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Why Music Loves Us

Music as an Epiphenomenon

(07 October 2007)

Music is accorded a position of paramount importance in the thinking of Nietzsche, Schopenhauer and Adorno. Schopenhauer declares, "Music is an unconscious exercise in metaphysics in which the mind does not know it is philosophising.” For Nietzsche, "Life without music is simply a mistake, a hardship, an exile.” According to Adorno, the language of music "is demythologised prayer, rid of efficacious magic.”

Are these assertions well founded or, frankly, absurd? What conclusions might a scientific approach to music reach? Is it possible to demonstrate that music is simply a side effect, an epiphenomenon, of human language capabilities?

In The Gay Science, Nietzsche says that language and consciousness developed in tandem, for the explicit purpose of aiding the survival prospects of human beings. This is a straightforward evolutionary biology argument, and perhaps Nietzsche should have maintained this approach when he reflected on music’s significance.

Music, for all the grandiose claims made on its behalf, is unimportant in terms of survival prospects. Deaf people can live perfectly long, productive and enjoyable lives without ever having heard a note of Mozart. There is no lack in their lives that would allow Nietzsche to describe their existence as a mistake.

So, can we develop a plausible evolutionary biology narrative to account for music’s alleged importance?

Music, obviously, relies on hearing. Why do human beings hear at all? What benefits are conferred? For one thing, hearing allowed our ancestors to be forewarned of the approach of predators. Equally, it alerted them to the presence of suitable prey. It could assist them with find running water, avoiding forest fires, rock falls, and so forth.

The evolving human brain probably became closely attuned to these sounds. Indeed, the early use of language might have been nothing more than a mimicking of such sounds. If one person in a group of human beings heard the noises of a predator, perhaps he imitated those sounds to alert the others to the approaching danger, thereby gaining prestige in the social hierarchy.

As humans became more dominant in their environment, the focus may have switched from basic survival considerations to "success” within the social group – getting the most desirable mate, the safest spot in the cave, the best of the available food and drink etc. In this new context, understanding what others in the group were thinking became critical. It’s likely that Theory of Mind, empathy, the reading of body language etc developed rapidly in such an environment. The human brain became preoccupied with gaining information to allow the hidden thoughts and feelings of others to be glimpsed so that their help could be sought in some situations, or their weaknesses exploited in others.

A person’s tone of voice betrays a wealth of information. Nowadays when we talk to someone over the phone, we can identify if they are depressed, happy, excited, bored, angry etc without the benefit of a single visual clue. In other words, hearing gives us practically as many pointers to another’s emotional and mental states as visual signals.

Where does music fit into this? If the human brain links tonality to emotion (both in the expression and the understanding of emotion), then we can hypothesise that any "constructed” tones (such as those generated by music) that mimic "natural” tones may produce a similar emotional response.

Additionally, some evolutionary biologists have suggested that, in the period before humans could write, simple tunes were useful in the transmission of oral histories and accumulated community knowledge. By reciting words in a rhythmic, tuneful way, we seem to find them easier to remember. Even today, when schoolchildren are memorising their "times tables” they use a familiar chant. Priests in many religions intone in a musical manner. There is evidence that the more predictable a tune is, the easier it is to remember. Another observation is that when we recall a popular tune, the same parts of the brain are activated as when we actually hear the tune, though the activation is rather fainter.

If humans have evolved a particular receptiveness to the tone of the human voice in order to gauge underlying feelings, the "enigma” of music that has so transfixed the likes of Schopenhauer, Nietzsche and Adorno, becomes rather unmysterious.

Music, quite simply, has its particular impact because it’s an abstraction of an experience to which the human brain has become hard-wired; namely the interpretation of tone to assess another’s emotional state, and the concomitant feeling of the same emotion within ourselves as an act of empathy.

When we are with a person who is expressing sadness, we have a specific object upon which to focus. On the other hand, when we hear sad music, we lack the expected human object. So, instead of having localised, contained feelings whose source is known (the sad person), we are left with generalised, uncontained feelings that have no objectified source (there is no sad person). Instead of feeling an instance of sadness, we experience something more akin to sadness itself.

Naturally, such feelings seem more profound, just as the vastness of the ocean has more emotional impact on us than a small lake where we can clearly see the other side. These "unlocated” feelings take on a quasi-existential mantle, and we associate them with the totality of existence rather than just a snapshot in an ordinary life. But this profundity that attaches itself to music is illusory. Music is nothing more than mimicry of the sound-sensitive mechanisms we have evolved to help us in our social interactions. It is a mere epiphenomenon, a secondary or additional phenomenon, piggybacking on the main phenomenon of the human brain being programmed to respond to specific tones.

It is neither the first nor the last epiphenomenon to be accorded grand status. For example, once we are able to reason, we are able to reason wrongly and reach spectacularly erroneous conclusions. "God” might be considered as just a secondary effect of thinking. After all, one of the Cartesian "proofs” of God’s existence asserts that because we can conceive of perfection, perfection must actually exist, hence God. Equally, dreams are regarded by many people as wondrous windows on the soul, perhaps opening links to a second, more real and true world, yet they may be no more than the by-product of basic housekeeping tasks performed by the brain while we sleep. Several philosophers have defined consciousness itself as an epiphenomenon.

Adorno says that the language of music is "the human attempt, doomed as ever, to name the Name, not to communicate meanings.” He appears oblivious to the likelihood that music has its effects only insofar as it feeds off those sounds that, under evolutionary pressures, have become significant to human beings. This would be to entirely miss the point of music, he would probably contend, but aren’t his assertions about naming the Name verging on quasi-religious mumbo jumbo? He claims that the "new music” is hard to understand. In fact, it is not so much a question of being hard to understand as hard to listen to. With its atonal qualities, it fails to perform the essential task of "meaningful” music i.e. to replicate the tones that evolution has decreed are important. The "new music” will be of interest only to a minority of professional musicians, interested in technical aspects of the music, in much the same way that literary fiction, judging by average sales figures, is largely of interest only to literary writers and English Literature graduates. General readers, like general consumers of music, sculpture, painting, and film prefer popular, non-abstract work. They want to engage with it on an emotional level rather than a technical level.

For anyone who accepts Darwin’s theory of evolution, music has no metaphysical underpinnings. It is not "a copy of the will itself.” It is not an attempt to name the Name. It is merely something that has proved to have a certain value for reasons outwith itself.

Adorno, doubtless, would regard an analysis of music based on evolutionary biology as instrumental reasoning of the worse kind. Nietzsche would condemn it as the type of Socratic thinking that kills the Dionysian aspects of life. Yet, to claim that the power of music doesn’t have its basis in evolutionary considerations is, in effect, to deny the theory of evolution. It is implying that music awareness and appreciation are somehow outside evolution. It would be as though "autonomous art” had an autonomous life and magicked itself into existence as some sort of gift from the gods.

"We possess art lest we perish of the truth,” Nietzsche said. Perhaps, he Schopenhauer and Adorno thought it too dangerous to confront the underwhelming truth about music. There is simply no Name to name.