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Author Topic: Why is music so powerful?
C3PO the Dragon Slayer
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Isn't it remarkable how a series of aural frequencies in a rhythm can be so moving?

I really seriously wonder why it is that humans appreciate sequences of sound to the point that it can actually induce emotion, even without context. I'm taking an AP Music Theory class this semester, and we were learning about how different cultures had different tastes, and how a chant that sounds ridiculous to our Western ears is very moving to those who grew up with it. It must be, therefore, that music as we know it is mostly learned, but I can't help but wonder if there's some kind of evolutionary advantage in responding to variations in pitch in a rhythm; something that is with us from birth (my mother is a singer, and likes to tell me about how I was born when she was in the choir singing the Carmina Burana).

At any rate, one reason I've become so interested in this lately is that I'm designing an experimental video game where the soundtrack does not only adapt to the gameplay, as seen in the recent Zelda and Mario games, but is fully generated by what happens in the game. In other words, the actions of the player and the interactions with the environment generate, instead of sound effects, musical notes that come together into what can be called music. It is a bit of an avant-garde concept, I admit, but the idea of a computer being able to generate music to fit what's going on in a game really fascinates me. To do this, I had to dissect what makes music music, so I could make ear-pleasing chords and melodies that adapt to whatever chord is currently playing. I also had to make musical events wait for a beat or semi-beat to play, otherwise it seems that a sense of rhythm is lost and it is reduced to harmonic sound effects.

This brings me to the first reason I'm writing this: I'd love any philosophical input as to what makes music beautiful for me to contemplate in this game's design, because it is not a trivial task to implement a program that can generate music on its own.

The second reason for my writing is is just so I have an outlet for a shameless rant, so ignore the following if you want to wax introspective about the meaning of music and ignore my personal problems.

I hate piano day in my Music Theory class. We're required by our teacher to use the keyboards in the room to practice rudimentary piano skills, if only so we're able to visualize the keyboard intuitively when we answer questions about intervals and triads and whatnot. I have had modest experience in piano lessons, but I admit I rarely practiced the material my teacher wanted me to work on and instead devoted my keyboard time to coming up with my own melodies, so although I'm ahead of most of the class regarding composition, I am far from the most skilled pianist.

This is not the reason I hate piano day, however. I hate it because some people don't use the electronic keyboards with headphones, and instead used the awesome well-tuned Steinway or the two less awesome, less well-tuned upright pianos. And what's worse is that those who get to these pianos are on the extremes of the spectrum: either those who have been practicing from age 3 or those who think it is an incredible novelty to play Hot Cross Buns with one finger. Despite these wild differences in proficiency, they all seem to have the egos to show off their skills, existent or not, simultaneously. While one person is loudly pounding a simple one-hand version of Beethoven's Ninth, someone else might be doing something as ridiculously complicated as Flight of the Bumblebee, and the worst part is, nobody drowns the others out. It's like they're trying to come out on top instead of politely allowing one to go before the other. This creates an unbearable cacophony that only I seem to notice.

I would tolerate it if one person was at the Steinway and broadcasted his tune while I was at the electric keyboard with my headphones, though I would certainly wait for the gaps in his playing to play any notes myself. I just can't stand the disharmony of two people playing entirely different songs at the same time. So much so that I actually get compulsions to violence when I hear this cacophony. I am ashamed to admit that I involuntarily kicked the chair in front of me when someone started deliberately playing over another student in the most inharmonious key you could think of. I was shocked to find that while music can be such a beautiful, profound emotional experience, distortions of music can be such an ugly, profound experience.

I also noticed that in my choir, when people start singing something on their own accord, they often used the completely wrong key, and this bothered me. I was particularly put off when a piece my Chamber Singers group was supposed to sing in a concert with many other choirs turned out to be transposed a minor third down. It turns out that I have absolute pitch, so I can tell if something starts off-key. It seems that I have developed perfect pitch, which is really a mixed blessing. Although I can start any tune on the right pitch and whenever I intentionally transpose music it feels like an entirely different song, it really throws me off when people don't start on the key I expect, and I have trouble going to the new "right" pitch when the music is unexpectedly transposed.

This kind of brings my post back to where I started, pointing out how remarkable it is that music holds such a sway over us. Is it in all of us to get fired up over such sins against what we perceive to be the integrity of music? Or does it have to do with upbringing? As the son of a musician, I, of course, was probably exposed to a lot of music in my early childhood (some of my earliest memories were of listening to my mom doing vocal exercises or playing with the CD player that stored over 200 different albums). Maybe that drove music deep into my psyche, causing me to react to music in a more subconscious way. I'm also taking a Psychology class, for what it's worth, but we have yet to discuss this sort of thing.

The worst part of this is that these peeves of mine are fully irrational; simultaneous conflicting songs shouldn't harm anyone and it is unreasonable to have such an aversion to it. It is even more irrational to cringe whenever someone doesn't start a piece the right key. There's something so powerful about music, either subjectively to me or generally to humans, that it can stir your emotions and immerse you in the moment, and yet can trigger base urges to do evil when it is against your better judgment and even your core philosophy to respond in such a way. Does anyone else have any experience with blasphemy against music conjuring such a deplorable reaction?

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RivalOfTheRose
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http://www.amazon.com/This-Your-Brain-Music-Obsession/dp/0452288525/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1289824939&sr=8-1

This can explain it much better than I ever could.

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Phanto
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I hear ya. I've been studying hip hop music. There, there is very limited complexity.

A song that is the most popular in radio play and downloads can consist of just 5-10 notes on 3-4 instruments plus heavy electronic editing.

So YMMV =)

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Orincoro
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quote:
Originally posted by RivalOfTheRose:
http://www.amazon.com/This-Your-Brain-Music-Obsession/dp/0452288525/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1289824939&sr=8-1

This can explain it much better than I ever could.

I must say I didn't find that book either very compelling or informative. It's bound to be full of things he is already well aware of, and lean on any attempts at answers to his actual questions.

Just to approach your question C3PO, you may be delighted to find that this is an area of current research. You may want to stay tuned in with it- which is something I haven't had time to do of late. Some of the theories of the development of culture specific taste, as well as musical comprehension (and the general comprehension of tone, pitch memory, rhythm, and differentiation), involve the unique development of individual neural patterns and the activity of mirror neurons. It appears that individual experience combined with a certain degree of genetic predisposition conditions the brain towards selective biases when it comes to musical apprehension. We hear what we are conditioned to hear- and if we are not conditioned to comprehend something, we don't only ignore it, we actually don't "hear" it at all, in any sense that matters to us, as the neurons in the frontal cortex don't have a mechanism for handling that information.

It has been shown conclusively, for instance, that those with moderate and extensive musical experience, playing and listening, can differentiate and remember more sounds presented in a greater density (for instance, the ambiance of a restaurant), and discern vocal and musical patterns that inexperienced listeners remain unaware of- this carries over to a variety of other skills, such as differentiation of voices and accents, and the analysis and comprehension of garbled or distorted speech or other sounds.

I've personally had the experience of being able to discern not only someone's mother language based on accent, but also a person's level of language education in *other languages,* with really surprising accuracy. This is entirely anecdote on my part, but I've been able, many times, to discern from a person's accent in English (as a second language) what other languages they have studied. It's something other teachers I have known cannot seem to do- but I have had a Czech friend (who was a trained musician) discern that I spoke Spanish based on my accent in Czech, without me indicating that I had ever studied it. Incidentally, he attributed this as the reason why my Czech supposedly sounds "gay," because of the soft d sounds I was favoring- which is an indicator of the "gay" accent in Czech. Now it might not sound all that impressive, but consider that I have on several occasions pinpointed two and three different languages without prompting- and from a very short conversation. That's just being able to process complex variables in a series of sounds more comprehensively, and faster.

So your classmates are not only not annoyed by the cacophony, they don't *hear* it. The cognitive dissonance you are experiencing is due to your ability to process more of that type of information at a faster clip, meaning you're getting input that is conflicting with your normal listening experience, and trying to access that randomized input and fit it into a discernable pattern.

What's interesting to me about this phenomenon, is how extraordinarily different "snobbery" and "elitism" can be seen in its light. Children, as they grow older, lose some of their ability to appreciate sweeter and saltier foods, and so develop more complex tastes along the way. It's my pet theory that music is exactly the same way- it's not only that you develop your understanding of music and seek new challenges, it is that as you do this, you are, quite without intention, destroying your ability to appreciate simpler structures- rather like walking too close to an impressionist painting.

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Sa'eed
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Music has an extraordinary effect on us because singing well (and music making) in our evolutionary history signaled fitness and health. There's a theory that the human brain largely grew in size in order to be an entertainment system for other humans. All that is required for humans to find music so compelling is for musical ability, for both and women, to have been rewarded with reproductive success in our evolutionary history. As for why our ancestors initially came to value musical ability as a signal of fitness and health, I suppose that's the same problem as why the peahen initially came to prefer the peacock with the larger plumage. There only needs to be an association between making enjoyable music and reproductive success, and those who have the preference for music are passing down genetically their preferences and those with the musical ability are passing down the ability, and over hundreds of thousands of years you have a situation in which all humans are endowed with the ability to make and appreciate music.
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LargeTuna
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for me, the best and most important music is the type that invokes emotion.

That's really as much as I can articulate, because so much is subjective, and generally I'm of the opinion that most of the popular hits (there's always exceptions) aren't always the strongest in creating emotion.

And I'm one of those people that loves hundreds of different bands, and most genres, even if sometimes the songs aren't the most technically complicated. Cause If I can find different ways of enjoying the music, that's all that should matter.

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Orincoro
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Right Sa'eed, and the ability to write fluid prose is also totally determined by evolution. Totally. Nothin' else goin' on there. No need for those pesky intellectuals and their bullshit. [Roll Eyes]
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C3PO the Dragon Slayer
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quote:
Originally posted by Orincoro:
I've personally had the experience of being able to discern not only someone's mother language based on accent, but also a person's level of language education in *other languages,* with really surprising accuracy.

That's really interesting! I had never thought about that, but now that you mention it, it makes a lot of sense. For instance, when my brother tries to speak German, he sometimes uses a French "r," and I sometimes catch myself the same consonant when I try to speak Russian. And my friend, who took Spanish and loves to imitate foreign accents, has very Spanish-sounding vowels when he tries Middle-Eastern and Central European tongues.

I don't have that much experience dealing with people who studied more than two languages, though, so my anecdotes stop there.

quote:
Originally posted by Orincoro:

What's interesting to me about this phenomenon, is how extraordinarily different "snobbery" and "elitism" can be seen in its light. Children, as they grow older, lose some of their ability to appreciate sweeter and saltier foods, and so develop more complex tastes along the way. It's my pet theory that music is exactly the same way- it's not only that you develop your understanding of music and seek new challenges, it is that as you do this, you are, quite without intention, destroying your ability to appreciate simpler structures- rather like walking too close to an impressionist painting.

I have observed that professional musicians can come off as snobbish (and this is coming from a son of a professional musician), and it is interesting that you bring this up. Your hypothesis makes a lot of sense, but it means that I'm becoming ONE OF THEM [Angst]

quote:
Originally posted by Sa'eed:
There only needs to be an association between making enjoyable music and reproductive success, and those who have the preference for music are passing down genetically their preferences and those with the musical ability are passing down the ability, and over hundreds of thousands of years you have a situation in which all humans are endowed with the ability to make and appreciate music.

Hmm... I seriously doubt it is entirely evolutionary, but there is a case to be made for this. If our ancestors courted each other by serenading one another, it would make sense that a genetic predisposition to understanding music could be a positive trait. But considering the vast differences between music of different cultures, I'd wager that most of our musical ability is learned.
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Sala
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Orincoro's comments about how someone who is musically trained would hear things that someone who is not musically trained led me to remember a conversation I had with some other elementary teachers. When grading a multiple choice test, I tend to assign pitches to the a, b, c, and d, and then grade the tests rather quickly because when an answer doesn't fit the right pitch I know it is incorrect. It's a lot easier for me to do it this way than to remember the letter patterns. I asked some of my fellow teachers if they did anything like this and they were totally amazed that I did this. It's not something I ever thought about. It's something that just came naturally.

Sorry this isn't about your question, but I thought it might be an interesting anecdote to share with you.

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SoaPiNuReYe
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I dunno, but I do know that Kanye's new album blew my socks off.
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LargeTuna
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quote:
Originally posted by SoaPiNuReYe:
I dunno, but I do know that Kanye's new album blew my socks off.

me too. Also, every KiD CuDi album. Also most Kanye albums. There's some very good hip hop around these days [Smile]
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The Rabbit
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quote:
As for why our ancestors initially came to value musical ability as a signal of fitness and health, I suppose that's the same problem as why the peahen initially came to prefer the peacock with the larger plumage.
This is perhaps the most widely cited and most grossly misunderstood evolutionary examples out there.
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Miro
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Care to enlighten us?
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Itsame
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I believe The Rabbit is referring to http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lamarckism or something of that sort, which this seems to resemble, although perhaps I'm wrong.
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malanthrop
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http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rWQDH70f7YI

"He's the one who likes to sing along and likes the pretty songs, but he, don't know what it means."

Music is powerful. How many music lovers enjoyed Nirvana's "In Bloom" and never once considered the words? That song made fun of them. Music transcends everthing. Politics and relationships. In politics, some like to sing along and like the pretty songs..

"Meet the new boss, same as the old boss"...The Who

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Miro
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quote:
Originally posted by JonHecht:
I believe The Rabbit is referring to http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lamarckism or something of that sort, which this seems to resemble, although perhaps I'm wrong.

That could apply to singing, but I don't see how it applies to peacocks.
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Launchywiggin
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A few points:

I was the piano lab proctor for 2 years. I *never* let people abuse other people's aural environment by not using headphones. Your story sounds agonizing.

I remember from my psychoacoustics class that the hairs in the cochlea (of the ear) are arranged in a way that consonant pythagorean harmonics are "built in" and accentuated in the design. This has been offered as an explanation as to why humans "prefer" consonant harmonies, but non-Western music does challenge some of those assertions. It's been a while since I thought about it, but I used to be crazy interested.

One thing I think you should consider while studying music is: "What is the purpose of music? To you? To others?" It's a deep question that, when considered, can help resolve many future disagreements you may have ahead of time.

I spent a great deal of my musical undergrad complaining about how other people didn't "get it". I'm over that now.

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Sa'eed
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quote:
Originally posted by JonHecht:
I believe The Rabbit is referring to http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lamarckism or something of that sort, which this seems to resemble, although perhaps I'm wrong.

No, it isn't lamarckism. It's sexual selection. The human brain likely acquired many of its distinctive human characteristics (which is why it became so big) because humans were selecting each other for mating based on those human qualities -- conversation, storytelling, music making, the general ability to amuse other human beings and thereby inspire awe, etc. These things then are merely indicators of fitness. If human music making evolved to be a signal of fitness, then we surely need a way to assess it as a signal, hence why we can "appreciate it" and be mysteriously moved by it. It's a biological response.

This doesn't rule out though music making and appreciation coming to serve other evolutionary functions and becoming all the more entrenched in the human psyche.

Admittedly it's fairly speculative and the book I read this in ("The Mating Mind" by Geoffrey Miller) was full of lots of "may have/could have" and "ifs." Still, I think it's probably true and a more satisfying explanation than the one that essentially says music making/appreciation is merely a pointless byproduct of our brains being so powerful.

There's the idea that the human brain became big and powerful because it endlessly had to deal with novel situations that required problem solving. But then it's just as likely that those "problems" entirely consisted of figuring out how to mate with other humans and being driven unconsciously to do all sorts of things (like making music, dancing, storytelling, trying to make the best points in a discussion, etc) that lead to some individuals standing out more than others and therefore getting laid better. At the end of the day the peahen too is probably mystified about why it has the response it does to the bigger and prettier peacock plumage.

[ November 16, 2010, 02:00 PM: Message edited by: Sa'eed ]

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Orincoro
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quote:
Originally posted by The Rabbit:
quote:
As for why our ancestors initially came to value musical ability as a signal of fitness and health, I suppose that's the same problem as why the peahen initially came to prefer the peacock with the larger plumage.
This is perhaps the most widely cited and most grossly misunderstood evolutionary examples out there.
Tell us a bit more. I am only well versed on the musical and psychoacoustic side, not the evolutionary side. I know well enough to know that Sa'ed is talking out the ass, but I don't know exactly why evolutionary theory contradicts him or is better interpreted. I simply know that this is *not* the way musical taste and ability develops.
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Speed
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I hate to talk for Rabbit, but I recently read Dawkins' The Blind Watchmaker, and it had a full chapter concerning the development of features such as the peacock's plumage. I don't think I could do the chapter full justice here, but it doesn't have much to do with plumage indicating fitness to reproduce, and doesn't seem to be a very good analogy for musical ability.

If you want a better answer and you happen to be in a library, find a copy of the book and skim through chapter 8. Or wait for Rabbit to get back at you.

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Sa'eed
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That's Dawkins. Others disagree.

See the Zahavi Handicap principle:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Handicap_principle

(A certain image and caption on that page as you scroll down made me laugh. What it says is probably true!)

quote:
Originally posted by Speed:
I hate to talk for Rabbit, but I recently read Dawkins' The Blind Watchmaker, and it had a full chapter concerning the development of features such as the peacock's plumage. I don't think I could do the chapter full justice here, but it doesn't have much to do with plumage indicating fitness to reproduce, and doesn't seem to be a very good analogy for musical ability.

It's a good analogy for the human brain and many of its distinctive qualities which exhibit fitness to potential mates.

[ November 16, 2010, 05:21 PM: Message edited by: Sa'eed ]

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Sa'eed
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Absurd products of sexual selection:

link

link

(there are other evolutionary theories about the absurd size of the antlers of the Irish elk. Those things could have led to the extinction of the species!)

My source for all of this is, as mentioned, "The Mating Mind" by Geoffrey Miller. He mentions the Irish elk and the Bird of Paradise.

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