Since about 14 years, I have been playing the Renaissance lute, a 15-stringed pear-shaped instrument of the guitar family. When performing Renaissance music, I have musical intuitions that guide my interpretation. Are these anachronistic western standards I'm imposing on the music, or do I in some sense really have knowledge about how this music is supposed to be performed due to my familarity with it?
The interesting thing about the lute is that its current practice does not follow continuous, living tradition, but entirely the result of careful and ongoing historical reconstruction. Lutes fell into disuse in the 18th century, and interest for them was only rekindled in the 1960s, as part of a general tendency in musical practice towards historical accuracy. The way lute players position their hands, the playing technique, phrasing and interpretation of the music has been carefully reconstructed, using instruction books, letters, paintings and other sources. The interpretation of the music is particularly challenging: most lute music is written in tablature (of which there are at least 6 standardized notations), which is rather underdetermined - to put it mildly. There are almost no indications of tempo (no metronome indications) or dynamics. It's just the bare notes. As an illustration, here are the opening bars of a piece I'm currently studying, Dowland's Earl of Essex galliard:
All this raises difficulties: can I ever claim to understand the music I'm playing or do justice to it? When I play my favorite composers - John Dowland, Francisco da Milano and Luis Milan - I often have a sense of intuitive understanding of the author's (ineffable) design intentions. Despite the historical gap between me and those other people, and my lack of historical insight I do feel that I'm understanding something. This sense of understanding is guiding my interpretation of the music, e.g., where to slow down, emphasize, play more legato or more staccato (remember none of these are indicated in the tablature). Of course, when I'm with a teacher (I do not currently have a teacher alas, too expensive in the UK), he will sometimes point out how to interpret something (e.g., this is an intabulation of a song, and we know from other sorces that these bass notes have to be sustained this long). But even my teacher relies on his (modern) musical intuitions to guide his interpretation. Interestingly, I find that playing music provides me with insights (or perhaps the illusions of insights?) that I do not get when listening to the same piece.
Do these non-inferential musical beliefs provide us with genuine (intuitive) knowledge? Or are they just our modern, musical sensibilities that we're transposing to past music in an unwarranted, anachronistic fashion? I'm reminded of Huron's intriguing experiments (reported in Sweet anticipation, 2004, MIT Press). In this study, he presented American and Balinese musicians with the opening notes of an unfamiliar Balinese melody. The participants could place bets on which note would be next in the sequence. The weakest Balinese listeners were better than the best American participants (an effect of cultural exposure, presumably), but interestingly, the Americans still performed significantly above chance. Apparently, the American musicians were able to quickly adapt to the tonal structure of the unfamiliar music. If this kind of intuitive knowledge is possible for non-western music, perhaps it is also possible for ancient music. I'm not saying we should skip all the historical work obviously.