What your doctor knows about Mendelssohn might help save your life

Recent educational policies in the U.S. have created an increased focus on educational fields associated with Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics or STEM. This educational focus comes from a number of sources, including the projection of an increase in jobs associated with STEM fields. Many in the arts and humanities have seen this exaltation of STEM as a threat to their livelihoods. The distribution of funding within many university and public school systems is a fairly powerful verification of that exact threat. To counter this change in educational emphasis, many have argued for the inclusion of art—defined in the broadest scope to include all arts such as the visual arts, music, theater, and dance—within STEM, creating a more inclusive acronym, STEAM. STEAM sounds good to me, but not as a necessary defense against any attack on the arts from the proponents of a STEM-based educational focus. Rather, I see what I do every day when I analyze music as an act of logical deduction, statistical comparison, engineering modeling, analytical analysis of data, and quite often a testable, verifiable scientific act. Likewise, artistic creativity is not, nor should it be, excluded from the scientific processes of STEM. Artistic creativity in the sciences is a critical component to innovation. David Bohm has expressed this somewhat eloquently in On Creativity and Science, Order, and Creativity, coauthored with F. David Peat. For me, as I suspect it also is for Bohm, of course it should be STEAM instead of STEM. The arts, or at least my hallway of music analysis within the arts, are STEM, and I think there is much more STEM-related activity in music creation and performance than we acknowledge. While this might seem a bit optimistic and maybe even overly generalized, recent collaborations between the arts and sciences support such optimism. This essay focuses on music theory and analysis and ways that it might collaborate with and even enhance one such scientific field, the field of medicine. As such, it serves as a primer to my thinking, which I hope to develop further and in more detail in the future.

Music analysis and its connections to STEM

One could go through the history of music theory and analysis and easily extrapolate connections between the arts and sciences. Noteworthy examples include the Greek focus on mathematics as seen in the works of Pythagoras, Aristoxenus, and others and the focus on the overtone series in the writings of Oettingen, Riemann, Hindemith, and Helmholtz. The Journal of Mathematics and Music, dedicated to just such a STEAM relationship, saw its first issue released in 2007. However, the purpose of this essay is not necessarily to argue for the inclusion of music within any new push toward STEM or STEAM in education. Rather, I aim to show that the skills gained in music analysis are already relevant and even congruent to similar analytical skills necessarily for other fields of inquiry. I seek to argue not that the arts need to be added to STEM, but that some might need a reminder that it is already an integrated part of something we might call STEAM. It is not that we are a separate and distinct entity that needs to be included, but that we are something quite possibly already on the inside. This is not a new idea. The ancient idea of the quadrivium, including arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music, bears witness to the already present, or at least present at one time, correlations between these fields.

In the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, music theory and analysis has encountered a series of efforts toward representing itself as utilizing mathematical and scientific processes and as a currently active part of STEM. Allan Forte’s The Structure of Atonal Music recast principals from mathematical set theory to the analysis of atonal music. Leonard Meyer, Eugene Narmour, and Robert Gjerdingen applied principles from Gestalt psychology and schema theory to music analysis. Matthew Brown’s Explaining Tonality: Schenkerian Theory and Beyond reframed Schenkerian music analysis, sometimes seen as subjective, as a process defined by logic, science, and recursive transformational processes. David Lewin’s Generalized Musical Intervals and Transformations applied mathematical principals from group and transformation theory to music analysis. Dimitri Tymoczko’s A Geometry of Music: Harmony and Counterpoint in the Extended Common Practice tied geometric principles to music analysis, a portion of which was published in the journal, Science. Further examples include the burgeoning field of music cognition, which forms an amalgamation of the fields of music theory, psychology, and neuroscience, and the field of corpus studies, which uses principles from big data to analyze relationships and patterns within larger collections of musical works. Through these and other examples, the skill sets gained in the study of music and specifically music theory and analysis are already recognized by many in the STEM areas. Examples include the number of friends I have whose music studies have translated into STEM jobs, including Google, Microsoft, Apple, Scientific American, and a variety of careers in medicine.

About art analysis and medical/nursing schools

Such cross-disciplinary hiring is not surprising considering the significant potential for innovation in these interdisciplinary associations and collaborations between the arts and the STEM fields. As such, it seems that employers are seeking such educational diversity in their hiring processes. Perhaps because the thought processes undergirding science and art are so similar, or perhaps because the thought processes are different and changes in perspective can lead to innovation, the study of art within the scientific fields as well as the study of science within the artistic fields endlessly benefits all involved. Medical schools are already incorporating this interdisciplinary philosophy. Casey Lasser notes that “For decades, humanities and arts classes have been offered to medical students, in attempts to help them maintain empathy and develop skills necessary to accurately diagnose their future patients. Known as “narrative medicine” courses, they’ve covered topics from comic book-making to modern dance to Impressionist painting.” (Lesser 2018)

A recent formal study at Columbia University School of Medicine and Weill Cornell Medical College explored the benefits of medical students taking part in the study and analysis of art. It studied students in a course, “Observation and Uncertainty in Art and Medicine,” taught by New York-based artist, Anna Willieme. In a sample exercise, students examined a work of art by writing observations and analytical drawings in a single, common notebook, building a shared analysis of that artistic work. ““First of all, they’re discovering the complexity as they look at the piece a little longer, but as they are leaving their own sketchbooks for the next person to pick up, they also see how someone else has been seeing things,” Willieme explained. One student might have started with the base of the sleek, white piece, while another may have drawn something in the background; a third student might have realized they hadn’t noticed either of those things. The same concept can be applied to medical scenarios, such as examining a patient’s body or picking up on subtle cues from family members in an exam room.” (Lesser 2018) The study revealed that “students’ capacities for personal reflection, tolerance for ambiguity, and personal bias awareness had all increased. Most significantly, however, was their improvement in reflection—their ability to understand a situation from different points of view, to empathize with another person’s dilemma, and to acknowledge different ways of thinking.” (Lesser 2018) It turns out that this ability to look at art from different vantage points results in an improvement in their ability to practice medicine. In reading this study, I was struck by the incredible parallels between this examination of art and the way that I analyze a piece of music.

How music analysis might produce similar results

There are many ways to analyze music. I’ll discuss a very general process of analysis here, but this exploration is hardly exhaustive. Just as in a medical class such as Anatomy, music analysis students are tasked with labelling individual parts of a music composition. Often, that is simple. This is a quarter note. This is middle C. This is a C major chord. A turn toward a course more like Physiology invokes a change of task. We are now focused on how an object functions within a given system. In music analysis, it becomes less important that an item is a C major chord, but becomes more important how that C major chord functions within a system. What precedes it and what follows thereafter? What significance does it have within the larger musical system? These answers can be incredibly simple. They can also be quite complex with the larger context creating ambiguity rather than definitive clarification regarding that particular musical object’s identity and function within a phrase of music. The ambiguity could be viewed as creating artistic beauty within a given passage. It could also be viewed as a problem to be solved within that musical passage, something like a type of musical pathology. We might look at that passage in a number of ways. We sometimes analyze music zoomed in under a powerful microscope. The focus here would be on the individual notes, where they originate, and where they resolve. In medicine, this might be similar to the perspective that comes from a specialist such as a gastroenterologist or ENT doctor. We sometimes zoom out from that microscopic perspective, viewing the notes as interactive networks. In such a network, chords move to other chords, with some chords being more structurally significant and other chords representing transitional motions and transformations between these more structurally significant chords. Structural chords and transformative chords interact to create a network that serves to form a complete piece, or body if you will, of music. In medicine, this might be similar to the perspective of a general practitioner. We sometimes look at the musical piece holistically, invoking other pieces, styles, genres, composers, and cultures to provide a broader, more well-rounded analysis of the piece. This might be parallel to something like an osteopathic doctor or something even broader like the tasks represented by the World Health Organization. My cross-disciplinary analogies might not be precise nor are they intended to be; rather, they represent the necessity and ubiquitous presence of a multiplicity of perspectives in any act of analysis, regardless of discipline. Any one of these approaches results in a different, equally viable musical analysis, just as visiting a different doctor might lead to a different diagnosis or course of treatment. The frequency of patients seeking second opinions speaks for itself. In both music and medicine, these different perspectives and different analyses can interact, each informing something that is absent in another analysis, collaborating to form a more comprehensive perspective on a musical composition or patient’s ailment. Much as these alterations of perspective can greatly benefit a doctor in examining and diagnosing a patient’s medical pathology, similar varieties of perspective can benefit the music analyst in refining their practice and creating stronger, more resilient music analyses. Indeed, a medical student who has learned to analyze a musical passage with a number of different systems and from a variety of perspectives might translate these creative analytical methodologies into creative diagnoses, creative treatments, and innovative medical advancements. These multiplicities of perspective, different ways of viewing a problem, seem to be exactly what medical schools are seeking in pursuing analytic artistic endeavors for their medical students. Indeed, what your doctor knows about Mendelssohn may someday save your life.

In curricular discussions, regular questions arise about the importance and relevance of the content of our music classes. What exactly do the students need to learn? What music should we be analyzing? Should we continue emphasizing music composed primarily by white, European men? Should a large amount of our theory courses be centered around analyzing and composing Lutheran chorales in four voices? What analytic skills do students need in their lives as practicing musicians and teachers? I don’t claim to have any answers to these difficult questions. Rather, I’d like to reframe the problem with a focus on the analytic process. While we certainly want to remain as relevant as possible and instill skills in our students that are useful in their practical lives, it may not matter exactly what we study. What may prove substantially more important is how we study it. Indeed, some of our students will go on to be practicing music performers, music teachers, or music analysts. Others will go on to careers in medicine, business, law, computer science, and an endless number of other possibilities. Perhaps, we should be focusing on how the analysis of music builds critical analytical skills—such as reframing the question, thinking outside the box, deductive reasoning, algorithmic processes, and many, many others—that are broadly useful across many disciplines. Maybe this is what music analysis could be all about. Maybe this is what music analysis should be all about.

–Nathan Fleshner, Assistant Professor of Music Theory, University of Tennessee, USA

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