How Musicology Became That Town in Footloose

By: Sara Haefeli (Ithaca College) //

The eleventh century music theorist Guido d’Arezzo is best known for his innovations in musical notation. But he also made a clear distinction between those who could contemplate music’s theoretical complexities and those who actually sang or performed. Guido called those in the first category musicus (musicians), and those in the second cantor (singers and instrumentalists).1 There is an unequivocal hierarchy here: real music is speculative and theoretical—it lives in the mind—and the practice of making music is not just a different kind of activity, but an inferior one, comparatively insignificant and morally suspect. This bias against the physical world is not unique to the field of music: the body is either absent or actually dismissed in our Western intellectual tradition. This worldview is as old as Plato, who felt that the body—all the physical world in fact—was garbage, and that only the immaterial world of ideas was worthy of consideration. The thinking individual is disembodied, able to function without the body (or at least in spite of the body). Descartes did not write “I dance, therefore I am.”

This bias still exists, perhaps in less obvious ways, and it continues to shape how we feel about different styles of music and how we choose to take some styles more seriously than others. We often make a distinction between music that is serious and music that is not, and this distinction is not—as one might suspect—about concert venues, instrumentation, or even the average age of the target audience. I think this distinction is often made between music we sit and listen to and music we dance to. Granted, this distinction between music for the brain and music for the body is not exactly the same as Guido’s bias for theory over practice, but the general idea remains and has had a significant impact on how we study and teach music. The study of music history is typically a study of music that engages the mind, and scholars are likely to dismiss music that is designed to move the body. The music history classroom is a lot like the town in Footloose: we can listen to and study music, we just can’t dance to it.

Ren McCormack, played by Kevin Bacon, argues the case for dancing in Footloose (1984).

The Mind-Body Dichotomy

Early in the twentieth century, this mind-body dichotomy was reflected in other, similar dichotomies, such as the divide between so-called “high art” and “low art” styles. High art music was for the mind, and low art music was for the body. Of course this divide is specious, but it shaped how we thought about and consumed music. At the beginning of the twentieth century, the low art was jazz. But as jazz became more cerebral it was replaced by rock, and about thirty years after that, as prog rock and post-punk art rock bands became increasingly complicated and cerebral, rock—as the representative of “body music”—was replaced by hip-hop. (Much-hated disco was sandwiched in between, but whereas a rich and interesting body of scholarship has emerged on Hip-hop, the scholarly community has never taken disco seriously.) In each successive stylistic wave (jazz to rock to hip-hop), the music begins as an accompaniment to dance before evolving into a style that audiences primarily sit and listen to intently. (Read John Mehegan’s 1959 letter to DownBeat magazine raging against “complexity and intellectuality” in jazz and John Lennon’s interview with Rolling Stone from 1971 about “bullshit intellectualism” in rock.)

While Mehegan and Lennon were suspicious of disconnecting music from its physicality, the academy maintained its long-held position: the music that is designed to speak to the inner, cognitive world of the listener is the music that we should study. In fact, this mind/body dichotomy is so well established that when I was studying musicology at the University of Vienna in the mid-1990s, I was the only student in the program who still performed. I was not explicitly “encouraged” to drop my instrumental practice, but the generation immediately preceding me was. One of the Austrian professors told me that maintaining an active musical practice would make me a subjective musicologist. Like Guido d’Arezzo, musicologists from the first half of the twentieth century generally viewed the physical practice of making music with suspicion. This physical practice might stir up unruly passions and appetites that would surely corrupt the enlightened pursuit of knowledge and truth.

This bias has shaped the study of music history. The story of Western classical music focuses less on music practices that are particularly useful—and by that I mean used in ritual or in specific social settings, as in dance music. Useful music is embodied and the music that is typically the focus of historical study or part of the canon of masterpieces is useless (autonomous) and disembodied. The embodied practices have traditionally been viewed as less interesting aesthetically.

But What About Ballet?

I can hear your objection now: “What about the ballet music that’s part of our Western canon? What about Stravinsky, Tchaikovsky, and even Lully for that matter?” 

Indeed, ballet seems far more embodied than the symphonic tradition. But the traditions included in the canon of Western masterpieces are high art dance works that require extensive training and are therefore distanced from social rituals that might involve regular folks. Further, the ballets that are central to the performance canon have been arranged as orchestral suites and are not danced to. Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring and Copland’s Appalachian Spring were created as dance pieces but are today just as disembodied as the rest of the orchestral repertoire. Interestingly, dance scholars would argue that ballet is not actually part of the canon at all. Ballet has been at the margins—both in textbooks and scholarship—and there are very few scholars who actually talk about music-and-movement in a truly holistic way. 

Music that is useful—or to put it in a different way, danceable—has a dependable groove and predictable harmonic changes. According to Susan McClary, dance music “can appear to us as simply banal: too grounded in the exigencies of physical movement, too much inclined to the mechanical grinding out of identical units and therefore devoid of musical or cultural interest.”2  McClary points out that Frankfurt School philosopher and musicologist Theodor Adorno warned against the dangers of repetitive music that might lure listeners into banal dances like the jitterbug, or into “the herd mentality encouraged by bourgeois affirmative culture and later exploited by the rise of European fascism.” McClary described this aesthetic mindset as an “allergy to repetition” that has “colored the analytical methods and standards of judgment developed in musicology in the wake of Beethoven.”3 Adorno called the dance music of his day “bad music,” and others like him who share the “allergy to repetition” have said that music that is designed to keep dancers in step is not really music at all.

So, there you have it. Guido d’Arezzo is still in good company. According to these scholars, good music (or just “music” for that matter) engages the mind, and the stuff that engages the body is something else.

As ridiculous as this seems when stated so bluntly, I think Western culture still largely accepts this dichotomy. We tend to see the world in binaries: public/private, opinions/facts, subjective/objective, and we are increasingly taught in school to value our intellect and distrust our physical nature. Indeed, school is the stuff that we study that isn’t life; that is, lower-class life, close-to-the-bone life, life that is near to the dirt and far from heaven, and that is why we invest in its credentials.

Music history is made up of a long line of disembodied musicians. The American composer Charles Ives wrote, “What does sound have to do with music? … That music must be heard is not essential—what it sounds like may not be what it is.”4 Perhaps he was echoing the poet John Keats, who wrote, “Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard are sweeter.” And I’d like to suggest that the insistence that we sit still and listen to Great Art is not at all malicious, but a product of a great passion for music. It’s like the film buff at a party attempting to get everyone to be quiet during favorite movie scenes: “Just … everyone, please! Listen! If you’re not quiet, you might miss it!” 

Embodying Music

Music, like dancing, is necessarily a social art. It is a cooperative experience between performer(s) and audience. And yet in the “art music” tradition we have adopted listening practices that are often isolating, eschewing the physical experience so often enjoyed during pop and rock concerts. Allowing for movement during a listening experience may help revive the often stale museum atmosphere of the concert hall. Down with Guido’s dichotomy! As musicians, educators, and music lovers, we are often put in a position of defending the value of this art. Maybe we just need to start moving.

For Discussion

  1. Last year the University of Maryland Symphony Orchestra put together a semi-staged performance of Copland’s Appalachian Spring in which the musicians moves and dance throughout. Watch the performance here. If you don’t know the piece, it might be helpful to contrast this performance with a traditional performance of the orchestral ballet suite. Does this performance with choreography excite or disturb you?
  2. Are there other innovative performances similar to the one above that open the traditional concert space to movement? Can you imagine ways to do such a thing?  
  3. When someone claps between movements, what is your reaction? How is that reflective of a prejudice against movement in the concert hall?
  4. How can we begin to take dance music seriously as a topic of study? How is traditional analysis limited in this kind of study, and would it be possible to invent new analytical frames for a style like disco?

1 Elizabeth Eva Leach, “Music and Masculinity in the Middle Ages” in Masculinity and Western Musical Practice, Ian Biddle and Kirsten Gibson, eds. (Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2009).

2 Susan McClary, Desire and Pleasure in Seventeenth-Century Music, 194.

3 Ibid., 194, 195.

4 Charles Ives, Memos, J. Kirkpatrick, ed. (New York: Norton, 1991).

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