Embattled musicologist lashes back at Slipped Disc readers

Embattled musicologist lashes back at Slipped Disc readers


norman lebrecht

September 03, 2016

William Cheng, who seems to think musicology is a branch of social welfare, has taken issue with the lashing his profession has got from Slipped Disc readers in an interview with a regional magazine.


Responses on public forums have been a different beast. There’s been clamor on Norman Lebrecht’s classical music blog Slippedisc. Lebrecht’s readers take issue with the book on multiple fronts, though most of them claim—quite proudly—that they haven’t read the book and never intend to, which I guess is their prerogative. So first, they have a problem with the trailblazing feminist musicologist Susan McClary, who wrote the foreword for Just Vibrations. Second, some commenters keep complaining that the book is “neo-Marxist” and “postmodern.” I admit I had to look “neo-Marxism” up on Wikipedia. As for “postmodern,” that’s a weird accusation. There are several parts of Just Vibrations that explicitly advocate for accessible writing and critique the opacity of certain styles of academic rhetoric. I increasingly find that some people today say “postmodern” to mean “whatever I don’t agree with” or “whatever I won’t deign to read.” Or as Inigo Montoya tells Vizzini in The Princess Bride, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means!”

And lastly, the Lebrecht commenters seem to think I’m proposing a competitive model of “intellectually rigorous scholarship” versus “care-oriented scholarship.” That’s the farthest thing from what I wish. One can care about music and people, about professional advancement andcompassionate conduct. These practices are complementary and mutually accountable. So consider this comment on the Lebrecht blog, someone who asked (in response to an excerpt from the book regarding the responsibility of professors to address how, for example, their female students might not be able to work late in a library because they don’t feel safe walking back home at night): “If you’re so concerned about the safety of female students, then why are you a musicologist? Why aren’t you a policeman or a rape counselor?” The if-then here is dangerous beyond belief. Its fallacious logic sums up why greater theorization and practices of care are sorely needed in the academy and beyond. I mean, what is this person implying? And what does this say about what people think musicologists do and don’t do? 

Read the full interview here.




  • John Borstlap says:

    I feel sorry for Mr Cheng. Obviously, he means well, and his defense is sympathetic. But describing lecture environment musicologically, so to speak, is asking for misconception and critique. If a musicologist in a lecture context makes female students feel uncomfortable (or male students, for that matter – also they can be made feel uncomfortable in the way females have that experience), that is something different from the quality and / or contents of the lecture. A perfectly decent musicologist with a remarkable talent for making his students feel extraordinarily ‘at home’ and thoroughly comfortable, may be an incompetent freak in terms of lecture quality, and the other way around – as we know, universities differ widely in such matters.

    The problem of students feeling or not feeling comfortable in a lecture situation, or in a one-on-one supervision situation, is a subject distinct from the contents of what a lecturer has to offer. Mr Cheng’s mixing the two things creates the impression that he thinks that a musicologist’s responsibility for the emotional wellbeing of his students is a form of musicology, which it is not. And then, there are brilliant musicologists who have the talent of making the entire lecture room feel profoundly uncomfortable, for many different reasons, but which is endured because of the offerings. And what about students who make their lecturers feel very uncomfortable? Who cares for them? There are documented cases where an attractive female student completely confused a lecture on Schenker’s Urlinie theory by her cleavage, a natural force capable of completely torpeding Schenker’s elaborate excogitations.

  • Scott says:

    Here is the description of a course Mr. Cheng teaches:

    “MUS 45.04 Changing the World with Music

    This course asks what we can do for music and what music can do for the world. Our research and discussions lead us not simply to concrete examples of music functioning as an agent of change, but furthermore to contested notions of what it even means (and takes) to claim that something—society, art, people, culture, values—has undergone notable transformation. How do we think and talk about change via discourses of reform, revolution, rehabilitation, activism, innovation, progress, and productivity? What are some distinguishing features of music and sound that might enable them to serve as flashpoints or vehicles for change? And how might you—in this class and beyond—engage with music and its technologies to fulfill causes most meaningful to you?”

    This sounds like postmodernism nonsense to me. It’s got all the key words and phrases: “agents of change,” “contested notions,” “transformation,” “discourses,” “reform, revolution, rehabilitation, activism, innovation, progress, and productivity,” “flashpoints for change,” “engage,” “fulfill causes.” In postmodernism everything is about politics and social welfare. The”music” in music is not important. How many times in Mr. Cheng’s book does he actually talk about music? The “cology” in musicology is not important. Do you know what musicology means, Mr. Cheng? The scientific study of music, not applying the last fad theory to something it doesn’t belong to.

    Finally, Mr. Cheng what type of jobs will your graduates get? I can just see one of them going into a job interview. “What is your strongest point?” “Using music for cultural change.” This kind of knowledge won’t even get someone a job in social work.

    • John Borstlap says:

      Ineed… one smells Foucault, Bourdieu, etc. etc. all people who were under the delusion that the ony thing in life that is relevant is ‘change’. The world desperately thirsts for change, so why not use music for that? Crazy.

      • Sue says:

        Yes, a kind of psychological music therapy!! Eeeew.

        I was watching a documentary about Leonard Bernstein – made a few years ago – when the great conductor/composer said, “music navigates the psychological geography inside ourselves” and I thought that was as excellent an appraisal of its meaning as I’m ever likely to hear. But Bernstein was NOT speaking about Musicology – which should be more objective and ‘scientific’ than ‘therapeutic’!!

        A sad lesson for Cheng and his ‘cultural studies’ acolytes.

    • Lynn says:



      I am curious as to how you would you argue the importance of musicology to non-academics when you consider the fact that even some other musicologists think both historical and analytic musicology irrelevant?

  • englishman says:


    Do you ascribe more importance to your commenters, perhaps, than is appropriate here?

  • rita says:

    The book sounds first rate to me. I often puzzled over the conflict between striving for excellence in a opera production, underlining human&/or socially relevant themes whilst both podium and stage directors lashed on the performers (not the powerful ones, of course) with outbursts of temper and Legree-ism completely at odds with their professed values.

    “One can care about music and people, about professional advancement and compassionate conduct. These practices are complementary and mutually accountable” – I applaud Mr. Cheng wholeheartedly and am off the buy his book on Kindle: very laudable of him to make it available on-line, but I’d like him to have the royalties!

    • John Borstlap says:

      Art can only be effective in a humanizing way when it is, in the first place, effective as art. And then, it often happens that at the receptive end, it is still not understood, like concentration camp brutes who love Schubert. It seems that Mr Cheng wants the brute to better understand Schubert, but he forgets that the first step is to get the Schubert right, otherwise the effect is negligible. A bridge is a connection between two stable points, not merely one point.

    • Pianofortissimo says:

      An academic making his writings available on-line without charge is just distributing his business card to potential clients. You don’t make your living by selling a book like that one, you get lecture appointments and job positions thanks to the book.

  • enemigopublico says:

    Very much agree with Englishman and Rita. If Cheng is winding up the dinosaur brigade on SD then he’s doing something right. I think it’s ultimately they who are embattled – hence their vitriolic responses. And given the frequent stories of tyrannical maestros and sexually abusive teachers, classical music could do with more caring about people.

    • John Borstlap says:

      Musicians or musicologists or music lecturers/teachers of any kind misusing their position vis-a-vis their students don’t understand their own profession and should be fired immediately. The profession in itself has nothing to do with dinosaurs, which is an enterily different research subject alltogether. Is the subject musicology or educational behavior? Is the subject art or sociology? That is the question about Mr Cheng’s book.

  • Pianofortissimo says:

    The mostly negative reception of William Cheng’s claim to have written about Musicology is because the usual perception of the typical SD reader is that the issues he actually has written about belong to somewhere else, call it Cultural Anthropology or some nearby academic field. Some misunderstandings have happened, and misunderstandings can point at any direction depending on your momentary mental compass (I have read the initial blog text and at a quick glance my first reaction was that he discussed some kind of mixed-up Ergonomics).

    Another question is very relevant: what kind of jobs are Mr. Cheng’s graduates good for?

  • Greg Hlatky says:

    Best case: Vice Chancellor for Diversity and Climate (the academic version of Lavrenti Beria) at a six-figure salary.

    Worst case: Grinding out Facebook memes at piecework rates in some Soros-funded boiler room.

  • John Porter says:

    Musicology, music history, and music theory are well known to just about anyone who has any reasonable awareness of scholarly practice to be notoriously conservative fields. This appears to be just another bit of the art for art’s sake sort of argument that is a total waste of time. How many thousands of musicologists are out there writing books that no one except for other musicologists read or know about. Along comes someone with a different sort of practice and he gets reamed. Sort of what was happening to Steve Reich and Phil Glass when they first started writing their music, instead of the academic stuff that few people wanted to actually listen to. It doesn’t say much about the musicology field if folks can’t allow for a widening of the intellectual discourse.

    • John Borstlap says:

      Widening the field of musicology to include behavioral patters in teaching contexts is nice, but has nothing to do with musicology. Widening the field of painting to include tinned excrements is nice too, but the extension has nothing to do with painting. Extending the field of religion with cooking, is also very commendable but what has it to do with religion? So it is with knitting, golf, architecture, gardening, sculpture, book binding, etc. etc. etc. (Let us extend the field of dermathology with geology and morris dancing…. and see whether we can reach a wider audience… the question is however: which audience?)

  • Scott says:

    Mr. Cheng;s job is to teach his students music and musicology. It is not to teach a leftist concept of social justice. If Mr. Cheng really “cared” about his students, he would teach them music and musicology.

    As another commentator noted, Mr. Cheng is indulging himself by teaching only what he wants to teach. Not only is this the epitome of selfishness, it is robbing his students of their education.

    Did you know that Mr. Cheng also teaches a course on music in video games? What a waste!

  • Greg Malken says:

    Mr. Bortslap, I feel sorry for you. Maybe it is your own lack of success in your musical (composition?) pursuits that makes you want to police others’ disciplines and writings. It seems most people in the musicology world or music composition world have heard of you? I hope that you can redirect some of the time you spend on these forums working on your own self-care. There is even a twitter page that makes fun of you: https://twitter.com/Borstlap_says?lang=en

    • John Borstlap says:

      Very funny….. but I have no reason to complain about lack of success. And if I had, what would that change in the arguments? Ad hominum attacks are always the last resort of people who have run-out of arguments, people who want to hit but find themselves empty-handed.

  • Larry says:

    Cheng is raping his students by forcing his nonsense theories on them. He is robbing his students of their educations by giving them social welfare, rather than knowledge. He is violating their bodies by forcing them to sit and listen to his leftist dribble. He is violating their personhoods by trying to make them mirrors of his damaged self. He is misusing sound by substituting noise for education.

  • David Boxwell says:

    So, bottom line: Music is not a “safe space.” Sound is “oppression.” Noise is “triggering.” Listening is “painful.” Musicology is “problematic.” Intellectual rigor is “hurtful.”

    Got it.

  • John Porter says:

    It’s funny to read all the folks wondering if this Harvard trained musicologist who has people like Joseph Straus commenting positively about his book wonder if he knows anything about musicology. Two degree from Harvard, one from Stanford, faculty at Dartmouth, and a junior fellow at Harvard, and because he writes of politics and music in contemporary society, instead of chronciling the Sammartini symphonies, all the “purists” offer a lecture on what is music”ology.” I am sure you all wouldn’t have liked Bernstein’s political activism either, because it wasn’t in the score. When people talk about relevance, there you have it….

    • Scott says:

      Postmodernist politics isn’t music or musicology. Just having a bunch of degrees doesn’t mean you know anything. Lots of waiters have PhDs.

      • Pianofortissimo says:

        Unfortunately you are right. Outside the scientific fields (life sciences, technology, mathematics) we see an inflation of doctoral degrees in completely meaningless, irrelevant or harmful subjects that are a certain route to unemployment. (Even in the scientific fields there is crap, of course).

    • Garinsin says:


      Get over the idea that just because someone is published they have anything to say.

      It stems from the ‘publish or perish’ myth perpetuated by the academic industries.

  • John Porter says:

    Has anyone here ever heard of Adorno? Jacque Attali? Diana Deutsch? George Lewis? Or Joseph Kerman, who laid most of this sort of music for music sake to rest 30 years ago.

    I presume that most of the people posting here are not music scholars and what is more, probably think that Grout is still the seminal text.

    • Scott says:

      You presume wrong. Also, it doesn’t take a PhD to recognize that Mr. Cheng’s book is nonsense and it has nothing to do with music.

  • enemigopublico says:

    It’s hard to tell whether some of these comments are parodies or serious. People spitting with rage at the idea that a scholar might ask their students to think about ‘what music can do for the world’. The irony, of course, is that when scholars don’t engage with such questions, the words ‘ivory tower’ are almost inevitably thrown their way as part of an accusation of irrelevance and self-imposed isolation.

    • Harold Solomon says:

      It looks to me like most of the commenters here are living in some other century and have little to no clue about modern musicology. What is more, there’s appears to be a pretty strong bias against musical scholars, as well as some problem with people who have earned their Ph.D.

      Maybe folks are looking for a book on species counterpoint or a bit of Heinrich Schenker. Or perhaps the commenters are confusing musicology with music history. One way or the other, a host of people commenting on a book they haven’t even read is pretty pathetic.

      • Mike M. says:

        I have read the book, and it’s unoriginal garbage. Studies like this one have been done for twenty-five years in literature, philosophy, political science, law, and sociology. There is nothing new here.

  • jaxon says:

    I am honestly curious why he would ever consider this blog to be an appropriate venue for serious discussion of music. Was he unfamiliar with it?