Tag Archives: Perception

Music Everlasting

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

“There is no time like the present,” “once in a lifetime,” and other such clichés highlight an obvious truth: each moment is unrepeatable. At any point in time, we have the ability to do one thing and one thing alone. Nothing that we do, say, think, or feel can, in the strictest sense, be compared to any other. Regrets about missed opportunities are purely theoretical. Judgments and self-inventories can only be based on actual occurrences, not “what ifs.” Jean-Paul Sartre makes this point in his treatise Existentialism: “There is no genius other than one which is expressed in works of art; the genius of Proust is the sum of Proust’s work; the genius of Racine is his series of tragedies. Outside of that, there is nothing. Why say that Racine could have written another tragedy, when he didn’t write it? A man is involved in life, leaves his impress on it, and outside of that there is nothing.”

The deterministic worldview draws a similar conclusion. All facts in the physical universe—including human history—are inescapably dependent upon and conditioned by their causes. The choices we make, big and small, fit in a chain of cause and effect that yields a single outcome. Meteorologist Edward Lorenz imagined the classic example with his “butterfly effect,” wherein the distant flapping of butterfly wings influences a tornado several weeks later. The resulting chaos theory holds that the universe operates by unpredictable determinism: everything happens in an orderly pattern, but we cannot know with certainty how things will turn out until they actually happen.

Live music gives sonic expression to the unrelenting yet unpredictable uniqueness of each passing moment. In his erudite tome, A Composer’s World: Horizons and Limitations, Paul Hindemith muses on the individuality of each performance. Sound, he contends, is music’s least stable quality: “An individual piece of music, being many times reborn and going through ever renewed circles of resonant life, through repeated performances, dies as many deaths at the end of each of its phoenixlike resurrections: no stability here, but a stumbling progression from performance to performance.” Hindemith connects the frailty of sound to the fleetingness of life itself, suggesting that musical moments are just as unrepeatable as other moments. Like the passage of time, each performance is one of a kind, and each iteration evaporates as soon as it occurs.

The impression of permanence is stronger in recorded music. Listening to recordings is, of course, subject to the same forces as live performances: sounds come and go in accordance with time’s progression. The crucial difference is that the same performance can be heard again, creating a sort of conditional eternality. Rather than living, dying, and resurrecting with each performance, recorded music exists in a perpetual present tense.

This semblance of stability is wholly at variance with life’s ephemeral, deterministic trajectory. Recordings allow us to simulate everlasting moments; life pushes ahead but the music remains the same. This psychological gratification, rooted in a desire to obtain the unobtainable, accounts in part for our attraction to recorded music.

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

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The Original Echo Chamber

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

“A temple is a landscape of the soul. When you walk into a cathedral, you move into a world of spiritual images. It is the mother womb of your spiritual life—mother church.” These words from mythologist Joseph Campbell touch on the primitive spatial and acoustic appeal of Medieval and Renaissance cathedrals. Campbell connects the sensation to that of pictograph-adorned Paleolithic caves, which were also likely used for mystical and spiritual ceremonies. The melodic conventions and vocal techniques adapted to these acoustically active stone-walled spaces—epitomized by the straight, drawn-out, and separated tones of Latin ecclesiastical chant—exploit the echo chamber effect, creating an all-encompassing sonic and physical experience. As I explain in an earlier blog post, these ethereal sounds became synonymous with the cosmic voice.

The impression of safety and repose these spaces provide is captured in Campbell’s phrase, “the mother womb.” This image can be taken a step further. The sonically induced, archaic feelings take us back to the literal womb: the original acoustic envelope where direct and indirect sounds are experienced as an undifferentiated gestalt. Psychoanalyst Didier Anzieu describes it as a “sonorous bath”: a lulling sense of weightlessness, rebirth, and being transported.

The ear awakens during the fourth month of fetal development. By week twenty-five, the cochlea—the ear’s frequency analyzer—reaches adult size. From that point forward, the fetus receives, processes, and responds to a growing array of amalgamated sounds, including pressure variations in the bodily walls, two cycles of heartbeats (the mother’s and her own), and acoustic input from outside the womb. The unfiltered sounds are presumably analogous to those heard in a reverberating space, such as a cave or cathedral.

Only in early childhood does the ear begin to categorize different sounds. Following R. Murray Schafer’s concept of the “soundscape,” or the combination of acoustic signals heard in an immersive environment, normally functioning ears automatically distinguish between background and foreground signals, both natural and human-made. This behavior, which combines innate capacity and cultural conditioning, is not present in the echoing womb. The lively reverberations, so closely associated with sacred spaces, recall that original echo chamber. Indeed, conceptions of God (or gods) as compassionate, protecting, loving, comforting, and so forth may even be rooted in this simulated return to the womb.

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

Musical (Nearly) Universals

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Human universals refer to aspects of culture, language, behavior, and psyche found in historically and geographically distributed human populations. These include, but are by no means limited to, tools and tool-making, grammar and syntax, myths and proverbs, social groups and kinship systems, mores and moral codes, facial recognition and psychological defenses, and gestures and emotional displays. Some of these are universals of classification, as opposed to universals of content: they share common patterns and purposes, but not necessarily individual elements.  Myths and languages, for example, take on many different forms and meanings, but their presence in widely varied societies make them universal categories.

Music is universal in this classificational sense. While a universally applicable definition of music seems impossible, no human society, past or present, has been without some type of culturally intelligible musical expression. Anthropologists and aestheticians highlight dissimilarities in styles and sounds, and modern music-makers push barriers beyond what is normatively called “music.” Yet within the overwhelming variety and complexity reside ubiquitous acoustic cues.

Psychological studies have uncovered an array of associations between general musical sounds (i.e., not tied to a specific genre or music-culture) and human responses. Loud music, for instance, tends to increase psychological arousal. Lower pitches are perceived as negative or aggressive, whereas higher pitches are heard as positive or submissive. Vibrato tends to evoke strong emotionality, while sudden or unexpected sounds tend to startle. Auditors synchronize body movements with music’s temporal organization. Cuteness is conveyed through certain resonant cavities (roughly 20 milliliters in volume), such as ocarinas and music boxes, which apparently trigger nurturing behaviors associated with infant vocalizations. Other cues suggest a link between vocal tendencies and musical expression, such as intensified speech (angry, fearful, happy, etc.) with faster tempi.

As this partial list suggests, similar responses to similar characteristics persist across the human experience, even as the music itself can differ dramatically. This seems to go against the “incommensurability thesis,” which posits that because objects, concepts, and behaviors have very specific meanings for the groups that produce them, they must therefore be utterly unique. Without denying music’s irreducible diversity, associations appear to cut through culturally specific signatures. Underlying the wide range of rhythms, tonalities, modalities, and timbres are basic and essentially predicable responses.

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

Music to the Rescue

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Jerry Goldsmith, a top film composer of the second half of the twentieth century, regularly worked on projects unworthy of his artistic expression. His filmography includes over two hundred titles, along with a hefty body of television work. Much of it is stale genre fare: thrillers, westerns, maritime adventures, and war movies. According to Mauricio Dupuis, author of Jerry Goldsmith: Music Scoring for American Movies, “It is almost proverbial, among enthusiasts of this composer and the applied cinematic genre in general, to consider Goldsmith a rare example of talent and technical ability frequently applied to projects lacking in ideas.”

Star Trek: The Motion Picture is a case in point. Somewhere between mediocrity and a critical failure, the thinly-scripted and over-budget 1979 film famously strayed from the character-driven saga of the original series. It is a meandering attempt to hybridize Star TrekStar Wars, and 2001: A Space Odyssey. Even the costumes are a bland shadow of their former selves. Director Robert Wise—legendary for helming The Day the Earth Stood Still, West Side Story, and The Sound of Music—admitted, “Thank goodness we had Jerry’s score…He really saved us.”

Film music accomplishes a number of aims: establishing atmosphere, setting a mood, building anticipation, amplifying gratification, aiding characterization, shaping narrative, unifying images, and so forth. A well-written score (or well-constructed compilation score) naturalistically undergirds and interacts with the visuals and non-musical sounds. On screen as in life, music is interwoven into human experience, at times underscoring activities, and other times transcending them.

Just as a thoughtful score can “save” a lackluster scene, good music can mitigate a less-than-spectacular day. “Good” is used here in the utilitarian sense of serving a need or function; or, as Baruch Spinoza wrote, “By good I mean that which we certainly know to be useful to us” (Ethics IV, Definition 1). A soundtrack for film or daily life is essentially Gebrauchsmusik: music for a purpose outside of the music itself. When the action is intrinsically compelling, good music enhances it. When events are droll or disappointing, good music provides a ray of light. The latter might be called “Gebrauchsmusik plus,” with the effect surpassing the reality of the moment.

University of Groningen researchers Jacob Jolij and Maaike Meurs touched on this in their 2011 study, “Music Alters Visual Perception.” They found that emotional stimuli, like music, influence not only how listeners feel, but also how they see the world. When music stimulates something positive within, the world tends to improve accordingly. (Of course, the opposite is also true.) A favorite song on the radio can temporarily brighten a slog in heavy traffic; a well-chosen playlist can ease the toil of washing dishes. And, as Jerry Goldsmith often discovered, incidental music that exceeds the quality of a film can improve the cinematic experience.

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

Childlike Ears

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Childlike wonder is for many an idealized virtue. Aristotle’s inquiries often begin with innocent amazement. Poet and scholar Kathleen Raine advised, “rather than understanding nature better by learning more, we have to unlearn, to un-know, if we hope to recapture a glimpse of that paradisal vision.” J. Krishnamurti, the self-styled twentieth-century sage, was moved to tears at the sight of withering branches. These approaches simulate a pre-jaded, pre-cluttered stage of life, when openness and sensitivity are natural conditions. The shiny new brain is neither capable of boredom nor stress. It is receptive to all shades of experience, unconcerned with the illusion of self, and attentive to the world as it is.

Intellectual maturation and social conditioning quickly do away with this pristine state. The schoolchild is taught to label and conform. A grown man weeping at a tree is abnormal. But, say the romantics, by retrieving (or reconstructing) childlike innocence, we can salvage a life-enhancing sense of awe.

The distance between the child’s perception and our own can be demonstrated musically. Unlike adults, young children do not typically describe or define music. They derive benefits from the music they make and listen to—joy, solace, safety—but to them, music just is. Infants instinctively move to the beat and respond wide-eyed to lullabies and infant-directed song-speech. However, as children mature, their ears become more discerning, and the external influence of family, peers, and consumer culture narrow tastes and heighten judgments. By middle childhood (ages 6 to 12), spontaneous engagement is typically replaced with self-consciousness. Words begin interfering with experience.

Vladimir Jankélévitch romanticizes infant ears in his 1961 classic, La Musique et l’Ineffable (Music and the Ineffable). An exceedingly perceptive and prolific contributor to the philosophy of music, Jankélévitch nevertheless admits the uneasy application of words to the musical experience: “Directly, in itself, music signifies nothing, unless by convention or association. Music means nothing and yet means everything.” He espouses “a great nostalgia for innocence,” promotes “a return to the spirit of childhood,” and reminds us that “music was not invented to be talked about.” This is not a contradictory position. Musical subtleties were of great interest to Jankélévitch; he was captivated by the slightest gradations of sound. Yet, his responses were more testimonial than analytical or explanatory. Study led him to a profound gratitude best expressed in silence. He encouraged readers to enter the “mystery” for themselves.

Like Aristotle, Raine, and Krishnamurti, Jankélévitch was a deep thinker aware of both the merits and demerits of the thinking brain, which affords exploration and reflection, but obstructs the purity of experience. His desire was to reenact the clean exposure we unconsciously sweep aside with accumulating years. From such a state, fresh and novel insights are possible.

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

Sound and Spirit

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Music is considered the most spiritual of the arts. The designation refers equally to music’s substance and impact. Music is revelation: it manifests in ethereal air. Music is boundless: it transcends physical constraints. Music is invisible: its essence cannot be seen. Music reaches inward: it communes with the inner life. Music conjures: it stirs vivid memories and associations. Music alters: it changes moods and frames of mind. These observations point to the music’s immateriality. Although it abides by the laws of physics and follows a traceable line of causation, it somehow extends beyond them.

Music embodies the fundamental meaning of spirituality: “of, relating to, or affecting the human spirit or soul as opposed to material or physical things.” Unlike the visual arts, which manipulate tangible matter, music lacks a physical presence. It is force without mass.

This is not to suggest supernaturalism, which is often confused with spirituality. The life of the spirit is not dependent upon an otherworldly plane. From a scientific perspective, everything—including sound—is part of the natural world. The separation of music from material existence is more perception than objective fact. Just as science has demystified the once-taken-for-granted duality of soul and body, the perceived disconnect between music and material reality would not pass scientific muster. Yet, insofar as art is expression and impression, the feeling of otherness is enough to sustain the mystery of music.

Musical responses can be attributed to chemical and neurological mechanisms. For example, dopamine release is the primary inducement of musical “highs.” But, just as scientific explanations of why and how we come to believe in the supernatural do not prevent people from doing so, laboratory studies of music’s effect on the brain do not compel us to pause, analyze, and dismiss musical-spiritual sensations as they occur. We are wired to feel and conceive of music the way we do.

How can these rational/scientific and non-rational/spiritual views be reconciled? One way is by appreciating music’s ability to meet incorporeal needs distinct from the material necessities of food, shelter, clothing, possessions, and the like. The fact that music is a natural phenomenon (like everything else) does not make it any less spiritual. What music accomplishes more than the other arts is a sense of going outside the measurable world, even while being a part of it.

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

Music Is As Music Does

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Part of the difficulty of defining “music” is the implicit notion that music is a thing. Music is erroneously conceived as a sort of organism that can be taxonomically defined by a set of fixed morphological properties. Not only is there a multiplicity of divergent elements that can constitute music, especially when viewed cross-culturally, but those elements also need to be in motion in order for music to exist. Unlike static objects, like a statue, painting, or table, music becomes music through active relationships.

This dynamic quality is encoded in the term “composition,” perhaps music’s closest equivalent to a concrete thing. Composition means “putting together.” It is a noun that is really a verb. The composer (“one who puts together”) combines notes, beats, rests, articulations, and other audible components. The musicians (“ones who make music”) put these components into active relationship.

This process is most obvious in improvisation—spontaneous composition—where the acts of composing and music-making occur in the same moment. But it is also evident in the most meticulously written scores. As Sartre and others have observed, the printed page cannot be called music until and unless it is translated into sound. Thus, even music publishing, the best attempt at musical reification (“thing-making”), cannot force music into noun status.

The foregoing discussion is not limited to music. Other actions are often misconstrued as things, thereby obscuring their active essence. This is true of such lofty concepts as love, hate, good, and evil. Such terms are as convenient as they are misleading. They are, fundamentally, abstract nouns applied to a dynamic amalgam of sentiments expressed through action: loving, hating, doing good, and doing evil. Love is not a tangible or definite thing; evil does not exist as a concrete entity. Like the elements of music, they are multi-layered chains of events that unfold in real-time and in the context of relationships.

These observations could be expanded to include all of life, which itself is a deceptive term for the active process of living. From a certain point of view, everything is a verb. But philosophical maneuverings are not needed to appreciate music in this way. To paraphrase Forrest Gump, “Music is as music does.”

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