Romantic Power of Music, The

A forthcoming conference takes on the idea of public musicology: roles, responsibilities, possibilities. I’m unable to take on new projects now, but I’m all in favor because the ratio of informed discussion to glib pronouncement is, let’s say, not ideal. The idea of “public musicology” is one of the reasons I continue to blog, after all. Still, from the “who am I to blow against the wind?” file comes this:

On the Atlantic website on June 24, one Cody Delistraty publishes “The Romantic Power of Music,” (argh) an article on musical ability as both largely sex-linked characteristic and a strategic come-on, a characteristic associated with attracting partners. He read at least some parts of Alan Walker’s Franz Liszt: The Virtuoso Years, quotes Heinrich Heine on the Lisztomania of the time, makes the hackneyed comparison between Liszt and rock stars, the Elvis/Beatlemania/Jagger trifecta, and finds a couple of quotes linking musical “complexity” to the sexual attractiveness and fitness to procreate sensed by potential female mates. The hotness/desirability of the male musician is of course another mythologized commonplace of the musical world, one that makes those of us attached to female musicians look a tad foolish—“What? Be impressed with him?” is the awe we get—but there it is.   Also unaddressed: the evolutionary value of musicianship in females, which has also been documented…

The article seems to have been written to a familiar template:

1. Historical anecdote

2. Juicy historical quotes

3. Grandiose, unsupportable hypothesis

4. Sloppy summary of a couple of recent studies (whether valid or questionable)

5. Cutesie tagline to end.

From Benjamin Charlton’s (Sussex University) abstract: “Here, I provide the first, to my knowledge, empirical support for the sexual selection hypothesis of music evolution by showing that women have sexual preferences during peak conception times for men that are able to create more complex music. Two-alternative forced-choice experiments revealed that woman only preferred composers of more complex music as short-term sexual partners when conception risk was highest.

Create more complex music? This is, Delistraty explains, based on “four piano pieces of increasing complexity”: those who were on days six through 14 of their respective reproductive cycles overwhelmingly preferred the composer of the most complex song.”

What we don’t know includes: why the author doesn’t know the difference between a “song” and a “piece,” how well each piece was played, how complexity is defined, how the pieces were chosen, and what other theories there might be for music beyond Darwin’s: “Musical notes and rhythm were first acquired by the male and female progenitors of mankind for the sake of charming the opposite sex.” To be übercharitable, we’ll call this “speculative” and leave it. For another theory, I will once again mention Steven Mithen’s Singing Neanderthals (2005), which is far more nuanced and much less susceptible to such oversimplifications as Delistraty’s observation that “It seems that thanks to evolution, a well-handled violin is somewhat like a sharp suit or a high-paying job.” (This statement is a problem, given that one of his points is to distinguish between circumstances that make the gals hot for some primo guitar-picker baby-juice vs. the lame-O that will pay for it—and her—for decades to follow.) Delistraty’s set-up anecdote has us picture Liszt’s performative flamboyance, at age 30, as he “dove into Händel’s ‘Fugue in E Minor’ with vigor and unfettered confidence.” The piece was 120 years old at the time, and Liszt didn’t write it. Fugues are complex in some ways, and in other ways more modernistic music would have been more complex. And on and on.

OK, look:

Congratulations to Mr. Delistraty on his May 2014 graduation from NYU in Politics and French, his Phi Beta Kappa, and his acceptance to do a graduate degree at Oxford (this information from his bio). Now, henceforth he should simply stay away from writing about music, because he is both hopelessly outgunned by his subject matter yet so self-confidently unaware of it that the felony is invariably compounded. Never mind the aforementioned piece-vs.-song issue, which is cleared up in every freshman-level music appreciation course in the country, there’s this gem: “Liszt was known for his great improvisation, for the way he could lead his audience through a musical narrative, creating characters through unique musical gestures.” What does “unique musical gestures” even mean to someone with no musical background, as least as described in his bio? Liszt didn’t use the musical equivalent of nonsense words; as a composer, he “spoke” a language that would resonate, in some way, with listeners, which means that they would have heard most of his “gestures” before, even if they were transformed and creatively redeployed; Liszt wanted to reach his listeners, not bewilder and alienate them. Even more importantly, the music he wrote to wow audiences was likely to be the least complex but most flashy (pro tip: those are different things). And as just pointed out, the piece mentioned was not by Liszt and it did not use “unique musical gestures” anyway. Fugues are not what you usually play to get girls. (Not that I know what one does play; I just know it isn’t fugues. One waggish description of them is “that musical genre wherein the voices enter one after the other and the audience members leave one after the other.”)

Meaningless. The kid (ageism? fine; whatever, sue me) hasn’t the vaguest idea, The Atlantic doesn’t know any better, and once again the price for having non-musicians write about music is paid by the reader. For articles about music to be written by people with little training or understanding (as when arts and culture critics get bigger and bigger journalistic beats so newspapers can “consolidate,” i.e. fire people) is not inclusive or informative, nor does it demonstrate that a newspaper or magazine has a commitment to the subject. Rather, it shows disrespect: the subject is clearly so trivial that some newbie part-time journalist non–musician is given the assignment. Unprofessional and insulting.

Why is there an appetite for people writing about things they don’t understand? Is it because glib ignorance is more comforting than actually learning something?

Oh, look what I started. Click “close,” please. Now.

About jonathanbellman

Professor of Music History and Literature and Head of Academic Studies in Music at the University of Northern Colorado. Author, *The _Style Hongrois_ in the Music of Western Europe* (Northeastern University Press, 1993), *A Short Guide to Writing About Music* (2e, Longman, 2008), *Chopin's Polish Ballade: Op. 38 as Narrative of National Martyrdom* (Oxford University Press, 2010), Editor, *The Exotic in Western Music* (Northeastern University Press, 1998), author of bunches of articles and reviews and so on. Likes to play the piano, the mandolin, and even guitar sometimes. A. M. and Jo Winchester Distinguished Scholar at UNC, 2011.
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7 Responses to Romantic Power of Music, The

  1. Chris says:

    “Is it because glib ignorance is more comforting than actually something?”

    Yes. Herewith our 21st century public discourse.

    ps: Good shootin’, by the way.

  2. Jonathan Bellman says:

    Oh, for pity’s sake. “…than actually LEARNING something” is how that should have read. I’ll fix it.

  3. Lisa Hirsch says:

    Aaaaaaah, how I love it when you rant.

  4. Pingback: Looking for a date? Try some syncopation. | IAmNotMakingUp

  5. Good one. I ran across your post just after I finished my own. Did you get to look at Charlton’s publication?
    “Looking for a date? Try some syncopation.”

  6. Jonathan Bellman says:

    Well, there’s nothing for it but for me to call you a wicked little minx. “Penetrating and fruitful” study? I know I’ve quoted this before, but I remember seeing the one-line squib in a Columbia University Press catalogue, describing a volume of the writings of Gore Vidal, that read, simply, “Vidal shows himself to be a writer of weight and thrust.” I still hear the hysterical laughter of my father, a retired English professor, when I recounted this over the phone.

    I never went beyond the abstract (because, y’know, why would you?), but that you did so for your patiently analytical blogpost is much appreciated. This actually raises a larger question: we want to make music, including/especially complex music, the concert tradition, etc. etc., more accessible and comprehensible for all. But then some “scientist” nimrod like this prosecutes and writes up a “study” of such patently misguided idiocy that…well, being an aesthetic ascetic, renouncing the wider musical world (and being marginalized by it) and sharing one’s own world with only a few equally atypical hermits, doesn’t seem like that bad an alternative.

    Those musical examples were priceless. Even I had to hose myself off after the fourth one.

  7. Well, thank you for that designation—I have instructed all friends and colleagues to address me as “WLM,” and a new business card is forthcoming. In re: “we want to make music, including/especially complex music, the concert tradition, etc. etc., more accessible and comprehensible for all”: yes! And my own exposure to the study bears it out: I learned of the *Atlantic” article not through university or brainy-reader circles, but on a website for “trad music” (i.e., jigs and reels)—which can also be quite brainy, and has academics (the expected physicists musicians) among its members, amongst a really interesting mix with no particular expectations for any particular background [assume all additional caveats here], and someone there quoted the *Atlantic* article very credulously . . . as if it were *true*, though it was not clear quite what the banjoists and fiddlers planned to do with the information. So yes, that was exactly my interest/concern.

    I often observe that the arts seem to make the front pages of, say, the NY *Times* when the story concerns something other than the music: the astronomical price of a Jasper Johns, the revelation that a renowned composer had a ghost writer, union battles, instruments destroyed by TSA. Understandable but not necessarily so helpful. And the whole thing of the scientific “proof” of music’s value . . . can make me happy to be an ovulating hermit too. (Sorry.)

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