Category Archives: humanism

The Original Musicology

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Musikwissenschaft, the historical study of European art music, began in nineteenth-century Germany and Austria. Johann Nikolaus Forkel’s biography of J.S. Bach (1802) set the tone for the field, which focuses on musical rules, periods, pieces, and personalities. Two more branches of musicology were added during the twentieth century: ethnomusicology, which examines socio-cultural dimensions of global musics, and systematic musicology, which engages the sciences and humanities in investigating musical phenomena.

The three sub-disciplines of musicology have matured and diversified over the decades. Systematic musicology has an especially modern feel, with its interest in acoustics, neuroscience, psychology, and social theory. Guido Adler laid the groundwork for this interdisciplinary approach with his 1885 essay, “Umfang, Methode und Ziel der Musikwissenschaft” (“Scope, Method, and Aim of Musicology”), which divides musicology into historical questions about the development of musical conventions and the succession of “great” composers, and systematic questions about the nature of music and human responses to it.

Today, systematic musicology is itself divided into two areas: empirical/scientific and social/cultural. Its tools of computation and theories of analysis are decidedly twenty-first century, integrating lab studies, computer data, semiotics, and the like. However, the questions it pursues are much older than even Adler’s seminal essay.

Centuries before receiving its proper name, thinkers were systematically assessing music in human life. Around the third century, Greek theorist Aristides Quintilianus was already categorizing musical studies into theoretical/speculative (systematic) and practical/didactic (historical). Franchinus Gaffurius (fifteenth century) examined how musical sounds achieve specific ends. Marin Mersenne (seventeenth century) scrutinized acoustics and the speed of sound. As a rule, European scholars prior to the nineteenth century were preoccupied with the big picture. And, even as music history became the dominant focal point, scholars continued to ponder the larger cognitive and spiritual aspects (see my edited collections, The Value of Sacred Music: An Anthology of Essential Writings, 1801-1918 and Music, Theology and Worship: Selected Writings, 1841-1896).

Systematic musicology has benefited from the growing sophistication of the diverse disciplines it draws upon. Yet, underneath its contemporary garb are questions that have attracted thinkers throughout the ages: What is music, how does music work, why does music move us? Although the sub-field is relatively new, its questions long predate interest in historical periods and cultural practices. For this reason, it can be called the original musicology.

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

Speech as Byproduct

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Human beings like to celebrate the uniqueness of our species. Of all the terrestrial creatures, we are the ones who have built civilizations, developed science and technology, invented philosophy and sport, produced art and medicine. Exactly how we attained the presumed mantle of superiority is not as clear. The usual list of explanations leads us to similarities with other animals, rather than to exclusively human traits.

For instance, our “big brains” have roughly the same brain-to-body mass ratio as mice, and are outsized by dolphins and some small birds. Tool use is present among various animals, including primates, elephants, ants, wasps, certain birds and some octopi. We share an opposable thumb with koalas, opossums, several primates, certain frogs, and a few dinosaurs. We are not the only animals to walk on two legs—just look at any bird. Even the gene largely responsible for language (FOXP2) is found in other species, like chimpanzees and songbirds, albeit in different variants.

It could be that what makes us human is not one of these traits, but all of them in combination. For example, the anatomical emergence of the opposable thumb facilitated tool culture, and large brains enabled the development of seemingly endless devices, including written language. Indeed, many scientists contend that language advancement—built from the convergence of other human characteristics—is what makes us unique.

Dr. Charles Limb recently challenged this conventional view. Limb, an otolaryngological surgeon and saxophonist, was intrigued by musical conversations that take place between improvising jazz players. Using an MRI machine, he and a team of researchers mapped the “jazz brain.” First, they instructed a musician to play a memorized piece of music. Next, they asked him to improvise with another musician, who played in another room. Their findings show that collaborative improvisation stimulates robust activity in brain areas traditionally linked with spoken language. Moreover, it appears that the uninhibitedness and spontaneity of improvisation is closer to a dream state than to self-conscious conversation.

As a mode of communication, music is more complex and intuitive than the comparatively straightforward systems of verbal and written language. For jazz improvisers, the back-and-forth is both plainly understood and impossible to put into words. The fact that the brain can process this acoustic information, which is far more complicated than speech, suggests that musical capacity—not language—is the distinctive human-identifying trait.

To be sure, “musicality” is also present in songbirds, whales and a handful of other animals. But the complexity of music perception in humans is so advanced that modern science cannot fully comprehend it. Limb says it best: “If the brain evolved for the purpose of speech, it’s odd that it evolved to a capacity way beyond speech. So a brain that evolved to handle musical communication—there has to be a relationship between the two. I have reason to suspect that the auditory brain may have been designed to hear music and speech is a happy byproduct.”

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

Inventing the Supernatural

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

The conjuring of supernatural explanations for natural phenomena is a hallmark of religious thought. Ancient civilizations freely invented extra-physical explanations for the sun’s apparent rise and fall, the occurrence of earthquakes and droughts, the origins of plants and animals, and the collapse of kingdoms. In the spirit-filled world of the ancients, fortunes, failures, ailments, recoveries, victories, tragedies and all manner of circumstances were attributed to divine intervention. The characteristics of the deities and the ways in which they were worshiped varied from place to place, as each group drew upon its own surroundings and experiences. Similar cultural variations persist in religious systems of our day. And despite the great extent to which physical and social sciences have explained things once thought mysterious, the devout continue to frame material existence in supernatural language and imagery.

The concoction of religious ideas to comprehend nature is apparent throughout the history and diversity of religion. Less often considered is how religious notions were devised to account for events of our minds, or inner nature. Dreams, for instance, were (and sometimes still are) believed to be a mechanism of prophecy, revelation or divine inspiration, rather than an involuntary succession of images, sensations and scenarios that occur during certain stages of sleep. Likewise, psychiatric and mood disorders were (and sometimes still are) attributed to demons or divine punishment, rather than genetic, circumstantial or chemical causes.

The ubiquitous association of music and religion can be grouped with the supernatural explications for human nature. Music’s often-overwhelming and usually unavoidable hold on our emotions has long been a source of theological discourse. The interaction of this abstract art with our inner being is felt as evidence of a spiritual force. There is no shortage of literature describing how music is a portal to human-divine communion, a conduit for the divine presence, a pathway to the heavenly plane.

The intersection of music and theology is so widely asserted that some commentators refer to worship music as “sung theology” or “theology sung.” Contrary to what might be assumed, this is not because worship songs typically involve prayerful words set to music—and thus expose practitioners to theological themes—but rather because our encounter with music transcends the ordinary and hints at something beyond ourselves.

As with other areas of consciousness, religious reasons for music’s impact can only resonate with the theologically or spiritually oriented. The philosophical materialists among us require a material explanation. However, as much success as researchers have had deciphering sources of dreams, mental disorders and other arenas of the mind, music remains largely inexplicable. Despite many reasonable theories and promising discoveries, we cannot yet state precisely why we respond to music the way we do.

Of course, the absence of scientific consensus does not make supernatural claims any more valid. Explaining a mystery with a fantasy is a fruitless endeavor. Instead, music demonstrates that we need not fully understand what is happening outside or inside of us to appreciate our experience of it.

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.

Beauty and Human Potential

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.          

Beauty is chiefly understood as a matter of the senses rather than of the intellect. Familiar phrases like “in the eye of the beholder” and “there’s no accounting for taste” stress the role of individual perceptions and gut reactions in arriving at aesthetic conclusions. More than an absolute law, beauty is typically described as a feeling, emotion, passion or sentiment. From one point of view, this removes aesthetic judgments from the plane of rational discourse, essentially eliminating the possibility of an empirical framework for measuring gradients of beauty. However, aesthetics remains an active area of philosophy concerned with principles of attractiveness and taste. Even liberal humanism, that branch of philosophy that champions the dignity of personal values and opinions, has put forward criteria for evaluating beauty.

A particularly lucid formulation comes from Rabbi Daniel Friedman, one of the founders of the Society for Humanistic Judaism. In “Art and Nature: Beauty and Spirituality,” a philosophical sketch originally presented at the 2001 Colloquium of the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism, Friedman offers some yardsticks for aesthetic determination that approach objectivity (as much as such a thing is possible). Friedman contends that beauty is not a property of nature, but a concept formed in the mind. As human beings, we extract and infuse purpose, meaning and value in our experiences and observations. Judging something as beautiful is fundamentally a conceptualization of feelings evoked inside of us: serenity, wonder, elation, awe, satisfaction, etc. Aesthetics is thus an internal process. It is idiosyncratically derived.

Yet, according to Friedman, this does not relegate beauty to an arbitrary decision or a relativistic whim. While the assessment takes place internally and is ultimately shaped by forces like culture and biography, the object or phenomenon itself remains outside of us. It is in that realm of creation—rather than perception—that objective standards can be applied, however imperfectly. Specifically, Friedman argues that higher and lower worth can be assigned to human artworks based on how much and to what degree they utilize distinctly human qualities.

He gives the example of comparing Mozart to elevator music (presumably meaning easy-listening instrumentals with simple and unobtrusively looped melodies). A Mozart composition is aesthetically superior, Friedman claims, because it uses more and better-refined human capacities, including reason, intellect, imagination, discipline, education and talent. It demands deeper understanding and appreciation from both the composer/performer(s) and the listener. It requires more of our humanity, and is thus more beautiful.

The obvious flaw in this comparison is a confusion of kind: it is improper to apply the same criteria or expectations to two selections from disparate musical spheres. Mozart should be compared to other composers of the Classical period, just as bluegrass should be judged against other bluegrass and yodeling against other yodeling. (It also follows that all elevator music should not be lumped together—some elevator music exhibits more and fuller human qualities.) Nevertheless, Friedman’s proposal—the measurement of beauty by degrees—is consistent with the broader thrust of humanism, which celebrates the exploration of human potential as the highest goal one can strive for. In art or anything else, the more of our potential we use and the further we push ourselves toward that end, the more worthy the outcome.

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

Taste Matters

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Value in music is of two kinds. The first is formal, or value in the technical sense of the term. Within a musical system, there are agreed upon and objectively verifiable measurements for calculating elements such as tonality, texture, dynamics, temporal properties and structure. For example, theoretical analysis of Western concert repertoire includes specific names for chord types, normative concepts of articulation, parameters for simple and complex compositions, qualifications for themes and variations, and numerous other mechanical and quasi-mechanical computations.

The second kind of value is not so absolute. It is value in the humanistic sense, or the judgment of aesthetic qualities based on sensuous response. This is qualitative worth, in which subjective ideas like beauty, purpose, pleasantness, truth and goodness are applied to music. Such value exists on a continuum. An audience’s impression of a piece can range from strong affinity to staunch dislike, with shades of nuance in between. These varied reactions are common despite attempts to standardize conceptions of excellence. Mozart is supposed to be received as beauty nearing perfection, even if a person does not resonate with it, while elevator music is supposed to be repugnant, even if one aimlessly rides up and down the shaft  just to hear it.

True, one can never fully escape the musical pre-judgments that pervade a culture. Through cultural membership, we are involuntarily exposed to a set of consensus-driven artistic rules and expectations. Yet, on an individual level, there can be varying degrees of agreement and disagreement. This is because aesthetics are not inherent in the piece or in the mind of the listener. They arise from a transaction between the two.

Aesthetic valuation occurs in three successive stages: perception, statement of position, and reason for judgment. In a typical scenario, a listener hears a song, pronounces that it is boring, and explains that it lacks motion and variation. Another person might hear the same song and find it soothing for the same reasons. As a general rule, any piece is capable of attracting fans, no matter how vehement or widespread the opposition. The opposite goes for pieces widely regarded as good or pleasing: they still have their detractors.

Thus, the question follows: Is there any right or wrong way to feel about music? Critics and aestheticians would argue that there is. They point to the role of convention in determining things like attractiveness, balance and symmetry. By these guidelines, a selection can be certified as great, good, mediocre, bad, etc. An exception is made for works outside of one’s purview, namely music of a foreign culture or subculture. For instance, the average American cannot accurately assess a gamelan performance, nor can a Baroque enthusiast give definitive appraisals of gansta rap. But critics object when similar leeway is given for music produced in one’s own cultural setting.

Conclusions drawn by critics and aestheticians are often well reasoned and sometimes thought provoking. But they can also be overly academic and remote from the actual musical encounter. As much as they strive to distance music from arbitrary evaluations, the act of listening is by nature arbitrary. While music has absolute value in terms of its measurable components, the sensuous value we ascribe to it is the result of intimate contact. Norms and inherited assumptions can and do inform our decision-making, but the final judgment remains our own. Music is a matter of taste, and taste matters.

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

Music of Champions

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

In the preface to Breakfast of Champions (1973), Kurt Vonnegut describes the book as a fiftieth-birthday present to himself. It is a gift more therapeutic than celebratory. He likens the novel to “a sidewalk strewn with junk, trash which I throw over my shoulders as I travel in time back to November eleventh, nineteen hundred and twenty-two.” The junk consists of childish drawings (of assholes, flags, underpants, and so on), characters recycled from previous stories, and absurd science-fiction plots he never intended to develop into books. At the end of the confessional prelude, Vonnegut assures the reader that while this garbage must be emptied, he does not want to throw away any “sacred things.” The sacraments he cites are Armistice Day, Romeo and Juliet, and all music.

The categories these things represent are fairly conventional. Most religious systems include holidays, stories and music deemed sacred. But Vonnegut’s choices are more personal. He was a humanist without creedal ties. Armistice Day, which happened to be his birthday, was an important part of his childhood (he had no similar regard for the Veteran’s Day that would replace it). He considered Shakespeare the wisest of human beings (though, he admitted, that wasn’t saying much). He was less selective when it came to music. In fact, he was not selective at all.

Is there any wisdom in Vonnegut’s view that all music is sacred? Strictly speaking, sacred music is an established taxonomic classification. It is music performed or composed for religious use and/or created under religious influence. It goes by many names: worship music, religious music, liturgical music, devotional music, ecclesiastical music, etc. But Vonnegut was not referring to any specialized musical purpose or context. To him, music—generically and without judgment—is a sacred thing.

To understand this viewpoint, we should look at the word “sanctity,” which derives from the Latin term sanctum, or “set apart.” (This is also the meaning of the Hebrew term kadesh.) Specifically, it denotes something that is set apart from the profane or ordinary.

Music fits this description in at least seven ways: (1) It is perceived as distinct from other noises; (2) Words set to music rise above everyday speech; (3) Our capacity for music-making distinguishes us from other animals; (4) Musical sounds penetrate otherwise untapped areas of consciousness; (5) Music has “extra-physical” power over our emotions; (6) Music is suggestive of a force greater than ourselves; (7) Any music can be set apart as special by an individual.

As inherently judgmental creatures, we might not agree with Vonnegut’s uncritical appraisal of music. We might also be cautious not to take his statement too seriously, given his track record of sarcasm and his usual penchant for sharp criticism. However, it is reasonable to accept his words at face value. All music likely was sacred to him, even as most other things were not (and many things were merely trash).

Breakfast of Champions was not the only place Vonnegut expressed this opinion. Elsewhere, he contrasted the brokenness he saw in the world with the purity he heard in music. This is most clearly written in his collection of essays, A Man Without a Country (2005): “No matter how corrupt, greedy, and heartless our government, our corporations, our media, and our religious and charitable institutions may become, the music will still be wonderful.”

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

Musical Peaks

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Music is a common element of trance. Musical sounds combine with other sensual cues—like incense and bright ornate colors—to bring individuals into feelings of euphoria and a perceived connection with a sacred realm. In the Santería religion of West Africa and the Caribbean, songs with repetitive and extended rhythmic patterns are played to call upon deities, known as orishas. A typical ceremony begins with oro seco, dry drumming without singing, followed by a salute to Elegúa, the messenger between gods and humans. Next comes the oro cantado, or sung prayer, during which individual orishas respond to set rhythms and musical themes, and enter the bodies of consecrated priests—a sensation called “mounting the horse.” The musicians and dancers, propelled by polyrhythmic textures and repetitious melodies, continue performing for many hours. The emotions and physical exertion escalate as the ceremony carries on. The end goal is spirit possession, in which orishas are believed to work within the possessed and deliver messages, advice and healing.

This is just one culturally and religiously specific example of how rhythm, melody, dance and belief merge to inspire feelings of transcendence. The type and level of rapture will vary according to factors like physical space, group makeup, belief system and style and duration of the musical episode. How and for what reason the trance is induced is situational: it takes different forms and is interpreted differently depending on whether the context is Hassidic, Dervish, Santerian or something else. Moreover, similar feelings can be aroused at secular venues like a rave or rock concert, and can potentially be achieved in unplanned and informal dance sessions done in private.

The diversity of perceived causes and meanings indicates two things. First, human beings seem to be drawn to this kind of experience. We have an instinctual urge for ecstatic moments and use music and dance to reach them. Second, it is in the level of interpretation—prior to and afterward —that we assign meaning to what takes place. The kinds of responses that occur are essentially identical from person to person and group to group, but the environments and explanations span a wide spectrum of possibilities. Many of them involve some form of theological language, as with the notion of orishas possessing their invokers. But is this a necessary component?

Dance trances, in all their multifarious incarnations, exemplify what Abraham Maslow called peak experiences. Maslow, a humanist psychologist, rejected the premise that supernatural forces ignite feelings regarded as spiritual. Instead, he saw these “peaks” as perfectly natural moments of self-actualization: especially exciting events involving sudden feelings of wholeness, elation, epiphany and awe. These wondrous instances can be triggered by an assortment of inducements, including love, works of art, the beauty of nature, and music.

In The Farther Reaches of Human Nature, Maslow cites listeners of classical music who describe themselves being delivered to “great joy,” “ecstasy,” “visions of another world” and “another level of living.” A few sentences later, he notes the consciousness-altering effect of music when it “melts over, fuses over, into dancing or rhythm.” According to Maslow, the potential outcome of such peak experiences is manifold. They can release creative energy, affirm the value of existence, renew a sense of purpose and promote oneness with the universe. And the mark they leave can be permanent, reorienting the individual for the better.

Again, none of this depends on an external power; it all takes place within the “farther reaches” of the body and mind. In this sense, there is no inherent contrast between spiritual/religious experiences and peak/highly emotional experiences. They are one and the same. The only difference is whether religious or secular language is used to contextualize and interpret what has occurred. Regardless of how we choose to frame such experiences, they demonstrate the human propensity—and need—for extraordinary moments.

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

A Higher Noise

Jonathan L. Friedmann. Ph.D.

In the non-theistic mysticism of psychologist and philosopher Erich Fromm (1900-1980), God is not a power hovering over us, instructing us or judging our behavior. God is a concept: a symbol of our higher self and a metaphor for what we can become. Fromm articulated this view, among other places, in The Art of Loving: “[God] stands for the highest value, the most desirable good.” He considered this conception of the deity harmonious with the Jewish faith of his birth, since the essence of Jewish monotheism is “imitation of God,” not some rarified theological formulation. This is a principle affirmed in the Torah—“To walk in all His ways” (Deut. 11:22)—and reiterated in rabbinic literature: “Just as God is merciful, you too must be merciful . . . just as God is compassionate, you too must be compassionate” (Sifre, Ekev 49).

Fromm agreed with the believer that the divine (or at least the divine concept) can and should be experienced. He regarded himself a mystic—not in the sense of striving for an external entity, but in the sense of seeking one’s highest potential, symbolically represented as God. In this framework, which he called humanistic religion, “transcendence within” can be achieved in three ways: cultivation of knowledge, ethical development and rising above the “prison” of daily routine. The first two uphold critical thinking and healthy relationships as aspirational ideals. The third endorses the value of transcendence.

Although Fromm did not state so explicitly, the third path is ably facilitated by music. Music is almost universally acknowledged as a language of transcendence. It pierces through the ordinary noises of sound and speech, and has an expressive capacity surpassing other forms of communication. This is the underlying reason why prayers are regularly sung in houses of worship: the “beyondness” implicit in musical tones is felt as contact with the deity. For Fromm, however, communion is not between humanity and a higher being, but between humanity and higher human essence.

When we hear or sing or play music, we are activating areas of our consciousness that are dormant under regular conditions. Absorption in the musical activity can deliver us into a world of emotions, memories, sensations, images and epiphanies rarely approachable in other pursuits. The experience is so distinct from the norm that the theistically minded rush to label it sacred or holy. But Fromm saw it otherwise. Stimulants like music unlock a deeper layer within us all. They do not tap into some cosmic energy; they lead us further within ourselves.

Fromm would recognize music as a spiritual encounter in that it is immaterial and essentially ineffable. Yet he would identify the object of the encounter as our interior potential. On an experiential level, this perspective does not automatically conflict with conventional theism, since both promote peak experiences as life-enhancing moments. And whether one’s religion is theistic, humanistic or none at all, it is hard to argue against Fromm’s assertion that knowledge, relationships and transcendence are key avenues toward self-realization.

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