Music and the Myth of Free Will

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Pulling an album off the store shelf, dialing through the radio, buying a concert ticket, constructing a playlist, clicking around a music streaming site, pledging allegiance to a band or musician—these are exercises in musical freedom of choice. Few decisions are more personal or more decisive than selecting the music we want to hear. It is a process guided by the peculiarities of taste and spontaneity of gut responses. It is a display of volition over sound. It is an act of self-assertion. But how much control do we really have? Like most aspects of our lives, lay theory—the common-sense assumption about our behaviors—tells only part of the story. There is much more than meets the ear.

The question of free will has occupied the minds of philosophers and theologians for over two millennia. Precisely what free will is and how much or little we actually have is a topic too vast to summarize here; but contributions from naysayers shed intriguing light on musical decision-making.

Put simply, critics (known as incompatibilists) hold that free will cannot exist in a universe governed by cause and effect. This means that, try though we might, our choices can never truly be unimpeded by prevailing factors. This philosophical position has gained support from neuroscience in recent years. Sam Harris, in his controversial but perfectly reasonable book Free Will, gives the major points. First is that the brain has already determined what we will do before we decide on doing it. We only think we are making a conscious decision. Second, everything occurs in a chain of events. The sensation of free choice results from a “moment-to-moment ignorance” of the accumulating factors leading up to it. Third, free will can only exist if we are in control of all the variables that determine our thoughts and actions, including physical and emotional states, genetic traits, cultural conditioning, personal experiences, environmental settings, and so on.

Musically, this suggests that we have little say in our choices: we like what we hear before we even hear it. Short-term choices—like playing a CD while doing laundry—and long-term affinities—like a favorite piece or recording artist—are not entirely rational or voluntary. Whenever we encounter a song with glee, apathy, or repulsion, the reaction is predetermined. There are physical and psychological conditions: headaches, mood states, full bladders, deprivations, etc. There are personal histories: memories, prejudices, upbringings, peer groups, etc. There are environmental constraints: musical delivery systems, selections to choose from, cultural setting, socio-economic standing, etc. These and other elements swirl together behind the scenes in the subconscious. Their collective influence is such that before we engage in deciding, our minds are already set.

In the scheme of things, the absence of true free will does not matter all that much. Whether we actively direct our actions or are directed by background forces, the perception of freedom is a powerful thing.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

4 thoughts on “Music and the Myth of Free Will

  1. John Morton

    Fascinating stuff, this and, for once, I’m speechless. American string theorist Brian Greene discusses all this in his book ‘Fabric of the Cosmos’ and our very own Sir Roger Penrose in his book ‘Roads to Reality’. Classical physics agrees with it all but, in my gut, I don’t buy the idea. It certainly affects the idea of practise and improvement. Richard Feynman’s ideas might offer some daylight at the end of this tunnel. Of course, when we transfer the concept that free will is an illusion to music and the arts the situation becomes a little murky, partly because of the very direct link between our physical condition in an instant of time (especially when improvising) and our ‘performance’ on the day. A comparable paradox lies in the idea of non-locality in quantum physics. Generally, when an understanding of how things work develops, paradoxes melt away but I can’t see a way out of the free will swamp. I just try to forget about it, otherwise why get out of bed each morning?

  2. jlfriedmann Post author

    Thanks, as always, for your thoughtful comment. In some ways, this is all a rehashing of Spinoza’s determinism. Whether we truly have free will or not doesn’t really matter at the end of the day, since all we can do is what we do. Incidentally, even staying in bed all day would be a choice determined by a web of subconscious factors.

  3. John Morton

    Good morning, Jonathan (it is here, and a fine, sunny one too).

    A very (very) late addition to this thread, and one that has an impact on my chapter in your book: I am greatly influenced by comments by Lee Smolin and Mangabeira Ungar here. The universe is not, they say, governed by immutable laws within a phase space bounded by initial conditions. The inference, here, is that the laws are on the outside looking in. But there is no ‘elsewhere’. I know that, because of your religious beliefs, you may see this differently.

    If I enact processes repeatedly, under similar conditions, each time attaining a similar result, I am justified in claiming that, on the basis of experiment and observation, if I do ‘this’, ‘that’ will happen. This is what a law is.

    The evolution of processes is part of history, and this works well because the universe did not assume a law-like form (the development of atoms and molecules from the ‘soup’ of particles) until long after the so-called ‘big bang’ and will lose its law-like form as it nears its end. Added to this, our laws are powerless to explain the nature of the big bang itself or what existed before it. If, instead, we think in terms of a history of cause and effect, whether we understand them or not, it all works. This has an impact upon Leibnitz’s Principle of Sufficient Reason, of course.

    The apparent constancy of what we observe, because of the slow rate of change, gives the illusion of immutable laws but, in fact, change changes. There can therefore be local freedoms available to us.


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