Experts' Opinion: Water Is Wet

There’s a follow-up article in the WSJ from the one I mentioned a few days ago, interesting in that it offers, in the exactly-two-sides-to-every-idea concept, different opinions on the question of music and human origins.  I am astonished by the mention that ‘some scientists are convinced that music is only noise,’ bit.  Actually, I can see how a scientist studying music as a physical phenomenon could see this; pitch/sound is frequency, and looking at frequency in terms of numbers literally shows signal and noise as the same quality.  But of course, music is something we both listen to and make, and just as novels are made up of letters that we read as a whole work, so is music made up of frequencies that we hear as a whole piece.

It’s a little dispiriting to have a pyschologist explaining that ‘music is a way of structuring sound,’ when John Cage explained that to listeners decades ago, but then this is music as scientific subject.  So we need science to explain prove that music is a human quality, when anyone who has ever sung-talked to a baby knows this innately, in their genes.  Sound exists in nature independant of human presences, but humans organize sound and make it music; composers do that and listeners do that as well, and that sense of organization, or lack, in the listeners mind is what drives the “it is/not music” reaction.  The cognitive archaeologist (who knew there was such a thing!) is speaking truth to me in saying ‘using music to express emotion or build and a sense of group belonging would have been essential to the function of human society, especially before language evolved prior to modern humans.’  It still is essential, that’s why concerts exist.

I do not want to seem too harsh on science, as I’m a lapsed quasi-astrophysicists myself and value the scientific method.  Good science is an act of imagination in that it requires thinking of something and figuring out how to prove it.  Approaching music and its meaning and purpose in human life from the standpoint of signal and noise is simply unimaginative – not everything that is quantifiable gains from being quantified.  What is interesting, and possible to discern, is the effect of music making on the brain, which can be reverse engineered into a cause-and-effect chain in human evolution.  Music making in dance and drill has had an organizational purpose in human society for centuries.  Sing-song babytalk clearly develops language hearing in children.  Searching for a genome for music seems a fool’s game to me, though, comparable to searching for a genome for physics or math; these are things that exist and that we discover, and music is in a sense a discovery.  35,000 years ago, some early peoples realized they were hearing something, and found a way to recreate it.  Where’s the genome for curiousity and imagination?  That’s what I’d like to see.


Author: gtra1n

I'm a composer and musician, and I write about music—I do that here, for the New York Classical Review, at the Brooklyn Rail (I edit the music section there) and any place else that will have me, like New Music Box and Music & Literature. I also wrote the Miles Davis' Bitches Brew book in the 33 1/3 series.