art philosophy science

musical bodies

The following is not intended as a theistic proof, but it is yet another of countless points of ‘resonance’ with belief in a Creator.

I was just thinking last night about how deeply human or ‘anthropocentric’ music is. Whilst we can anthropomorphise and talk about the ‘song’ of the bluebird, or the rhythm of the cicadas or crickets, these animals are not truly doing ‘music’. It is a human activity.

I think of the vast pre-human time where there was no scales, chords, melodies, harmonies, minor or major keys, suspensions, arpeggios, triplets, modes, beats, resolutions, or tensions. What a breathtaking development for music to arrive on the scene!

I’m not going to speculate on what the first music sounded like, or whether music was before or after language, etc. What I was particularly thinking about last night was the way in which minor chords and keys and certain tensions, beats and rhythms can ‘move’ (and indeed, at times manipulate) us. The victorious flavour of ‘bright’ major chords and keys contrasts beautifully with the reflective shade of ‘darker’ minor chords and keys. It beautifully reflects the reality of the basic bifurcations of life as we experience it as humans.

The interesting thing for me is that from an evolutionary perspective, music would with little or no doubt have arrived on the scene after our most recent major physiological evolutionary step. Music, therefore, could not have been part of the environmental pressure shaping pre-human (and thus pre-musical) life. There could be no survival of the most musically moved, so to speak. So it would be hard for me to grasp how we could blame (or thank) evolution by natural selection for the effect that music has on us. I welcome corrections to my thinking here (both in musical and evolutionary theory), but from where I stand, it appears that the wonderful coherence between the bifurcation of major and minor chords and our bifurcated experience of life is yet another of many ‘coincidences’.

One reply on “musical bodies”

I’ll give this a shot, but it’s just a nutshell version.

Our brain’s language is symbolic. Even our sense data is symbolic in order to be processed by the various areas of the brain. While we sleep, our brains are traveling over the most important imprints of the day, storing some, building more efficient pathways for efficient retrieval, stripping away dendrites from others, the beat goes on all the time. That what our brains do.

We are particularly sensitive to patterns and are quite prepared to utilize nearly a third of our brain to create a ‘picture’ of our environment when stimulated to do so (most of our ‘vision’ is highly processed imaging done by our brain). That rustling in the grass… our brains kick in and do a cascade of activities preparing us to deal with the data… including erring on the side of caution… it could be an immanent threat or an innocuous breeze but let’s let loose a dose of adrenaline just in case, and so on, heightening all our senses through chemical enhancements, powering up major muscles, increasing blood supply for energy, and so on. Our limbic system prepares the body and helps direct attention to stuff our processing activity may not care about, allowing input from both hemispheres to have an influence on our considerations, organizing and justifying our response behaviours.

Because we are so sensitive to patterns, we use them all the time for shortcuts. We associate effects we encounter and assign agency because it’s easier to identify with a reflection of ourselves (our mirror neurons are responsible for this empathetic response) than it is to reprocess each and every novel encounter. Clouds, for example, may indicate rain or maybe not; maybe snow, maybe high winds, maybe hail, maybe lightening and thunder, maybe no change at all. We err on the side of caution and assign agency to whatever ’causes’ it to rain and leave it up to him or her to decide what to do with those clouds. In this way, we imagine ourselves to having some understanding, some control between cause and effect, even when we do not. We pay attention to those clouds, but not too much to interfere as we hunt for food (or drive to the store). We do this because it reduces our anxieties at the moment and over our daily encounters as a whole. We may not control the clouds, but we ‘understand’ why we don’t have personal control; someone else does, somone we can understand if he or she is like ourselves and subject to the vagaries of mood. We assign words to these kinds of subtle differences that may be important: a black cloud is usually one that brings violent change and we need to pay attention, a black mood does the same for example. If we can assign an understandable link between cause and effect, by assigning an agency much like ourselves with our own limbic responses to events and phenomena we encounter on a daily basis, then we feel like we have more control, more say, more acceptance in how we interact (and interact appropriately) with our environment.

We see patterns in the world around us because it helps us understand it, and we can create patterns to help us understand ourselves. Think of language: in any form, language is symbolic groupings we assign with various levels of sophisticated meaning. Like most people, we tend to think of language as words – written and spoken – but language includes other symbolic meanings like numbers and all kinds of art forms (architecture, painting, sculpting, poetry, etc.) and finally, music.

Because we are geared to associate patterns with a limbic response, and particular patterns with particular limbic responses (think of hearing a baby crying and almost ‘instinctively’ knowing what the sound means for our appropriate response) is it any wonder that music – like any of the arts – ‘talks’ to us? Patterning in music is essential for meaning… even if the meaning is only recognized on a limbic level – how it makes us feel. Music is particularly interesting and appealing when it surprises us – when there is a subtle or sudden alteration. And because we are individuals, we have individual favourites – from the mathematical precision of a Bach fugue to the smash-mouth sounds of heavy metal. A good indication of how sophisticated our patterning skills are is revealed by the kinds of music (or other art) that ‘speaks’ to us on an emotional level. But that’s another topic.

I hope you can appreciate how evolution has played a key part in how we interact with our environment and why so musicians of all genres have such power attracting willing mates!

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