Form: Deconstructing Hierarchy and Standard

Society for Music Theory 2021—Lightning Talk

This presentation deconstructs contemporary notions of musical form by reexamining two commonly held music-theoretical paradigms: that musical form is necessarily hierarchical, and that formal procedures abide by historically inscribed standards of normativity. Endemic to North American theories of musical form is the notion that Western art music is organized hierarchically. Caplin’s (1998) theory of formal functions, for example, privileges abstract homologies between beginning-middle-end patterns across all levels of structure. The urge to articulate such abstract relationships between levels reflects an organicist mindset similar to Heinrich Schenker’s that views recursive structures as aesthetically desirable. The outsized impact of Schenkerian theory on contemporary North American music theory has led, in the theory of formal functions, to the subsumption of individual parts within a structural totality that subordinates difference in order to assert unity

Hierarchies of musical form are thus regulative. Consider Hepokoski and Darcy’s (2006) Elements of Sonata Theory, in which the authority of socially reified musical structures underpins the analytical project of explaining transgressions thereof. Sonata Theory’s relentless adherence to a uniformity of practice calls to mind Butler’s (1990) “frameworks of intelligibility,” as certain forms are deemed more or less “available” in a given generic context. To identify “norms” and “deformations,” to describe works in the terms of “success” and “failure,” is to construct an analytical toolkit based on positively and negatively valenced descriptors. This model thus implicitly promotes normativity rather than, as in Straus’s (2018) adaptation of disability studies to music, drawing on deviations “as a valuable source of new kinds of musical combinations and musical effects” (3). As a form of musicological “surveillance,” to borrow a concept from Browne (2015), the maintenance of a catalog of Classical norms only serves to reinforce the boundaries between the white, male “masterworks” and the Other. Adapting Mills’s (1997) distinction between “civil” and “wild” spaces, a concentration on norms of formal procedure fundamentally excludes musical practices and music-theoretical methodologies that exhibit the uncivilized behavior of eschewing socially determined standards. 

As one possible alternative, I reimagine hierarchy and standard along the lines of embodiment and phenomenology. Following Ngo (2016), the final section reorients the hierarchies of part and whole, norm and deviation, by considering the active mode a listener can adopt in defining sedimented expectations. A listener experiences musical form as a novel event in the present, but that experience is refracted through the lens of their own cultural circumstances, or “habit.” Reversing the usual paradigm of a passive transfer of ritualized responses, Ngo suggests that the reified norms and expectations of a receiving body are subject to change through the active challenging of those structures. To decenter white, male, European musical expectations, the listener commits to the dynamic acquisition and cultivation of habit oriented toward racial “others.” In this discussion, I draw on a dual conception of musical form: as habitually responded to and actively processed by the listener, the latter motivated by approaches to contemporary music by Lochhead (2016) and Kozak (2019).