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Notes on John Winsor's "Breaking the Sound Barrier"

This is a blow by blow dissection of John Winsor's book "Breaking the Sound Barrier", which can be found on his webpage.  The blurb on the cover claims: "An award winning composer refutes postmodern cultural relativism by proving that some musical works are objectively better than others."  Quite a claim, and by an award winning composer no doubt, so get ready!  In all seriousness, if one is to make such a claim, one's reasoning had better be fool proof and any awards you may have won are irrelevant, except perhaps as a selling point. This dissection by a nobody composer will successfully show that Winsor's reasoning is anything but fool proof.  This is not to say there is nothing of value in this book.  Winsor has many interesting ideas, and the question of objective judgment in the arts is by no means trivial.  However, you can't wear gloves when evaluating claims of absolute truth, so this may seem a bit mean spirited but keep in mind, I am attacking the ideas, not the man.

Chapter 1

The first paragraph hints that the motivation for John Winsor to propose objective standards of judgment is so his own music will be recognized. That is simply a guess, but something to keep in mind.  What he writes here is that he finds it unfair that what he deems objectively better music sits by the wayside while the Justin Biebers of the world run away with all the attention and all the dough.  It is also entirely possible that the book is not driven by this agenda, but that he was simply writing up a good attention grabbing first paragraph.  And even if there is an underlying agenda, that wouldn't by itself immediately tarnish all of his ideas like the mark of Cain.  This paragraph does provide a certain "need for the study".  Moving on.

If you've adopted the dogmatic postmodern belief that qualitative judgment in the arts is a purely subjective matter, then you're in the majority.

The postmodern view is immediately labeled as dogmatic, and assumed to be that qualitative judgment in the arts is a purely subjective matter. One could counter that Winsor's position is a dogmatic view that qualitative judgment in the arts is a "purely objective" matter and be just as right as Winsor is, for no works or actual writers are cited to support this idea. I guess we'll just take his word for it at this point and wait for him to flesh out the idea later, this is, after all, the first chapter.  However, what is lampooned here is a very distilled, simplified version of post modern thought (note: I did go on to read his chapter on postmodernism.  It's sort of like a witch trial.  The defendant is never called to the stand (no source readings are cited, only other writers who are against what they believe post modernism is about. Scroll to the bottom of this blog to read my thoughts on that chapter)

Above all, I've learned that every choice a master composer makes serves a carefully reasoned purpose.

Well, he's a good composer and has learned this (it's not that he simply believes it, or thinks it, but knows it) so who are we to judge or ask for any evidence to bolster this claim? Oh yeah, I have to wait to read the whole book.  But it would probably take 48 billion and a half (that's an exact number) books to objectively show such a claim to be true.

It has long been intuitively apparent to me that some pieces of music are better than others

Apparently intuition plays a prominent role in objectivity. Huh. It has long been intuitively apparent to me that I like certain pieces better than others, why not say it that way? Because, perhaps, you have an agenda?

the postmodern assertion that everything is a matter of opinion, that we cannot know the objective world, that each of us resides in a unique and independently constructed universe.

John Winsor asserts that the postmodern view asserts this. No citation.

I began with an intuitive conviction that qualitative judgment goes beyond the merely subjective and then sought out the underlying principles upon which that conviction is based.

This sounds like very bad science, for rather than looking to see if his opinion holds up to logic, it sounds as if Winsor is looking to find instances where his intuition seems to apply and to ignore, or rather, just not seek out the rest. His full argument has not been laid out yet, but I am wary.

The proper answer lies, however, in music as object — independent of any particular individual's response to it,

Another assertion. Anyways, if music is an object you should probably decide what constitutes this object. He's about to and this is where it gets nuts, but I will skip over this notion of representation of biological rhythm for his later fleshing out of the concept.  Note though, this is indeed very peculiar.  He is not stating that music is a written score, or that it is what a listener/imaginer experiences as such, he is calling it a representation of biological rhythm, and says that is an objective determination.

If a particular piece of music can objectively be called superior, then the factors that make it superior must be inherent in the piece itself — regardless of a specific listener's response. That is, a composer can objectively apply certain universal principles of craft with the expectation of eliciting fairly specific subjective responses among unimpaired listeners.

Do you see the amazing contradiction here? The factors that make a piece objectively better are independent of a listener's respone, yet he bases this objectivity on specific subjective responses that occur in amazingly simple musical examples (the Deutsch experiments). Objecivity is based on an idealized subjectivity. Yowza!

I'll occasionally invoke two “reasonableness” tests. The first of these, which is often used by scientists and philosophers, is called “Ockham's Razor.” Succinctly put, if there are several potential explanations for a particular phenomenon the simplest is probably correct. The second principle is an argument from extremes. That is, if one process is demonstrably superior to its opposing extreme, then intermediate processes probably lie qualitatively between the two.

He seems to misunderstand Ockham's Razor. This is actually an aesthetic preference for simpler rules, not a determiner of truth. Also, the idea of extremes does not mean there has to be an orderly succession between the extremes. The real test of a theory is whether it holds up to the existing evidence, if it happens to be simple that's just a bonus.

Another extramusical factor is, of course, the accompanying text, where applicable

In Schubert songs the text is extremely important to the musical meaning, in fact, separating "the music" from "the text" will impoverish the "object". Phooey. I wonder what this assertion does to Opera, the finale of Beethoven's 9th, etc.

Big point: The survival potential for a musical innovation is increased if it
either enhances music's ability to represent biological rhythm or
increases its efficiency in communicating. Okay then.

Summary: We're off to a rocky start here. Granted, it is just the start and the arguments have not been elucidated yet, but I am getting a picture of somebody using sloppy logic and driven by an agenda. Just a picture (supported by evidence, but not enough yet).  Good points are: Winsor writes well, and clearly knows how to get his reader fired up, be it for him or against him.

Chapter 2
Music composition is primarily an intuitive process.
This is shown to be the case by a paragraph from Carl Sagan and a nice little narrative by Winsor. Experimental evidence (say, MRI pictures of a composer's brain while composing, that sort of thing) would bolster this claim. As it is, Winsor's narrative merely "feels right" at best. It remains in the realm of assertion until any evidence is given, a subjective interpretation of how composing is done. Not a great basis for an argument for objective standards.

Rhythmic aspects of thought underlie musical principles.

Winsor conflates rhythm with any type of grouping or chunking. Rhythm may be an example of chunking, but it seems odd to say grouping is an example of rhyhm. Interesting persepctive I suppose.

We store and retrieve music in the same way that we store and retrieve data in general. Music that is judiciously chunked and audibly rhythmic is more conducive to human mental organization than music that is not.

Again, this feels right, but without experimental evidence, this remains an assertion. EDIT: I did jump the gun a bit here, he does go on to cite a few experiments about melodic/rhythmic patterns and memory.  Important to note here, the "music" of the experiments are simple, monophonic melodies heard in a lab.  There is no reason to assume the same conditions will or will not pply to actual, or rather, what we normally think of as music though, at least not based on these experiments.

If we are to perceive meaning in music, we must be able to store musical material in short-term memory. We must be able to recognize recurring patterns in order to establish associative relationships among the components of a work if we are to understand how it unfolds. So, music that applies these principles is more communicative than music that doesn't.

What is meant by "communicative"? Confusion, anxiety, distress, are these ideas not meant to be communicated?  I believe Winsor is substituting communicative for comprehensibility of a certain nature, but the use o fthe word communicative does bring connotations along that may better be left out.

A major implication for composers is that a theme can be made more memorable if it is constructed from short, clearly delineated phrases. Furthermore, the chunking principle is hierarchical. We store and retrieve small bits of data more effectively by chunking them and we store and retrieve the chunks themselves more effectively when they are grouped into larger chunks.

That we chunk different sized units doesn't make that hierarchical...Or if it does, he does not spell that out very well at all. We are discussing one idea, chunking, then suddenly, the term hierarchical comes in. Because two chunks fit into a larger chuck does not mean there is some sort of "hierarchy". The term seems inapt. There are layers, but the term hierarchy implies that one layer is more important, another subordinate.  That's a small gripe though.

You may be inclined to say, “I, personally, can remember numbers and phrases better by chunking them, so it's a subjective preference and not an objective criterion for evaluating music.” But, in fact, music that is organized into chunks is objectively more communicative than music that isn't because the chunking phenomenon is universal for our species.

Winsor proceeds from a brief snippet of an explanation of an experiment and concludes that chunking is universal for our species. Maybe this has been reasoned out and shown to be the case elsewhere, but certainly not here. Winsor asserts it and we have to take his word that it is an objective truth. That he didn't show it to be an objective truth does not mean it isn't one, but it also definitely doesn't mean that it is. Anyways, I agree that chunking is important for memory...what if the goal is not for the listener to remember though, but to get lost in a sea of notes? Would that be amoral?

Our sensory faculties use a few simple rules to analyze input.

Gestalt psychologists posited that we group inputs according to a fairly simple set of rules:

Well there we have it folks, Gestalt psychologists posited it so it must be true! Just because something sounds good does not mean it is the case. No citation here, we are not allowed to review the findings ourselves, Winsor is the authority that we must believe if we are to buy the argument.  And it's not as if he's some bumb, but I like to see it for myself, call me doubting Tombo.

Once a melody has started, we expect it to continue using the same instruments and when an idea begins that sounds like the start of an earlier one, grouping by familiarity leads us to expect it to continue as it did before.

Unless, of course, the melody is in a style which we know has melodies jump from instrument to instrument. We expect it to continue as it did before? What if we are listening to a classical piece here we know the second half of a phrase usually starts the same but then ends differently? Again, Winsor takes a bit of theoretical data and applies it to everyhing without justification.

Winsor then discusses experiments relevant to voice leading principles. I have no problem with this. However, I fear he is going to use this to damn music that doesn't adhere to these rather dull formulations.

Diana Deutsch also observed that one-directional frequency changes were easier to order than two-directional changes. This suggests that we expect the pitch to continue in its current direction - probably because of the principle of good continuation. So, melodic lines that involve frequent changes of direction are likely to be more difficult to remember.

Here is an instance where Winsor seems to be confusing the objects under study. Because we expect simple monophonic beep tones in a lab setting to continue in such ways does not mean we expect the same things in actual music. Winsor seems to be confusing his terms. And completely ignoring (or maybe not aware of the concept of) stylistic firewalls, statistical learning, things of that nature. In other words, limiting his imagination to the experimental data but expanding the test melodies to be representative of Music with a capial M.

The strongest continuity can be achieved by maintaining a constant pitch because it requires no effort for the listener to grasp the direction of movement.

I'm going to pull a Winsor here, just for fun: so clearly, music that stays on one note is far superior to music that moves about because the latter is less communicative. he doesn't say that, but applies similar logic all over the place.

However, at this point, it should be apparent that the psychological principles of aural organization are universal, so they cannot properly be characterized as “subjective.”

A cursory examination of experimental data, strike that, a cursory examination of experimental conclusions with all statistical data eliminated has made it seem that perhaps certain psychological principles are universal. They are subjective in that they depend on the responses of subjects, but universal...well okay, near enough. How we should react to these perceptions has not been deduced though. Personality types may play an important factor (thrill seekers vs. timid types, inorvert vs. extrovert, etc). While the basic biology is the same, the reaction to the stimuli can still vary widely. Winsor has made no case fro objectivity except for with the simplest of bleeps in a laboratory. Objectively speaking.

Summary: The experimental data is shown on a "this supports my theory" basis, no overview of all the research is provided, and the conclusions drawn are not necessary or even logical in many spots. Given all of that, you cannot refute that we all have ears of basically the same shape and evolutionary adaptations and survival instincts that "come with the package" of being human. The thing is about art, you can do with these natural reactions whatever you wish, let's not perfrom the naturalist fallacy. These experiments are treated better and more rigorous reasoning aplied to them in David Huron's work. So maybe you can see why I don't plan on reading the rest of this book?  Note, I think that John Winsor is a fine composer and I applaud his attempt here, I just don't like the execution.

[Some time passes, it is suggested to me that I have not given the book a fair chance.  I sigh and continue just to show em.  I'm a sad little man.] 

The following is a perfect example of reason gone wrong (from chapter 3)

By now it should be clear that all the components of a piece support rhythm in one way or another. And, if we apply Ockham's Razor, we can readily conclude that if all of music's components represent some aspect of rhythm, then the simplest explanation for music as a phenomenon is that it represents rhythm as well.

By now it should be clear that all the components of my body support my brain in one way or another.  And, if we apply Ockham's Razor, we can readily conclude that if all of my body's components represent (notice that we have made the jump from supporting to representing) some aspect of my brain, then the simplest explanation of my body as a phenomenon is that it represents my brain as well.

These are the building blocks to objective judgment of music....(I rarely use an ellipsis by the way...)

As for how he uses this definition later, take a gander at the first sentence from Ch. 5

A musical composition is intended to convey biological rhythm to an audience.

Now let's substitute his definition of music for musical composition and note the wonderful circularity:

A representation of biological rhythm is intended to convey biological rhythm to an audience.  Or conversely, Music is intended to convey music to an audience.  Wonderful!

Anyways, one way in which it may be perceived that I have been unfair here is that I am only presenting the arguments with holes in them.  Not all of his arguments are like this and perhaps I will point those out at a later date.  But I do clearly have an agenda here, and that is to determine the truth value of Winsor's statement on the book's cover.  For this reason, I seek out the faults, because it only takes one black swan to defeat the notion that all swans are white.  Looking for the black swan is much easier than counting the white ones, more of an efficient search for truth. If this were a book review proper, I would dispense with all of this quickly and address other matters of the book.  Continuing the assault then.

still from Ch. 5

Children enter the world musically naïve, but there is no reason to assume that adults should remain so.

I have no problem with this statement, taken by itself.  In fact, it has a ring of truth.  However, Winsor should apply that same reasoning to his observations about musical experiments.  Our biology, which you might posit as musically naive, is shown to perceive music in certain ways, but there is no reason that adults, immersed in specific cultures, all must react in the exact same way to their perceptions.  One could actually use this argument as a defense of cultural relativism.  However, Winsor seems to only apply logic in support of his beliefs, not against them. He would most likely argue that cultural conditions which go against biological reactions are unnatural if he were talking about the modernism of, say, Elliot Carter.

Ch. 6

In this chapter, Winsor outlines the history of music and style changes up to the late Romantic.  Much of interest is said here, but he only considers "the music itself" and how succeeding generations get tired of such and such a style, thus the changes.  Which is not to say that musical matters didn't have something to do with the changes, but no discussion of the similar changes in literature, art, and philosophy that accompanied (often preceded) these movements in the art music world is presented.  If one does consider the rest of the world, it becomes apparent that many other factors are involved, not just some reified version of musical evolution.  Nobody can discuss all factors at once, for certain, and Winsor's narrative here follows a nice progression, one can speak of musical evolution if they wish.  The problem comes about in that he puts forth this narrative as the pure truth of the matter, and provides no citations for thoughts that cannot all be his original formulations.

Skipping ahead to Ch 8, the circularity of this statement is like a sanke devouring itself:

My theory is supported both by music's definition and by the historical record.

Which translates as: My theory is supported by my definition of music and by my interpretation of the historical record.

The Postmodernism chapter

If you ask a postmodernist what the movement is, he'll likely respond with a trite witticism like, “You're soaking in it.”

We will have to take Winsor's word for it, beacuse he cites no source readings of post modernist thought. He cites other writers debunking what they see as the problem with what they see as postmodernism (citations of Thomas Nagel, Harold Bloom, and Mickie Willis are all of this sort). If you're going to put somebody on trial, you should probably call the defendant to the stand, or at least get them a lawyer. Next, Winsor tells us of post modernism that:

its proponents generally claim that it includes the following attributes:

denial of objective knowledge
equality among ideas - even contradictory ones
equality among cultures (multiculturalism)
alternative ways of knowing
increased self-awareness
denial of progress
emphasis on values

He seems to have gotten post modernist thought tied up with new age philosophy by including alternative ways of knowing and increased self awareness among the attributes. He has also mixed his own philosophy up with postmodernism by including "emphasis oin values". This book is indeed all about values, it simply claims there is only one correct, legitimate system of values, and "bolsters" this claim with shoddy reasoning. Plus this notion of equality is wrong headed. If absolutes are eliminated, that does not mean all you have left are equalities. Equality implies two things have the same value. Post modernism celebrates difference, not equality. Of course, I am purely asserting this, no citations are given. Therefore, you should belive me just as much as you should believe Winsor I suppose. Winsor says of these attributes

this noble-sounding agenda is characterized by excessive consumption, exaltation of mediocrity, desensitization, abrogation of responsibility, reduced civility, shallow thinking, and censorship.

And AIDS I would imagine, you forgot AIDS.

This proposition (“I know that I can't know anything”) is, in fact, self-contradictory. Logically, its proponents cannot assert that it is true without first acknowledging that truth exists.

Folks love to point this out. Because logic cannot handle a statement does not mean the statement is meaningless though. Logic has its limits, as does any system. The biggest impossibilty for any system is for the system to comment on itself, which "I know that I can't know anything" attempts to do. However, it is Winsor who believes this statement wrongly implies that everything is then equal. I can see how he might think that, having witnessed his notion of reasoning.

In the scientific community, theories are considered tentative in the sense that they are subject to review and may be revised or rejected based upon conflicting evidence. However, postmodernist writers have misconstrued the meaning of “tentative” by claiming that there is little or no relationship between scientific inquiry and objective reality.

Which postmodernist writers? No citations again and again. This is absolutely ridiculous. John Winsor has misconstrued the notion of postmodernism.

Okay, so maybe I can just sit back and realize that although the ideas he attacks here are not an accurate representation of postmodernist thought, they are all certainly bad, naughty ideas. Maybe he has just misidentified the culprit. This seems more of an assault on commercialized, watered down, head shop bought help-selp psychology books. Sort of like this book is in relation to rigorous philosophy and music theory. Ouch!! Even so, I don't want to read any more at the moment because this book really pisses me off. It's funny how Winsor accuses postmodernists of dogmatic, knee-jerk reactions when they react to his hitting them in the knee with a hammer, calling them names and completely misrepresenting what they believe.  This chapter is oh so important to this book because he basically condemns anybody who might criticize his argument.  Hateful, ignorant, misinformed mumbo jumbo raised to a fever pitch.  In fairness, Winsor is perfectly capable of reasoning at a high level, but he uses his powers of reason selectively in order to support his claims, not rigorously or systematically in any means.  He even admits so when he states his aim at the beginning: He looks for facts to support his intuitions.  The dice are loaded.  The jig is up!!  And in the end, not everything he says is worthless.  It's just that he hasn't actually proven what he purports to have done on the cover and throughout the book.  Because Winsor has failed does not mean objective judgments are impossible,   That issue can be addressed elsewhere.  But truly, if Winsor is looking to silence his critics, he may have chosen the wrong foe in postmodernism.  He should be attacking the bases of this sense, his book could certainly benefit from his notion of postmodernism.  Yeah, he doesn't really prove anything or make any solid arguments, but all ideas are equal right?  In the end, Winsor's misinformed notion of postmodernism is his only hope if anyone is going to buy his arguments.

That's not quite true though.  Some people I respect swear by this book, and believe it or not, my tastes coincide with Winsor's in many ways.  If you ignore the reasoning, and the notion of objectivity, many of his ideas resonate.  For example, the notion that modernism went too far away from the actual experience of music for it to be successful beyond the hallowed halls of academia rings true to me.  The idea that there is not mere equality between every piece of music also feels right.  That classicism made some "improvements" over Baroque music, and Romanticism over Classicism, feels and sounds right as well (as long as you pick out elements that became more clear, imaginative, what have you).  I simply add the caveat that "it seems that way to me".  Given that bit of truth (along with much more research), his book could be quite good.

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Comment by Tombo Rombo on May 6, 2012 at 3:05am

I've reviewed the Schoenberg collection Style and Idea on this blog and I never met the man or had an argument with him : )

In any case, Winsor claimed that I was misrepresenting his ideas, so I decided to show exactly how I think they went wrong.  Driven by an agenda?  Perhaps subconsciously, but I've laid my reasoning bare for all to see here, so if there is something in there that suggests I'm being unfair one can simply point it out.  One does need to be sure they aren't just being mean with such things though Ray, you're right.

Comment by Tyler Hughes on May 5, 2012 at 6:24pm

Im glad Im not the only one who thought this when reading this book. 
I read this book during my undergrad and I could not find any argument that wasn't bias and the assertions made seemed to like you said, to help his music own music to be more recognized. I will comment more when I get back from the symphony. 

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