Music and Science – missing the obvious point

My apologies if you were hoping to read more exciting thoughts on bureaucracy, elections, and tyranny, but I am going to take a few minutes to share some random thoughts on something more fundamental : music. There is much that could be said, but I want to focus for a moment on the questions of “whence” and “why”; the answers folks give to these reveals a great deal about them.


The Evolutionary Explanation

Evolution is one of the great pillars of the modern western mindset (built mostly on sand, I might add). If more people read what scientists of evolution think about music I think evolution might lose its place as a pillar and all-encompassing world-view and find its way back into specialized science books where it belongs. Scientists of evolution give three main arguments explaining the origin and value of music: it developed because it helped attract more mates (e.g. Darwin, Geoffrey Miller); it developed because it gave groups more social discipline than their rivals (e.g. Robin Dunbar, perhaps Peter Kropotkin); or it is a nice side-effect of other things or of random developments (Stephen Jay Gould, Stephen Pinker). Despite their currency, the first two sets of explanations are not just silly, they are bad science (I think they are popular because they are easy to explain). The third one, while more complicated, is worth investigating.


Before I begin, I have an admission to make: I have always been fascinated by scholarship on evolution. While I regret his mistakes regarding theology, I liked Stephen Jay Gould’s work enough to read all of the books he wrote for general audiences. You don’t have to accept evolution lock, stock, and barrel (FWIW, he didn’t either – at least not as it is commonly taught and understood) in order to appreciate his scholarship. For instance, his idea of exaptation [i.e. that things are often put to uses not at all related to their original place/purpose/intent] has general applicability. I used exaptation in my academic work to explain the organizational strategies of political parties (e.g. the first mass parties used secondary organizations (unions) that had been created for something other than winning elections as their primary building blocks). I have not gone back toandre-read all his work, but it seems that Professor Gould was agnostic about the exact genesis of man’s capacity to appreciate music (i.e. the “whence” question. It, like all the things that go under the heading of “the humanities”, are the result of nonlinear, nonadditive factors related to and derived from the emergence of human consiousness. Professor Gould was an amateur musician who loved his music and recognized its transcendent beauty. He recognized that science (the intentional gathering and analysis of facts) cannot “give us the slightest clue as to the morality of morals or the aesthetics of beauty” (ibid), even if it could provide a convincing explanation of its neurological origins and processes.


More from Science – Psychology

The psychology of music is its own subfield (complete with textbooks and the like). Let me briefly share some interesting findings, as summarized by Professor Trehub here: human infants start out with the ability to recognize and enjoy music. They perceive melodies and harmony, and benefit from early musical training (via slightly increased intelligence and higher self esteem). Both children and adults react to music through increased cognitive and physical performance, and are able to remember and understand verbal information that is sung better than when it is given in other ways. For some reason, we are wired to respond to music. By itself, psychology does not get us much closer to answering our questions of “whence” or “why”, but it at least tells us a bit more about “how”. And once you realize that the mind is responding to something real (via physics, below), you begin to see what the other answers must look like.


But Wait, there’s More – Physics

Music is as objective a part of our environment as color and gravity. Culture can influence our appreciation and use of music at the margins (as it can the appreciation of color and what to do about gravity), but music has its own natural logic. The phenomenon of “overtones” should suffice to make this point: every musical tone creates overtones (FWIW, this was another of Pythagoras’ findings). The first ones are reproductions of the primary note at higher octaves. Above that come notes that harmonize with the primary note (5ths, 4ths, and 3rds). Voices and instruments have different sounds because of the relative strength of the various overtones (composers and professional musicians study this and take advantage of its implications). Compositions that work within the system of natural overtones are recognized as harmonious and beautiful (see Trehub, above). Those that don’t are called “dissonant” and distressing.


Conclusion: still more from literature

Hopefully you can see where I am going with this: none of these findings surprise Christians. J.R.R. Tolkein (among many others) appreciated music as theology. Melody, harmony, and dissonance play a fundamental role in his meditation on Genesis/Creation. When we sing or listen to music, we are participating in a fundamental truth of the world, a sacrament of God’s beauty, a demonstration of His love for us, and proof that participatory adoration (aka “worship”) is the proper response to His glory. Professor Gould was right: science cannot explain transcendent truths like beauty and morality, but as the Psalmist said, studying the wonders of the world can help us grow in appreciation for God’s majesty and love for us. It is a shame that so many people miss this obvious and valuable point.