• hypericin
    64
    There is a lot of mystification on this topic. I have a theory, which I think is more plausible than the other theories I have seen:

    * People love predictability, music is predictable, which people enjoy
    - Obviously not! To say music is "predictable" is not praise it, quite the opposite

    * Music is an extrapolation of the musical sequences heard in everyday spoken language (i.e. "hel-loo-ooo!").
    - I think this is closer. But these sequences are more convention than anything, they do not excite people to anything like the ecstasy music can induce.

    My answer:

    Look at the original music: singing. What was the original context of singing? Religious and community rituals.

    In a song In ordinary speech, the words are the nominal message, and sound is the medium of that message, the carrier of that signal. But in a song, that carrier was repurposed to transmit another signal, by varying the pitch and tempo of the spoken words.

    Unlike the words, this signal is not informational, it is emotional. When a listener hears a song, he is receiving two simultaneous, distinct signals, symbolic and emotional. The purpose of the second, emotional signal, is to reinforce the message of the first, symbolic one. By manipulating pitch and tempo the singer is able to induce an ecstasy in the listener which he could not otherwise achieve with mere words. Music is an evolutionary assist in transmitting religious exaltation, which ultimately reinforces the control of the religious leader.

    Every music lover will agree that their favorite music places them in a spiritual, exalted state. This concords with the function of music: to place the listener in a state of spiritual ecstasy, and impart the impression of meaning and significance which the words of the song would not otherwise possess.

    The reason why one sequence of notes may excite this, and another may not, is both personally idiosyncratic and culturally bound.

    Music has now outgrown its original function, so that an entire industry exists to stimulate the ecstasy, without the religious/spiritual content. Only the emotion remains, grasping at something which isn't there.
  • wyn
    1
    Hello, I think your theory is really interesting! I'm curious about what you have to say about instrumental music, specifically orchestral pieces. Though those songs often don't have lyrical content, they're able to convey messages. Or at the very least, it seems to me that people have derived more than just emotional meaning from songs like Holst's planets symphony, Vivaldi's four seasons, and even simpler pieces like Grieg's in the hall of the mountain king. These pieces seem to denote an actual story conveyed through instrumentation alone. Do you think composers can actually try to put meaningful messages in the score, this is just us projecting emotionally, or is this wrapped up in your idea of our tastes in music being "idiosyncratic and culturally bound"? Sorry for any misunderstanding I may have had reading!
  • Pfhorrest
    3.6k
    I agree that music has primarily emotional meaning, though I don’t know that that needs to be limited to religious contexts.

    I see analogues of musical concepts in all manner of time-based phenomena, and I think the first hypothesis about predictability was on the right track. When things happen over and over again people can get bored and annoyed but also sometimes comforted. When patterns suddenly change that can be surprising in either an exciting or frightening way. When things happen in an entirely unstructured way that can be anxiety inducing but then if pattern emerge out of that structure there’s a pleasant feeling of discovery. If multiple patterns interact with each other in different ways that’s likewise a pleasant thing to realize, to feel like you’re noticing the connections between these things.

    Sound is all about patterns of changes over time (pitch is just frequency), and all kinds of musical concepts are further refinements upon that (harmony is when multiple frequencies share certain relationships, rhythm and tempo are also all about frequency of notes). Musical ups and downs, breaks and shifts, all all about establishing and then changing patterns over time.

    I think we’re wired to have emotional responses to patterns like that more generally, to get bored of repetition but also to fear unpredictable change, to get intrigued by noticing patterns and the relationships between patterns, etc, and music just directly pushes all those emotional buttons in the most straightforward way divorced from any broader real-world context.

    Conversely, applying musical concepts to the real world can be a way to make life more pleasant. Comforting patterns but with interesting change-ups, allowing one movement to complete before beginning another, etc. (Likewise, applying musical concepts to other forms of art, like fiction writing, can make it more interesting and pleasant as well).
  • Metaphysician Undercover
    7.8k
    I see analogues of musical concepts in all manner of time-based phenomena, and I think the first hypothesis about predictability was on the right track.Pfhorrest

    I agree with this, rhythm is basically a repetition, and without rhythm there would not be music. The average piece of music takes a fundamental rhythm and experiments with variations. When you hear music played the variations create emotion and interest. But the artist must stay within a range of acceptability with the variations employed, or else the piece will be rejected by the potential audience as incoherent.

    Sound is all about patterns of changes over time (pitch is just frequency), and all kinds of musical concepts are further refinements upon that (harmony is when multiple frequencies share certain relationships, rhythm and tempo are also all about frequency of notes). Musical ups and downs, breaks and shifts, all all about establishing and then changing patterns over time.Pfhorrest

    We could think of frequency as a very fast rhythm, perceptible only subconsciously, and apply the same principle stated above. The average piece of music takes a fundamental frequency (key) and experiments with variations, harmonies. The artist must stay within an accepted range of experimentation or else the audience will dismiss the piece as dissonance.

    I think we’re wired to have emotional responses to patterns like that more generally, to get bored of repetition but also to fear unpredictable change, to get intrigued by noticing patterns and the relationships between patterns, etc, and music just directly pushes all those emotional buttons in the most straightforward way divorced from any broader real-world context.Pfhorrest

    Notice, that in my description above, the audience's response to frequency is fundamentally subconscious, while the response to rhythm is more conscious. The subconscious does not "understand" things in the way that the conscious mind does, so it does not enforce the same strict rules or principles of predictability which the conscious mind enforces. Consequently the artist is allowed a lot more freedom of experimentation within a piece, with frequencies than with rhythm.

    I believe that emotion arises from the interaction between the subconscious and the conscious, and it often involves agreement and disagreement between the two with respect to what is acceptable in relation to predictability. It may be the case that the subconscious does not require predictability, being incapable of understanding it. But more likely, the subconscious really has extremely rigid rules of acceptability, as evidenced by songbirds singing almost the exact same thing. The subconscious would apprehend predictability only in precise repetition. So it's quite possible that the conscious mind must override the rigidity of the subconscious, allowing the subconscious wide open freedom, as a prerequisite for the enjoyment of music. This would make the emotions involved with listening to music somewhat trained, or controlled at a fundamental level because the conscious mind would then have influence over the development of the subconscious, in this artificial freedom.

    .
  • Todd Martin
    38
    Thought this quote from Allan Bloom’s Closing of the American Mind (p 71) might be germane to the discussion:

    “Plato’s teaching about music is, put simply, that rhythm and melody...are the barbarous expression of the soul...Music is the medium of the...soul in its most ecstatic condition of wonder and terror. Nietzsche, who in large measure agrees with Plato’s analysis, says In the Birth of Tragedy...that a mixture of cruelty and coarse sensuality characterized this state, which of course was religious, in the service of gods. Music is the soul’s primitive and primary speech, and it is...without articulate speech or reason. Even when articulate speech is added, it is utterly subordinate to and determined by the music and the passions it expresses.”
  • 8livesleft
    62
    I like the definition of music as emotional expression. The rhythm mimics and drives our heartbeat, the melody works around the rhythm telling a story.

    Together, they capture our attention and can either match, enhance or change our mood. It can make us go from sitting quietly to dancing. Sometimes, the musicianship alone is enough to put us in a trance like state.

    Music can convey so much emotional depth and nuance in just a few minutes that would require a writer to use many pages to capture if they only had words to work with.
  • 180 Proof
    2.1k
    In utero polyrhythms of mother and foetus-baby's heartbeats (compounded further with twins, triplets, etc), I suspect, deeply 'wires' us (mammals) to synchronize with any repeating patterns - the more varied, the more novel, the more mimetically engaging. 'Musicophilia' (Sacks), in the broadest and most adaptive sense, seems a precognitive bias. Just a guess ...
  • Benkei
    3.8k
    Look at the original music: singing. What was the original context of singing? Religious and community rituals.hypericin

    How do you know this? Why not percussion first? Could we have sung before we gave meaning? If not, why not?
  • god must be atheist
    2.4k
    I believe that music appreciation (along with appreciation of all other art forms) is the result of a mutation. It proved to be supremely helpful in survival, for it aided social cohesion and the submitting of the individuals' selfish will for sacrifice for the common good. This includes of course primarily music's role in mysticism and in relgion. Also in war songs and war cries. "We are the champions" at hockey finals is a permutation of this effect.

    The ability to like music was a lucky mutation. We still reap the benefit of it, even if not religious.
  • hypericin
    64


    I've experienced this :I write black metal music, and my dad heard a song. He knows nothing about the genre, but he said it made him think of a burning red sky. That is exactly what I experienced when I wrote it,(I can only get lucky, I can't deliberately embed an image like this), hence the name, "Extinguish the Sun".
    I thought that was great, but I don't think these images are truly "inside" the music. That seems as absurd as saying the concept (ice) is contained in the word "ice". But least within a culture, the emotional piano which music plays in us is similar. And the emotions we feel when contemplating the planets or an apocalyptic red sky are also similar. Therefore, it is possible, but not easy, to communicate images in music.
  • hypericin
    64


    I really like this elaboration of the predictability theory.
    Note that it is not exclusive with mine: they can both be true, and modulate each other.
    I also don't think this theory can stand on its own. This way, music might be as much as a fascinating novelty, but no more. It cannot explain how the most dramatic and exalted emotional states we can experience can be evoked by music.
  • Jack Cummins
    491

    I am glad that someone on this site understands(and makes) black metal music. I enjoy this genre, including bands like Envy and Isis. Perhaps it is an underrated genre. I think that black metal enables us to touch the depths of beauty arising in the depths of chaos and darkness.
  • hypericin
    64
    How do you know this? Why not percussion first? Could we have g before we gave meaning? If not, why not?Benkei

    Good point, I didn't think about percussion. Note that percussion also serves a spiritual function in primordial cultures. Also it is hard to imagine percussion without at least chanting.

    It seems highly unlikely song as we know it came first. We would expect to observe this behavior in at least one nonlinguistic animal.
  • Pfhorrest
    3.6k
    I think my theory can and does explain how music can invoke such strong emotional states, since it's directly pushing emotional buttons normally triggered by pattern-recognition that evolved for more real-world purposes. It's like adding sweeteners to food, our brains just go "YES YES YES THIS IS THE MOST NUTRITIOUS THING EVER" because we're wired to gorge ourselves on calorie-rich foods whenever we can... even though sweet food isn't necessarily the most nutritious thing ever.

    But I do definitely see the connection with religion as well, and I think religions have applied "musical" concepts (figuratively as well as literally musical ones) to other aspects of life exactly like I was discussing in my last paragraph. For example, ritual creates a sense of comfort, because it's a predictable pattern, so religious rituals make people feel comforted. (See also how people under severe emotional distress will tend to rock themselves, because the repetition there also creates a sense of comfort).

    It seems highly unlikely song as we know it came first. We would expect to observe this behavior in at least one nonlinguistic animal.hypericin

    I'm not sure exactly how this connects, but apparently the human brain has a different function for singing than for speaking, because there are people with neurological disorders that leave them unable to speak, but they can still sing.
  • hypericin
    64
    directly pushing emotional buttonsPfhorrest

    But then you are not explaining how music is able to "directly push emotional buttons". The last time you were saying that it is explained by our responses to recognizing patterns. This time, it seems like you are saying music somehow has direct access to emotions.
  • Pfhorrest
    3.6k
    I meant the pattern recognition thing this time too. By "directly" I mean that music is composed of patterns that are not the naturally-occurring patterns that our brains evolved to detect and react to, but rather hyper-refined patterns in an abstract medium that trigger those same mental responses with much more power and precision than the natural phenomena.

    That's why I used the analogy with adding sweeteners to food. Adding a ton of sugar to something can make the experience of it much more enjoyable than any food that you could possibly find in nature. Likewise, producing a bunch of the right kinds of patterns in sounds can make an experience much more intense than the kinds we would often find in nature.
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