask yourself: when a group of people claim to base their beliefs on mathematics and science, but the mathematics is absurdly complex and the science has biizarre incoherent gaps, yet the true believers violently refuse to test their allegedly “scientific” beliefs against the real world, what’s the result?

    We know the answer. You get crackpot cults like Dianetics which claim to be based on science and math but actually have nothing to do with math or science.

    Is the analysis of modern serial compositions a form of pseudoscience, like Dianetics? Or does it actually reliably detect patterns which an be demonstrated to exist using the scientific method?

    Enquiring minds want to know.

  14. amc654

    Every time I think there’s a chance for a meaningful conversation on NMBx, some numbnut comes along and ruins it.

    Thanks for trying, David. Keep up the good work!

  15. smooke

    Dear Mclaren,

    While I appreciate the time, thought and effort that must have gone into creating your copious response, I do believe that you posted it onto the incorrect thread. Discussions on serialism are thriving elsewhere on New Music Box (here in particular). Here we’re talking about appreciating those moments that appear to flaunt rules but contain their own internal logic. Some are finding that this leads to considerations of pedagogical issues.

    Personally, I have no real beef with serialism nor great fascination with it.


  16. lawrence

    it’s cool
    mclaren has issues he’s passionate about, and he has little interest in being succinct. I can respect that.

  17. Jay.Derderian

    [Huge response] – mclaren

    You know, it is possible that there are some people who may simply enjoy writing serial music, at the very least for themselves. Is it really that bad that there are people out there who are different than you?

    Maybe I’m just a simplistic, idealistic troglodyte, but I have a hard time understanding the necessity of huffing and puffing about a singular viewpoint

  18. rtanaka

    One example of “wrongness” relevant to music theory is harmonic modulation — say, you start a piece in the key of C major and establish its context as such. The moment you throw in a note outside of its context (say, F#), then it usually produces a result that’s jarring and contradictory…maybe even “wrong”.

    With enough skill you can make that “wrong” eventually sound “right” through modulations in the key center. (In the case above, probably G major, it’s dominant.) Or some people choose to use the dissonance to portray or prolong the contradiction that exists there, instead of resolving it as it usually begs to do. We’re all mostly using the same types of materials here (notes, chords, timbres, instruments, etc.) but meaning largely lies in how the musician chooses to organize these things as the music plays itself out during the performance.

    There’s a lot of existential-esque (both modern and postmodern) type of works out there where the music just jumps from one thing to the next without really taking the time to establish itself…these tend to sound very static because there’s no reference point in which the ideas are reacting against. Personally I’d like to hear more music that have more anchors…ideas don’t really pack a punch unless you’re poking at something solid, you know?

    Then again there’s also a lot of music out there that anchors itself in a certain place but then doesn’t really get anywhere either because it either ignores or erases new ideas that enter into the mix. It’s the former approach’s opposite, but at the same time the mindset is actually very similar.

  19. dhag

    What if similar motion is desirable? At one time some parallel motion of perfect intervals was acceptable….

  20. lawrence

    “What if similar motion is desirable? At one time some parallel motion of perfect intervals was acceptable….”

    That’s right, dhag. That’s my point: depending on your musical objective, any tool is acceptable. Just a matter of finding the right tool for the result you desire.

  21. lawrence

    Good point, rtanaka. In my world, F# is never “wrong” in the key of C Major – it’s a tension-increaser. If you are using just the C Major scale, with all of its implications, then introducing an F# (melodically or harmonically) will increase the tension. Avoid it if you want to keep the tension level fairly even; introduce it if you want to up the ante.

  22. philmusic

    “. That’s my point: depending on your musical objective, any tool is acceptable…”

    Sure unless your musical objective is a thorough knowledge of strict species counterpoint.

    Phil Fried Phil’s strict page

  23. mclaren

    David Smooke mentioned Here we’re talking about appreciating those moments that appear to flaunt rules but contain their own internal logic.

    You’re not getting it.

    In traditional music, the rules are clear, since they’ve been handed down for centuries. We can ascertain without difficult at what ponit the rules get flaunted.

    But with modern music allegedly organized by new mathematical methods (and this has little to do with serialism, it’s a general observation about radically new math-based modes of musical organization), before we can determine whether the rules have been flaunted, we have to ascertain what the rules are.

    The problem arises when we can’t be sure there are any rules for organizing the music.

    The mathematical methods used to organize some contemporary music are so complex and so poor-explained that it has become a very real question whether any rules exist at all, despite compsoers’ and analysts’ claims. If that’s the case, then talking about “flaunting the rules” becomes an exercise in futility.

    If all contemporary composers spent their time composing relatively traditional work like Howard Hanson’s symphonies, your point would be well taken. They don’t. So it becomes a big issue whether there actually is any discernible method of organization in some current compositions. If we can’t demonstrate that there is, discussing how some passage “flaunts the rules” seems pointless.

  24. Rob Deemer

    Great post, David – with some nice follow-ups by Armando, Aaron & Lawrence! This got me thinking on how I started to dabble in “wrongness”…

    Before I found myself in the concert music world, I had been arranging big band charts for many years. While not nearly as complex as a symphony or string quartet, jazz arrangements do allow for the writer to have a very clear sense of where they are on the “right/wrong” or “normative/exceptional” scale, because of the relationship to the original tune and the standard, accepted ingredients in that genre (intros, heads, solo sections, shout choruses, recaps, etc.)

    There aren’t any rules, per se, but if you want to have a chart sound appropriate to a “standard” (Glenn Miller or Jimmy Dorsey, fer instance) style, then there are appropriate harmonic, melodic, textural, orchestrational, and formal limitations the writer gives themselves.

    By this measure, it’s relatively easy to hear “exceptions” (see Ellington, Mulligan, Evans & Brookmeyer) and to gauge when & how to include them in one’s own writing – much easier, I’d posit, than in an original composition where the advantage of a recurring harmonic scheme and underlying rhythm section is missing).

    I’ve used this situation before as a teaching tool to good effect – forcing a student to hew closely to a style by couching the assignment like a gig (being hired to write a simple arrangement for a wedding or holiday concert) and then encouraging them to either take that arrangement or a new chart and stretch its envelope. Its a relatively small step from that to the discovery process that Davy Rakowski took you through in a compositional context – something that we all hopefully are exposed to at some point in our careers.

  25. lawrence

    “. That’s my point: depending on your musical objective, any tool is acceptable…”

    Sure unless your musical objective is a thorough knowledge of strict species counterpoint.

    Not at all, Phil. If your musical objective is a thorough knowledge of strict species counterpoint, then the tools to achieve that objective are relatively clear.

    Nothing radical here, just using a term (tools) to help students take a proactive approach to solving musical problems.

  26. smooke

    rules are not everything

    Thank you for the clarification. I would argue, however, that any piece of music creates an argument for its internal logic through its approach to form and time. When a student writes a piece with little or no change in surface details, they have engendered expectations and a large shift will thwart those expectations. Here I’m invoking the Leonard Meyer idea of musical meaning deriving from creating expectations and then denying them (to grossly simplify his thesis).

    To my mind, in most contemporary music, this internal logic has little to do with pitch structure. For example, to me, the serialist aspects of Xenakis’s Metastaseis B are not nearly as fruitful a starting point towards analyzing that piece as an analysis of register and orchestration.

    And I should add that I am most amused that you suggest that my music might sound like Howard Hanson! The idea definitely tickles me.


  27. rtanaka

    Avoid it if you want to keep the tension level fairly even; introduce it if you want to up the ante.

    Yup, but I think that composers should be aware that music is more than a matter of a spectrum going back and forth between varying levels of tension. What makes music feel like it’s “moving” or “getting somplace” lies in its ability to modulate harmonically. In these cases, the F# can function as a pivot note into new key areas, hinting at the possibility of a new beginning, rather than acting merely as an irritant. These are things that Bach had already figured out way back when, which people are still tapping into as a musical resource.

    Modulation has a sort of an optimistic perspective built into it, through the belief that contexts (personal or social or otherwise) can be transcended through the acceptance and harnessing of change. You can generally discern people’s beliefs and lifestyles based on the kinds of music they write or have a strong emotional connection with in this manner. A lot of modern music is static mostly because a lot of them have long given up on the idea of positive change or advancement in form. Most popular musics, too, are static except that it comes from a populist’s point of view.

  28. amc654

    “In traditional music, the rules are clear, since they’ve been handed down for centuries.”

    I’m sorry, but that is absolutely, patently false (and shows a rather extreme misunderstanding of the materials, methods, and histories of ‘traditional music’).


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Conversation and respectful debate is vital to the NewMusicBox community. However, please remember to keep comments constructive and on-topic. Avoid personal attacks and defamatory language. We reserve the right to remove any comment that the community reports as abusive or that the staff determines is inappropriate.