Music department online research forum with Dr Danny Walden
Pitch Fundamentalism and the Colonisation of Pitch Space
Abstract: Why are music theorists and analysts so preoccupied with pitch? It may seem curious to that the most widely followed approaches to music theory—Schenkerian analysis, Neo-Riemannian/transformational theory, set theory, etc.—all stake their central claims on pitch materials, disregarding (if not dismissing) the information contained in other parameters such as rhythm, timbre, or loudness. Some ethnomusicologists and scientists trace the reasons for analytical pitch-centrism back to the “perceptual proclivities” of Western listeners (Fales 2002, et al.). This talk however suggests an historical reason: that the current emphasis on pitch is the legacy of a nineteenth-century search for particular forms of “order,” “stability,” and “coherence” that aligned with the interests of colonial regimes. Drawing from a survey of late nineteenth-century acoustical treatises and the archives of Alexander John Ellis (1814-1890) and Alice Cunningham Fletcher (1838-1923), two of the first comparative musicologists, I examine how this search led to the development of an epistemological orientation I call pitch fundamentalism, while simultaneously supporting the conceptual underpinnings of topographical metaphors—and suggest that both of these analytical strategies were historically designed to interlock with the gears of colonial ideology. I conclude by showing how versions of these strategies continue to shape scholarship today, and assess strategies for recalibrating our understanding of pitch in order to disengage with colonial frames.
Dr Daniel Walden
Assistant Professor (Music Analysis) Durham
My research combines music theory and analysis with media theory, post-/decolonial studies, and the global history of science and society. I focus on musical theories of non-equal-tempered and microtonal systems from nineteenth- and twentieth-century Europe, Japan, North India, and the Indigenous Americas. In my most recent work, I identify how the propositions of music theory have entangled with the politics of empire, and investigate analytical reforms intended to address this.