- Just Vibrations: The Purpose of Sounding Good by William Cheng
'This is not musicology'. So says an internet troll, disparaging William Cheng's Just Vibrations in a post on Slipped Disc (the self-proclaimed 'most-read cultural website'). The post is unintentionally ironic and incongruous: Cheng's core tenet is that musicology is as musicology does, while his core message is that musicology could do more to help repair our broken world if it were to champion an ethics of care as much as its more usual scholarly priorities.
Irony and incongruity notwithstanding, this commenter's unsympathetic vibrations resonate with many others in a well-publicized backlash to Cheng's book among a certain contingent of Slipped Disc readers (see the online magazine Junction for the author's summaries of, and responses to, the controversy). Such readers questioned everything from whether musicology has any business engaging in cultural theory or socially transformative criticism (which ostensibly represent the effluents of 'leftism' and 'postmodernism' that interfere with 'legitimate' music research) to whether students in Cheng's classes would be employable after being exposed to such thinking (which ostensibly comes at the expense of a 'proper' education in the facts and figures of 'real' music).
Online comments sections are of course notorious for the ease with which they degenerate into trolling and cyberbullying, and so it is rarely productivetotakethemtoo seriously. Butthe Slipped Disc backlash is so disheartening that it warrants consideration. For, although these commenters do not represent the reception of Just Vibrations among many musicians and researchers, they do represent (if in an exaggerated and inflammatory way) a canon-centric, notes-or-nothing, business-as-usual conservatism that, strangely and dangerously, still afflicts some of today's musical thought and scholarship. It is exactly this parochialism that Cheng sets out to diagnose and treat. In the spirit of Cheng's book, then, which calls for compassion in musical culture as much as its scholarly pursuits and professions, I want to read these trolls' comments charitably, reparatively. So I agree: Just Vibrations is not mainstream musicology. But it is part of what any future musicology worth practising could and should be.
It is a shame that the thinking represented on Slipped Disc still has currency in musical culture. Notated music and its scholarly traditions (evidently the main concerns of the online commenters) are of course remarkable achievements, worthy of the serious musicological attention that they have been given. But crotchets and their kin have never really defined what it means to make music, to listen to it, to enjoy it—nor to be excluded, constrained, or hurt by it. Not for most people in most times and places, anyway.
Yet many musicologists and musicians still seem to be trained or enculturated to value their music most highly, and to feel they need to protect this music from various perceived threats. Such threats come in the form of other musics that prize different skill sets and literacies (i.e. different definitions of talent, creativity, and even music itself). They come in the form of other musics that compete for space in the curriculum. And they come in the form of [End Page 148] other musics that require conceptual and methodological understandings that differ from established musicological specialisms, and which thereby stoke anxiety about the subsumption of music research into other research fields and university departments. The precepts and practices of both 'music' and 'musicology' are still jealously guarded in public discourse and the academy, even with the widespread and often more accommodating perspectives found in ethnomusicology, popular-music studies, and, more recently, sound studies (fields that, of course, can also exhibit their own parochialisms and protectionisms).
Cheng places a mirror in the face of such fears, as Susan McClary writes in her foreword to the book (she herself, along with other so-called new musicologists, is no stranger to the accusation 'This is not musicology'). The goal of Just Vibrations is to build a reparative musicology and a...