Category Archives: ethics

Fleeting Effect

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

By the evening of December 30, 1862, Confederate and Union armies were positioned for battle in Murfreesboro, Tennessee. They were so close to one another that bugle calls could be heard from the opposing camp. Just before tattoo—the bugle signal for lights to be extinguished and loud talking and other disturbances to cease—army bands from each side began playing their favorite tunes. The music carried over the wintery air. “Yankee Doodle” from the North was answered by “The Bonnie Blue Flag” from the South. “Dixie” from the South was replied with “Hail Columbia” from the North. The back-and-forth culminated with the rival bands joining together in “Home, Sweet Home,” a song dear to soldiers on both sides. Thousands of homesick voices rose above the blaring brass instruments. It was a poignant reminder of their shared American culture and shared humanity. Then the music stopped. The men went to sleep and rose the next morning to slaughter each other. Of the major battles of the Civil War, the Battle of Murfreesboro (a.k.a. The Battle of Stones River) had the highest percentage of casualties on both sides.

This episode is a stark illustration of music’s fleeting effect. Music is rightly called the most emotional of the arts. In a matter of seconds or less, it can transform the listener’s mood and demeanor. The animosities of warring factions can be disarmed, their sentiments united, and their pulse-rates joined as one. But music’s intoxicating potential lasts only as long as the stimulus itself. Once the sounds evaporate, behaviors generally return to their pre-music-influenced state. As Susanne K. Langer observed in her landmark treatise, Philosophy in a New Key, “the behavior of concert audiences after even the most thrilling performances makes the traditional magical influence of music on human actions very dubious. Its somatic effects are transient, and its moral hangovers or uplifts seem to be negligible.”

Langer’s observation, along with the Civil War example, contrasts with claims prominent in the eighteenth century. Books such as Richard Brocklesby’s Reflections on Ancient and Modern Musick (1749) came with bold subtitles, like “Applications to the Cure of Diseases.” Modern thinkers and researchers refrain from claims that music somehow permanently impacts temperament or disposition. This is why, for instance, music therapy (both active and receptive) tends to be periodic and ongoing, and is typically administered in conjunction with other therapeutic and medicinal treatments.

None of this challenges the fact that music is strongly connected to feelings. If anything, the fleetingness of music-induced sensations sustains our attraction to the art form. It is largely why we return to the same music again and again, and long for musical interludes in our busy lives. These brief mood changes and moments of escape play a revitalizing role, temporarily recharging or redirecting our emotions without causing lingering distractions.

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

Soul and Commerce

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

An issue of Esquire magazine published in 1945 (vol. 23) includes a razor-sharp quote from tenor saxophonist Greely Walton. Asked about the impact of money on artistry, Walton replied: “If he’s a musician at heart, good music gives by far the most personal satisfaction…But anyone who completely forgets what he’s doing, or does what he’s doing cheaply by selling out to sheer commercialism—such a musician is a nitwit and worthy of neither respect nor money.”

Walton’s was among the first printed references to “selling out” in the ugly sense of sacrificing integrity for financial gain. He was careful not to idealize the opposite extreme: the musician need not starve for her art. If authenticity and appeal are in alignment, then good music—in the moral sense—can bring riches. Talking Heads frontman David Byrne, who sang “Never for money/Always for love,” is a perfect example. Aesthetic-ethical problems arise when talented musicians surrender to the dark side of branding, marketing, and empty consumerism.

Critics bemoan the depletion of meaningful music in the “post-album” age of YouTube, digital downloads, and television competitions. The manufactured, market-driven sounds of pop music are incessant reminders of the dysfunctional relationship between corporate capitalism and the arts. This does not mean the talent pool is any drier than in periods past. However, the pressure to “sell out” is far greater than it was in Walton’s day, and continues to trend in the wrong direction. As a result, creativity is curtailed in favor of monotonous conformity.

One of the loudest critics of this apparent cultural degradation is Berklee College of Music professor William C. Banfield. He sees profit-obsession as a kiss of death: “death of quality, skills, value of human expression, individuality, creative innovation, and a lack of spirit-soul.” Instead of an expression of one’s innermost being, music becomes a superficial vehicle for pursuing material rewards.

Banfield draws a contrast between songs with enduring socio-cultural value (which can be financially successful) and the largely formulaic and vapid offerings of contemporary pop. He calls the first category “long-term cultural relevancy,” or expressive art that deeply affects and influences the lives of people. This would include folk-derived traditions, like spirituals and the blues, as well as “banner songs,” like the protest anthems of the 1960s. The second category is “market relevancy,” or the manufacturing of sounds and personalities for wide audiences. This is “music industry” in its most negative connotations.

Banfield is an unabashed scholar-activist, but his idealism is not unrealistic. As a working musician, he knows the importance of resonating with the marketplace. Balancing short-term and long-term relevance is a worthy goal. Yet, he argues, “the wrong people are at the table, and they drive the industry and make the bad decisions. It’s all a game of dollars and greed, which again is a disastrous formula for art.” The key, it seems, is to sell without selling out.

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

Empathy and Art Appreciation

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.          

In the Little Rascals short, “Mike Fright” (1934), several child performers audition for a station manager and a sponsor of a radio station. The Rascals are there as The International Silver String Submarine Band, a rag-tag troupe wielding an assortment of rusty hand-made instruments. The boys wait impatiently as the other acts audition, rudely disrupting the proceedings with their uncultured antics. Leonard, a smug and overconfident trumpeter, has his performance foiled by Little Rascals Tommy and Alvin, who start sucking on lemons while he plays. When Leonard sees the boys, his face puckers involuntarily, making it impossible for him to blow his horn.

This memorable scene depicts the human capacity for body mapping: an automatic response in which neural representations of perceived motor actions are activated in the viewer’s brain and trigger visceral responses. It is the reason we cringe when we see a needle poke someone’s arm, or yawn when we see somebody yawning. Similar empathic reactions have been observed in other primates, and the biological mechanisms responsible—mirror neurons, mimicry, and emotional contagion—probably predate the primate order.

Bodily empathy also plays a significant role in aesthetic appreciation. According to Frans de Waal, director of the Living Links Center at the Yerkes Primate Center in Atlanta, Georgia, a major appeal of ballet, opera or trapeze flying is that, as we watch the performers, we enter their bodies. In his recent book, The Bonobo and the Atheist: In Search of Humanism Among the Primates, de Waal explains that when a dancer leaps across the stage, we too are momentarily suspended in air. When the diva sings her dramatic aria, we feel her voice as our own. When we see a painting showing the agony of a human figure, we cannot help but feel that emotion.

Even abstract art can stimulate body channels. De Waal cites an article by Vittorio Gallese, co-discoverer of mirror neurons, and art historian David Freedberg, which describes how observers unconsciously trace movements on a canvas. We sense body motion in the brush marks and put ourselves in the moment of the artist at work. This is like the cellist or pianist who involuntarily moves her fingers while listening to a recording of the instrument.

These examples reinforce the growing scientific view that empathy, while not lacking a cognitive component, begins as a pre-cognitive function propelled by bodily sentiments. This helps paint a bottom-up picture of morality, in which day-to-day interactions stimulate gut motivations that occur before and apart from rationalizations. Such “morality within” is not just a human phenomenon, but appears in other animals (primarily mammals) as well. The associated implications for the arts are equally profound, as empathy accounts largely for the pleasure we derive from them.

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

The Sound of Zero

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

The effect of a musical composition is notoriously fleeting. In the moment of listening, the sounds are ear filling, mood shifting, mind absorbing, memory stirring, body infecting. Yet almost as soon as they cease, the impact dissipates. We are possessed and exorcised all within a few minutes. True, a lyric or melodic phrase can repeat in our heads and go on affecting us in a comparatively minor way. But as an ephemeral art form that emerges and vanishes in real-time, music’s influence tends to be measured by its duration. It fosters an immediate experience that transitions quickly from profoundness to nothingness.

Philosopher Susanne K. Langer made this observation in her 1942 study, Philosophy in a New Key. She acknowledged the well-attested interaction of music and heart rate, respiration, concentration and mental state, but noted that none of this outlasts the stimulus itself. There is no real expectation that the music will shape or inform our behavior. Whatever its effect, it tends to be internal rather than manifestational. “On the whole,” Langer wrote, “the behavior of concert audiences after even the most thrilling performances makes the traditional magical influence of music on human actions very dubious. Its somatic effects are transient, and its moral hangovers or uplifts seem to be negligible.” Again, this does not necessarily apply to songs, which have a greater potential to motivate due to the sway of words and the pathos of the human voice.

The predictability with which music dissolves has a cosmic analogy. In the zero-energy hypothesis, the total amount of energy in the universe is exactly zero. All positive energy, which exists in matter, is canceled out by negative energy, which resides in gravity. The energy exerted as matter separates from other matter is balanced by the gravitational pull  that attracts them together. Thus, the universe is comprised of positive and negative parts that add up to nothing.

If we convert this into a musical metaphor, music can be viewed as matter and its aftermath as gravity. A great deal of energy is expended during a musical performance. Physical maneuvers cause air molecules to vibrate, which make brain waves oscillate, causing thoughts, feelings and physical surges to proliferate. This is the substance of musical matter. But all of this is canceled out in the absence of music that follows. The gravitational pull of silence (or non-musical sounds) nullifies the effect before it transforms into conduct. The experience amounts to nothing.

This is illustrated in a story told of the premiere performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. Following the symphony’s rousing conclusion, the awestruck audience burst forth into applause. As their cheers reluctantly dwindled away, a child turned to his mother and asked, “What must we do now?” He was compelled to respond to the beauty and force of the music, but was unsure what the appropriate action might be. His mother offered no reply. There was zero to be done.

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