What we mean by a ‘caring musicology’

If you have any brain cells to spare for the ongoing debate on the purpose of musicology – pay attention, please: it’s not about the study and history of music any more – our good friend William Chaeng has offered another free excerpt from his new book, this time about the real purpose of musicology.


Let’s pose the question of scholarly priorities in a more challenging way. Is musicology about the safety of a female music student? No, it isn’t, if we define musicology starkly as the study of music. But yes, it is, if we envision musicology as all the activities, care, and caregiving of people who identify as members of the musicology community. In a post-Obama yes-we-can era, Killam’s yes, it is! can serve anew as a disciplinary rallying cry. Beyond overtly activist work, what if we regularly upheld care not just as a bonus activity or a by-product of scholarship? In a world where injuries run rampant, what if care is the point?
Riffing on Marshall McLuhan and Andy Warhol, Phil Ford has characterized the discipline of musicology as “anything you can get away with.” By this, he means that rather than categorically insisting on what topics do or do not fall under musicology, let’s conceive of musicology as whatever self-identified musicologists choose to do. Disciplinary boundaries incessantly shift and shimmer anyway—so why not justify their flexibility via people’s diverse, quirky interests? “The primary pleasure that scholarship offers is the chance to encounter other minds and thereby expand one’s own,” Ford muses. “The full range of other minds constitutes the true horizon that bounds the humanist; nothing human should be alien to us.” But if musicology is anything we can get away with, a caveat is that the discipline must simultaneously encompass everything we cannot afford to run away from—care, compassion, and interpersonal concerns that don’t always sound scholarly as such.
More here.
Discuss among yourselves. Humanely, please.

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  • The example given here shows William Chang’s bad faith. Disclaimer: I’ve never heard of him, I’m just a random opera fan, but the excerpt is such a red flag. In advocating for a more caring musicology, he gives the example of a male professor who doesn’t care about women students’ fear of walking around late at night. What does that have to do with musicology, caring or not? This is just an example of a Male Chauvinist Pig, as people like this used to be called. A creep, maybe, but this isn’t “musicology.” And then Chang wants to lead us into politicizing musicology, to protect the women students who are afraid of being raped if they walk across campus at night. Hypocrite! I’m an old feminist myself, and I feel used.

    • I just read the excerpt a dozen times and still do not understand why you got that impression.
      He was trying to give his personal definition of musicology. If anything, he implies that musicology entails a humanity which would include concern over the safety of females.
      My eyes are now hurting from reading such tiny print. Mr Lebrecht loves posting microscopic images which cannot be enlarged.

      • I had to read it twice, because the first time, it seemed like content-free cant. Then, I discerned the bait and switch of concern for female students = better musicology. I could be wrong, but if the sexist professor were teaching English lit, would Cheng have used that as a lead in to a more caring approach to English lit? I think there are two separate issues here, that Cheng has deliberately conflated. First, the safety of students, and respect for their personal concerns in class. Second, caring musicology. The excerpt didn’t make the connection. In fact, it could be argued that Cheng is gaslighting the woman student after the fact, while the professor did it to her face.

        • To Scott: Dr Cheng’s observations on the safety of women on campus as it bears on their educational opportunities addresses the uproar over indifferent administrative attitudes toward rape. Women do fear being assaulted when working late in the library. Off-campus study groups are valuable but can be dangerous, so women have to skip them. I was stalked and narrowly escaped rape while working in the stacks of the graduate library (American) of one of the finest universities in the world, in bright daylight. Needless to say, although I was allowed to work there, and had paid housing and travel for the privilege, I dared not. The head of campus security told me that this library level was frequented by older professors who liked to station themselves under the grille-work of the floor above so they could look under women’s skirts. The boys-will-be-boys attitude has to change, as it certainly does impact adversely both on women’s safety and their ability to use the full range of university resources. Dr Cheng includes it as part of his ideas about the humane treatment of colleagues and students.

          • I am very aware of this. I had a friend who was scared to death to walk back to her dorm alone when we were both in graduate school. But, it still has nothing to do with musicology.

          • To Scott: It has nothing to do with musicology, but it does have to do with the professional preparation that enables or enhances advancement in the field. Example: Guys have the time to read footnotes; girls don’t. Guys can browse in the library; girls can’t. (Electronic devices are not a substitute for these activities.) This is in part what Dr Cheng’s book is about, which is: changes in attitude that will advance the discipline. In fact, the book is about many things — NL’s excerpt does not serve the purpose of informing about it at all well. It’s a book, not an excerpt. It’s on line for free, at the decision of the publisher, the University of Michigan Press, evidently in recognition of its perceived importance. It is controversial, but we need to know that it is there.

      • Do personal definitions of musicology exist? Like there exist personal definitions of dentistry, of geology, of mathematics? Definitions of professions are mere tools, and content can deviate from custom, but that does not mean that suddenly the nature of the field as such changes. It is typical of dilletants that they don’t grasp the nature of the field and inflate the narrow range of their understanding into a ‘new field’.

  • “When everyone is somebody, then no one’s anybody.” (From The Gondoliers)

    If musicology is “whatever self-identified musicologists choose to do,” then the term musicology loses all meaning and distinction as a discipline. And when that happens, anyone can weigh in with any nonsense and pretend that it’s scholarship. The pursuit of the degree becomes meaningless, and the discussion of musicology is diluted to the point where it becomes mere opinion.

  • By “care”, we are dealing with the newest Crit-Theory fashionable nonsense, which is an idea that comes from radical teachings about race and identity. It is a rarified concept of the self and the other, and minimizing harm to minority and vulnerable groups. By “anything we can get away with” however, fortunately that rule always applies! Do we mean that if you can argue it persuasively, then it’s good? The music of Beethoven could be equated with rape (as the author of the above book’s foreword famously once argued). The threshhold for “persuasively” is inching ever outside the bounds of sanity, so who knows what musicology will look like in 20 years.

  • But, you’re not a musicologist if you don’t study music. “Anything you can get away with” equals nonsense. Postmodernistic analysis is fiction. It is made up. The Emperor’s new clothes or P.T. Barnum.

    Postmodernist charlatans, like Mr. Chang, try to force their view on something it doesn’t belong on. It’s like putting a round peg in a square whole.

    Mr. Chang needs to read some cognitive psychology to see how the mind really works. Start with Steven Pinker, The Blank Slate. Also, read George Orwell.

    • You can say 2 + 2=5. You can even torture someone to say 2 + 2=5. But, 2 + 2=4.

      You can call an apple an orange, but it’s still an apple.

    • His name is Cheng. You put pegs in holes. And BF Skinner wrote a very well-considered essay on why he was not a cognitive psychologist (has a lot to do with how they invent a lot of PT Bunkum)

      • Cognitive scientists and Noah Chomsky have demonstrated that Skinner was wrong on most things. Read the Blank Slate by Steven Pinker.

  • Mr. Chang,

    If you are so concerned about the safety of female students, why are you a musicologist?

    Why aren’t you a policeman or a rape counselor?

  • Tuition at Dartmouth for 2016-2017 is $49,998 (the $2 is so you can think it’s a bargain), plus another couple of thour and in “fees.” It is left to the reader to determine whether this represents value for money.

    • @Greg Hlatky… whatever you think of this Prof or his book, it’s far-fetched to bring up the cost of Dartmouth to attend. I’m sure you would find plenty of profs at every school in the world who you think produce BS work. That’s the way the world is. Not every one is a genius, and college, especially private, is EXPENSIVE in the USA. Tuition isn’t determined by how many internet commentators like a certain Prof’s book.. you don’t like the cost or value of Ivy league schools? Don’t go or send your kids there! 😉

  • dear folk, it might be interesting to know the context of musicology where Dr. Cheng works. He is one of 9 faculty members in music at Dartmouth College the rest are adjuncts. He has one other musicology colleague and one ethno colleague to talk to about musicology. That’s it. DC is in the middle of nowhere on the Connecticut River. Way down state towards the Massachusetts border, 100 miles away, there’s also UNH, which has another 4 musicologists.

  • I think my greatest concern is for Mr. Chaeng’s students ..,,, I am picturing enthusiastic young minds seated in a lecture hall at 0900 attempting to listen to this dribble for the next hour! Or facing an examination on the subject! In the UK it is now possible to get a music degree without being able to read music notation. Presumably it will now be possible to get a musicology degree in the US without knowing anything about music history. Like the man says ‘anything you can get away with’ and, presumably, he has got away with a healthy sized grant for this verbose stream. He has also very successfully got himself known and talked about.
    Just one question – who did the publisher think would be the target market

    • The “Anything you can get away with” remark is a quotation. The quotee is Phil Ford (with “PhilPhorde” as his internet handle). I expect comments on that person’s writings emanating from this forum would be more “on the mark” (not to mention entertaining) than the cutting remarks directed at Dr Cheng and his book. I think he was ill-advised to invoke Ford. Will Cheng is a young man who has written a sensitive book based on his experiences. I think he intends it as a first effort in a new alternative field of study, “caring musicology”, along other, well-established points-of-view as feminist musicology, queer musicology, etc., which have produced some very valuable insights. I think what he has written is a work of Educational Philosophy, fleshed out with examples from music. His message is important, especially in our confrontational times. But his sights were set too low. . . . Anyone who wishes to ford Phorde will find him on the blog Dial M For Musicology. Bonne lecture!

  • My concern is for the students of William Chaeng: are eager young minds arriving in a lecture hall expecting to learn about the history and structure if music only to find themselves presented with a stream of consciousness regarding his views on sexual inequality? If so, on what is the final ex based? In the UK it is presently possible to get a degree in music without being able to read music notation. Am I to assume that it will be possible to acquire a degree in musicology in the States without a knowledge of music history? As Mr. Chaeng says ‘whatever you can get away with’ (which in his case presumably includes a healthy grant of money?). Just one question – whom did the publishers think would be the target market?

    • There are plenty of “new age, hipster, liberal, broad-minded” professors in all fields.
      It’s quite common to miss learning important topics pertaining to one’s chosen field while the liberal professor is busy encouraging students to thing “outside the box”.

      I don’t know if Chaeng sticks to syllabus or not, but if not, he’d hardly be alone in doing so these days.

  • The other thing is that Mr. Cheng has chosen the most ineffective way of dealing with women’s safety. Musicology cannot protect women from rape. Organizing an escort group for his campus, becoming a policeman to protect women, voting for law and order candidates, becoming a social worker–all these things can protect women.

    By trying to integrate the protection of women into musicology, Mr. Cheng does a disservice to both musicology and protecting women. He talks about protecting women, but he doesn’t do anything. He is a charlatan and a coward.

    • (sigh)

      He is simply pointing out that the issue of the safety of women is an aspect of the day-to-day practice of musicology (of any discipline, be it noted), which ought to have a graspable point before Cheng pointed it out. I don’t know how much you know about news in America, but the issue of campus rape and other offenses against women has only recently been reported from the women’s point of view, with appropriate support. P.s.: If you want to call someone a charlatan and a coward in public, please provide your credentials for so doing. You are so out-of-context, you must be headed for Plan 9, in the suit.

        • As I keep saying, it has to with the PRACTICE of musicology, not the content of the discipline, to which Dr Cheng says what he writes is ancillary. Have a look at the book — it’s free. P.S.: You look great in the suit.

          • It has nothing to do with the PRACTICE of Musicology either. If Mr. Cheng feels so strongly, he needs to get a job in which he can truly protect woman. Otherwise, he is just hiding in an ivory tower.

  • It has nothing to do with the PRACTICE of musicology. He needs to go into another field where he can protect women.

    • Scott: Why are you so obsessed with this small point? I’m reminded of the Boy Scout who was determined to help the old lady cross the street, whether she wanted to or not. The idea is that women should be able to pursue their (professional as well as personal) lives without impediment from what are essentially bullies. Another of Cheng’s points is the damage and undermining by internet and professional trolls, who flaunt their hatred and cowardice behind their anonymity. I’m not asking you to give up your home and employment to go off with your lance and protect women, to do what you demand that Dr Cheng physically do — I’m just asking you to find the appropriate, proportionate response to this question. My suggestion is to read the book, about which there is much to be said, pro-and-con, and not rely on the red herring NL’s antic muse has prompted him to provide. And do take off that suit — it’s hot outside!

      • I have read the book. There is nothing original in it. It just repeats what every other postmodern book or article says. I read stuff like this back in the 80s.

        How is the practice of musicology in your definition different from the practice of anything else? Are women’s needs in musicology any different than women’s needs in art history?

        Actually, you use of a book on alchemy as your screen name is very appropriate. Alchemy is nonsense just like postmodernism is nonsense. I am sure that some nutty scholar has written an article on feminism and alchemy.

        You and Mr. Cheng need to read cognitive psychology, like the Blank Slate by Steven Pinker.

        • Scott, maybe if you *actually* read the book you would see that Cheng cites Steven Pinker (whom you seem so fond of?) in denouncing postmodernism and its opaque, often inaccessible rhetoric. The book isn’t postmodern… if anything it’s the opposite, taking postmodernism to task. See Ch. 1, “aching for repair”

        • Dear Scott: I’m glad you read (or said you read) the book. (If you did, you would know that Dr Cheng is not physically able to be the “knight in shining armor” you demand that he be, and why. It is the major thread in the book.) I would say that women’s needs in art history are precisely those of women in musicology; nevertheless FWIW I don’t agree with the book and have had long, civil discussions with Dr Cheng about its contents. What I am concerned about in your comments is the easy rage, the casual virulence of your responses. You reject the basic civility that Dr Cheng would hope to see in intellectual exchanges. I don’t know why you write this way. I would hate to call you a troll, but nowadays that is the general name for the way you represent yourself here. // My screen name is the title of an early-Modern alchemical book, but the story has a long prior history from Classical mythology. It is of a young woman who must try to outrun her suitors to find one worthy of her, and to protect her purity. (Just like modern women — get it?) Its most famous iteration is in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. The book published by Michael Maier in 1617 includes an important set of canons, to illustrate the running competition; these have philosophical and alchemical, as well as musical significance, which have been the subject of intense study in recent years. I need not point out that most of the founders of the Royal Academy, most notably Isaac Newton, were trained as alchemists. It is the significance of such studies, not their truth, that should attract the attention of historians. (Have you found the suit yet?)

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