No, this isn’t another blog post lamenting the fact that music writing gets far more attention than science writing. If anything, it’s a bit of an argument that science writing ought to be less like popular music writing.
On Twitter this past weekend Jim Henley, one of the few bloggers I consider “old school” (the name of this blog was influenced by his Unqualified Offerings, though he’s mostly stepped back from that) had a long series of tweets about pop-music writing, responding to some arguments that music criticism has degenerated and hardly has anything to do with music any more. Jim provides a link to some attempts to apply music theory to pop, and later to an entire blog full of that. I also threw him a link to this detailed analysis of a nuclear-powered earworm:
(That’s from a music prof at Williams, and I found it via a link from one of the college’s many social-media feeds.)
Jim’s main argument, though, which apparently comes from a book I haven’t read (I think it’s this) is that a big part of the reason why music criticism doesn’t do more with music theory is that music theory isn’t especially well suited to dealing with rock/pop music. The tools of classical music analysis and criticism are built around a particular type of music, arising from the Western classical tradition, and don’t work that well for rock and pop music that grew out of a very different musical tradition. As a result, as Jim puts it, the best you can hope for is “dancing about architecture”– fumbling with an inadequate analytical toolkit to give impressionistic descriptions of what’s really going on, or else falling back to talking about social and cultural issues that aren’t all that closely connected to the content of the music.
It’s an interesting argument, not just because I’m a fan of rock music and very much not a classical music fan, so it speaks right to my personal biases. (I’m currently obsessing on the new Hold Steady record, and really looking forward to seeing them play live on Friday). But I also wonder if there aren’t some parallels to the eternal scientists vs. journalists thing.
That is, in the blogs linked above that do apply music-theory analysis to pop music, you can see them struggling with the familiar issue of communicating to people who don’t share your technical vocabulary. You can see where it would be a lot easier for the writers to explain what’s going on if they could use their normal jargon, but they have to define things as they go. In the first of Owen Pallett’s Slate pieces there’s even an element of the disparaging “You think you want jargon but really you don’t” thing that happens when journalists deliberately write “bad” pieces in what’s supposed to be the style of a scientist. (To his credit, the later ones get better.)
It’s definitely a tricky problem, and I think it’s a contributor to the “degeneration” of music writing that people point to. You can’t count on a typical pop-music fan to have any idea what a “tonic” refers to, or a “V chord” or any of the many other terms that show up in those pieces. I only have the very sketchiest idea of most of this stuff myself, as I never took music theory– I played in the band all through high school, so I can basically recognize when a key change happens in a song that I’m listening to, but I couldn’t begin to tell you from what to what. (On the one hand, I vaguely wish I knew more of the technical terminology here, but on the other, learning it would probably require an awful lot of listening to classical music, and I don’t really care to do that…) So a classically educated music writer is in some ways in the same situation as a scientifically trained writer trying to communicate technical results without being able to use technical language
I also wonder, though, if there’s a way to bring the analogy in the other direction; that is, a sense in which the oft-cited failure modes of science writing are partly due to applying technical and analytical tools to a subject they weren’t really designed for. That is, it might be that in some ways writing about science is different than writing journalistically about other subjects, in the same way that writing about rock music is different than writing about Western classical music, and demands the creation of different tools.
Of course, I’m so fried right at the moment that I haven’t really gotten any farther than that, and the next few days are going to be utterly brutal, so I’m not likely to produce any really deep and useful insights. But I didn’t want to let this slip too far into the past, so I’ll throw up this inconclusive post and see if it prompts anyone else to anything great.