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Facing Ted Gioia

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Facing Ted Gioia

I get frequent articles from Ted Gioia in my mailbox. I admire his energy and the breadth of his interests, but I often feel that he is somehow missing the point, or that we are at cross-purposes. His most recent article is about how most articles and books about music that interest him these days are from professionals in other fields. That in itself makes me squirm because I recall all the embarrassing and je-jeune things I have read by scholars who venture outside their fields. Believe me, a professional standing in economics does not give you any wisdom in music and vice-versa. This why I don't give you the benefit of my theories on economics in this blog.

But this gives no pause to Ted who forages on mentioning many people, but linking to few examples. Wait, one link is to one of his articles titled Face the Music with the revealing subtitle: "There’s growing evidence for musical universality. So why are music scholars ignoring it?" This is the kind of infuriating reader bait that journalism specializes in and that rarely leads to any actual knowledge. Ted takes as proven the idea that there are musical universals and then proceeds to beat up anyone with a contrary view. Hold up a minute! What do you mean by musical universals and what is the evidence for them? Well, we are not going to find out here as Ted goes on and on belaboring how the evidence is being ignored without actually providing any, you know, evidence.

This trait, by the way, is distressingly common. I have two labels for it: special pleading and motivated reasoning. In both instances there are non-evidentiary reasons for wanting to come to a particular conclusion so the possibility of evidence being weighed fairly is simply not on the table. For those who suspect that Ted simply delays the presentation of the evidence to later on, well, no, nope, didn't happen. He keeps telling us the evidence is there, but doesn't give us any. Hey, it's obvious!

And I'm still waiting to hear what he actually means by "musical universality" but I have given up on that. This is a typical paragraph:

Over the last two decades, I have found myself gradually forced to abandon the incommensurability doctrine and accept — at first begrudgingly, but over time with a growing confidence and certainty — the existence of a whole host of musical universals, ones that are typically ignored or downplayed in world music studies. My initial reasons for doing so had nothing to do with neuroscience or findings in related disciplines. All that came later. At first, I was simply trying to solve some intractable problems raised in the course of my research into music history. These problems could not be solved under the existing paradigm and forced me to look for answers elsewhere.

And this "whole host of musical universals" that you refer to, Ted, would you mind terribly actually mentioning one? Even in passing? Nope, it's on with the vague generalizations that assume conclusions never established. Reading this is liking eating meringue, you keep biting on air. When he does mention actual examples, like shamanistic rituals, they are not musical examples.

Ted goes on to reference neuroscience, but I have talked about so many of these claims regarding music here on the blog that I won't bore you with them further. The way Ted writes about these topics is like a man riding a merry-go-round who doesn't quite know how to get off. The ideas whirl by in dizzy confusion, but that's what happens when you start with your conclusion--you really have nowhere to go.

What could possibly serve as an envoi to this? Eliot Carter maybe? String Quartet No. 1.

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