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thinking through music, sound and culture

Category: music cognition

On The Universal Sense: How Hearing Shapes The Mind

Seth Horowitz’s The Universal Sense is an exhaustive, lucid, and entertaining neuroscientific foray into the many ways hearing, listening, and sound shape the mind–how sound affects the way we think, feel, and act. Horowitz is a professor of neuroscience at Brown University who specializes in studies of comparative and human hearing. He’s also an enthusiastic sound generalist, driven by a conviction that “much of the inner life of sound dwells beneath conscious thought” and gleefully sharing story after story on a dizzying array of topics related to human and animal perception of sound and music. Among these topics: Horowitz explains why some sounds are irritating (nails scratching on blackboard) or ominous (buzzing wasps), the unsettling effects of subsonic and infrasonic sound, movie soundtracks and jingle music, and the vibratory phenomenon that causes us to fall asleep while driving on long and straight roads. In sum, The Universal Sense is an inspiring read that further confirmed my own conviction that music and sound-making are very special ways of knowing the world indeed.

The more Horowitz explains it, the more our sense of hearing and sound perception seems very remarkable. Sound is the swiftest of emotional triggers, and our hearing is a faster sense than vision (“vision maxes out a fifteen to twenty-five events per second, hearing is based on events that occur thousands of times per second”). And hearing outpowers taste, touch, and smell by allowing us to perceive the world around us at great distances. But with this speed and power come vulnerabilities as well. Horowitz explains the many ways sound can “hack” the brain, and how we can engage sound or silence to deliberately hack our own minds. We can, for instance, limit the sounds that reach us to increase our focus (hello noise canceling headphones!) or voluntarily expose ourselves to loud sounds to give up control–as if under the spell of a hypnotist. I don’t know about you, but by these measures I am most definitely a mind hacker.

Horowitz also explains how sound can have particularly powerful effects on us when it makes deep perceptual demands. In one passage that reminded me of the challenges of perceiving polyrhythms (more than one rhythm sounding simultaneously), Horowitz explains that a key to musical entrainment is having multiple sonic inputs that are diverse yet also acting together: “To get massive amounts of brain entrained to a single rhythm, you need complicated input from a number of sources all acting in concert. One method is to use binaural beating…”

From here, Horowitz details how we perceive two pitches that are tuned slightly different from one another–like the gongs in an Indonesian gamelan tuned closely but not exactly the same–as having a “beating” effect. As we are reminded over and over again in this book, sound, even though immaterial, has very physical effects: the acoustic has affect.

Finally, Horowitz reminds us that affect is all important in how we understand sounds–whether the sounds of our favorite music or the sounds our own voices. Indeed, “the emotional basis if communication relies not on what is said but on the acoustics of how we say something.” Consider saying, Horowitz tells us, the word ‘yes’:

“Now say it as if you had just found out you won the lottery. Now say it as if someone had just asked you a question about something in your past that you thought no one knew about. Now say it as if this is the fortieth time you’ve answered ‘yes’ in a really boring human resources interview about how much you love your job [...] What you changed was how you said the words: overall pitch, loudness, and timing.”

Inspired by Horowitz’s discussion of “yes” I remembered a humorous video called “50 Shades Of Hey” in which an actor demonstrates dozens of different ways to say the word “hey.” The video demonstrates the musical and affective qualities of everyday speech and how easily we can discern shades of meaning out of slight variations of tone and delivery. From this perspective, making and listening to music is just one of the ways we make sense of the world through hearing sound.

On Gary Marcus’s “Guitar Zero”

About five years ago I began playing acoustic guitar. I played off and on for a while, learning chord shapes, and trying (without success) to build callouses on my fingertips. I also experimented with alternate tunings and used a capo, recording a number of chord progressions I thought sounded interesting (hear the audio file at the end of this post). As a musician familiar with the keyboard’s horizontal layout of black and white notes, the guitar presented a puzzling new geography that was both horizontal (notes getting higher as you move from left to right) and vertical (notes spanning the near low strings to the high ones located further away, down towards your feet). I learned a bunch of chords but also realized that it would take me years of practice/enculturation to groove a relationship and any kind of musical fluency with the instrument. Plus, I never really felt like a guitarist, only like a guy playing guitar. So I did the sensible thing: I quietly put away the instrument.

I thought about my guitar experience recently as I read psychologist Gary Marcus’s excellent Guitar Zero: The New Musician And The Science Of Learning, a memoir and neuroscience exploration of learning to play a musical instrument. The book is a story of the author’s journey learning guitar from scratch at age 39. Can he do it? He’s not especially young, and to make matters worse, he’s admittedly somewhat unmusical too–cursed with what he humorously describes as “congenital arrhythmia.” So this is the book’s conceit: Can dogged persistence, practice, close listening, and a good teacher set Marcus on his way to a musical life? Well, yes, kind of. Through the book we follow the NYU professor over the course of a sabbatical year from teaching as he takes lessons, learns chord changes, practices with metronomes, performs songs (on bass guitar) at an NYC children’s rock music camp, and even tries his hand at songwriting. Marcus doesn’t become a virtuoso but does achieve a newfound balance in his life through his guitar playing. Music, it seems, has a unique power to make our experiences meaningful: it gives us the sense of having a voice while simultaneously drawing on an array of physical and cognitive skill sets to make that sense possible in the first place.

Indeed, one of the pleasures of Guitar Zero is its fresh take on the cognitive complexities of learning and playing even the simplest of music. Rarely do we reflect on skills we already have, but any experienced musician reading this book will be energized to do just that, thinking through his or her own journey of coming to know music making as a physical-mental-spiritual presence by following Marcus’s progress. If nothing else, the reader may reflect on how making music requires a high degree of perceptual mastery (e.g. sound pattern recognition), the coordination of multiple muscles (e.g. think about the four limbs of the drum set player, each doing something different), and the engagement of memory and anticipation (for musical experience has no past or future, only the fleeting present). In terms of engaging, whole body-mind workouts, there’s simply nothing like making music.

But learning about the author’s musical progress—a story which in fact is fairly brief—is just one of the charms of this book. Other pleasures await in the many byways he opens up alongside the main story of learning to play guitar. These byways address a number of pressing questions about music, and they had me enthusiastically marking passages on my Kindle. What follows are elaborations on some of those questions.

To start, what makes great musicians great? While there are as many answers to this question as there are great musicians, one answer might be that great musicians have an ability to continuously monitor their performances, learn from them and then improve–a cycle that lead to their skills getting better and better and better over time. Case in point: the jazz guitarist Pat Metheny who tells Marcus that he makes detailed written notes after every performance which then become study guides for what went wrong and what went right. “A good part of expertise” says Marcus, “comes from diagnosing one’s own likely mistakes.” Surely not every great musician makes notes like Metheny, but setting up a feedback loop for continuing refinement seems to be a hallmark of expertise generally.

This idea of musical diagnostics brings us to the question of what makes a great teacher. Marcus observes a number of skilled teachers and notes that they’re all highly perceptive, with ears and eyes sharply attuned to spot technical and physical problems. Great teachers can propose solutions to musical problems too, connecting with their students by maintaining their attention and motivating them to improve. It can even be fun. One teacher observed by Marcus, J. Cirt Gill from Weaver Academy in Greensboro, NC, impresses the author in how he guides students to design their own podcast projects for his music production classes. Here, the teacher functions as a spark used by students who go on to light their own fires.

Marcus also considers the fire that is music performance and how performers–especially improvisers–know and create through their actions in the moment. A key question in this context: What’s the difference between declarative and procedural knowledge in music? The distinction between the two is important for aspiring artists studying master performers for clues–that is, for ways to extract theory from performance. But the catch is that procedural knowledge is all about working by feel in the moment. Here, Marcus cites the great jazz pianist Bill Evans as a model of procedural knowledge. Evans’ improvisations innovated new varieties of harmonizing that were only later codified into (written) theory. So, there’s good reason to believe that artistic innovation comes about not by consciously thinking about it (“I want to innovate…”) but by letting “the ways of the hand” (Sudnow 2001) do their thing, in the heat of the moment.

Marcus also examines the alleged connections between music and language, unpacking the sources of music’s omnipresence. “Why is music virtually ubiquitous” he asks, “when many other arts have a smaller presence in daily life?” Why is it that music is so pervasive in everyday social life no matter where you go in the world? No one knows for sure, but music’s ubiquity has led many to wonder whether or not there’s a music “instinct” in our DNA. Is there? No, there isn’t. Our “being musical” is the result of neural circuitry that’s been finely tuned over the course of human evolution, though not for music per se. Music isn’t the product of evolution, “but the product of artists evolving their craft in order to tickle the brain in particular ways.” Music’s ubiquity, then, is just something we’ve cultivated.

And perhaps music’s staggering variety of idioms reflects its ongoing cultivation. Indeed, there also seems to be a connection between the variety of personality types in the world and the varieties of musical taste. Marcus tells of how the perceived value of a piece of music “derives partly from the temperament of the listener.” Thus, extroverted types are said to prefer energetic and rhythmic music, and so on. This is interesting stuff to think about as a way of understanding the roots/routes of one’s own musical affinities.

***

One of the most compelling ideas in the book is the author’s contention that music itself is a technology “refined and developed over the last fifty thousand years, in no small part to maximize flow.” This experience of flow can be felt in the euphoric feeling experienced while “jamming” with other musicians or while improvising. And what an invention music is! Consider a few things about it. First, its complex formal structures allow us to experience both novelty and familiarity at the same time. Second, because music unfolds over time and we can’t remember all of its details at once, it’s perpetually new. Finally, the physicality of music and its connection to our sense of motion makes it immersive and flow-inducing. What a package!

Many of music’s innovations are intellectual and not physical. For example, Marcus reminds us that the plainchant practice of 9th-century monks singing two different pitches at the same time (as opposed to singing in unison) lead to the development of organum, harmony, and eventually chord progressions as a way to organize music’s melodic flow over time. Likewise with the innovations of steady rhythm: “Virtually every song you hear on the radio nowadays” Marcus says, “combines these two musical techniques–harmony and steady percussion–both of which in essence had to be invented.”

As a technology, music has changed quite radically over the centuries, the two-dimensional quality of that 9th-century plainchant (“like paintings from before the discovery of perspective” says Marcus) giving way to the multidimensional, flow-inducing properties of harmony (which become increasingly expressive over the centuries). As a technology of sounding, music adapts to our ever-changing appetites, as each “new generation of artists craves new ways to broaden the palette, and hence better ways of keeping both listeners and performers entranced, in a state of flow.” Thus, electronic and digital technologies of 20th- and 21st-century music such as multitrack recording, synthesizers, electric guitars, microphones, and computers “are the musical equivalent of new species, which open up new niches and are in some ways better adapted to the environment than many of their predecessors.”

Finally, to return to music’s unique power, Marcus describes the philosophy of eudaimonia–the sources and cultivation of long-term, slow-burning human happiness. Making or listening to music, says Marcus, is a special way of being in the world “because of its potential for combining the hedonia of enjoying [it] in the moment with the eudaimonia of a constant sense of progress, as the musician continues to learn new techniques, create new songs, and make new discoveries.”

Guitar Zero, then, documents a wide-reaching musical trip. There’s a lot of material here, yet it’s covered in an accessible and engaging way that makes the journey fun. Yes, Marcus learns to play guitar decently. Yes, he performs with a band in front of a crowd. Yes, he even composes his own song. But, for this reader at least, the author’s worthy practical goals have also provided the perfect excuse to unravel some of music’s most enduring questions and experiences.

Sound Decisions: On Daniel Kahneman’s “Thinking, Fast and Slow”


“Instinct puts us in the moment, intellect is slower.” – Robert Fripp

“The proof that you truly understand a pattern of behavior is that you know how to reverse it.” - Daniel Kahneman

Sometimes while working on writing new music I’ve noticed how I oscillate between two frames of mind. One frame feels spontaneous and intuitive. Within this frame I work quickly to put sounds together guided by what feels like nothing other than the task at hand. Typical thoughts: “Oh, that sounds cool! Do more of that! Do it again!” (And again!) When I’m in this frame the work feels easy and unencumbered; I’m confident in knowing what sounds “right” and proceed accordingly. The other frame of mind feels more encumbered. Within this frame I’m deliberate and cautious, working slowly and always wanting to “weigh the options” and get a bird’s-eye view of how everything works and connects. Within this frame I want to know where we’re going before we get there rather than just being thrilled by the ride itself.

I worked for many years with a vague awareness of these two frames of mind. But all that changed recently when I read Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow, a comprehensive dissection of our patterns of intuitive and deliberate thinking and the tendencies of each. Kahneman is a an Israeli-American psychologist and Nobel Laureate with expertise on the psychology of judgment and decision-making. According to Kahneman, human thinking can be characterized in terms of two types. To help the reader get a sense of their differences, Kahneman refers to these types of thinking as System 1 and System 2.  System 1 is the intuitive type. It is by definition impulsive, jumping to conclusions based in limited evidence. System 1 generates impressions, feelings, and inclinations; and when “endorsed by System 2 these become beliefs, attitudes, and intentions” (105). System 2, on the other hand, is the deliberate type. It is by definition cautious and capable of reasoning (48), and also somewhat lazy in that it needs to be kick-started into action. No matter what we think we may believe about how we think, Systems 1 and 2 are always engaged to various degrees, as well as in conflict–battling it out for our attention and engagement.

But most of the time, it’s System 1 that steals the show due to its quick reaction time and sureness in its judgements. Consider a musical example. Let’s say you hear a particular chord progression and you just can’t help feeling a particular feeling comprised of a series of emotional associations. It’s as if the music made you feel a particular way, and darn it, this is what the music means. It’s obvious! Your emotional reaction to the chord progression is what Kahneman might call “associative activation” and pure System 1 at work: “ideas that have been evoked trigger many other ideas, in a spreading cascade of activity in your brain” (51). This cascade of associations is just one of the many reasons why System 1′s workings can feel so right and intuitive. By contrast, to get a sense of System 2 at work consider being asked to multiply 24 times 17. System 1 is of little use here (and anyway, it’s doubtful much in the way of particular emotions will cascade out of this task). You need to slow down and deliberately work through the problem to solve it. This slow-moving deliberateness is the strength of System 2.

The main theme of Thinking, Fast and Slow is that we should be very skeptical of our intuitions and not let ourselves believe whatever comes to our minds (153). This is difficult to do because “following our intuitions is more natural, and somehow more pleasant, than acting against them” (194). Moreover, intuition is unreliable because it’s susceptible to all manner if influence, including what psychologists call “priming”–an idea presented to us in a subtle or not so subtle way that influences our actions. There are dozens of case studies in Thinking, Fast and Slow that illustrate the shortcomings of System 1 intuitive thinking, including discussions of narrative fallacy (how creating a flawed story about ourselves in the past shapes the illusion that we understand our future), how we exaggerate the coherence of what we hear, focusing illusions (our tendency to overstate the impact of certain circumstances on which we focus our attention), cognitive illusions (such as the illusion of the “hot hand” in basketball), the dangers of confidence and optimism (!), the strengths of using algorithms to guide decision-making, the limitations of the “insider’s view”, the folly of risk-management and forecasting, theory-induced blindness, the power of loss aversion, the sunk-cost fallacy, how memories can be wrong, how to spot cognitive minefields–and on and on. In this exceptionally rigorous book the detailed case studies are many and the evidence solid. As rational beings, we are hard-wired for error, “prone to exaggerate the consistency and coherence” of what we experience (114). To make matters even more sobering, it’s difficult for us to truly change ourselves, to re-set how we see the world and our place in it. We have, says Kahneman in a phrase that sums up well our predicament, an “almost unlimited ability to ignore our ignorance” (201).

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So what has this to do with me making music? Well, as I sit at the computer working on a project, Kahneman’s book has me imagining the dialog between my Systems 1 and 2 and how my System 2 thought processes have been helpful to the project’s progress. I began over a year ago, working willy-nilly on five different tracks that were related in that they all use audio samples of the same earlier work of mine. There were some convincing moments on each of the five pieces-in-progress, but the material was all over the place. 

What I now think of as System 2 demanded some overriding order, so I started to boil the pieces down to just a few sounds and made sure each piece had exactly the same sound palette. While this decision to boil the pieces down felt arbitrary–for how could I ever decide on the sounds when there are so many interesting ones out there?–it also seemed, practically speaking, necessary. And shockingly to me, the boiling down process took several months of arguing with what I now think of as System 1 which always just wanted to get down with playing and having fun. (“System 2, Why do we have to be so organized?”) But System 2 insisted on the constraints, knowing that without them System 1 would flounder and I’d get frustrated–like an archer without a target. Finally, with the sound palette and an overall direction in place courtesy of System 2, I could get back to playing, attending to the (fun) details of building patterns, linking parts, editing, and assembling structures until they sound right.

There remain some uncertainties about this work-in-progress, especially concerning the qualities that can make the music hum when they’re in place but drag when they’re missing. In other words, I’m not sure the music will work until . . . it does or doesn’t. But what I learned from Thinking, Fast and Slow is that questioning one’s intuitions with slow, big picture deliberation (quick–24 times 17!) can ultimately be energizing. It certainly helped me get around what felt like a block with no clear cause besides the unreasonable expectation that intuition is the solution to all musical problems. At the computer, I still work in spurts of what feels like System 1 intuitive forward momentum, and I still don’t quite know where I’m going or how exactly I have come to know what I know. But that’s okay, because I proceed with a confidence born from realizing that uncertainty is part of the musical game and I can still make sound decisions in the face of it.

On David Eagleman’s Incognito: How We Know What We Know

The field of neuroscience is hot these days, and I suspect that it will continue to get hotter still as it explains away more and more of the mysteries of how our minds work.  Case in point: David Eagleman’s recent book Incognito: The Secret Lives Of  The Brain is a whirlwind, high-definition look at the neural underpinnings of our everyday thinking and perception, specifically that substrate known as the unconscious.  For Eagleman, the brain is a remarkable and infinitely powerful thing, and this book tries to explain some of the ways its workings shape our lives.

The brain is not called “dark matter” for nothing either.  Eagleman provides example after example of the gap between our knowledge and our awareness (58), how the brain makes decisions before we’re aware of it, how it’s driven towards “patternicity” (136), how it’s composed of conflicting parts (108), and intriguingly, how it’s influenced by physical realities such as our body posture and facial expressions (134).

I suppose that one of the slightly disconcerting feelings Incognito leaves us with is the sense that we are not, and perhaps never really were, in full control of our cognitive processes.  But this realization reminds us of how awesome our creative machinations really are–everyday stuff like driving a car in traffic or getting a joke, but also in the context of our affinity for abstract or non-representational arts . . . like, say, music.

We “get” music without having to “think” about it, and Eagleman would probably cite this ability as one more example of a seemingly simple skill guided by unconscious processes so complex that they have yet to be successfully modeled by a computer.  Case in point: Have you ever wondered about the geography of your musical tastes?  About how this terrain could possibly be modelled without recourse to the billions points of neural firing that comprise “you”?  It’s this kind of rich perspective that Eagleman opens up again and again in this fascinating book, inviting us to think about how wonderous a technology the brain is.

On The Most Human Human

In his book The Most Human Human, an engaging account of competing in the annual Turing test, Brian Christian ranges far and wide through the literature of AI (artificial intelligence), linguistics, computer science, philosophy and even poetry to figure out what exactly makes us distinctly human and distinctly different from machines.  The Turing test was conceived by Alan Turing, an English mathematician, in 1950.  The test is whether or not a computer can fool a human into thinking that it–the computer–is also human through interrogation only.  If a computer can fool us, then it could be said to “think.”  Today, the Turing Test pits both computer software programs and human “confederates” against one another, each trying to convince a human judge that they are human and not machine.  The catch is that each interaction has a 5 minute time limit.  The winner in the human confederate category, of course, is deemed “The Most Human Human.”
One of the more interesting of the book’s digressions is Christians’s discussion of chess playing, specifically the different ways humans and software programs approach this decision-making terrain.  Chess is a space for thinking about what makes humans human precisely because the game offers such a vast array of possible moves to get one’s brain around.  And the amazing thing–at least from the perspective of a non-chess player such as myself–is that the very best chess players can navigate the terrain of possible moves by intuitive means.  What this means is that not only can a Gary Kasparov draw on vast experience but he can also make unusual choices as to how he proceeds.  Case in point: making a somewhat random opening move is a great way to stymie a computer software opponent like Deep Blue, who, of course, proceeds through the game only by crunching millions of possible moves per second.  The human player has the poetics of randomness and intuition on his side, against which the machine can only number crunch the relative merits of the next move.  Here Christian hits on an important point about human creativity: on some level it requires the practitioner/artist to not know exactly what he or she is doing.  Or in the words of Donald Barthelme, one of the interviewees in Christian’s book: “Not knowing…is what permits art to be made.”  Barthelme is referring to that aspect of the creative process that is  inherently random, accessible only by our vaguest of intuitions.
This discussion of randomizing one’s opening moves had me thinking about how I begin working on a new piece of music on the computer.  For some time now I have fretted over the sheer number of possibilities open to me as I try to decide how to proceed with a piece.  The software programs on my laptop are like a chessboard in that they invite millions of possible creative moves from me.  It’s a deeply exciting prospect but also potentially paralyzing.
In the past, I would try to systematically think my way through the “best” option: maybe I’d start by searching for a nice pad sound and then…The problem is that my systematic thinking would always be interrupted by a rogue sound, an unexpected by-way, or an accidental juxtaposition that would instantly charm me, as if asking: “But have you considered this?”  Well, no, I hadn’t considered that because I was under the impression that I was doing something else.  And then I would fret some more about having let myself be undermined by my own digressions . . .
After reading The Most Human Human, I decided to try applying the idea of randomizing an opening move to writing music.  What I did was just jump into making sounds–any sound that seemed interesting–so that I could get the music “game” underway and remove from the equation my anxiety about having too many options.  Randomizing my opening move–”Let me just build a little pattern using this drum sound…”–let me get on with the more satisfying business of interacting with and building a new sonic organism that could grow.

On David Sudnow’s Ways Of The Hand

They don’t seem to make books like David Sudnow’s Ways Of The Hand anymore, but then, Sudnow, who died in 2007, was no ordinary explorer of musical experience.  Trained as a sociologist, Sudnow took a turn inward in the late 1970s and wrote Ways Of The Hand (1978/2001), a remarkable insider’s phenomenological account of learning to improvise jazz piano that was based mostly on his own introspection.  The book attempted to articulate the lived experience of what it feels like to move one’s fingers about the piano keyboard, tracing exploratory paths and going for notes to make jazz.

Here’s a passage from the book’s preface:

“I’ve found that thus far unanalyzed aspects of the body’s ways can be closely depicted, for all to see, by the performer, and perhaps no one but the performer, especially one who self-consciously takes up a complex activity with as strong an intention to master its accomplishment as to try to reflect rigorously upon the experiences of doing so. Guided by neither an introspective, mentalistically inclined consciousness nor the methods of analytic science but only by the concrete particular problems faced in the course of learning jazz piano, I’ve pointed to various critical tasks faced when sustaining orderly articulated movements” (2001:3).

Ways Of The Hand is not afraid to attempt a comprehensive cartography of the terrain the jazz pianist must traverse to make jazz.  And contrary to what I imagine most jazz musicians would think about learning jazz–that you learn the “right” way, the jazz way, by just listening to the jazz greats, by mysterious osmosis in other words–Sudnow proposes an approach to grasping a (graspable) set of jazz moves.  If that weren’t audacious enough, in its intricate, rigorous, and poetically rendered details about the deep connections between the musicking body, cognition, feeling, and creativity, Ways Of The Hand also sets an example for a kind of writing about music that has had few followers since.  In 2001, Sudnow even revised the book (Ways Of The Hand: A Rewritten Account) further distilling its already austere descriptive language into something even more crystalline.

We need more books like Ways Of The Hand–books that look inward for answers, books that approach (and achieve) rigorous thinking through intuition, reflection, and practical experience in things musical.  Many great musicians never write about music, and many great critics and academics seek deep answers far outside the relationship between musician and his/her instrument.  But Sudnow proposes that the way can be simple: it’s right in our hands.  We just need to think about it.

On The (In)significance Of Musical Experience

Sometimes when I’m in the middle of listening to a podcast interview with a writer talking about information theory, or art history and design aesthetics, or the philosophy of work, or the politics of technology, I find myself thinking about the purpose and relative (in)significance of music.  Musicologists have long studied the formal properties of music, mapping the relations among its parts; anthropologists have shown the social uses and meanings of music within communities of players and listeners, and cultural historians have located music within the circulation of music sound reproduction technologies, the technology of musical instruments, and discourses (real and imagined) about what it all means.

But there is an absence at the heart of music and sound that keeps them forever puzzling to us: there is no there there.  Music, that most vaporous of phenomena, seems to be, to borrow a phrase from G.W. Trow, a “context of no context”: music is about nothing and then spends its time chronicling that nothingness.  (Trow used the phrase to describe the conceptual space of television.) The relations among music’s parts can be mapped and described, but they don’t constitute a language with a stable set of meanings; in fact, on person’s “happy chord” could be a sad sound for someone else.  Furthermore, music’s sounds don’t really reflect real world things.  At the core of music seems to be an inherent insignificance–an agreed upon pseudo-discourse onto which we project elaborate systems of meaning and significance.  In this regard, it might be reasonable to say that music is an elaborate Rorschach Test in sound.

But this is not to say that music isn’t terribly important to our day-to-day lives, because it often is.  Could it be that music’s significance lies in its very insignificance?  This in itself tells us important things about what it means to be human: that we appreciate the contours, relations, and timbres of music for their own sake, and for how they combine in infinite ways to make us feel deeply.

But consider another perspective.  Perhaps our ability to extract feelings from music has something to do with how it draws on the particular faculties of our minds, specifically our memories and our ability to project past experiences onto the future.  In a talk on the Zocalo Public Square podcast (which I highly recommend), the neuroscientist Antonio DAmasio discusses the nature of human memory:

“We live every moment, every second of our life, poised between the lived past and the anticipated future.  The anticipated future exists as a set of plans that we have formulated.  And those plans have been committed to memory.  So what you have is something particularly bizarre, which is to have memories of the future…”

Memories of the future.  So maybe some of the pleasures of music arise out of our projecting what we think might happen next based on our previous listening experiences?  The nature of this interaction between our past experiences and our present exposure to a music is surely incredibly complex, since we all have vastly different (and idiosyncratic) listening histories.  No wonder music can seem perpetually new, since, as Damasio says later in his talk, we are ourselves continually changing, “moving in time, relentlessly, and there’s nothing we can do to stop it.”  The best we can do is take snapshots with the help of this moving Rorschach Test in sound.  At the very least, listening to music makes us aware of our fleeting “here and now moments.”

The Neuroscience Of Music

In a recent article posted on his always interesting neuroscience blog at Wired magazine, Jonah Lehrer writes about the neural basis of how music listening makes us feel emotion (or at least the semblance of emotion).  Citing a recent study in the journal Nature Neuroscience, Lehrer discusses how music stimulates a brain region called the caudate.  Specifically, researchers found that caudate activity reached a climax of stimulation in the seconds just before “a potentially pleasurable auditory sequence is coming.”  Our anticipation of what is to come in the music creates in us an intense sense of wanting or desire.  Composers (and here I would include good improvisers too) exploit this habit of how our minds listen to tonal music by setting up patterns that play with our expectations as well as our sense of resolution.  Good music makes us feel by keeping us wondering: What will happen next?  Where is this piece going?  Drawing on the pioneering work of musicologist Leonard Myer’s Emotion And Meaning In Music (1956), Lehrer notes:

“The longer we are denied the pattern we expect, the greater the emotional release when the pattern returns, safe and sound. That is when we get the chills. [...]  The uncertainty makes the feeling–it is what triggers that surge of dopamine in the caudate, as we struggle to figure out what will happen next.  And so our neurons search for the underlying order, trying to make sense of this flurry of pitches.  We can predict some of the notes, but we can’t predict them all, and that is what keeps us listening, waiting expectantly for our reward, for the errant pattern to be completed.  Music is a form whose meaning depends upon its violation.”

There is a lot that makes sense here, especially when we are taking about the teleological thrust of good old tonal music–whether it be the familiar sounds of classical or pop.  But one of the things Lehrer doesn’t discuss is how musics that aren’t deeply rooted in chord progressions and their associated tonal tensions go about creating musical interest.  How does music in these other contexts go about its business of making us feel?

How, for instance, does repetition work on us in many electronic dance musical idioms to be not boring, but rather infectious and stimulating?   Similarly, what about the repetition-oriented musics outside of the Western pop continuum such as American minimalism, or farther afield–for instance, Indonesian gamelan or West African drumming traditions (with which I have some hands on experience)?  By what processes and structures do they make us feel?  (And is this feeling of the same cloth as that engendered by say, Beethoven?)  It seems to me that there is a lot to explore between the commonplace views of repetition as either groovily trance-inducing or merely redundantly boring.

Also, what about intensely melodic musical traditions that do not function tonally the way western classical and pop musics do with their use of harmony?  I am thinking here about the classical, soloist-oriented traditions of North and South India and parts of the Middle East.  In these traditions, elaborately decorated melodies are improvised from single ragas or maqams (scale types) to build large-scale forms.  Suffice it to say, different musics work on us by different means.

You can read Lehrer’s article here.

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