Theses Doctoral

The Computational Attitude in Music Theory

Bell, Eamonn Patrick

Music studies’s turn to computation during the twentieth century has engendered particular habits of thought about music, habits that remain in operation long after the music scholar has stepped away from the computer. The computational attitude is a way of thinking about music that is learned at the computer but can be applied away from it. It may be manifest in actual computer use, or in invocations of computationalism, a theory of mind whose influence on twentieth-century music theory is palpable. It may also be manifest in more informal discussions about music, which make liberal use of computational metaphors. In Chapter 1, I describe this attitude, the stakes for considering the computer as one of its instruments, and the kinds of historical sources and methodologies we might draw on to chart its ascendance. The remainder of this dissertation considers distinct and varied cases from the mid-twentieth century in which computers or computationalist musical ideas were used to pursue new musical objects, to quantify and classify musical scores as data, and to instantiate a generally music-structuralist mode of analysis.
I present an account of the decades-long effort to prepare an exhaustive and accurate catalog of the all-interval twelve-tone series (Chapter 2). This problem was first posed in the 1920s but was not solved until 1959, when the composer Hanns Jelinek collaborated with the computer engineer Heinz Zemanek to jointly develop and run a computer program. Recognizing the transformation wrought on modern statistics and communications technology by information theory, I revisit Abraham Moles’s book Information Theory and Esthetic Perception (orig. 1958) and use its vocabulary to contextualize contemporary information-theoretic work on music that various evokes the computational mind by John. R. Pierce and Mary Shannon, Wilhelm Fucks, and Henry Quastler (Chapter 3). I conclude with a detailed look into a score-segmentation algorithm of the influential American music theorist Allen Forte (Chapter 4). Forte was a skilled programmer who spent several years at MIT in the 1960s, with cutting-edge computers and the company of first-rank figures in the nascent fields of computer science and artificial intelligence. Each one of the researchers whose work is treated in these case studies—at some stage in their relationship with music—adopted what I call the computational attitude to music, to varying degrees and for diverse ends. Of the many questions this dissertation seeks to answer: what was gained by adopting such an attitude? What was lost? Having understood these past explorations of the computational attitude to music, we are better suited ask of ourselves the same questions today.


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Thesis Advisors
Dubiel, Joseph
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
August 26, 2019