Challenges to an Assumption
As I was making my way through school the ethnomusicologists were vying for a foothold and their ideas were influencing and interacting with the conservatory. Working mainly from an anthropological framework, they often argued that music should be understood within cultural parameters and frames. The same viewpoint was also taking hold with some traditional theorists. You had to live it, to know it, to experience it, to talk about it. Understanding music is all about people’s cultural interactions. You can’t appreciate western music, gamelan music, or African drumming unless you are acculturated to it.
This dovetailed with the concept of the Blank Slate whereby concepts of intrinsic components or ideas in art are minimized or rejected. Music is, in this system, thoroughly, culturally reflective. Melody? Harmony? Form? Everything is the result of traditions, frameworks, happenstance, interactions, theories of social interaction, shared metaphor, shared experience, and the telling of culturally rich stories.
Thusly armed, people argued that the lack of appreciation of modern music only had to do with the public’s lack of exposure to it. The more people would hear it, the more they would come to appreciate it. The only thing preventing children from singing 12-tone melodies was lack of exposure.
Everything is contextual, nothing intrinsic. In this way Modernism and Postmodernism both share allegiance to the principle of the Blank Slate.
Outside of the music world, arguments emerged that challenged the metaphor needed to support the contextual as the sole explanation. Noam Chomsky introduced the idea that we inherit at birth an innate knowledge of a basic grammatical structure common to all human languages. We come born with language. We’ve learned about empathy genes and the God gene, too. And maybe, we have a predisposition to or innate understanding of the arts. That at least, is the beginning of the discussion that Pinker thoughtfully undertakes.
The conflict posed itself to me when I first became aware of Chomsky’s work, but I didn't engage it until I bumped into Pinker’s writing.