Saturday, April 11, 2009

Music and Language

"Words make you think a thought.
Music makes you feel a feeling.
A song makes you feel a thought. "

The tendency of people to enjoy music is as much of a puzzle as the question of why we have music. If there is a beneficial effect, it's as much of a puzzle why it has that beneficial effect, as why it exists.

Maybe music arised because we have acquired technologies to excite our pleasure circuitry. The pleasure circuitry has an adaptive explanation. The intelligence that manipulates the sound to bring about certain effects has an adaptive explanation. But you put them together and you get a species that in a biologist's sense, misapplies its intelligence to infiltrate motivational circuitry and short-circuit it. We have figured out how to amuse or titillate ourselves with artificial stimuli that don't themselves enhance fitness.

To be fair, there are other strands of the arts and humanities, sometimes brushed aside in the 20th century, that resonate quite well with the arguments that I've been making. Many artists and scholars have pointed out that ultimately art depends on human nature. The aesthetic and emotional reactions that we have to works of art depend on how our brain is put together. Art works because it appeals to certain faculties of the mind. Music depends on details of the auditory system, painting and sculpture on the visual system. Poetry and literature depend on language. And the insights we hope to take away from great works of art depend on their ability to explore the eternal conflicts in the human condition, like those between men and women and self and society. Some theoreticians of literature have suggested that we appreciate tragedy and great works of fiction because they explore the combinations of human conflicts and these are just the themes that scientific fields like evolutionary psychology, behavioral genetics and social psychology try to understand.

There are many similarities between music and ordinary language. Description and analysis of these similarities fall into two main areas, syntax and semantics.

F. Lerdahl and R. Jackendoff's wrote "A Generative theory of Tonal Music". They developed an account of "M-grammar" or musical grammar, the rules for assigning analysis ("structural descriptions") for incoming musical strings. They describe various basic analytical rules of four main types: metrical, grouping, time-span, and prolongational. The theory has a good deal of complexity, as it includes ways in which the rules interact and various ways of ordering musical representations according to their level of abstraction.
A key part of the generative theory of musical grammar is that there are certain schemas of pitch relationships that define the western tonal system. In essence, you must have these schemas "in your head" in order to be able to process and understand tonal music. Schemas are employed in actual music perception, that is, we hypothesize schemas to remember and anticipate meaning. A schema can be described as "a general large, complex unit of knowledge... a template, network, or list... something that helps us chunk information."

There are to fundamental analogies:
1.The grasp of meaning is the explanandum for a semantics of either natural language or music: The structural explanation of music is supposed to explain our "musical understanding"--the way music sounds to an experienced listener. This is the musics' "meaning" to us and the underlying structural account should explain why we have such experience.
2.The postulation of grammatical structures is guided by an appeal to semantic considerations. That is, the account of structures in musical "grammar" ultimately aims to account for our experiences of meaning in certain of our "feelings" about music, such as our feeling of beat strength in 4/4 time or of "tensions" and "relaxations" in music.
Because of these analogies, we can provide a more precise account of music's resemblance to natural language: listeners with the relevant knowledge can't help but understand incoming strings; listeners can be mistaken about what certain phrases mean; and the work communicates a meaning.

Nowadays we use language to transmit our knowledge, desires, frustrations etc. Language is an extremely complex structured system that allows us to exchange information between humans beings. Probably music developed before it for the same purposes that language did but failed to evolve satisfactorily and was replaced by our current form of communication.


Anonymous said...

Supposedly music makes you smarter, or the Mozart effect as it's sometimes called. And that's a difficult one to debunk, because people would like to believe that it's so.

Mariana Soffer said...

If it were true, it would make so many things so much easier. All we'd have to do would be to study music-have your child take piano lessons and they'd do so much better in their math exams and their other academic studies.

by the way who are you?

Unknown said...

Recently I've been thinking a lot about irony in music, and the opportunity that it gives us to re-read scores previously thought unaffected by irony and hearing them anew. I'm thinking now of Beethoven's Fur Elise and how it is impossible for anyone other than a child to perform it without some sense of irony, but I hasten to add that irony isn't simply an affect devoid of sincerity, it is a kind of meta-performance, that one does not perform what one plays.
There is a kind of profound humor in irony, one that is not merely funny-ha-ha, but possibly deeply moving as well. Just like it happens with language.

Lyle said...

The power of music ... is one of the greatest practical and theoretical importance ... What we see, fundamentally, is the power of music to organise - and to do this efficaceously (as well as joyfully!), when abstract or scematic forms of organisations fail. - Oliver Sachs

Anonymous said...

I always perceived a link between music and poetry, now I know why. Fascinating theories.

I was always fascinated by Pythagoras, who was primarily a musician even though he is renowned for mathematical theories (there's definitely a correlation between math and music as well). Pythagoras even developed a school of thought that became popular in Rome during his lifetime, it revolved around the premise that music was healing and that one could heal a person (their psyche and their bodies) through music therapy. It would be interesting to find out what modern theorists of psychology have to say about this.

Mariana Soffer said...

Amazing story about pitagoras, I did not have a clue about it. I love it.

There is also one of my favourite books from my 20ths that is called "Godel Escher and Bach", (goedel is a great mathmatician, I talk about him in one of my first posts)

Hope you enjoy the info, I enjoyed yours a lot.

Anonymous said...

I did, thanks. I've heard of Godel, his name is often synonymous with another mathematician named Frege, though I don't profess to know much about either of them.


Mariana Soffer said...

Here you can have a general idea about the main work goedel did, plus a little comment of mine: