Charles Murray and Excellence in Music

“It is easy to lie with statistics, but it’s a lot easier to lie without them.”
– Richard J. Herrnstein

After tearing apart my home office and doing some re-organization I finally came across my copy of Charles Murray’s “Human Accomplishment” which was the main reason I decided to clean-up the office in the first place (so that I could find my copy, that is).

Mainly, I was interested in some of the methodology he uses in his book as he so meticulously describes all the statistical techniques he uses in compiling his inventories.

While I don’t agree with many of his conclusions (and how he got to them, for that matter) I was intrigued by the fact that he only included one inventory for music–and that was for “Western Music”–which listed the usual suspects in his rankings: Beethoven, Mozart, Wagner, Bach, etc.

While his inventories stop at 1950 (so almost none of the so-called really popular “Pop Music” makes it into his lists) he does address the issue of Eurocentrism in Chapter 11 of his book, “Coming to Terms with the Role of Modern Europe” where he eventually states that,

“In music, the lack of a tradition of named composers in non-Western civilizations means that the Western total of 522 significant figures has no real competition at all.”

This is patently false as I’ve humbly come to understand only because I’ve spent the past few years playing music composed and written by composers from the Ottoman Empire and the Middle East that are centuries old in some cases and have also come to understand that the Byzantine Empire and the various Eastern Churches had traditions of notated music that in some cases date back to the 9th century or earlier.

Of course, since he is using standard Western texts for the compiling of his inventories of excellence, and having matriculated through that system of musical education, I understand that even trained musicians are not likely to know about notated art music traditions outside of the “West” so it would be disingenuous of me to criticize Murray for his ignorance of that without training as an ethnomusicologist [specializing in those areas of the world]. Then again, I’m no specialist in those musical areas of the world, either, but it hasn’t stopped me from knowing about the notation traditions and composer attributions in them. *shrugs*

I was really planning on writing much more but have been reading so many reviews of Murray’s book that I’ve really become far too fascinated with the oeuvre of literature surrounding its publishing to say much right now. I will say that probably one of my favorites so far is Judith Shulevitz’s review in the New York Times.


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