PhiloMadrid - Pub Philosophy Meetings in Madrid

Sunday, February 11, 2007

the impact of music on us

[this essay could do with a second check, but I don’t have the time]

the impact of music on us.

In 1913, Igor Stravinsky had the debut of The Rite of Spring in Paris. Three minutes into the ballet, the audience could not take it any longer and started to riot. More about the effects of music later on.

I won't be misrepresenting reality by saying that our general perception of music is one of pop groups, top twenties, CD's and mp3's, sound that accompanies films and adverts and of course that annoying noise which is played in bars and restaurants. Some would go a bit further and include classical music, concerts, musicals and for the very few playing a musical instrument, which usually involves the reproduction of the works of some composer or other.

However, most would agree that music is an important art form and some will equate listening to music as a spiritual experience. There is no doubt that music can have such an effect on people; it is supposed to do that. And there is no doubt that music is important, it is found in all human societies, dates back millennia and is also present in the animal kingdom. So there is no question that music is important.

However, what I want to look at is music as a human activity and not as an artistic or aesthetic sound.

So taking the aesthetic factor from music we are left with the physical content, basically sound. Many scientists describe sound as the same as touching or maybe touching at a distance. Physiological, the sound, vibrates the bones in the inner ear, which in turn vibrates the liquid surrounding these bones. The vibrating liquid moves the hair in our inner ears and this generates an electric charge which travels to the brain and is then converted into meaningful sound.

For this essay I will be referring to two main references; a radio programme that was aired in April 21, 2006 on Radio Lab, WNYC Public Radio (RadioLab); the name of the programme is Musical Language. This is also available as an mp3 download. This programme is a good introduction to music as a physical phenomenon and as explained by science. The other reference is the 2006 Reith lectures which were given by Daniel Barenboim (Barenboim). You can listen and read the five lectures on the BBC website. All details below.

Barenboim, laments the fact that we live in a visual society, where sound play a secondary role in our life. This is unfortunate because, as he points out, we can start hearing seven and a half months before we are born. In other words, hearing as a human sense has a seven and a half month head start over sight, yet the minute we are born, everything is dedicated to sight.

If we take the fact that hearing is a very basic biological function and the fact that hearing has the same status as touching, we can immediately see some very serious implications. These implications are related for example to noise pollution, maybe in the same sense that information pollution affects our sight; at least partially anyway.

So if we take hearing as touching, the most intimae of senses, then we can only conclude that noise pollution is a form of physical assault; maybe not in the legal sense of assault but certainly in a moral sense. Does this mean that noise pollution should have some sort of status as groping someone? In the radiolab some of the scientists interviewed describe sound as touch at a distance. What is of interest to us is how to interpret this touch at a distance idea.

Should this idea of sound being touching is established as a valid principle, the consequences could be far reaching. Barenboim's point about living in a visual society is quite telling. For example, most societies have stringent rules and laws about what can be exhibited in public. Nudity, for example, is a taboo, graffiti is probably regarded as criminal damage, and public images are always of perfect situations, perfect people or perfect everything. In the world of sight we regard images as having some status which needs regulating and managing. Images even have a moral content; holy pictures, pictures of religious figures which may or may not be offensive and so. For example, pornography is always regarded as images, but today we never think of pornography other than images never as written language, which of course can be equally graphic. However, can we speak of music (not songs) as being pornographic or offensive? But what is more offensive than someone touching us without our consent? Or, can there be a piece of music that is blasphemous? Mind you not the title of the music, and certainly without any lyrics; just the sound of musical instruments? Can these be blasphemous?

But when it come to music in public spaces there is no respect or thought about what we are subjected to hear. Barenboim described himself as having ''suffered tremendously'' from having to listen to musak in elevators. But besides being offensive, musak is also an arrogant form of expression. Apart from being exposed to listening to something which we might not want to do, the arrogance is that others assume to know what we like and enjoy.

We also know that music can be used to literally manipulate the behaviour of others. Supermarkets have used music (see note below about possible reference) to influence the shopping habits of customers. For example, playing French music to make customers buy French wine; even smells of freshly baked bread makes customers buy bread. Music is also used to psych up soldiers in battle and not just in films.

However, we use music even more effectively than musak or marching bands. We employ music in our language when we communicate with others. A majority of languages are tone languages (Tonal language: Wikipedia); a high or low pitch pattern is permanently associated with a word to give semantic meaning to it. Some Chinese languages are tone languages, which is why they is difficult to speak for non native speakers. A language like English depends more on intonation, with rising or falling pitch usually at the end of a sentence or word.

We effectively use music to influence others with our spoken language; not that it's any different for written language. Notice the sound of the language we use when we ask someone for a favour; now compare this when we are angry with someone. Children scream because they know that we cannot stand that sound for long; maybe in the same way that the audience in 1913 couldn’t stand the music. We can even go so far as to say that romantic language is also romantic music. Prof Trummel, in RadioLab, says that when we speak we sing. In fact monotonic speech is not how humans talk.

Of course we are more or less masters of our mother tongue language, but what implications does the “music” of one language have on others who are not native speakers of the language? Prof Diana Deutsch, RadioLab, studies the music of languages, and in one experiment she tried to assess the pitch of a group of Chinese and American children. Her results showed that 74% of Chinese kids had perfect `pitch and only 14% of American kids had perfect pitch. Chinese, unlike English, is a tonal language and she has a hunch that this disparity is due to language.

If we even take this as a working hypothesis and accept that language can influence what we hear and how we hear it, we can immediately ask ourselves two questions. The first is this , is it really possible to learn a second language to a native speaker standard? This is not to say that we cannot fully communicate in the second language without any problems and without any relevant discrepancies. The issue is what subtleties are we missing out due to this fundamental differences in languages? Moreover, what does it really take to learn a second language to native speaker standard; is it possible? And if we cannot hear a second language in its full glory, what are the repercussions, for example in politics or business? Do people think we are silly because we cannot speak their language as they do, so they believe they can disrespect us? Would a misplaced intonation be regarded as an intentional insult?

We know however, that these are not just academic questions. This is what Barenboim has to say. “The sound [music], the German, the so-called German sound in many ways is less harsh at the beginning of the note. Probably - and this again is very subjective - probably due also, not only but due also to the fact that the German language has such heavy consonants.” And this idea that language can affect the sound of the music originating from that culture or nations has direct implication on the music itself. Consider this quotation, “I have yet to find a German musician who feels the same degree of closeness to La Mer of Debussy as he does to the fifth symphony of Beethoven. And in the opposite direction as well. For fifteen years I was conductor of the Paris orchestra, and believe me it was very difficult to get the French musicians to feel the kind of, not only enthusiasm but atavistic attachment to the fifth symphony of Beethoven which they did perfectly naturally with La Mer.”

You might object to all this as being speculation and hunches as Deutsch called her perfect pitch and language connection. But we do know from Dawkins (The extended Phenotype), for example, that the most effective and efficient way for a male cricket to influence a female cricket is to sing to her. Music works for crickets and music works for humans as well.

Going back to Stravinsky and the rite of spring, Prof. Jonah Lehrer, radiolab, tries to explain what happened by appealing to brain chemistry. It is believed that there is a group of neurons that their sole job is to find patterns in any new noise or sound we hear. When these neurons repeatedly fail to find a pattern they start releasing dopamine into the brain, which, in small does, makes us high and euphoric. But when dopamine is present in large quantities it makes go crazy. This, it is argued, is what happened in 1913, the dissonant sound (harsh / unarguable sound) of the rite just made people go crazy and rioted. A year later people were prepared and Stravinsky was hailed as a hero.

This episode together with idea of touching at a distance is important for us. It is important because in principle music can be subversive with literally physical consequences to people and society in general. But we know this already, the Beatles started a social and cultural revolution and more recently heavy metal music and the like is very popular with fringe groups in society. Religions understand this idea very clearly and use music to good effect to control people.

This is what Barenboim has to say on the topic of subversion: In times of totalitarian or autocratic rule, music, indeed culture in general, is often the only avenue of independent thought. It is the only way people can meet as equals, and exchange ideas. Culture then becomes primarily the voice of the oppressed, and it takes over from politics as a driving force for change.

I would agree with Barenboim up to a point. The problem is that Barenboim does not reconcile this “voice of the oppressed” with the normal way people experience music.

In the following quote that appears a few lines after the quote above quite rightly identifies the task of the musician as: Now, when you play music, whether you play chamber music or you play in an orchestra, you have to do two very important things and do them simultaneously. You have to be able to express yourself, otherwise you are not contributing to the musical experience, but at the same time it is imperative that you listen to the other. You have to understand what the other is doing.

This is the problem, most people, in fact, the vast majority of people only experience music as observers, never as creators of music. The vast majority never get to be involved with “expressing” themselves. Music for them is only the voice of the oppressed in so far as the oppressed listen attentively, but never as expression of personal contribution to that voice.

This, I propose, is the fundamental philosophical issue about music. Why is it that music is not something we are brought up to create as individuals? In simple language, why aren't we give a musical instrument when we are young and told to get on with it? In the same way, maybe, that we are givens pencils or a crayon and told to get on with it. And why is it that when it comes to music we practically have no choice but to reproduce other people's work? We do we not do this with painting and literature. In these cases we strive to be original, to create our work and to express ourselves. No one has achieved great height in literature by simply copying the works of Shakespeare nor became a master by simply copying the works of Rembrandt. But this is what we do with music. We reproduce, mainly, what others have created; hardly ever what we create.

Let’s get rid of the practical problems first. As every infant will tell you parents, and mothers in particular, are not exactly fond of brat created dissonant sound; we don't have the expression in English, children should be seen not heard, for nothing. It's bad enough as it is, having a 1913 every few hours is not conducive to the well being of parents and society in general.

Musical instruments cost money not to say they are also very delicate. A violin was never made to be plucked by the destructive hands of an average five year old.

Another practical issue is that exciting music is usually a group effort which Barenboim quite rightly points out. A single fiddle playing is not the same as a violin playing in an orchestra.

All these practical objection mitigate against music being created by individuals exploring their own sense of expression. These practical problems just beg us to perform music in groups and to repeat works we know.

But they are problems because we don’t have practical solutions. What if we had play rooms at home were we could play our music instruments to our heart’s content, or community places to play instruments in the same way we have community gyms or sports facilities. In stead of giving hi-fi system as a present, why not give a musical instrument? In fact why not build houses and flats sound proof from external sources?

If we can solve these practical issues what are we left with? The most important factor that we are left with is the opportunity to express ourselves in one of the most primeval instincts we have inherited. But being brought up to freely expressing ourselves is not conducive to a micromanaged political and social structure. Having the guts to say I want to play this or I feel of expressing myself in such a way is not in line with manipulating others for our survival. Expecting people to think freely, feel freely and express themselves freely, is too subversive an idea in the 21st century. But it seems that music can give all these qualities.

In other words, expressing oneself, cooperating with others and listening attentively are all personal activities which challenges the status quo. I am sure that we can all see the difference between creating music as an individual and listening to music as a passive observer; between expression and passivity. But what interests us as philosophers, is which parents are prepared to challenge and risk the status quo and allow their six year old kid to have a great time banging away at the pots and pans? Who is going to allow us to express ourselves as we wish?

Take care


11 February 2007

Radio Lab, Musical Language, Show #202, Friday, April 21, 2006

Reith Lectures, 2006, Daniel Barenboim,

This year's lectures are entitled: In the Beginning was Sound.

Using Background Music to Affect the Behavior of Supermarket Shoppers

Ronald E. Milliman

Journal of Marketing, Vol. 46, No. 3 (Summer, 1982), pp. 86-91


There is a reference to music in supermarkets and shopper habits. Unfortunately, I don’t have full access to document, only the abstract.

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