Home > Uncategorized > Still Seeking an Answer: The Unanswered Question, 40 Years Later

Still Seeking an Answer: The Unanswered Question, 40 Years Later

Upon receiving a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1985, Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990) tried to downplay his strong association with classical music. Citing the 300th anniversaries of the births of such composers as Scarlatti, Handel, and “The” Bach, Bernstein mentioned that they wrote great music… and not-so-great music. And that there’s great and not-so-great music from all other genres and musicians as well, including Tina Turner, who performed after Bernstein’s admiring introduction of her.

Bernstein’s speech played with the superficial, and somehow still culturally pervasive, dichotomization of rock and classical, by suggesting that some of the former has greater cultural value, or was created with greater skill, than some of the latter. Regardless, these notions of “greatness” still constitute a contestable value judgment. But the central point is this: How could a “classical” musician, of all people, say that some rock is great, while some classical isn’t? Shouldn’t classical musicians and fans of classical music advocate ceaselessly for that genre, no matter what? Especially as a highly-specialized, perhaps even aging and dying, artform, for aging and dying people?

Actually, no. It seems self-limiting, and denies the rich diversity of wonderful music of all kinds, from various cultures and time periods. This is based on my personal experiences of serendipitously discovering different kinds of music over the years. As well, if one thinks more broadly, “rock” has been around for almost 60 years… at least as a neatly-commercialized phenomenon that “suddenly exploded” onto the U.S. cultural scene (never minding the richness of its origins and predecessors among numerous other kinds of music). Consequently, I suspect some of the grey heads occupying seats at opera and orchestral performances these days also enjoyed a good Elvis or Beatles tune back in their youth.

A Lifetime in Music

Certainly, Bernstein himself had a lifelong interest in various kinds of music. Even when the realms of classical and rock were readily pitted against each other as polar opposites. And even prior to the “sudden” emergence of rock itself. Bernstein’s senior thesis at Harvard, The Absorption of Race Elements into American Music (1939), examined the integration of jazz and Latin American elements into compositions by George Gershwin and Aaron Copland. Within a few decades, after Bernstein had achieved a fair amount of fame as a composer and conductor, he used the relatively new medium of television to discuss classical music. On the CBS series Omnibus, one of Bernstein’s specials focused on “The World of Jazz,” which probably seemed quite odd in the mid-1950s… never minding the already well-documented and long history of cross-pollination that had occurred between jazz and classical. Of course, it includes one of Bernstein’s own very jazzy pieces, Prelude, Fugue, and Riffs (1949).

With the “explosion” of rock onto the cultural scene, Bernstein integrated discussion of it into some of his Young People’s Concerts, primarily to make points about music that “the kids” would likely understand. In the clips collected below, Bernstein channels such acts as The Beatles and The Kinks:

He also appears prominently in an intriguing cultural artifact called Inside Pop – The Rock Revolution (1967), which features talking head clips of numerous popular musicians from the time. Aptly enough, the genre-smashing Frank Zappa makes an appearance as well, prophecying with his signature laconic bluntness that, “a lot of the kids that you see from time to time, and retch over, are going to be running your government for you.”

Over 45 years on, it can admittedly come across as a sort of “the kids are alright” reassurance, intended for middle- and upper-class parents fretting over the utter strangeness of their offspring’s tastes. Some might even criticize it as a domestication of the “primal” power of rock, or as a way of lending rock a level of unwanted “prestige” on a par of classical music. Or, as Joe Postove ponders in the comments section:

I wonder how the “hipsters” of those days felt about getting the official imprimatur of Leonard Bernstein? Were they glad to have this grand master of classical and semi-classical music give his thumbs up to much of the scene or did they consider this close up look at their music kind of “square man”?

Those are fair criticisms, I suppose, and perhaps even Bernstein would acknowledge them himself. As indicated in the opening of the special, Bernstein was also keenly aware of the amount of privilege he possessed. Wrestling with his stature as a prototypical “East Coast Liberal,” Bernstein refers to himself in the beginning as a “bourgeois family man” and member of the “establishment” (“I hate that word, and I don’t like to think of myself that way…”)… to all intents and purposes, supposedly the antitheses of rock and rebellion. And yet, the fact that a “classical” musician of Bernstein’s stature decided to advocate for rock seems quite amazing within the context of this particular time and place. But then, he had enough social capital to be able to do that, tied to his very open interest in different kinds of music. Certainly, he put this into practice within some of his own compositions, including the theatre works West Side Story (1957) and Mass (1971). And, perhaps the special just is, or we can view it as such from a distance of nearly a half-century. Whatever way it might have come across to “hipsters” at the time, or appears to modern viewers, it’s difficult to doubt that Bernstein’s heart was at least in the right place.

Perhaps, then, it comes as no surprise that Bernstein, balancing his position of prominence in relation to venerable musical institutions with a keen interest in different kinds of music, stated the following in his Lifetime Grammy acceptance speech nearly 20 years later:

I’m very happy tonight for music. And, I’ll be even happier, and maybe even ecstatic… if tonight can be a step toward… the ultimate marriage of all kinds of music because they are all one…


… what I’d just like to see happen, is for all the good music to get together.

“The Unanswered Question”

So far, this posting has somehow managed to avoid discussion of the primary topic. This “unanswered question,” which appears in the title. Nonetheless, it (or at least my understanding of it) has informed the scope of this posting all along. In fact, going even further, the “unanswered question” relates much more broadly to what I’ve been doing, both in numerous postings for this blog and in my doctoral research.

The Unanswered Question is the name of a series of six lectures Bernstein gave at Harvard in October and November of 1973, as Charles Eliot Norton Professor of Poetry. It’s also the name of a 1908 piece by American composer Charles Ives, which Bernstein analyzes as part of the fifth lecture, “The Twentieth Century Crisis.”

Bernstein sets out an ambitious goal. Near the beginning of the first installment, he lays out its interdisciplinarity, before the term became a ubiquitous phrase throughout academia. More specifically, Bernstein considers the potential of applying then-emerging ideas from linguistics (including those proposed by Noam Chomsky) to the study of music. Not unlike human speech, Bernstein postulates, music is a language. A form of expression, with certain shared traits among different cultural contexts. From this perspective, there exists the potential for unveiling universal rules for musical grammar as well.

Keeping in mind the intended broad audience of this blog, the gory details of this intricately-considered topic could constitute multiple postings in themselves, along with definitions of the various technical terms Bernstein employs from linguistics and music. Bernstein himself mentions throughout the lectures that he is skipping huge swaths of possible points of discussion as well, for the sake of relative brevity. With this understanding, his main goal is to underscore “universality,” by drawing connections (and perhaps even parallels) between the structures of spoken and musical expression. Broadly speaking, the series proceeds as follows:

Phonology (Lecture 1): Essential sound units and their potential monogenesis (common origins)

Syntax (Lesson 2): Structures that emerge from convergences of those sounds.

Semantics (Lectures 3-6): Synthesis of sounds and structures to yield meaning.

Admittedly, Bernstein’s postulations require very careful attention from viewers. They can be rather confusing at first glance, and (as some critics like Joseph Horowitz noted) perhaps not entirely convincing. After all, to what extent can one truly draw parallels between notes, bars, or whole compositions (whether songs, symphonies, operas, or whatever else) with syllables, words, sentences, paragraphs, or entire textual works (books, stories, etc.)? Horowitz notes that Bernstein himself drifts away from these kinds of considerations after a few lectures, and more or less returns to the enthusiastic, self-assured pedagogue of earlier televised specials. It’s possible that he had felt he had already laid the groundwork for this approach earlier on, and didn’t need to talk much about technical linguistic stuff in the later lectures. Whatever the case, as with many such intellectual exercises and speculations, they’re sufficiently compelling to merit further contemplation, and in continuing the dialogue about the nature of music. And, as Bernstein himself stated in the first lecture, he has the prerogative to be wrong. After all, how can one even begin to investigate an unprecedented or understudied topic without some false starts and miscalculations?

“Universality” in music is another potentially dubious point. More specifically, the idea that music can act as a “universal language.” One could certainly read a number of coded Euro-American assumptions into this notion. That said, Bernstein himself roundly dashes the idea of “music as universal language,” and even cites it as the main reason why his own personal interest in “universal musical grammar” had:

lain dormant for years. Paralyzed, I suppose, by that deadly cliché, ‘music is the universal language of mankind.’ After a thousand repetitions of that one, usually with the connotation ‘support your local symphony orchestra,’ the well-meant phrase becomes not only a cliché, but a misleading one.

What Bernstein has in mind is more subtle, as well as paradoxical. He cites in particular the work of the “new linguists,” whose ideas helped reignite his interest in examining the potential universality of musical grammar. Bernstein mentions that those involved in the study of one language need to examine and understand differences as well as similarities among them. More broadly, this notion ties in with developing rules that (ideally) apply to all languages.

But where did Bernstein get the idea to contemplate the prospect of universal musical grammar in the first place? Bernstein gives an anecdote near the beginning of the first lecture about a compelling personal experience from his student days at Harvard. Citing the keen interest he developed in Copland’s Piano Variations, Bernstein figured out that the piece’s first four notes also appear “in another order,” transposed, and/or in different keys within works by other classical composers (Bach, Stravinsky, and Ravel). Even more intriguing, considering the “very different” cultural context, is Bernstein’s additional perception of similarities between Copland’s Variations and an Indian piece:

And at that moment, a notion was born in my brain, that there must be some deep, primal reason why these discrete structures of the same four notes, should be at the very heart of such disparate musics as those of Bach, Copland, Stravinsky, Ravel, and the Uday Shankar Dance Company… From that time to this, the notion of a worldwide, inborn musical grammar has haunted me.

Sing, Memory

As mentioned earlier in this posting, Bernstein engaged in other activities over the years that followed his encounter with Copland’s Variations, considering similarities and cross-pollinations among musics that one could readily discern as being from different genres and traditions: his thesis topic, compositions that drew upon different musical styles, and serious consideration of the merits of “non-classical” music. Regardless of genre, regardless of cultural context, Bernstein discerned an innate *something*… perhaps a series of connections… among “very different” musics. We will likely never be able to prove this point, however… to answer the “unanswered question” definitively. Especially considering the sociocultural contexts of so-called “non-Western” musics (which all end up, at least in the “Western” world, lumped under that rather culturally chauvinistic category “international”), this assertion proves rather problematic. Still, the parallels seem more readily apparent within the context of genres that employ the same 12-note music scale. More readily associated with “the Western world,” even in a very loose sense. As Bigand and Poulin-Charronat mention:

This includes… Western art music… jazz, pop-rock music, reggae, and salsa. Pieces from these musical styles sound so different that it can be difficult to realize that they share some of the same features. The most basic is that they rest on a single set of 12 pitch classes (“Tonal Cognition” 2009, p. 59).

There exist numerous other similar features, or traits, beyond those associated with “Western” 12-note scale. But what, exactly, does “similar” mean… especially in considering the extent to which two pieces of music might be described as such? My cop-out answer is that it “depends.” That said, my vagueness is actually based on personal experience, as well as what I’ve read in literature from diverse fields on music. In discussing musical similarity, Cambouropoulos (2009) mentions that many previous studies tend to have poorly-defined conceptualizations of the idea, and he suggests that more empirical data could help with figuring out what exactly the term really encompasses. The music information retrieval (Downie 2003) and music psychology (Wedin 1972, Gabrielsson 2009) literatures about musical traits might provide some clues, though. Essentially, they encompass such things as key, pitch, tempo, melodic contours (the “shape” of music notation, or distances between musical pitches), chord progressions, etc., etc. Furthermore, similarity may derive from extra-musical traits as well; in other words, textual stuff… what the music’s “about,” lyrics, and the like.

More likely, however, what resonate with listeners are combinations of the above traits (Gabrielsson and Lindström 2010). In other words, we might not like a piece simply because it has a “slow” tempo. It might be the primary trait we want, but we might also like the way the melody, the complexity of orchestration, and the progression of chords create a feeling of tension and release; or perhaps what the piece is “about” in non-musical terms (whether explicitly, or based on personal associations); and so on. In terms of similarity, such combinations of traits might somehow invoke a chill of recognition; a present musical experience triggering musical (and even extra-musical) associations from the past. Or, put another way, drawing upon Snyder’s (2000) work on music and memory: we end up tapping into chunks of short-term memory, roughly a few seconds in length and constituting our overall individual musical experiences, when triggered by something we perceive as similar to another musical experience from our past.

And it can be made all the more chilling if such connections transcend the confines of genre. When, despite different genre conventions, the similarities stand out to a point where such categorization doesn’t matter, and makes for a surprising experience. For instance, when upon hearing the final bars of U2’s “No Line on the Horizon” for the first time, one might be put in mind of the “love” motif from Richard Strauss’ opera Salome… which may even trigger retroactively some vague notions of similarity between the opening bars of “No Line” and Strauss’ Four Last Songs.

Diverse Musics, Diverse Fields

At this point, we have gone beyond Bernstein and his search for a “universal musical grammar,” and into some personal musical indulgences. But not quite! My primary point is that, since Bernstein’s time, numerous fields have grown that can help inform further research into the ambitious question he examined 40 years ago. This includes music psychology, which has changed radically from the behaviouralist and experimental modes that dominated the field when Bernstein gave his talks. Music psychology has also expanded into real-life accounts of interactions with music (whatever one may think of the reliability of self-reports), as well as considerations of the sociocultural dimensions of music. As well, with a foundation in the ideas of Theodor W. Adorno (1903-1969), who would likely be considered an antithesis of Bernstein, critical musicology can help with further deconstructing and pondering music’s sociocultural roles. Certainly, various notions and assumptions of universality would be subject to scrutiny within that field.

Of course, aspects of this “unanswered question” can relate to library and information science (LIS), which is “my” field. In other words, how might the prospect of “universal musical grammar” affect how we think of such things as categorization practices (whether cataloguing, classification, or even tagging) and user needs… with implications for recommender systems (drawing upon the principles of readers’ advisory, what exactly do people look for in music). Over 30 years ago, LIS researcher Nicholas Belkin referred to questions as an “Anomalous State of Knowledge” (1982). The resulting acronym (ASK) is clever, but the phrase it represents also implies that questions might actually be statements that can lead to numerous answers, or perhaps raise yet more questions (or create more anomalous states of knowledge). Somehow, this seems apt in relation to the one Bernstein, well, asked… “U-ASK,” perhaps?


Forty years on, I’m not sure that we’ve gotten any closer to a definitive answer to Bernstein’s inquiry. And he likely never expected that we would. Nonetheless, since that time, various areas of study have emerged to aid in getting us a little closer to some kind of answer… likely emerging in the form of tantalizing fragments discovered serendipitously by music experts and lay listeners. Unfortunately, Bernstein is no longer around to act as our guide, or to look at the various literatures that have emerged to help with understanding more holistically the nature of music. But following his spirit, perhaps we can endeavour to keep asking the right questions, and to know a little better what might ultimately remain unknowable. Like music, such an aspiration is part of what keeps us alive; the impetus to keep asking good questions, to carry the torch that Bernstein left for us so many years ago… and that will hopefully continue to burn over the next 40 years, and beyond.

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  1. October 4, 2013 at 14:16

    In terms of music tastes and the role of music discovery, I particularly like this idea: ” likely emerging in the form of tantalizing fragments discovered serendipitously by music experts and lay listeners.” It is always about that discovery that will keep you engaged in a piece or genre, you can always go back to this moment in time and remember what it was like when you first discovered it.

  2. October 4, 2013 at 21:58

    Thank you! I’m not sure where it came from, but that phrase seems an apt metaphor. I was somehow thinking of gems scattered in the earth, or perhaps even stars. Anyway, I think about “rediscovery” as well. Or reliving that moment of finding something that has a certain appeal. In my case, maybe that’s why I seek different versions of my favourite pieces, or music that somehow seems “similar” (derived from the numerous traits mentioned) to something I already like. Of course, the question is the extent to which this is generalizable, especially without regard to genre.

  1. October 25, 2013 at 11:46
  2. October 30, 2013 at 10:41
  3. July 29, 2014 at 09:41

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