Sometimes, everyone is wrong

Sep 24, 2020

Mmmm, I just got triggered. Someone is wrong on the internet and I have to fix it!

Not too long ago, a good friend posted an inflammatory article about "the latest woke madness" of some group of people cancelling a Beethoven concert because classical music is racist. We'll talk about the article itself soon enough, but this post by my friend got shared several times, and pretty much always in agreement with the original author. This single post is a beautiful example of how everyone involved in this story is wrong, how there's something beautiful to be learned by all parties, and how we can sidestep the aggression on all sides. Furthermore, we're talking about music here, not global warming, vaccines, the economy, abortions or politics on general. The path to a neutral ground is much shorter than usual.

Why the author is wrong

I don't know anything about most publications. I can't know at a glance if nypost is a reliable source of news in general, but I can tell something... I can easily identify that THAT article is written as an attack against a group of people. There's a lot of name-calling like "woke fascists" and "online mobs". Ok, so that's one red flag.

Let's move past that, what's the actual content? Is there anything good in here? Well, one of the first things discussed is an argument of why Beethoven's music is worthy of praise, and it brings into discussion an analysis (without citation) that compares the rhythmic patterns of the composer's music with Morse code. Now, I am not an expert in classical music, but I know that tonality and harmony tend to be more important than rhythm in that period. I also know (with a bit of help from Google) that Morse code was invented in 1830, and that's 3 years after Beethoven died, so any comparison to be made there is a mild coincidence.

Keep in mind, I think Beethoven is great, but we already have divisive language, and a very weak foundation for the actual content. Why would I trust the author? I wont.

Why the sharer is wrong

Here's the thing, there are actually racist roots in western music theory. You probably never thought about it before... This is why I got triggered because it is so easy to share an article against someone who doesn't share your view. It is sometimes so natural to be outraged, because you didn't even know you had a viewpoint on that matter.

There is a better way, which is to acknowledge "hey, I haven't studied western musical theory, I know nothing about who came up with it or the historical context of its formation. If people are angry about it, is it because it's a stupid conspiracy? Or is there a credible source out there?".

You could spend the time to learn about the problem, but I am not even advocating for that. I'm advocating that you, as a reader, only share if you took your time to understand. You're not wrong because you didn't know the wider context, you are wrong because you decided to share without caring that a different perspective might exist, especially when there was anger in the writing.

It's hard for me to explain that context here, so I will defer to this expertly made video on the topic. There are a LOT of great examples in here which are worthwhile learning about, even if the racist angle is not that attractive. The bottom line is that most of what's published in classical music theory is based on the analysis made by Heinrich Schenker, an actual Nazi, who had 12 favorite composers, 10 of which were German speaking. Please watch it! In an approachable package, it beautifully compares western theory, with northern Indian theory, with concepts used in jazz and even African music. You will definitely learn something here.

Why the mob is wrong

Let's say you are armed with this new knowledge, that what is heralded as musical theory is heavily influenced by some Nazi dude with an agenda. Why take it out on Beethoven and the people who enjoy classical music performances? Why be an aggressive instigator aiming to cancel and silence your peers?

The knowledge you've encountered is amazing! It helps build a more comprehensive view of the world. It let's you escape a limited perspective and lets you learn and become a more complete version of yourself. It let's you teach, and create bridges towards your opponents. For once, you have been handed down a tool that's not necessarily political, or has not yet charged with aggression and you chose to weaponize it.

And you, the author fell for it and retaliated. And you, the sharer, just propagated the small amount of anger.

Everyone is wrong here, because we could have taught inclusion from the same starting idea, instead of pointing fingers.