Max Weber and Cultural Studies

Max Weber is usually thought of as one of the prophets of the value-neutral, apolitical social science which gained control of American universities during the Fifties and early Sixties. In his The Rational and Social Foundations of Music (Southern Illinois, 1957), however, he sounds like a prophet of cultural studies. In this book he shows how XIXc classical music was rationalized in a way which could have happened only in the modern West. For Weber rationality or the lack of it was the answer to every question, so his thesis is no big surprise. But most of his other writing was about fairly standard questions in economic, social and political organization, so his foray into the arts is a bit unexpected.

Music was central to German education, culture, and religion in a way which it seldom has been anywhere else in the world, and Weber's book makes serious technical demands on the reader. After reading the book, however, I've had to ask myself who Weber's intended reader really was. My conclusion has been that either that Weber was winging it, and was a cultural-studies bluffer writing for educated Germans who were not as musically acute as they pretended to be (and would thus fake understanding), or else that he was writing only for people whose thorough  mastery of music theory made it possible for them to understand a very confused book on that topic.

What I see in this book is the hegemony of linear verbal prose, which presents data in an explanatory narrative or expository form which really should be presented in tabular or schematic form. Each particular point Weber makes about the circle of fifths and its discrepancies, the various systems of tuning and temperament, the overtone series, the scalar versus the harmonic development of the gamut, and so on, is presented as part of an explanatory narrative, without the larger system within which it makes sense being made available to the reader. Instead of developing a sequence of intelligible arguments, bits of data and argumentation from various contexts (comparative music, harmonic theory, acoustics, Western music history, etc.) are jumbled together in single sentences or single paragraphs within holistic arguments whose real intent is not always evident.

And there are mistakes. Some of them come from mistranslations -- three translators for one short book is not a good sign. On p. 4, I think that "it is divided into the fifth in the major and minor third" really means "the fifth is divided into a major and a minor third" -- seemingly the dative and the accusative of the German in were confused here. On the other hand, "Any dominant seventh chord contains the dissonant diminished triad, starting from the third and forming the major seventh" --  instead of "the minor seventh" (p. 7) -- can hardly be a translation error, since grosse and kleine for "major" and "minor" are pretty unmistakable. (In fact, on p. 95 the "large third" is spoken of, leading to the suspicion that the translators were not really on top of their job.) On p. 128 "The difference between the twelfth, fifth and seventh octave", which makes no sense as written, is probably a copyediting error: "fifth" and "octave" are parallel nouns, and the passage should read "The difference between the twelfth fifth and the seventh octave".

Now, it is a big mistake to say that the seventh of the dominant seventh chord is a major seventh. If the mistake was Weber's, it makes one think that Weber didn't understand music very well at all. In places he also sometimes seems to be unaware that the fourth is an inverted fifth, which would be an equally disastrous lapse -- though it's possible that I've failed to understand these passages. Nonetheless, while I would not confidently assert that we're dealing with a Sokal-type hoax, that possibility has to be on the table. I can only say that I have had trouble understanding a large number of passages, and I'm not sure that the problem is with me.

Weber obviously did a very thorough literature dredge, and we read about the music of the Patagonians, the Veddas, the Wanyamuesi, the Javanese, the Chippewa, the Admiralty Islanders (paired with the Langobards!), the Balearics, and even the hapless Swabians. Terms thrown out include diazeutic, bismorous, synemmenon, śruti, salaba, bincir, pyknon, zelog, slendro, and crwth (twice) -- to say nothing of the Cloveshoe Synod. While I leave open the possibility that Weber's theoretical writing would be intelligible to someone more expert than I am, I am willing to guess that Weber's literature dump really is the kind of research write-up bluffing that overachieving graduate students are reprimanded for. The air of confident mastery with which Weber presents his comparative data seems to be standard cultural-studies fakery.

Explanation is what sociology is all about, but a lot of Weber's sociological Just So Stories are quite dubious. It seems unlikely to me that the freezing winters prevented the Roman water organ from moving north (p. 112), or that the tone quality of the Chinese ch'ing caused Chinese music to stagnate (p. 97), or that the low quality of Chinese and Japanese woodworking prevented their development of the violin (p. 105), or that the use of women's voices caused the increased use of the interval of the third (p. 20), and Weber's several generalizations about bagpipes (p. 93 and elsewhere) also seem doubtful.

To Weber rational action, which is characteristic of the modern West, is contrasted to evaluative, traditional, and emotive action, and he concludes that the West's written multivoiced harmonic-contrapuntal music using a tempered scale is the most rational music of all. (In theory, for Weber "rational" was descriptive rather than normative, but in fact he seems to have alternated between thinking of rationality as the highest state of human evolution, and regretting the disenchantment and amorality of the rationalized world.). There is a little glitch, however, which Weber slides past.  The tempered scale (the culmination of Weber's argument) is indeed a case of instrumental rationality ("instrumental", that is, in the sociological and not the musical sense), but musically and acoustically the tempered scale is an irrational empirical kludge. In the tempered scale, the tuning discrepancies represented by the comma of Pythagoras are divided evenly between the various intervals, so that none of the fifths and fourths are quite in tune, but none of them are very far out of tune either. Since the term "rational" originated with the ratio calculations of Platonic acoustics, there is at least an irony here -- this way, Western civilization ends up being definable not by its rationality, but by its compromises of rationality in pursuit of technical purposes. (And of course, in medieval terms Bach's well-tempered clavier and major-minor chromaticism were not only irrational but diabolical).

In fairness, Weber comes up with a few good observations: dissonance is the basic dynamic element in Western music, there's a tension between the melodic and the harmonic developments of intonation, the organ and piano are mechanical, engineered instruments (though Weber oddly missed the engineered wind instruments produced by Sax and others), and the piano is a Northern bourgeois instrument for indoor playing.

There were some interesting things in the introduction. Like Nietzsche's, Weber's career was ended by a nervous breakdown, though he continued writing just as Nietzsche did. And we also find that, after a certain point in his career, he developed doubts about rationality and turned to Tolstoy for comfort. By and large, however, the introduction is a period piece, evoking the high and far-off times when hopes for sociology were much greater than they are now. (A few of its  sociologically-objectifying statements are mildly funny in a deadpan way: "A business organization is normally more rationally organized than a love affair": p. xx).

I actually didn't finish reading this book, and sometimes I wonder whether anyone ever has done so (especially the garbled English version). I imagine it being passed from bibliography to bibliography unopened, like a Christmas fruitcake, with maybe an occasional sentence plucked out here and there and cited to make it seem that the book has actually been read. 

Boodberg spoke of the "infinite loneliness of scholarship." But he was talking about exotic things like Tokharian poetry and the Hsi-Hsia script, whereas I am writing about a fairly recent English translation of a book by an established author. Writing something which no one will ever read about a non-exotic book which no one has ever read really does seem like the height of futility.

But then I remember. There's one man who certainly read this book: Adorno. So Adorno will be my next stop.

No Such Luck

Essays on Music,
Theodor Adorno,
California, 2002

Adorno's book bodes ill for the thesis that someone, somewhere has actually read  Weber's book. Adorno was fully competent both in music and sociology, and he did not have to contend with the defective English translation. And while Weber's political and intellectual tendencies were antithetical to Adorno's, Weber was an author Adorno would have been expected to have known.  But Adorno mentions Weber's musical study only three times in 550+ pages:

Since music, as Weber demonstrated in his posthumous sociology of music, became integrated into the rationalization process of modern society, its linguistic character has become more pronounced. (p. 145)

The transformation of the piano from a musical instrument into a piece of bourgeois furniture -- which Max Weber accurately perceived..... (p. 273)

Accordingly, one may perhaps say that the serialists did not arbitrarily concoct mathematizations of music, but confirmed a development that Max Weber, in the sociology of music, identified as the overall tendency of recent musical history -- the progressive rationalization of music. (p. 657)

These references are too banal to justify the conclusion that Adorno actually read Weber's book. So we can conclude that it remains possible that The Rational and Social Foundations of Music has effectively never really existed except as an item on bibliographies.   


The German text of Weber's book can be found here. Commenter "US" has shown that the apparent major-for-minor error on p. 7 is a translator's error, and not Weber's. This means that questions about the level of Weber's musical knowledge will have to be left open.

However, the hypothesis that not a single person has ever actually read this translation of Weber's  book (as opposed to just skimming it) remains on the table.

Subscribers-only article on Weber's sociology of music: $30 cheap! (Sociological Forum, Vol. 16, #4, Dec. 2001, pp. 633-653.)

PhD dissertation on sociology of music which relies on Weber Slightly more evidence that the author actually tried to read Weber than is found in Adorno. He touches on rationalization (of course), the tempered scale, and Weber as a dystopian technical determinist (like Adorno.)



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Original materials copyright John J Emerson

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