In Defence of 'Structural Listening': Some Problems With the New Musicology

  • Christopher Norris
Keywords: aesthetics, deconstruction, de Man, formalism, ideology, Kerman, music theory, Schenker, 'structural listening'


This essay raises a number of issues with regard to recent developments in music theory. Among them is the turn against 'analysis' or 'structural listening' on account of their (supposed) investment in a discourse of mainstream musicology whose aim is to perpetuate the canon of acknowledged  'great works' and the kinds of elitist value-judgement that are conventionally applied to such works. Along with this goes the idea – derived from Paul de Man and exponents of literary deconstruction – that notions such as those of 'organic form', structural unity, thematic integration, long-range tonal or harmonic development, etc., are products of a certain 'aesthetic ideology' with dubious, even sinister, implications when transposed to the wider realm of cultural politics. I maintain that this is a false, or at any rate a highly tendentious line of thought which itself involves the illicit transposition from one domain (that of literary criticism) where such arguments have a certain force to another (that of music theory) where they simply don't apply unless by a great and implausible stretch of analogy. Thus de Man's case against naively organicist  readings of poetic metaphor which assume a direct continuity (even identity) between mind and nature, subject and object, or language and phenomenal intuition must appear distinctly off-the-point when applied to our sensuous but also conceptually-informed experience of music. My essay pursues these questions via a reading of various theorists on both sides of the debate, including Adorno, whose emphasis on the virtues of 'structural listening' as a means of resistance to routine, habitual, or ideologically conditioned modes of response offers perhaps the most powerful rejoinder to this current revolt against analysis in all its forms. I go on to remark that those forms have been far more diverse – and often less committed to a hard-line organicist creed – than their detractors like to make out, tending as they do to equate 'analysis' with Heinrich Schenker's deeply conservative, dogmatic, and ideologically-loaded approach. In support of my counter-argument I draw on various developments in cognitive science and the psychology of perception, along with a recent debate between the philosophers Peter Kivy and Jerrold Levinson concerning the latter's highly controversial claim that musical understanding is limited to very short stretches of temporal (retentive and anticipatory) grasp. I conclude that our appreciation of music can be greatly deepened and enriched by the kinds of sustained or long-range structural comprehension that analysis seeks to provide, and that any theory which rules this out – or puts it down to mere 'aesthetic ideology' – is ipso facto on the wrong track.


Download data is not yet available.
How to Cite
NorrisC. (2005). In Defence of ’Structural Listening’: Some Problems With the New Musicology. Musicological Annual, 41(2), 19-45.