Music Has Brought Us Together: Evolutionary Musicology?

Bone flutes are among the oldest extant musical instruments.

Raffi’s last post explored the idea of music as text—a Geertzian participant in its cultural context. The Breslovers yearn for their artistic product to find an integrated role in a cultural tradition. As an amateur musician accustomed to performing works from a wide range of places and times, it occurs to me that a more general question might precede the Breslovers’ concern: What prompts the association of music and culture in the first place? And, having recently coerced a friend into giving me a crash course on evolutionary biology, I can’t help but ask an even more general question: What accounts for our interest in music?

Some evolutionary biologists explain the purpose of music straightforwardly enough: like other forms of art, it promotes survival by fostering social cohesion. The obvious retort, as Steven Pinker points out, is that this explanation simply moves the question one level down. Why does music bring people together? As he puts it, “Why a series of noises in harmonic relations should cause people to feel that they’re more in touch with their fellows is part of the same mystery as why a single individual puts on a record for his own amusement.”

Pinker suggests instead that music’s emotional effect is a biological accident (or in his more succulent phrasing, “auditory cheesecake”). Pleasure centers in our brain, evolved to facilitate speech, are stimulated by sound waves, causing us to associate music with gratifying emotions. From that adaptation to Beethoven is just one short step.

Plenty of musicians have found that linking music explicitly to biological desires is a sure sell. From the famous thrusting passage of Strauss’s Don Juan to the Britney Spears’s music videos, sex makes music…well, sexy.

So is this the answer—that through some accidental biological mechanism, humans possess a vestigial fascination with certain sound waves and rhythms, a fascination sufficiently powerful to create a now $40-billion industry?

Neuroscientific research punches some holes in this theory. Numerous studies have demonstrated that listening to music can enhance cognitive ability in non-musical areas. Music is also effective as an information storage mechanism (think of ballads, for example, or almost anything sung on Sesame Street). These phenomena imply that musical ability is instrumentally valuable rather than, as Pinker argues, a vestigial accident. Some very persuasive neuroscientific data, written up here, demonstrate music’s positive contribution to mental development and therefore survival rates.

Notwithstanding these potential advantages, I can’t help but feel that even if proven true, these hypotheses (like Pinker’s) must fall short of fully explaining the phenomenon. As a species, perhaps, the capacity to produce and discern a variety of aural patterns makes evolutionary sense. But for countless musicians and listeners the motivation, murky as it is, obviously transcends any desire to refine cognitive abilities or even promote social relations.

Think only of Johannes Brahms, the late romantic composer who once attempted to immolate his entire life’s work because, in his view, it had failed to achieve his self-imposed standard of perfection. Or of the words of Plato, that, “Music is a moral law. It gives soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination, and charm and gaiety to life and to everything.” Or of Shopenhauer, who held music to be the very highest of the arts, its abstract form being the least representational and most universal expression of form.

Assuming we want not to dismiss these musicians and scholars as pathological or otherwise insane, such passions suggest an interest of a different quality from other utilitarian vocations. And at the risk of sounding like a sentimentalist pining for a pre-Whitehead epistemic era, I think that music’s purpose, insofar as it can be said to have one (and of course taking care not to confuse evolutionary adaptations with purposiveness), is not primarily to supplement other cognitive abilities.

So what mystical force inspires such artistry? There is no single answer, but I believe the most important motivation is emotional communication. My parents tell me that the college students in their introductory music classes typically say they listen to music because it makes them feel good. That’s not very different from the reason I would give—I listen to music because it makes me feel. The symbolic, sometimes representational character of melody, harmony, form, timbre, rhythm, and volume invites empathy—with the composer, mediated by the performer—of a depth extraordinary even among the arts. While the mechanism of symbolic reference may be arbitrary, the symbolic content is powerfully emotive.

It’s hardly novel to suggest that the power of music has something to do with communication, but construing the musical experience as emanating from an empathetic urge does present some puzzles.

For example, while a typical listener may feel deeply in tune with the emotions of the composer, nothing prevents a composer from producing a work which evokes emotions very far removed from his own. It’s tempting to believe that the emotional force and sincerity of a work is proportional to the depth of the artist’s passion, but in reality, compositions brimming with pathos often spring from little more than a generous commission. Music can create the illusion of communication while facilitating deception. I’m reminded of Dylan’s conclusion in his last post: “The idea that any two human beings can share what they’re thinking without loss of meaning is so preposterous that languages automatically become more than objects of a science; they’re objects of faith as well.” Communication through music depends on the listener’s faith in the composer’s earnestness. Without this faith, personal relevance disappears and listening is reduced to a game.

More confounding still is the fact that certain musical performances, at least in my experience, produce (or catalyze) emotions which I have never felt under other circumstances. On one hand, this phenomenon is a testament to the communicative force of music—it allows a composer to express an emotion to his audience which would otherwise likely be impossible to replicate. On the other hand, I have to wonder: How often are the novel emotional experiences induced by music really illusions of the sort described above? In other words, could a composer evoke an emotion he was not feeling—or perhaps had never felt—for an audience which had similarly never felt it? Can music invent emotion?

I suspect that the approach most listeners adopt is to maintain faith in the composer’s attention—to believe that the communication is genuine, and that any original emotion expressed by the work is a revelation of potentially wonderful power. Others may feel that, independent of the composer’s intention or conviction, a piece of music may through some associative mechanism uncover thoughts and feelings ordinarily concealed from the listener herself. Personally, I find the idea of music possessing its own creative power to be more alluring—it suggests that the musical experience can offer humanity something beyond our own psyche.

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3 Responses to Music Has Brought Us Together: Evolutionary Musicology?

  1. Pingback: Halakha and Homosexuality: why language matters | Like Them that Dream

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