The following is a blogpost I wrote as a summary of the discussion of the second meeting of the Critical Theory for Musicology Reading Group. The original can be found here: https://criticaltheoryformusicology.wordpress.com/2015/11/06/adorno-on-the-problems-of-musical-analysis/
The second meeting of the Critical Theory for Musicology Reading Group was dedicated to discussion of Theodor W. Adorno’s now celebrated public lecture, ‘On the Problem of Musical Analysis’ [Zum Probleme der musikalischen Analyse]. But what problem is Adorno referring to here, and how might we get beyond it? Since the advent of New Musicology it is fair to say that music analysis has lost its privileged place as a mainstay of university music education. Indeed the relative decline of musical analysis in British universities—where it did not enjoy institutional protection, by contrast with universities in the US where musical analysis exists, and always has existed, as a separate institution—would seem to suggest that musical analysis’s problem is more of an existential crisis.
The objections to music analysis, which arguably brought about this crisis, are well-known and largely accepted by the academy. Music analysis is seen to uphold problematic assumptions about musical autonomy, to reduce music to its textual form as opposed to its realization in performance, and to reject examination of music’s social and historical context in favour of abstract and ahistorical theories about musical coherence and structure that tend to prioritize pitch over other musical elements, such as rhythm and instrumentation. Furthermore, musical analysis, when placed back into its historical context and considered as an extension of modernist thinking about music, can be said to reflect the same social prejudices revealed by New Musicological critiques of modernism itself. But can Adorno, who despite being the pre-eminent social thinker of music is as much a product of the modernist project as musical analysis, be charged with such accusations? Or does he, in fact, hold the key to some sort of solution?
Initial discussion was given over to the more ‘purely musical’ problems identified by Adorno with regard to traditional methods of analysis, such as his criticism that formenlehre is mere description or fact collecting, and that Schenkererian analysis is far too reductive by treating formal structures as of peripheral importance in comparison with the Ursatz. Adorno’s response to these problems, arguably a synthesis of the two techniques, seeks to uncover what is going on underneath the formal schemata, without losing sight of such schemata as a determinant of their own deviation. Thus a dialectical relationship emerges between deviation and schema not too dissimilar to Hepokoski and Darcy’s Sonata Theory (indeed, it was even suggested that their dialogical approach to musical analysis might be seen as a response to the problem posed here by Adorno).
But how does this seek to resolve the problems identified by proponents of New Musicology? At this point in the discussion it was pointed out, quite rightly, that treating Adorno’s text as a treatise on how to do music analysis was not going far enough. What, for instance, might be the relationship between this text and Adorno’s wider project? After all, Adorno was concerned first and foremost with social questions and how they could be brought to bear on music. In looking for a response to this question we locked on to Adorno’s repeated references to the idea of a musical surplus [das Mehr], with its possible connection to Marx’s concept of surplus value, as providing a bridge between the aesthetic realm and the social. The surplus in art, for Adorno, is ‘concerned with that abundance which unfolds itself only by means of analysis. It aims at that which—as has been said of poetry […] is the truly ‘poetic’ in poetry, and the truly poetic in poetry is that which defies translation.’ It would appear, then, that the transition from mere ‘description’ or ‘tautology’ to analysis proper, from ‘what everyone can hear in the music anyway’ to a true understanding of the work, is achieved by the identification of this musical surplus, within which musical meaning is said to be located.
And herein lies the way, for Adorno, towards a sociological critique of music and the discovery of its truth content: ‘Now, the ultimate “surplus” over and beyond the factual level is the truth content, and naturally it is only critique that can discover the truth content. No analysis is of any value if it does not terminate in the truth content of the work, and this for its part, is mediated through the work’s technical structure.’ With this, Adorno arguably allows us to turn the critique of music analysis on its head. Far from analysis being the means to close off questions of social and historical context from the study of music, Adorno argues that it is only through proper musical analysis, conceived as an examination of the relationship between schema and deviation, that we can access this context at all.
And this, it transpires, is the ‘problem’ of musical analysis to which Adorno is referring in his title. It is a ‘problem’ conceived as a riddle or paradox, to be found at the center of the musical work, within which we discover the antagonisms of the society that produced it, and arrived at through contemplation of the problems of traditional analysis. In summary: ‘“To analyse” means much the same as to become aware of a work as a force-field [Kraftfeld] organised around a problem.’
For those sympathetic to the plight of music analysts, this was no doubt an exciting way to reconcile the musical and the social, critical thought and musicology. For others, however, Adorno’s solution did not constitute a convincing rebuttal of the more recent critiques of ‘the music itself’ advanced by New Musicology. Some expressed concern with the troubling relationship between knowledge and power, whereby access to the ‘social content’ of music was premised on a highly selective understanding of what constituted the music’s real content. Discomfort was also expressed with regard to the leap of faith that one has to make, when reading Adorno, that social antagonisms are indeed contained within musical structures. Some suggested there were better ways of getting at music’s social content, such as by examining contemporaneous discourse about music or by assessing ways in which music interacts with the body. And so we concluded with an altogether different problem, best encapsulated, perhaps, in the quasi-Dahlhausian question of whether we are trying to determine the social content of music or the social content of music?
 For an extended discussion and convincing rebuttal of many of these claims see Horton, Julian. 2001. “Postmodernism and the Critique of Musical Analysis”. The Musical Quarterly 85 (2). Oxford University Press: 342–66. http://www.jstor.org/stable/3600916.