Tonal Epistemology
Essays Culture Music

Tonal Epistemology

Bradley Davis
Bradley Davis

How Music Can Challenge Us to Rethink Cultural Paradigms

Sometimes it becomes difficult to imagine music is the transformative force Socrates saw; an influence so powerful it ought to be banned from a healthy city. As noted previously, popular music—and culture more broadly—has reached a point where its innovation is wholly derivative. The “hauntological” art reuses familiar structure, sounds, and even samples of past popular music to endear itself to listeners and critics who readily recognize and understand it. The music of today and, one imagines, of the future is utterly haunted by its past.

This is not to say elements of popular music are necessarily bad or even vulgar, simple 12-bar blues or I-V-vi-IV chord progressions can be moving, as can the sonically-reduced power chords of pop punk or the increasingly-cynical sampling now pervasive across genres. Such music is easily listenable, and therefore popular, largely because it is comfortable. We are steeped in its grammar, know its allusions, and can predict its structure—when it is time for a song to return to chorus, transition to bridge, change key, or end. This holds across eras and genres of popular music: Kanye West, Bob Dylan, Frank Sinatra, even Wagner or Bach. The way music is supposed to sound is so evident that one without any musical training ought to be able to hum all sorts of songs from memory and construct their own new song by instinctively sustained rhythm at a constant beat and quickly correcting any wayward pitches to the right note—at least, as close as one's voice and ear are able to match.

We know, and have known since the ancient Greeks, that there are certain scales that sound good to our ears. While most people could not name the Greeks' Phrygian mode—though one likely recognizes it as being a little "exotic" or delightfully odd-sounding—it is commonly understood that there are major and minor scales and lots of variations. This, we understand from a young age and through acculturation, is music and an overview on how it is properly constructed.

Even the worst examples of uninteresting popular music are technically and theoretically good. While their popularity may be attributable to marketing and other forces, any chart-topper will sound good. An easy, familiar, or catchy tune will still enflame the passions. However, sales numbers are a poor indication of æsthetic merit or depth. Most popular music, despite its limited merits, is a poor representation of æsthetic value and depth.

It is a narrow horizon that we have settled in for our minds and ears.

Foreign Grammar

Music of the familiar sort—Western music, popular and otherwise—is best understood as one language among many. The familiar elements of it we take for granted are neither fixed nor necessary. Like a language learner, recognizing for the first time that subject-verb order is not necessary, nouns can be declined, or that meaningful sentences can exist without verbs, listening to the new grammar of foreign music can be exhilarating, frustrating, and confusing in equal parts.

There is great value in recognizing that, in music or language as in every field, there are fundamental assumptions we commonly accept or perspectives we readily embrace—horizons over which we do not see—without understanding the limits of our knowledge and experience. Maintaining a sense of epistemological humility in politics and the sciences is important, and music may offer the challenge to reimagine how we conceive of the world.

Now, I must note, I do not have extensive training in musical theory nor the skills to play or sing in any venue other than a woodshed. But I do love music and have long been fascinated with how music that at first sounds wrong and utterly foreign to what populates American airwaves can be so beautiful. I have discussed previously—indeed, it is part of the impetus for Athwart —my belief that the prevailing culture's understanding of goodness, justice, and beauty is narrow and particular. As a passionate amateur of both, music and language are the realms that most challenge my limited understanding of the world. Of the two, listening to music is by far the most immediately accessible.

While it is impossible to think independently, in the sense of a tabula rasa, or wholly to embody another's worldview, the cognitive dissonance foreign grammars create is probably the closest one can come. This sense of unease is itself critical to building empathetic communities, insightful research, or even deep enjoyment of the endless world's intellectual riches.

When music like what is heard and enjoyed everyday in our lives is played, one generally knows what to expect even from new songs. The dissonance that takes place when exposed to a foreign musical grammar is embodied in each note and beat that is different from what was expected—over and over. This effect is dizzying and literally dissonant because the referents are not yet in place; the listener has only begun to gaze to horizon’s edge.

The infamous album Trout Mask Replica is a great example. It is well known to be nonsensical and, frankly, irritating until one has internalized and accepted the unique grammar that Captain Beefheart constructed for it. This requires patience and a willingness to be uncomfortable.

New Scales to Measure

The changes to or disuse of familiar scales is perhaps the most clearly different and jarring element of foreign musical grammars. They have a similar allure to the "blue note" common in jazz and blues music, a palpable tension and dissonance that does not seem to fit but nonetheless sounds beautiful when resolved. The lack of this resolution in other musical grammars is part of what is so confusing for a foreign listener. While the term atonal is disputed, modern and contemporary Western composers have sought to challenge the notion of ordered scales, using the entirety of a chromatic scale to produce some interesting effects. More peculiar and much more enchanting is what is sometimes termed microtonal music, which utilizes notes of smaller intervals than traditional Western music.1 Being introduced to notes situated between what we commonly hear is akin to being a young child handed a giant box of crayons with never-before-seen shades between familiar colors.

Radically different rhythmic approaches are also possible and can be just as different. In Western music, it is common to consider tempo to be fixed within a single piece of music—dance music in particular is strict in time signature whether a "four on the floor" or waltz. Certainly, a piece of music can shift in tempo or a time change but these elements are remarkable in a piece of music and relatively limited. They change from one static time to another. The manner in which time, musical, historical, or otherwise, is constructed and understood affects both character and mood. But it is foreign to Western music to imagine that constant variation occurs in rhythm and tempo, that a dance floor's intensity will speed up or slow down the music itself. Especially when musical accompaniment is solely percussive, even a large group of performers improvising rhythm and tempo in a truly dynamic performance is enthralling.3

Breaking Familiar Norms?

These brief observations may not be remarkable to someone who grew up listening to the oud, sitar, or any other Eastern instruments and music. But those who have never been exposed to non-Western music, or even experimental music within the Western tradition, will be shocked at how little their palate has experienced. It is jarring to recognize that something as fundamental as music—really, the world as we know it—need not be as it is and may not even be preferable as it is. Wisdom can only be found in such a realization of how limited our knowledge of each art and science is. One must see the horizon’s edge before it can be transcended.

American popular music has a history of successful experimentation within its paradigm, although it is often successful regardless of any musical innovation. Both Lou Reed and The Velvet Underground, Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band, and Tom Waits experimented in tonality, to significant cultural impact. It has been interesting to watch producers like Diplo or singers like Shakira synthesize different musical traditions and expose American audiences to new influences. Diplo also had a role in the surprisingly successful introduction of Syrian dabke singer Omar Souleyman to the American market. Even more so, the work of Rahim Alhaj and Ibrahim Maalouf have done to integrate Arab traditions into more traditional Western music has been fascinating and may help to bridge the gap between enjoyment and cognitive dissonance when beginning to explore non-Western music.

Yet, it is no secret that America is becoming stagnant, it is a trend in our cities and a trend within our culture. Listening to "world music" won’t reverse this trend. But interrogating our cultural assumptions from new angles will help us understand and improve American art and culture. The persistence of “hauntological” works, recycling and commercializing our familiarity with the past, will continue to be a specter in our social life.

Revitalizing American Culture

Music is an excellent test case for what is possible in terms of knowledge, beauty, and community. It is accessible, has a high tolerance for experimentation, and is largely communal. There is a case to be made for a Burkean approach to culture that accepts and appreciates our received tradition; but its appreciation is only possible by understanding its uniqueness and assumptions. But it is evident that American art has long been approaching stagnation, with each rare, great exception helping to demonstrate the trend. The impacts of this stagnation and a general absence of aspiration or excellence in our culture certainly affects our national character. In turn, our degraded character affects our politics.

Endogenous shocks to our culture have been few and far between, and one should not expect it to produce art capable of deep dissonance or introspection. But an exogenous shock might be possible. Learning to enjoy, understand, and appreciate non-Western music, literature, philosophy, and more might be able to reawaken curiosity within our own fields. A serious effort to understand, see, and hear the world through another’s perspective will force reconsideration on one’s own.

Innovation, adaptation, and syncretism within American popular culture would all be of great benefit and could at least partially offset the effects of the globalized monoculture, which has diminished or destroyed local culture in every region of the world—not exempting America. What can be changed or developed in music can be similarly done in art broadly understood, and subsequently in social thought, then in culture and finally in politics.

Music reflects the people who perform and listen to it. Similarly, politics reflect the governed: who they are, how they act, and how they see the world. It is almost universally agreed that American politics as it stands today is not what its citizens want or envision—but it is a bitter pill to swallow, thinking we have only ourselves to blame. Perhaps, it is time to revisit our culture as well.
Suggested Listening
Captain Beefheart, Trout Mask Replica.
Umm Kalthoum, Alf Leila wa Leila, and the jazz reinterpretation by Ibrahim Maalouf entitled Kalthoum.
Rahim Alhaj performing at KEXP.
Omar Souleyman, Ya Bnayya.
Abdelhadi Belkhayat, Ya al-Bouhali.
Gamelan music, Gregorian chant, and countless other forms of music are likewise challenging. Be inquisitive and search out unfamiliar music—this might be one of the times where Youtube’s recommendations are actually useful.


1. The variations on this within Western music—just intonation, meantime temperament, and others—are interesting both sonically and physically. [^]

2. Readers are encouraged to listen to brief recordings of maqam hijaz, bayati, nahawand, rast and others to get a sense of how their beauty and distinctions. [^]

3. Essawa and chilha are two forms of Moroccan music that exemplify this very well. [^]