Ancient thinkers were fascinated by music’s capacity to both measure and be measured. The medieval philosopher al-Fārābī spent an entire chapter of his tenth-century treatise, The Grand Book of Music, trying to understand how to measure the lengths of musical sounds: “Since each motion (nuqla) [from note to note] takes up a certain duration of time (zamān), then the motions (intiqālāt) through the notes (nagham) will take up durations of time,” he writes. When does each note really end and the next one begin? In agonizing detail, he theorizes regarding the nature of musical rhythm, working to discern the articulation, sustain, and decay of distinct sounds. If he was overthinking it, he wasn’t alone. “Music is the knowledge of measuring well,” as the ancient Roman satirist Varro put it: musica est scientia bene modulandi. Like al-Fārābī, Varro understood measurement through movement; the word modulandi—measuring—can also be translated from Latin as modulating, or as moving. And for Pythagorean thinkers who were obsessed with number, music was not simply measurable by numbered ratios, but was revered as a pure expression of them. The interval of an octave, for example, perfectly expresses the ratio 2:1.
We moderns tend to measure music by counting: clicks of songs, plays and partial plays, and sums of favorites and retweets. I measure my subway ride to work by how many times it takes me to get through Radiohead’s In Rainbows, always about twice. Yet this duration feels different to me every time. Sometimes the sweeping strings that enter toward the end of “Reckoner” seem too cloying, but sometimes my throat catches on their stubborn turns of phrase. Other times, I strain to even hear them over the clatter of the subway’s tracks.
In an effort to understand music more deeply, modern scholars have applied the techniques of data science to it. Huge aggregations of music have become the logical object of analysis. For a recent study of popular music, for example, Nicole Biamonte looked at the complete catalogue of original Beatles songs in order to study “metric dissonance,” the conflicts of different rhythmic layers within a composition, which can make listeners feel pleasantly uncertain. Over time, the band’s 176 songs grew increasingly metrically dissonant, up until the 1970 release of Let It Be, which was a return to their less experimental style. The general contour of this progression would make sense to anyone familiar with the catalogue. But by giving empirical weight to insights that might otherwise remain intuitive and subjective, the study also demonstrates our attraction to what is comprehensive and quantified.
What do we measure when we measure music? If the ancients used music to discuss numbers, ratios, and motion, today we tend to measure music in terms of money. The sounds of music, as well as its metaphors, are bound up in economics, functioning as stores of value. Ethnomusicologist Timothy Taylor, in his book Music and Capitalism, theorizes modern musical production in terms of neoliberalism and globalization, forces that turn the ephemerality of musical sound into a commodity. From a similar perspective, historian of technology Emily Thompson has shown how “noise,” in a capitalist framework, is defined as a cost, the sign of an inefficient machine. But if unwanted sounds are “noise,” to be eliminated or avoided because they slow down profits, “music” must be whatever makes money.
Money, Marx argued, is used to disguise relationships between people as the relationships between things. As music becomes a unit of value—measured by capitalism—it enables this concealment. It becomes an aspect of Big Data, a system that not only incentivizes the analysis of accumulation for its own sake, but masks and naturalizes it as inevitable. Look at how contemporary musical accrual is measured by streaming, and all the facts and figures and ratios produced by that process: 1,500 on-demand streams of any given song are considered, by the Recording Industry Association of America, equivalent to the sale of one album. This is true whether the song is listened to or not, let alone fully “heard.” In this way, songs get swallowed up by their metadata. What matters is the count.
Counting can feel like a compulsory task, even though it isn’t. Music theorist Aaron Harcus is reluctant to uphold routine structures of reduction. In his 2017 text, “Varieties of Tone Presence,” he argues that “intervals [the distance between two pitches] cannot be reduced to a discrete quantity measured in semi-tones.” For centuries, music around the world has been conceptualized and taught in terms of the scale, a series of different pitches that can be measured in terms of frequency and neatly divided up. But the world is neither so discrete nor so cleanly ordered, as Harcus makes clear by listening to several musical examples. Even something seemingly straightforward, such as the interval of a perfect fifth (the distance from C up to G on a piano, for example), is always defined by its use in a particular time and place. This interval sounds different to us every time we hear it, even if we can’t say why.
Harcus’s work builds on the insights of phenomenologists such as Maurice Merleau-Ponty and of music theorist Kofi Agawu, whose research examines the symbolic implications of Eurocentric systems of tonality—musical standards of organization that were complicit in many colonizing projects. Collectively, these scholars show that understanding musical tone in terms of quantity alone neglects the more ambiguous richness of musical experience, especially the relationships between different musical experiences. Much as al-Fārābī was concerned not only with the duration of a single sound, but with the movements between durations, these scholars emphasize the relational quality of musical experience, not only its quantity.
These are remarkable interventions in the field of music theory, which has long distinguished itself from other music disciplines by virtue of its rigorous, artful calculations. While scholars of musicology and ethnomusicology focus on the history and politics of music, scholars of music theory—a relatively new subfield within music studies—have sometimes used their focus on the inner workings of melody and harmony as justification for more general inattention to how the outside world, with its many imbalances of power, variously constrains and inspires certain types of music making.
Whether conscious or compulsive, whether musical or otherwise, the counting seems likely to continue. We will go on quantifying everything from our garbage to our daydreams, calculating what can’t be separated, let alone captured and kept. But we are also beginning to acknowledge measurement’s externalized costs. Music reminds us to redirect resources beyond the confines of measure. Not because the measurements don’t matter, but because we have yet to account for the movements between.
The Next Big Thing is a regular Popula column, in which workers in “the field,” wherever that might be, bring us news of the big and exciting thing that’s just beyond the horizon. This is their next big thing; there are many next big things, but this one is theirs.