Steve Pinker on the evolutionary significance of music

August 14, 2014 • 11:56 am

Eloquent as usual, and speaking in perfect, publishable paragraphs, here’s The Pinkah on The Really Big Questions podcast, discussing the evolutionary significance of music. (The bit is about 9 minutes long.)

Pinker argues that in fact that music is not an evolutionary adaptation, but a spandrel: a pleasurable byproduct of some other adaptation. What’s the “enabling” adaptation? In Pinker’s view, it’s language, which makes possible the production of music. (Reading is another such spandrel, another byproduct of language that simply couldn’t have been the direct object of selection.) Music is simply lagniappe from language: “auditory cheesecake.” He and host Dean Olsher then discuss, without resolution, whether music is a kind of language, or even a thought process.

Pinker notes that his view of music as a spandrel actually angered some people. He had figured that after making the thesis in How the Mind Works (1997) that many human behaviors have evolutionary roots, his suggestion that music is one exception would show that he wasn’t a diehard adaptationist, and not an ideologue sworn to see everything as a product of natural selection. But, he says, some musicians and scholars thought that if music were the product of selection, it would somehow validate its existence.  Of course evolutionary roots don’t validate anything’s existence, since some human traits seen as bad (Pinker mentions genocide, itself a byproduct of xenophobia) were probably adaptive in our ancestors.

Click on the screenshot to go to the podcast:


Screen Shot 2014-08-12 at 3.09.24 PM

272 thoughts on “Steve Pinker on the evolutionary significance of music

  1. Not sure I agree with music as unambiguous byproduct, at the origin of whatever enables production of music and perception thereof.

    I can imagine that someone generating Bach-like music/rhythms attracts more mates than someone generating Schoenberg-like music/rhythms.

    I can imagine that this could be true for both the origin and the maintenance of music, if music has some heritable basis.

    Maybe music has less to do with survival and natural selection, but more with sexual selection (and all the theory pertaining thereto).

    1. Is it just a coincidence that only male songbirds sing, while American teens for generations have been swooning over the teen idol of the day? Frank Sinatra, Elvis, the Beatles, David Cassidy, Donnie Osmond, Justin Bieber… and whoever is the lead singer in the boy band of the day

      1. …after reading more comments, add: Mick Jagger and all the rockers who have been surrounded by groupies.

        1. Strangely, the Romans all swooned over gladiators. Singers & actors weren’t interesting to them.

    2. “The spontaneous synchronization of independent processes is one of the more widely observed dynamical behaviors in nature. In many such phenomena, synchronization serves a vital role in the collective function of the constituent processes. The spiral waves exhibited during the developmental and reproductive stages of the Dictyostelium slime mold, the morphogenesis of embryonic structures in early development, the synchronized oscillations of neural assemblies which have been thought to play a significant role in encoding information, and the marked seasonal variation in the breeding activity of sexually reproducing populations are just a few examples of the temporal emergence of global synchronization.”

      Evolving Globally Synchronized Cellular Automata (JP Crutchfield, M Mitchell. 1995)

    1. Agreed! I read Better Angels as a part of my book club. Some people grumbled about the length, but I found the whole thing thoroughly enjoyable and fascinating.

    2. It’s a great book and he is very good at explaining things. I liked that he took the time to explain how the statistics works in a way that even I understood!

  2. Geoffrey Miller’s Mating Minds presents a counter argument that music is not a spandrel but evolved trait like language. Great book too, I can’t decide which makes the better argument.

    1. I haven’t read that book, but I’ve read some of Miller, and I must say that his arguments seem thin and not overly laden with evidence. What’s his evidence that making music, or appreciating it, gave one a reproductive advantage? He may SAY that, but what are the data?

          1. The plural of “anecdote” is not “data”.
            Since it’s probably ethically … challengable to carry out blinded trials, you’d probably need to do a matched-control case study to try to detect the (putative) effect. Which begs another question – is Jagger musically talented or appreciative, or does he just fake it? (I’ve no idea!) So, you run into problems of measurement (of talent), as well as the problem of “is this an honest signal?”
            Thorny. Messy.

            1. I would say Jagger is/was very talented, at least as a performer and songwriter if not musician or singer/vocalist. Also, you’re misusing the term “begs the question” which is not synonymous with “raises the question,” but instead refers to a specific logical fallacy of circularity. Of course, Pinker might take issue with my proscriptivism here, but that’s just one of my pet peeves, I can’t help it.

              1. I’ve noticed Pinker, despite being vigorously anti-prescriptivist, does not split infinitives, often places prepositions before the end of the sentence, and uses terms like “beg the question” correctly.

              2. I notice he never says, “um”. I say “um” all the time, notice, get annoyed then say “um” as I’m doing all this.

              3. “I think he did once in this clip… ”

                Never play the drinking game with Pinker’s ums.

              4. nope. I hear comments like that (Jagger and musical talent) and I have a huge desire to know how on earth you can measure music in order to rank people by talent. That’s a question begging to be answered. Does the scale go up to 11? And where does the galvanometer go?

      1. Miller’s book is called The Mating Mind, my mistake. Honestly I don’t recall all of the details. I skimmed the book quickly and frankly it is more of a sketch of an argument than an argument itself based on sexual choice theory and evolutionary psychology, and doesn’t include references to his arguments as far as I can tell (i.e. it is intentionally a popular book – perhaps he has some scientific articles with citations, I don’t know). Below are a couple of excerpts from the epilogue to give a flavor of his argument, hand written so any errors are my mistakes. Anyway on balance, maybe Pinker’s arguments are better because it looks like more of a sketch than an adequately developed evidence based argument, even if he writes prose well. Would have to reread it to fully assess it.

        “This book has explored only a few of the human mind’s unusual abilities, and only a few of the possible ways of applying sexual
        selection theory to account for them. I have not pretended to offer a complete account of human evolution, the human mind, or human sexual choice. My theory is quite limited in scope, and my presentation of it even more so. Like art, music may be an evolutionary product of sexual choice, but analyzing it would have
        required repeating too many arguments and analogies from the chapter on art, and introducing too many new ideas—it is a
        scientifically challenging and emotionally charged topic, and one I hope to address elsewhere. Likewise for the relationship between sexual selection, human intelligence, learning, and cultural dynamics. I have hardly mentioned some of the central topics in
        cognitive science, such as perception, categorization, attention, memory, reasoning, and the control of bodily movement, which
        may have evolved under some influence from sexual choice—or they may not have. My sexual choice theory also hopped over that
        treacherous patch of philosophical quicksand known as “consciousness.” I have stressed repeatedly that the sexual choice theory aims to account for just some of the distinctly human aspects of our minds, not the huge number of psychological adaptations that we share with other animals, including, for
        example, all the intricacies of great ape social intelligence, primate vision, and mammalian spatial memory. Finally, the sexual choice theory is descriptive, not prescriptive—it is a partial theory of
        human origins and a partial description of human nature, not a theory of human potential or a description of human limits.”

        “This book has stressed that there are many possible ways for individuals to advertise their fitness when trying to attract a
        mate. Each animal species has evolved its own set of fitness indicators. Likewise, each human culture has developed its own
        set of learned fitness indicators, such as distinct ways of acquiring and displaying social status. Humans are in the unique
        position of being able to argue about what kinds of indicators we should encourage in our societies. Evolutionary psychology
        should not pretend that the male display of monetary wealth and the female display of physical beauty are the only fitness
        indicators available to our species. This book has argued that both human sexes have evolved many ways of displaying creative intelligence and other aspects of fitness through
        storytelling, poetry, art, music, sports, dance, humor, kindness, leadership, philosophical theorizing, and so forth. Marxists, feminists, artists, and saints have long understood that human intelligence, creativity, kindness, and leadership can be displayed in many ways other than by climbing economic status hierarchies to acquire material luxuries. I agree, and this book
        has focused on the traditional hominid and hippie modes of display: body ornamentation, rhythmic dance, irreverent humor, protean creativity, generosity, ideological ardor, good
        sex, memorable storytelling, and shared consciousness.”

  3. Coincidentally, the NY Times is publishing an article on “Hit the Reset Button in Your Brain”, by Daniel J. Levitin (August 9, 2014).

    Levitin is a psychologist and cognitive scientist, the director of the Laboratory for Music, Cognition and Expertise at McGill University, and the author of “The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload.”

    His article is about management of brain activity in an age of overload.
    One of his big points is the need to give the brain space for all its modes of functioning, flexing all its limbs, so to say, which includes letting our brain rest by giving it a break from constant focused attention and overtaxing multi-tasking.

    Music plays a big role in his scheme of free mind wandering and restful daydreaming, along with reconnection with nature.
    The key is to free the brain from immediate tasks, the paralyzing slavery to constant emailing, allowing time for zoning out.
    Too much brain exercise is counterproductive to quality thinking. Take a brain break. Take a nap. Take real vacations. Reconnect with the natural flow of life. Listen to music.

      1. If it’s serious music, I’ll be distracted by the music. Even if it’s not “serious” I may have to shut it off. I have missed highway exits pondering whether a certain classic rock singer had listened to Robert Johnson or some such musing on the music!

        1. Oh but that’s what I mean. I’m intensely concentrating on the music.

          Listening to great music, for me, decidedly does not belong in the category of “zoning out”.

        2. Ladyatheist:

          “Musing on the music” is a lovely expression, worth remembering.
          That’s what our educated modern brains are doing all the time, hearing the music, and musing on the music, and when they express their experience in language, written or oral, they want to confuse the hearing with the musing.
          It’s happening at the opera house all the time. But the expression of the musing comes only after the performance, the hearing. Then musing is strictly language.
          Daniel Kahneman would say that our living experience of “hearing” music is automatic, spontaneous, and comes directly to System 1 as a mix of perception, judgment, and emotion, and the “musing” by System 2, which is not automatic, not spontaneous, requires intentional calls to memory, comparison, evaluation, computation, ect. and uses language to express itself. It may produce a second, learned, critical, judgment. No way to confuse both.

  4. In its present form it may primarily be a byproduct of our earlier evolutionary advantages vs species that didn’t use sound as much.

    Pure volume of sound can be a great agitator or deterrent so maybe our distant ancestors had an extra bullet in the chamber compared to the competition when fighting in numbers.

  5. Did not Oliver Sacks once describe a patient with some severe speaking issue due to neurological damage, who could sing perfectly well? I can’t find the reference, so may have garbled the story.

    But I think there is evidence that performing music puts the mind in another state than when it is speaking, making it less likely that music is just a spandrel of language.

    I have also observed that choir singers hardly ever sneeze during a concert. Needs hard verification, obviously, but that again points to a deeper physiological connection than mere language.

    In the pod cast, Pinker says that reading is not genetically encoded. But I know of research that has pretty clearly identified genetic variants responible for certain forms of dyslexia. So that may also be debated.

    1. I’ve heard of stutterers (huh, thats onomatopoeic)that can sing things perfectly but stutter when they speak.

    2. Sacks wrote a whole book on weird cases of music-psychology (or physiology) interactions. Dad got me a copy several birthdays ago, and it came as a revelation that amusia is a known thing. At which point, I stopped being interested in it.
      Wiki has an ISBN. Several, even.

        1. It was really weird discovering that you’re not alone on the planet inhabited by all those musicy people.

    3. “I have also observed that choir singers hardly ever sneeze during a concert.”
      I noticed the same with regard to driving. Waiting for my turn on a dusty grass car club track I’d have hay fever and fits of sneezing and be quite worried in case I had an attack on the track – but I never did.

      Does intense concentration (at anything) suppress the sneezing impulse?

  6. Listening to Pinker is almost like listening to music. I often wonder what the mechanism is that enables Music alone to move us… That said, I have heard this song, music with lyrics “Take me to Church” twice recently on XM.

    The video is a rather narrow perspective of the lyrics, i suggest listening without watching first time. Made me think that the “new Atheist movement” may have some traction extending thru music.

      1. I was thinking of a cave-digging friend earlier today who would have found that comment utterly incomprehensible. I struggle to understand the metaphor.

          1. Why imagine when you can get first-hand accounts? I’ll ask … wossname, Cerberus Caving Club guy, had a real trouser-filler in OFD 20-odd years ago.

    1. Agreed. My dopamine levels get unusually high just listening to him in anticipation of what he will say next because he invariably blows my mind.

  7. I have Asperger’s and I’ve read that up to 10% of those of us on the autistic spectrum ( not me, alas) have perfect pitch .

    That correlation suggests a genetic basis (whether adaptive or a spandrel) rather than cultural explanations for music.

  8. It seems plausible to me that music is a spandrel. I am more skeptical about language being the source, or even merely the primary source.

    I surely have not done any formal study of this, so I am merely speculating based on personal experience. But, music seems more “primal” to me than language. Particular arrangements of notes, rhythms and tones can cause specific emotional, or other state of mind, changes in me without any conscious volition. In fact I would say that while it can certainly be rewarding to analyze a piece of music as I am listening to it, the purest, best listening experience for me is one where I have a clear mind and thinking is turned off.

    In my limited experience these things seem to be true for children as well. For example, I can clearly recall my daughter at about 1 year old, mesmerized by a hard rock song, listening intently, and then beginning to rock her head back and forth with the beat just like a rock star. She had never seen anything like that before. Brought a tear to my eye.

    I speculate that music is a spandrel derived from several adaptations, and that some of those adaptations may have been coopted for language. Or that music fell out at some relatively early point along the road of the evolution of language. By relative I mean compared to well developed complex language.

    1. Darrelle:

      “it can certainly be rewarding to analyze a piece of music as I am listening to it, the purest, best listening experience for me is one where I have a clear mind and thinking is turned off.”

      Important point. The living experience of listening to or doing music is not the same as reflecting over it, to analyze or criticize it.
      Very important at the Met, for instance, where every opera-goer wants to have something to say about the performance, the singers, the composer, but in a brain action that is posterior to the listening experience itself.
      The living experience and the critical reflection are not the same, and cannot be confused, even if some brains are trained to do both at the same time.

      1. Yes, that is the case for any category of experience I think. Though it is very common, as you point out, for people to confuse their rationalizations with the experience itself.

        Many people have said it well, and with respect to art this is one of my favorites. . .

        [Clement Greenberg]

  9. A fellow Twitterer just recommended a book that’s new to me (I wonder if Pinker knows it): “Harnessed: How Language and Music Mimicked Nature and Transformed Ape to Man” by Mark Changizi.

  10. I don’t know if musical ability would be a “spandrel” or not, but we shouldn’t forget the possible selective advantage of rhythm doing repetitive activities, especially in coordinating cooperative repetitive activities, e.g. rowing boats, making rope or cloth, winding rope, and earliest efforts to increase fire temperatures for melting metal ores.

    1. or more general for animals at large: many behaviors are rhythmic, like walking, climbing, chewing, scanning the environment regularly to look for predators, etc.

      I there is a heritable basis for such rhythms, someone with a tendency to generate Bach-like rhythms may have higher fitness than someone generating Schoenberg-like rhythms.

      Many mating activities are also rhythmic, by the way. Maybe observe yourself in the next few weeks whether the right kind of rhythm make a difference to you, whether that could influence your mate choice, and whether you are recapitulating a possible origin of music

    2. In this view, rhythmic sounds would be at the origin of music.

      In this case language and music would be two different developments of the ability of emitting vocal sounds that would be observed to have an effect on other members of the social group.
      Language and music would originate from the same sound-making ability to impact co-members of the group, but would diverge along two different routes.

  11. Oy vey! I have a bunch of evolutionary psychologists here! Remember, you can make up an evolutionary scenario for ANY human behavior, and concoct reasons why it could have been adaptive. But if you want to be scientific, you have to give data supporting that scenario: either reproductive advantages of musical vs. nonmusical ancestors (an impossibility), or predictions that the “adaptive music” theory makes (very difficult to think of and even harder to test).

      1. In my field (applied animal behaviour) there is a great deal of debate about the extent to which certain behaviours (e.g. broodiness in hens, maternal attachment, nest building, etc.)are still present in many domesticated species that have been under intensive selection (artificial) pressure sp. farm animals. When we test for certain behaviours we find that many of these behaviours appear to have been conserved despite other profound changes entailed by domestication (docility, reduction in brain size, morphological changes such as coat colour, etc.). Would the same requirements cited above apply in the case of artificial selection?

        1. I don’t think I understand the question.

          Do you mean whether the adaptations despite no clear purposes remain present in natural selection scenarios as well as they do in artifical selection scenarios?

          If it’s not a decidedly maladaptation being selected against wouldn’t evolution simply let it flow through in a rather random manner?

      1. Pfft, go for the big money & get a Templeton Grant. You’ll just need to add some god stuff in there.

    1. I think it’s plausible that music is a spandrel of adaptations for pattern recognition (music is basically maths) hence the correlation between autism and perfect pitch.

      My evidence is Susan Boyle.


      1. Incidentally, there are people with perfect pitch but no emotional response to music.

        That might support my suggestion it is a spandrel of pattern recognition rather than something intrinsically linked to social aspects of evolution.

        1. I recall something like that from Sack’s book (ref above) too. Which certainly throws a number of sacks-full (sorry ; it was an accident, ‘onest Ossifer!) of spanners into the … “Steinway” ?

      2. Yes, the math connection seems to be pretty deep, for example the musical intervals that are pleasing to the ear are either exact or close approximations to small integer ratios in frequency. Sensing this is enabled by the frequency based processing our auditory systems do unconsciously.

        It’s interesting to me that among animals that use sonar, some sing (whales), and some don’t (bats, AFAIK). I don’t know what the current sentiment is on how much whale song might be for pure pleasure.

        Also while the foundation for the music spandrel might be more mathematical than directly linguistic, AFAIK the theory that the improved math abilities of humans are heavily indebted to our linguistic evolution is still a top contender.

        1. “are either exact or close approximations to small integer ratios in frequency”

          Sorry, accidentally omitted the point that exact or approximate is a result of the intonation system in use. Equal temperament is close but approximate, just temperament is exact, and people tend to fall into just temperament in informal a capella singing for example.

        2. “the theory that the improved math abilities of humans are heavily indebted to our linguistic evolution”

          This is new to me, having studied maths and linguistics all my life. Can you cite exponents of this theory?
          I have not been able to verify experimentally this connection in the course of social encounters. I was rather inclined towards seeing a connection between musical and mathematical brains.

    2. ‘either reproductive advantages of musical vs. nonmusical ancestors (an impossibility), or predictions that the “adaptive music” theory makes (very difficult to think of and even harder to test).’

      I can happily concede that enjoyment of music is a spandrel. Once that enjoyment of music is fixed in the population, even at some rudimentary level, then it seems to me that the ability to perform music becomes a valuable trait that can contribute to reproductive success. One could perhaps imagine an element of sexual selection driving a rising tide of sophistication in both musical taste and musical ability of humans.

      All very just so and no solid evidence, (hey, it’s not my field) but it allows for an unsurprising level of musical preference that arose as a spandrel to be refined into the complex faculties humans have for music appreciation today.

    3. You’re correct, without evidence you get the easy canard – just so stories, deservedly so if there is only speculation without evidence. I think Jerry has stated in the past that on the whole evolutionary psychology is a sound science backed with evidence, even if there are legitimate critics, and there are many cases of it being badly practiced, as to make outside critics shout – there you go again with those just so stories. Whether music is a spandrel or like language is better understood as an adaptation remains an open question. Same goes for religion, I’ve seen arguments both ways as well.

      1. Agreed. I want to see official studies before I draw any conclusions about such a difficult topic as music.

    4. I’m afraid I can’t hear the podcast on my computer, and I’m a philosopher, not a biologist. But I wonder if there isn’t a problem in thinking that either music or language ‘came first’ (since that risks a privileging of one or the other). It would seem that the direction for research would be in accounting for organized sound, or perhaps organized repetitive sound, just as such. This could be explored analogically by study of sounds other apes make. Any studies recommended?
      I suggest sounds mothers make to infants (again, among apes, as well as humans) might also be researched more closely, since mother-infant communication of this kind could certainly enhance the survivability of the infant and thus increase the survivability of the behavior.
      However I admit that I am out of touch with recent research in these areas.

  12. I wonder if music emerged alongside language rather than as a result of it.

    We are a pattern-seeking species (which has obvious survival advantages), and it seems to me that music arose from our affinity for pattern: patterns among pitch-relationships (harmony) and patterns among duration-relationships (rhythm).

  13. I’m a professional classical musician, and the evolution of music making/appreciation in humans has always fascinated me.

    But there is lots of imprecise thinking that has made me very wary of what I read about it.

    1) saying ‘music’ and meaning Bach and Beethoven and jazz and popular music, that is, music the likes of which (harmony, counterpoint, a shared musical syntax (yes syntax is a loaded/problematic word but leave it)) has only existed for a couple of hundred years. (that is, whatever we ‘evolved’ to do musically, it wasn’t this)

    2) saying ‘evolution’ and not distinguishing between genetics and culture (I went to a talk last year by a well-known musicologist and he did this).

    3) weakly-designed evolutionary psychological studies that are then over- and simplistically interpreted in the press (“women prefer more complex music when they’re ovulating!”) (yes that was a real, recent study, but please don’t turn this discussion into a complaint about evo-psych)


    But there has been some interesting work done recently in neurology and music, such as putting musicians in MRI machines and seeing the different brain areas that light up when they are playing something they remember vs. improvising, and so on. (The problems of making keyboard that you could use in an MRI machine are pretty interesting as well, as you can imagine!)

    Humans seem to be about the only animals (a few birds, maybe?) that can keep a beat (which is pretty interesting in and of itself) which is pretty crucial in how music works, and I hope study on that ability is being done.

    Another thing that I’ve always wondered about too is that our vocal abilities are much greater that what is necessary for talking–is the ‘singing voice’ selected for? (Didn’t Darwin think that musical ability was sexually selected for?)


    I lean toward spandrel myself–music leveraging our language abilities (appreciation of things like ‘this is the order in which these things normally occur’), manipulating us emotionally, tapping into a lot of areas that can be culturally reinforced (think of any powerful, community-enhancing event or ceremony and music will be part of it).

    And a powerful and life-enhancing spandrel, for sure.

    1. Yes, I was originally going to say something about having to define “music” (does Ligeti’s Poème Symphonique count?) before this sort of project can be undertaken.

      But them I thought we don’t really have an issue talking about the evolutionary origins of spoken language even though we have, over the course of millennia, expanded upon the original tool, ultimately creating things like Finnegan’s Wake.

    2. The vocal abilities of a trained singer are definitely far beyond those needed for speaking, that’s why one must train. Otherwise we could all sing beautifully without any practice. It’s amazing the difference that training makes. I’ve heard people with voices like gravel in a tin can turn into pleasant singers with a few years of lessons and practice. One case in point is Michael Crawford who you can hear in Hello Dolly early in his career, and then much later in Phantom of the Opera, his singing voice goes from weak to positively operatic, amazing!

      1. That’s certainly true, but there is also the nature side of the coin that is just as undeniably true. Some people just have beautiful voices, and others don’t. Even an untrained, or poorly trained, beautiful voice can be pleasant to listen to. That same voice would, of course, sound much better with good training. But you would be seriously distressed if you had to listen to me sing.

    1. The usual way is to show that it has no evolutionary value; the trait doesn’t give any advantage or disadvantage in the race to procreate.

  14. While I adore music and claim it as an experience that often provides intimations of transcendence, I am very glad to see someone like Steven Pinker take the entire musical enterprise and its grandiose ideas about itself, down a notch…. Especially when pompous blowhards like Theodor Adorno (and other philosophers) argued for or believed in the social and moral significance of music.

    1. shhhhh don’t mention Adorno without attaching indecipherable gibberish. His name means “adorn thin ideas with thick nonsense.” Look it up!

  15. As an amusing aside, if you read Darwin’s last book, which is about earthworms, there are wonderful passages about his testing of their sense of hearing (really, sensing of vibration). He played the piano for them, as well as the bassoon, and noted their reactions.

    I’ve been told that if you go to Down House you can see the actual bassoon.

  16. Music isn’t an outgrowth of language, it comes from the same place and in my opinion preceded it. Have you heard primates make sounds? The sounds can’t in any way be called “language” but they have meaning, and that meaning comes from pitch, rhythm and form — the very building blocks of music. If music weren’t primary, then why can birds sing but not talk?

    1. Ladyatheist:

      I tend to lean towards you here.
      It seems that both, music and language, had divergent developments, even if they took their root in the ability of the human throat to produce sounds.
      At the origin, the key may have been the observation of the effect of the sounds on other members of the group, and the systematically pursued development of this ability.

      Both singing and language could have come from the same original ability, but followed different development routes.
      And if there was primitive music without production of vocal sounds (drums, banging on empty coconuts, etc.)then music as a whole may have developed independently from language, and possibly even before.
      But since grunts and screams were available from the very early stages of the human species, it may be hard to specify dates of divergence.
      Again, that music, vocal or not, must have been pursued mostly for its effect on fellow members of the family or the tribe.

      1. If it’s true that we evolved to run long distances, then we had an automatic rhythm in our footsteps. Call and response have been used well into the 20th century for groups of workers to stay in synch. It would also be a way of keeping track of each other. Zebra finches have a particular sound they make when they land on a new perch. They are telling their relatives “I’m over here now. Now I’m over here”

        Runners today judge their cardiovascular fitness by their ability to talk while they run. Singing while you sing would have the same effect.

  17. I realise there isn’t any proper evidence but I’d be prepared to bet that musical proficiency is a powerful aphrodisiac, no less useful in obtaining valuable mates and mating opportunities than any other art form.

    It shouldn’t be that hard to find evidence though. Just survey a bunch of peeps asking for their musical training and performance and see if those with more have had more children and grandchildren. It is my experience that musos tend to be highly intelligent so that would need to be controlled for along with other things like family income. Music lessons are expensive, people from well off backgrounds are more likely to have had music lessons as a child.

  18. My theory on music is that its roots and its power to move lie in the fact that it’s a culturally-influenced “feedback loop” that originated in mating calls. Most of the popular music heard has to do, lyric-wise, with romance (or the lack of it)- even the great Classical composers and famous musicians of the past were all known to have their own version of “groupies” and were considered the “sex symbols” of their day.

    I like to sing (I was in the symphony chorus in my home town), and I’ve encountered an interesting phenomenon over the years: I’ll be with a woman (with whom I may, or may not be romantically involved) and her young son: if I start to sing, the son will almost always try to either interrupt me, or drown me out by creating noise of his own. I feel that this stems from his feeling, on a subconscious level, that I’m “competing” with him for his mother’s attentions.

    1. “…the great Classical composers and famous musicians of the past were all…”

      This is too inaccurate, even for a broad generalization in an informal discussion.

      A handful of classical performer/composers (emphasis on performer) achieved that status. If you want to make a generalization about classical musicians I think it’d have to go the other direction: nerdy, socially awkward and not particularly sexually tempting.


    “So each act of listening to music may be thought of as both recapitulating the past and predicting the future. When we listen to music, these brain networks actively create expectations based on our stored knowledge.

    Composers and performers intuitively understand this: they manipulate these prediction mechanisms to give us what we want — or to surprise us, perhaps even with something better.”

    1. We also remember things more easily if put to a tune. I remember things better if I say them out loud (but I’m an aural learner).

        1. Certainly not the case of Mozart.

          His music came instinctively to him, at night, at all times of the day, and that since his early childhood (5-6 years old).
          He never thought of music as applying manipulation, but as capturing the flow that flooded his conscious mind, but came directly from his unconscious. His music was nearly all System 1-generated, not even generated, but recorded as spontaneous production in his System 1.

          Musicians who apply rules learnt at the Conservatory belong to a System 2 class of musicians.

          However, most musicians combine both, fragments of melody directly provided at the intuitive System 1 level, and then laborious construction by rational, critical System 2.
          Prokofiev was notorious for collecting those little fragments of spontaneous music for future “composition”, that is assembling and restructuring.
          With Mozart, the whole aria, the whole vocal line, the whole symphonic movement came out, most of the time, as a whole, all together, a bit like Athena coming out of Zeus’s brain all clothed and armed, with shield, lance, helmet, and even her faithful owl.

          Mozart could certainly use his System 2 critical power as well as any manipulator, but he needed a melodic line provided directly from his unconscious and made conscious in his System 1 recording.
          So the “knowledge” of great composers is a mix of two workings: a spontaneous creation of a phrase, a bar, a theme, and a manipulative restructuring and modifying in a second mental phase. The proportion of both mental activities, intuition and critical restructuring is not the same in all of them. Mozart was mostly “flow”, Beethoven was intense re-working and “composition”. Schumann was in between.
          Perhaps mentioning classical musicians as an example of music in this thread is a bit of a monkey wrench.
          But I am convinced that popular musicians go by the same psychological actions.

          1. Citation needed.

            We have extant correspondence from talented composers explaining that when they conceived of complete plans for a piece of music, it was not because of some external bolt of inspiration, but simply because they knew in such precise detail what they were doing. The process was manifestly, if you’ve studied theory/composition at all, but also according to the composers themselves, a deliberate one.

            Mozart on his *apparent* ability to allow subconscious inspiration flow through him:

            “People err who think my art comes easily to me. I assure you, dear friend, nobody has devoted so much time and thought to compositions as I. There is not a famous master whose music I have not industriously studied through many times.”

            1. Sure, Mozart’s System 2 was as good, as any other composer — and most likely, even far better. He had a superbly tuned critical mind, of other composers and himself.

              His System 1 worked marvelously well, but he had as well a superfine System 2. And that is what the quote mentioned is about.

              But “composition” in that sense — structuring and re-organizing of material already produced by System 1 — was not melodic creation, which came from his subconscious.
              The style of my music, he explained to his father Leopold, is that it “flows like oil”. And there were no rules about this flowing. Only Mozart could let the flow pour out on its own, and carry his pen along. Same thing in his improvisations, he let himself go, and the flow carried him. He could do that, anywhere, anytime.

              Yes, Mozart spent a lot of time on his famous Haydn quartets, and restructured his phrases and motifs, but the music, the basis phrases, the motifs, and the melodic lines, were not created by his “composition”, but came as “oil” flowing from his subconscious. He was certainly capable of modifying, enlarging, whatever he had already written. But the initial flow did not derive from learned composition rules applied by his System 2.
              He could study and learn, but his reproduction powers were immediate and endless. As he often boasted, he was able to write any music in any style he had ever encountered. His musical memory must have been prodigious.

              Arranging and rearranging was always possible, when it struck him as desirable, or necessary, but not as often as the quote relating to the Haydn quartets would make us believe. The 6 Haydn quartets were a rather exceptional piece for him, but that did not crimp his intuitive inspiration.

              Creativity, and intuition, came first and foremost from his subconscious, re-organization and re-struturing from his System 2, if System 2 saw good reasons to do so.
              In fact, very often Mozart wrote down his stuff, mailed it to Daddy Leopold, and forgot about it, and much later, when revisiting it, he was astonished how good his “flowing like oil” music sounded. “La Betulia Liberata” is one example, among so many.
              Misreading Mozart’s quote that you mentioned is too easy, but does not change the fundamentally intuitive source of his musical inspiration.
              In his phrase, Mozart changed the “breath” or “wind” implied in “in-spiration” to a liquid element, “oil”, but the idea was the same.

              1. When Mozart said or wrote (on more than one occasion), that his music must “flow like oil”, he was referring to the manner in which it was to be performed, ie, legato and with a sense of fluidity and/or motion. Nothing to do with the compositional process.

                That writ, I don’t completely disagree with your invocation of the two cognitive systems: the intuitive and the deliberate. My original point was that good composers don’t rely on intuition. They may sometimes build upon non-deliberate musical nuggets that spring forth seemingly unbidden, but this is not a rule, and for good composers I’d say it’s an exception. Even coming up with a good melody is a craft that can be worked on and improved: have you avoided bad redundancies? Should there be more rhythmic variety? Should it unfold the underlying harmonies in a clearly perceptible way or should it be more ambiguous? The point being that I think you’re over-emphasizing the non-deliberate part of the musical creative process. Even in music Edison’s dictum holds: 1% inspiration, 99% perspiration.

                Again, having written all that, I’m certainly aware that there are musicians who do not engage in much conscious deliberation. If they have a natural aptitude they may impress lay-people, but they’re not able to create the towering achievements in musical logic that more deliberately thoughtful composers are able to create.

                The fact that Mozart had so many good ideas seemingly incessantly only means he achieved great facility via the thought and study referenced in the quote I gave above. Musical production, including foundational elements like themes or motives, became easy because he put in the time.

            2. This said, this is still a beautiful quote. But when you read it carefully, it does apply to his study of other masters, not to his own creation of melodic flow. He is fully aware of all the composition habits and preferences of other masters, but the quote says nothing about the source and method of his own intuitive creation.
              At best, it applies to his ability to restructure and re-arrange, what is really meant by “composing”.
              Mozart remains a champion of System 1 creativity, equipped with a superior System 2.
              Same is true of all the great artists, not just musicians.

      1. Musical Beef:

        It is clear that you are strongly pushing the idea that musicians are mostly using critical reflection to arrange and organize the material of their themes and phrases into effective music.
        They know the rules, the principles, the methods, and they apply them conscientiously. In your view, music is mostly the product of learnt knowledge as reviewed, finalized, and sanctioned by System 2.
        Most musicians learnt their art in music schools and academies.
        But Mozart went to no school of any kind. He was a good example of the import of System 1 in music writing, the intuitive product of a mix of memory, instinctive judgment, and emotion, which always prevailed in his cse, even though you want, in principle, to nearly reduce its contribution to a minimum.

        When Mozart spoke to his father of his music “flowing like oil”, it was not primarily as an indication of how to interpret it and play it. Mozart was not interested in giving advice to anonymous interpreters. He often wrote his music knowing the capabilities of the orchestras, the singers, or the instrument playes he was writing for.
        To his father, he did not mean to give only advice to the System 2 of an interpreter, but to emphasize that he was not willing to interfere with his own flow by applying mechanical principles of music making. For it was the way his music was composed, primarily from intuition and immediate flow from his subconscious. He trusted his musical intuition more than his critical reflection.
        Never, in any letter, was he able to pinpoint where his musical ideas came from. They just appeared, at night, at the dinner table, when playing billiards, or, so the legend goes, when one of his babies was being born.

        He didn’t even try out his musical ideas on his keyboard, he wrote them down directly as they came, on music paper. As his wife Constanze confirmed, he rarely “went to his instrument”. To compose, he didn’t need an instrument, only paper and ink. This way,he was able to compose while traveling everywhere through Europe, in coaches, in inns, even in bed when he was sick, etc.

        Occasionally, when he had the time, or saw a specific need for it (a request from a singer for instance) he did retouch and modify his material, or transform it into a new piece for specific reasons, but not primarily to create his primary material.

        When reworking a section or a previous symphony or aria became too cumbersome, he simply set aside his effort at correcting his previous material, and rewrote the whole thing from scratch, trusting his System 1 to produce a new piece — not as a restructuring of his previous material, but as a new flow pouring out of his System 1 like oil.
        Interpreters had to be able to recapture the flowing spirit that was indelibly embedded in his material during its very creation.

        You can magnify the role of System 2 as much as possible, and that applies to most musicians for sure, who are students controlling their music writing, but the irreducible creative act is essentially the product of the intuition of System 1, and in Mozart, much more so than in most other laboriously diligent composers, those you have in mind, Beethoven, or Prokofiev, for instance. Beethoven did spend a huge amount of his time carefully studying the works of Mozart to detect his hidden methods of producing his music. System 2 learning from System 1.

          1. GBJames:

            Absolutely true. The only instruction he ever received in any field was from his father Leopold, and in the early years, from his sister Nannerl as well.
            But all that was ad hoc instruction at home, or during their travels. It never was going to any school (understood as a physical place outside their homes where children gather to be taught.
            I never meant to imply that he never received any instruction. In addition, he never was punished by his parents, nor forced to compose. They respected his desires and moods, from early childhood.

            Mysteriously, although Mozart captured all the intricacies of writing music to perfection at a very early age (from 5 to 8), he never acquired complete correct spelling of German. Even in his 20s he was asking his dad to send him an alphabet model so that he could improve his handwriting of letters.
            However, he had a lot of Latin, understood Italian perfectly to the point of being bi-lingual, he understood French, and could write some. He occasionally loved to write words backwards. He even started learning English.
            His other source of learning was through all the personal contacts he developed with the singers and musicians he met during his travels, and his relationships with members of the aristocracy all over Europe. And for music, he learnt through all the performances he attended everywhere, all the time. So he was learning as he went, on the go.

            1. I guess I’m not understanding your point, Roo. I had thought it to be that Wolfgang’s music flowed magically without the need for musical education. But now it seems all you’re saying is that he didn’t go into a school building to get his education. Well, perhaps true. But of marginal interest compared to what I understood to be your argument.

              No doubt Wolfgang was a musical genius. But genius gets expressed in context, and in his case that included lots of musical training from his father and others along the way. He was learning “as he went, on the go”, but so do we all. (Except Republican politicians, I must add.)

              Aside: I don’t know about German, but in the 18th century the notion of “correct spelling” was not well established. That concept became fixed in the 19th century when people began to systematically adopt the use of dictionaries. I’m guessing the same was true on the continent.

              1. GBJames:

                All this is true, especially about German spelling.

                But, yes, you misunderstood. Mozart kept learning all his life, he never stopped. He simply didn’t go to FORMAL school, where principles and rules are taught to children to accept and copy.
                Most modern musicians learn their musical skills from music schools or music academies, where teachers rule as absolute masters. Then musicians develop by reacting against the rigid rules they have been taught.

                This is the kind of schooling Mozart never received.
                What you understood by “magic” is simply that musical ideas kept flooding his brain all the time, at any time, and his concern was to capture that flow, either by writing it down immediately, or remembering it, or,if he was playing, in expressing the flow right away, and going with it.

                He certainly never knew where this music came from. It just came. Of course, from his unconscious mind, fed by all the memories he had accumulated.
                What you call “magic” is simply the fact that it came immediately to his consciousness, spontaneously, as an intuitive message.
                What musicalbeef is arguing is that this intuitive reception is only a minute fraction of the work of the composer, and most of it (did he mention 99%?) comes from conscious, that is intentional, composition, through arranging, modifying, improving, restructuring the initial material provided by intuition.

                In the language of Daniel Kahneman, the question is the percentage of contribution that can be assigned to
                – System 1 in the creation of music (and of arts in general), that is a mix of perception, judgement, and emotion that comes as an immediate package from subconscious memory,
                – versus System 2, which is the rational, critical, calculating aspect of mental work.

                Both System 1 and System 2 are operating in the field of consciousness, but that of System 1 is intuitive and spontaneous. The rewrite comes from System 2.
                What musicalbeef seems to be arguing is that System 2 (rewriting) is practically always at work when composing music, and that must be true of a lot of musicians. I was simply advancing that in the case of Mozart (only because we have considerable documentation on his ways of living and working) intuition and System 1 creativity played a much larger role than in the case of many other musicians whom we know well enough to evaluate.

                The magic in Mozart was the sheer quantity, and the sheer quality, the immediacy, and the unique character of his style, not duplicated by any other musician.

              2. Roo, I don’t understand Mozart’s output as the product of magic, I was trying to characterize what I understand your position to be.

                What you say about the origin of his musical ideas (that he didn’t know where it came from) is true for all us. None of us know, except in rather crude terms, where our ideas come from. Someday we may better understand these processes better.

                I don’t think anyone here is unaware of his genius. All I’m disputing is the idea that it requires a classroom for FORMAL education to occur. What is needed is a teacher who can instruct the student on FORM, which existed for Wolfgang in the form (pardon the pun) of Papa.

        1. I think we’ll have to agree to disagree.

          But Mozart was indeed referring to performance technique with the phrase “flow like oil”. Here is a passage from a 1777 letter regarding a vaunted virtuoso (obviously Mozart disagrees):

          “…and smirks; when a passage comes twice she always plays it slower the second time, and if three times slower still. She raises her arms in playing a passage, and if it is to be played with emphasis she seems to give it with her elbows and not her fingers, as awkwardly and heavily as possible. The finest thing is that if a passage occurs (which ought to flow like oil) where the fingers must necessarily be changed [MB: substitution], she does not pay much heed to that, but lifts her hands, leaving those notes out, and quite coolly goes on again. This, moreover, puts her in a fair way to get hold of a wrong note, which often produces a curious effect. I only write this in order to give you some idea of pianoforte-playing and teaching here, so that you may in turn derive some benefit from it. Herr Stein is quite infatuated about his daughter.”

          Also, writing down music directly on paper, without trying it on an instrument, does not indicate the use of “System 1”. Accurately writing down what one puts together with one’s musical imagination, or “mind’s ear”, is trivial for those who’ve had enough practice doing it. This is a skill taught and required by most university music departments as part of an ear training course.

          Also, just because Mozart didn’t attend a university doesn’t mean he didn’t learn from study.

          And Beethoven’s sketchbooks don’t tell us that he relied more on deliberation than other composers who didn’t leave sketchbooks. They might tell us he was a little more OCD. Beethoven was also a renowned improviser; he was capable of “composing” extemporaneously also. But this does not mean there is no deliberate intent involved. When I improvise, I’m planning future moves as I execute current ones. It all happens very fast, but make no mistake, there is conscious intent involved.

          If you’ve really studied the music of composers like Mozart, Bach, Beethoven, Brahms et al, one thing you should notice is that the events and relationships in the piece are manifestly intentional; masterpieces are not happy accidents. I almost hate to say it (:)), but I’m essentially making Paley’s watchmaker argument here. Heinrich Schenker had this to say about Bach’s music: “What planning! What perspicuity!”

          1. Clarification: Beethoven’s sketchbooks don’t tell us that composers who didn’t leave sketchbooks must’ve been intuiting their way through the compositional process.

  20. I’m afraid I can’t buy it. There are just too many examples of music (e.g. bird song) and music appreciation (just look for videos of animals moving to the beat of human music) in language-free nature.

    I agree with others that it’s much more likely that language derived from primitive music.

    1. Yes, language could have started as a kind of music, a descendant or a cousin, “sotto voce”. It could have started at the origin as screams, loud alerts, or similar, anything vocal that could have an impact on other members of the group or tribe. The key thing was that a vocal sound would be noticed and have an emotional impact on others. Singing could have been part of it, why not? if the primitive pharynx and larynx allowed it. Primitive tenors, or stentorian basses would dazzle the group around the camp fire, and do their bit for reproductive success.

  21. So being good at music doesn’t make one more attractive to the opposite sex? All of us that picked up a guitar as way to meet girls had it all wrong I guess.

    1. One problem with that approach is that, especially with humans, the fact that it can be used that way doesn’t mean it evolved for that purpose. Being nice and courteous could attract sexual partners, but being nice and courteous most likely evolved for reasons of social navigation rather than sexual attraction. Suppose some poets used their craft for sexual attraction. There’s a lot of legwork to be done before we can say with confidence (if we ever will) that poetry or writing or language evolved to attract sexual partners.

      Another problem is that this is cherry-picking examples. Music isn’t solely about attracting girls. There are communal uses (such as playing music for rituals or at national events), private uses (learning to play, listening to a friend’s private performance, listening to radio), and uses that go back and forth in both spheres. None of them need result in anybody getting hitched. By contrast, not everybody is sexually attracted to a good musician. An evolutionary account of music should treat these counterpoints fairly.

      1. But just because it may have originally had a different function or that it has more than one function doesn’t mean that it does not serve as a secondary sexual feature either.

        1. But how can someone discern whether this is the case without study? It’s not enough to say “yeah, but it’s possible”; that’s just staying in “just-so story” territory. There’s considerably more to confirming whether or not a behaviour has a sexual function than whether someone, somewhere scores by doing it.

  22. Regardless of what our pleasure in music is, it is validated by the fact that it is appreciated by (in Sam Harris’s words) conscious entities. No further work is required.

    I suspect it is a thought process, just like the disparate brains functions/centers that support language. Hence tone-deaf persons. I would think that the question of whether the brain solves this with the same centers as language should be soluble by fMRI or similar methods.

  23. This is the point where biological explanations finish and cultural ones start. Our auditory faculties are a product of evolution (one of Dennett’s ‘Good Tricks’), but that is where the scientific study of music begins and ends. Music is a cultural artefact created by our fondness for mathematical symmetry, and that is all.

  24. It is extraordinary how song/music can bind and repel as in the case of the finches of the Grants, for the female finch it’s, play our song to my satisfaction buddy otherwise keep your genes.
    Some people would leave the room if Captain Beefheart was playing on the stereo (or John Denver for that matter) It was one way to clear a party. But I digress.
    Is music a spandrel or an adaptation? it seems to have elements of both. By this I mean, when did the thumb really come into it’s own. Sure it was very good for getting around in an arboreal life but it was not until tool making became prevalent did it really hit it’s straps.
    Likewise with music or sound. With all the components in place (by natural selection) things started to happen. Positional calling on hunts. Jamming in the cave (bonding) Imitating animals and especially birds for fun and enjoyment.
    Surely this gave our pre history ancestors a fitness boost and just like the sexual selection argument, the good geners vs arbitrary female choice I find it hard to completely separate.
    An aside: I would never get in ‘the ring’ with Mr Pinker I would be on the floor before the bell finished ringing.

  25. I fear, alas, that I am going to spoil the party again, but I doubt very much that many people were upset by Pinker’s suggestion (it is no more than that) that music is a ‘spandrel’ rather than an evolutionary adaptation, and I think Pinker is being merely defensive, and not altogether ingenuous, in claiming that that is what resulted in the criticism he received. (I am not very much worried which music is, but will merely note that the great neurologist Aniruddh D. Patel, in his book ‘Music, Language & the Brain’, disagrees with Pinker, and gives reasons why he does, as does the cultural archaeologist Steven Mithen in ‘The Prehistory of the Mind’.)
    I wonder how many people have actually read what Pinker wrote. He suggests that music and literature, in particular, are really no different from pornography, drugs and rich desserts: ‘Compared with language, vision, social reasoning, and physical know-how, music could vanish from our species and the rest of our life-style would be virtually unchanged. Music appears to be a a pure pleasure technology, a cocktail of recreational drugs that we ingest through the ear to stimulate a mass of pleasure circuits at once.'(How does he know what would happen if music vanished from our lives?)
    As the the literary critic Joseph Carroll says, Pinker, like Freud, ‘regards literary representation’ – and music – ‘as largely a matter of pleasurable fantasy’ that differs from pornograohy ‘only in that the pleasure buttons it presses are not literally and concretely of sexual activity.’ The fundamental problem with Pinker’s philistine (I make no apology for saying this: as he himself said recently in his piece on how to write, many scientists are philistines, as why should they not be?) and greedily reductive approach is that it is simply unable to make important distinctions, and seems less designed to understand anything than to take a smack at those whom he affects to despise. It is not responsible, and it is a pity, since much of what he writes is very illuminating.

    1. Tim wrote:

      “I wonder how many people have actually read what Pinker wrote. He suggests that music and literature, in particular, are really no different from pornography, drugs and rich desserts”:

      ‘Music appears to be a a pure pleasure technology, a cocktail of recreational drugs that we ingest through the ear to stimulate a mass of pleasure circuits at once. Compared with language, vision, social reasoning, and physical know-how, music could vanish from our species and the rest of our life-style would be virtually unchanged’


      Well I think Pinker is absolutely right here.

      What bothers me is the arrogance of musicologists, academics and professional music critics who can’t maintain some perspective.

      What is music for? Fun. Entertainment. And NOTHING more. This romantic notion of sacralizing music means artists and musicians cannot accept the plain truth that they are entertainers and nothing more. It is also precious, arrogant and absurd.

      To seek music as other than mere diversion is to put too much expectation on it.

      The older I get the less patience I have for aesthetics. And sometimes the reality of the world is too powerful and grim for me to find much solace in music. That’s why I find those who wallow in ‘art for art’s sake’ pretty intolerable, to be honest. And a lot of the time, it is an excuse for boundless egotism and wallowing narcissism.

      1. Oh, dear… Yes, Clara, you like what you like and you can’t be bothered to read musicologists and other sorts of critics – well, most of the time, to be honest, nor can I: I much prefer listening to music, performing in or directing plays, or reading poetry and novels than I do reading about these activities. But there are, nevertheless, some good musicologists and critics about… It is really rather foolish to deny that. If you want to wallow in fun, as opposed to narcissism and egotism and all those other things you dislike so much and suppose other people suffer from, then, really, nothing is stopping you.

      2. I think you went too far with this comment.

        Yes, the arts are entertainment, but that does not mean they shouldn’t be valued highly.

        I see the point of art as celebrating human ingenuity and achievement: wow, look what we can do when we work hard and apply our intellect! I think the folks who included works of Bach on the records aboard Voyager agree with me.

    2. I don’t really know what you’re objecting to.

      Pinker is suggesting explanations for the origins of music. He is not in any way trying to deprecate how we use it and what it means to us in its current form.

      1. I think that this last comment, Musical Beef, is directed at me rather than Cara. All I shall say in response is that you are clearly a very nice and knowledgeable person, but that I find you excessively innocent.

            1. Hey, now how’m I supposed to cultivate a thick skin with all these compliments being lobbed at me?

              Will no one step up and describe all my failings?

              But seriously, thanks to both of you. I wouldn’t mind seeing the frequency of Diane G. comments increase. It’d really class the place up!

              1. The last comment here is incredibly arrogant. Really, do you think that you (and Harris) are the only people with minds on this site?

                I’d be really offended if I were another commenter. It would be good if Roo would apologize. I don’t want that kind of arrogance here!

              2. OK, apologies willingly and heartily offered.

                The problem is social contagion. When one commenter erects himself as the absolute arbiter of the conversation, and starts belittling the rest of us, he creates, as in music, another atmosphere by changing the key, and other players, Tim Harris and myself, are dragged into the new “harmony” and are psychologically compelled to stay in tune and adjust accordingly.

                So, yes, I know that Tim and I were giving tit for tat, as in a musical game, and we were not really expressing our real minds, but producing phrases to adjust to the new key introduced by the commenter-as-final-and-only arbiter.
                We get, perhaps unwillingly, sucked into a “concertante” mode, having to reply in the same spirit, no longer in “solo” mode, producing our own music.

              3. Well, Roo (or should I call you ‘Bookaroo’ since I am described as ‘Harris’), I’m sorry that my attampt at some humorous self-deprecation led to this. But I must say that my original remark about Musical Beef (who I suppose was the ‘one commenter’ you were speaking of) was absolutely sincere – that is to say, it was not sarcastic in any way: I genuinely feel that he is a good and knowledgeable person. My only real argument with Musical Beef is with his emphasis on ‘manipulation’ in composition: good and great art is not manipulative but revelatory. Most film music, for example, is pretty obviously manipulative, and I dislike it; the music of Mozart or Beethoven or Schubert or Bartok or Enescu is not – composers like these do not have their eye on an audience whose emotions they wish to manipulate, but on their subject-matter.

              4. “Having a critical mind is a cross to bear among devotees.”

                I’m reminded of Frank Zappa responding to an audience member complaining about soldiers in the audience. “Don’t fool yourself, everybody in this room is wearing a uniform!”

              5. And, just to get away from classical music, the reaon why groups like the Beatles or Fsirport Convention or singers like Sandy Denny or Bob Dylan are much better than the pop groups and singers produced to order by the pop-music industry is because they do first of all what they want to do and what they are interested in, and don’t subdue themselves to the industry’s demands that they should concentrate on manipulating their audiences in predictable ways. People do recognise originality, thank Whatever, though not always, alas.

              6. Tim Harris:

                You are perfectly right.
                Music and art have to proceed from intuition, that is System 1, in Daniel Kahneman’s psychological model of the working brain.

                Re-arranging, polishing, editing, rewriting, intentionally applying rules of manipulation (as advertising or political campaigning do) can only come in a second phase, after intuition has produced its material.
                That is the idea I had been discussing with Musicalbeef, but he is, for his own personal reasons, adamant about the major role played by the reflective, critical composition work over the role of intuition and creativity.

                But, on this, I am on your side, I do agree with you that art — especially in our modern, scientific, world where, since the Renaissance and the Reform, individuality and personality have come to replace the sense of being a part and and expression of the group spirit — has to be “revelatory” to be meaningful, whereas manipulation can be beautifully effective but not “expressive” as such.
                Of course this is a discussion without an end limit that can be prolonged very far.

                But, in the case of Mozart, which is actually one of the best documented musicians, the input of intuition and “revelation” is indisputable.
                So, I was not going to concede to musicalbeef, as I also have access to a mountain of quotations supporting this side of the thesis (which is by the way accepted by the top experts, be they German, French, English, and American, on Mozart’s music.)
                This reflects the popular wisdom, that “those who can, do, those who can’t, teach.” Wrong, of course, but telling.

              7. GBJ, I suggest reading, for example, the art historian Edgar Wind on patronage in the Renaissance, and you would realise that matters were very much more complex than you suggest, and that it was not a matter of Pope Urban or whoever crudely ordering this or that from Michelangelo, or whoever, and the artist
                servilely fulfilling his commission. Shakespeare had to make money, too, for his company and for himself, but his works go far beyond, in their exploration of human predicaments, any merely hack-work, as Ben Jonson, for one noted in his time.

              8. The mistake you make, Tim, is reading “simple” into what I wrote (more complex than I think). I rather think it is quite the opposite. What is simplistic is to assert that the universe of art partitions the way you suggest, as the Dylan link I provided suggests.

              9. Alrighty then.

                Roo –
                Who is erecting himself as the absolute arbiter of the conversation? We are arguing. You are making your points and trying to show where I’ve got it wrong, and I am making my points and trying to show where you’ve got it wrong.

                Tim – I am speaking of manipulation in a different sense than you are. Composers manipulate the notes – the “sonic matter” – just as a sculptor manipulates clay. I do not mean to say a composer manipulates listeners. That would be a problematic view because each listener will have different reactions to the music. The reaction in the listener, while of utmost importance to the listener, is not so important when considering the creative value, the logical coherence, the architectural solidity of the music itself. Bach’s fugues are intellectual artistic achievements regardless of how a given individual reacts to them. Bach didn’t set out to manipulate anybody; he was arranging notes on the page in a way that makes utter sense.

                Tim and Roo – notice please that I don’t actually agree with Pinker. Seem my one stand-alone comment above. No echoing going on in this chamber!

              10. Oh, and Roo –

                Please post the passages from Mozart’s letters that indicate “flow like oil” was not meant to address the manner of performance but was describing his compositional process. I ponied up with an instance in favor of performance direction.

                Could you also please at least name the top experts who show that Mozart relied primarily in subconscious inspiration and simply intuited his way through composing a piece.

                I’m aware that what I’m about to write is not evidence for my view, but I see this attitude in very many amateur musicians: that “System 2” creation is somehow less impressive than “System 1” creation. Speaking for myself, I’d be offended if someone didn’t recognize the entirely conscious know-how and intent that went into a piece I’d written, and instead assumed it just poured out of me, without me really knowing how.

              11. MB – thanks for the correction about ‘manipulation’. But, Roo, in all honesty I don’t think that you and Musical Beef are as far apart as you suppose, and I’m not sure that Kahneman’s distinction is all that helpful. I think that anybody who has had experience of working ‘creatively’ (I stick that in brackets because the word has been so trivialised) knows that the act of creation is a constant interplay between intuitions and techniques, with intuitions perhaps suggesting using a particular technique in a novel way or even the invention of a new technique, and the successful use of some technique resulting in the sparking of new intuitions. Mozart was obviously extraordinarily technically gifted (some deriving from native qualities, and some deriving from the training he received), and I really don’t think you can separate these technical gifts from his intuitive capacities.

              12. I thought I’d add this: the great harpsichordist Wanda Landowska asserted that the performer should have a reason for the way she or he plays every note and phrase. I have directed plays and an opera, as well as acted in plays, and I also teach singers, and I insist always that actors and singers should in rehearsal find conscious reasons for every phrase they speak and every action they do, so that they know exactly what they are saying and doing and why they are saying and doing it. If this work is not done, one gets sloppy, unintelligent and unexciting performances. Leopold Mozart was clearly a very strict teacher, and from his letters one can see, I think, that Wolfgang had very high musical standards that derived from the strictness of his upbringing. Yes, of course, there are subjectively mysterious parts of the process, as one feels oneself into the character, or, if one is a composer or playwright imaginatively enters (George Enescu tells of his extraordinary imaginary involvement in one of the scenes when he was writing his opera ‘Oedipe’, and Douanier Rousseau had to open the windows to throw off the power of his imaginings)and these are extremely important (without that imaginative involvement, one couldn’t compose, paint, write or perform well); but the hard intellectual work that one has to do to make something that is good is in no way opposed to these imaginative and intuitive processes. My wife’s old piano teacher, Georg Vasarhelyi, a pupil of Bartok himself and Edwin Fischer, and a wonderful pianist in his own right (Wilhelm Kempff once called him the finest Schubert interpreter in Europe), would say do all that conscious, meticulous work, establish your base, and when you get on stage, improvise.

              13. Finally, GBJ: I am not going to bother to respond to your last comment, which, forgive me, just seems to be an attempt to have the last word, but to an earlier one in which you seem to take my words about artists doing what they want and what they are interested in as meaning that artists should ‘express themselves’. I mean nothing of the kind. I am not interested in cliches about self-expression (there is the story of the French drawing master, quoted, as I recall, by Karl Popper in one of his books, to whom his student, a spoilt little Mademoiselle, complained, ‘But, Monsieur, if I have to do it this way, I can’t express my feelings.’ ‘Mam’selle,’ replied the master, ‘Nobody but Maman is interested in your feelings.’)

              14. Tim – Ah! Your comment about instructing performers to have conscious reasons for doing things a certain way reminded me of Goya’s famous motto, which I should’ve included in one of my comments: “The sleep of reason produces monsters.”

              15. Well, would you look at that!

                Of course the motto works well in general application, but I think it’s very appropriate for the arts, and was Goya’s intent.

                The full epigraph for that etching is: “Fantasy abandoned by reason produces impossible monsters; united with her, she is the mother of the arts and the origin of their marvels.”

              16. I had no idea there was any more to it. Thanks!

                I have a framed copy of that etching on my wall–I love it, but was just a bit disappointed that his “monsters” are mostly bats, cats, and owls.

              17. Music produced by reason? Impossible! Unthinkable! Poor reason would be unable to produce a single scream, a single cry, a single bang, poor reason is mute and blind. Cannot produce anything. Cannot smell a flower, see a rainbow, hear the nightingales, write a single note. Reason IS the monster. Reason, like Faust, is death. But the tree of life is always green.

              18. Dear Roo, neither Musical Beef nor I are saying that music is produced by reason. What we are saying is that reason (in addition to many other important faculties) is necessarily involved in the production (as well as the performance) of music, and of other kinds of art.

              19. Heh. Nice move, Tim. Shut down the exchange by accusing me of demanding the last word, while taking the opportunity to get in the last word!

                Go ahead… the next one is yours. 😉

  26. I’d like to add that, in her good book ‘Why We Read Fiction’, the literary critic Lisa Zunshine also rightly takes Pinker to task for the misunderstanding, in his ‘The Blank Slate’, of a remark of Virginia Woolf’s, and his assault on literary ‘modernism’, an assault that depends on very little knowledge (to avoid the word ‘ignorance’) of the history of the novel. To put the matter bluntly, why should I be interested in the opinions about the arts proffered by someone who clearly has very little knowledge of, or interest in, them, and who seems to be less concerned with understanding them than with putting in them what he deems to be their place?

      1. No, dear Jesper, I’m in the pink, as judging from your ‘smily face’, are you! But I am interested in understanding things and in the truth. Aren’t you?

    1. ‘them in’ not ‘in them’ in the note on Lisa Zunshine, who, incidentally, is one of those more and more numerous scholars of the arts who draw on the sciences – in her case on accounts of what is known as ‘theory of mind’.

    2. Tim,

      Let’s back up a moment.

      It is true that Pinker cited a comment by Virginia Woolf…. “In or about December 1910, human nature changed”.

      A quick search for the source of this comment turned up the original essay. What Woolf actually says is the following:

      “On or about December 1910, human character changed. The change was not sudden and definite but a change there was, nevertheless.”

      Yes, Pinker does seem to have misquoted Woolf by substituting “human nature” for her “human character”. But the misquote is trivial (although still unforgivable considering the source), for Woolf’s use of “human character” in that quote means precisely “human nature.” As Woolf explains,

      QUOTE: I am not saying that one went out, as one might into a garden, and there saw that a rose had flowered, or that a hen had laid an egg. The change was not sudden and definite like that. But a change there was, nevertheless; and since one must be arbitrary, let us date it about the year 1910. […] In life one can see the change, if I may use a homely illustration, in the character of one’s cook. The Victorian cook lived like a leviathan in the lower depths, formidable, silent, obscure, inscrutable; the Georgian cook is a creature of sunshine and fresh air; in and out of the drawing room, now to borrow the Daily Herald, now to ask advice about a hat. Do you ask for more solemn instances of the power of the human race to change [emphasis ours]? Read the Agamemnon, and see whether, in process of time, your sympathies are not almost entirely with Clytemnestra. […] All human relations have shifted — those between masters and servants, husbands and wives, parents and children. And when human relations change there is at the same time a change in religion, conduct, politics, and literature. Let us agree to place one of these changes about the year 1910.”

      As Pinker rightly asserted, Virginia Woolf was WRONG. Human character — human nature — “did not change in 1910, or in any year thereafter.” Evolution determined human nature hasn’t changed for millennia — or, rather, has changed only in those miniscule Darwinian increments that gradually become perceptible as change only after the passage of eons of geologic time.

      Pinker’s critics had further objections, all of which seem to have resulted from a misunderstanding of both Woolf and Pinker; to wit:

      QUOTE: “As I read the [Woolf] essay, Woolf’s intent was to propose a more realistic portrayal of character than that of 19th-century authors, who dwelt on the surface details of characters rather than exploring their deeper humanity — or in Pinker’s terms, their human nature”

      That was not Woolf’s essay’s intent. That was Woolf’s essay’s EXAMPLE (which many people gets backwards, BTW) to contrast the difference between literature’s Edwardians (her designation for literature’s pre-modernist authors) and Georgians (her designation for literature’s early modernist authors). Woolf’s essay’s intent was to fire a warning shot over the heads of the Georgians, so to speak, by admonishing them to take a lesson from the Edwardians, and to,

      QUOTE: [C]ome down off [your] plinths and pedestals, and describe beautifully if possible, truthfully at any rate, our Mrs. Brown [Woolf’s ad hoc, made up, paradigmatic character in literature]. [S]he is an old lady of unlimited capacity and infinite variety; capable of appearing in any place; wearing any dress; saying anything and doing heaven knows what. But the things she says and the things she does and her eyes and her nose and her speech and her silence have an overwhelming fascination, for she is, of course, the spirit we live by, life itself. But [Woolf cautions readers of the Georgian modernists] do not expect just at present [i.e., since the advent of modernism in December 1910 or thereabouts] a complete and satisfactory presentment of her. Tolerate the spasmodic, the obscure, the fragmentary, the failure [Woolf advises readers of Georgian literature]. Your help is invoked in a good cause. For I will make one final and surpassingly rash prediction — we are trembling on the verge of one of the great ages of English literature. But it can only be reached if we are determined never, never to desert Mrs. Brown.

      As regards the misunderstanding of Pinker, many seem to think Pinker’s “denial of human nature” refers to the content of works of art when what Pinker is saying is that the THEORIES underlying modernist and postmodernist art exhibit a “militant denial” of evolution determined human nature, and embrace instead the delusional (and dead wrong) blank slate theory of mind. That’s the key to and overarching concept of his chapter on the arts in the book titled ‘The Blank Slate’ as it is generally, concerning various instances and domains, of the entire book.

      Finally, as to the assertion that Pinker….”Lacks the familiarity with modernist art works to judge them as aesthetic objects, or to make accurate comments about the movement”

      To not put too fine a point on it, I can only say: you’re as wrong as wrong can be.

      1. I am sorry, but I am not wrong at all. It is ridiculous to read a writer’s manifesto in favour of new approaches in the arts, as Woolf’s essay is, as some sort of denial of our genetic nature. That is a total misunderstanding or misrepresentation. As for your further remark that Pinter is merely attacking theories behind the arts, it is belied by what Pinker actually writes. (In any event, works of art are not mere functions of theories about them.) I do not have the book at hand, having given it away, so I copy here a paragraph written by Dan Green in which he quotes from Pinker’s ‘Blank Slate’:

        ‘However, in the chapter on the biological origins of art and the appreciation of art (easily the weakest chapter in The Blank Slate), Pinker comes close to suggesting that art and literature are necessarily restricted to fulfilling biological functions assigned by human nature and that any artists or writers failing to meet the terms of these requirements are thereby derelict in their duties. Pinker’s implicit defense of representational art, tonal music, and traditional narrative is unmistakable, and at times even strident, as if Pinker’s impatience with those who persist in their ignorance of the imperatives of Darwinian selection has finally broken through his usually charitable manner (as revealed in his previous books). It seems a peculiar overreaction to the transgressions of these parties, and it almost invites closer scrutiny. In Pinker’s account, the culprits here are not merely the usual postmodern suspects so frequently identified by critics of contemporary art and literature, but can be traced all the way back to the early modernists: the painters and their “freakish distortions,” the fiction writers, with their “disjointed narration and difficult prose,” the poets who “abandoned clarity,” the “dissonant” composers unable to appreciate rhythm and melody, the whole lot producing nothing but “weird and disturbing art.”’

        Can you honestly say now that Pinker is talking only about theories?

        1. “I do not have the book at hand…”

          You probably should borrow my copy, or someone else’s. Using Green’s reaction to Pinker’s comments, with a few phrases selectively chosen for Green’s purpose, is hardly a good way to make your case.

          1. Ah, GBJ! My old pal! Welcome! I think that Green’s quotations of Pinker’s going on about the dreadful sins of modernist artists are quite adequate in the circumstances. If you are genuinely concerned that they don’t make a proper case and not just trying to score a not very interesting point, then I wonder if you could look up, in your copy, those pages in which Pinker quite clearly attacks modernist artists of all kinds (I have a pretty good memory), copy them, and publish them here for everybody’s edification? I should be very grateful.

            1. Love to, although your request assumes that I agree with you as to the nature of what I’m supposed to find. That could be a fool’s errand.

              At the moment I’m busy watching Robin Williams.

              1. Yes, Robin Williams is worth watching, and, if I may say so, rather more interesting than poring through a book to find quotations you don’t really want to find… But they are there!

              2. You could of course post your copy to me in Japan (I promise I’ll give it back!), but I fear it will take too long to arrive…

              3. I fear we are in what is known as a difficult situation: I don’t have the book, alas, so I can’t check the page numbers, and since you don’t know the page numbers, you can’t look up those damning quotations. I am going to bed now – it’s nearly midnight here- and will sleep on it. If some splendid idea as to how to resolve the situation comes to me in the night, I shall let you know. Good night!

              4. Good morning.

                Well, I grabbed my copy of The Blank Slate off the shelf. Presumably the damning quotes you want me to transcribe are located in the chapter entitled “The Arts” wherein Pinker criticizes Modernism and Post-Modernism as being founded on a false understanding of human nature. And that false assumption has led (he says) to the oft-noted “crisis” in the Humanities and Arts.

                The chapter is some 21 pages long. I’m not up to the task of transcribing the entire thing and in my (quick) review of the chapter don’t find an easy-to-identify selection that supports your view. Perhaps that is because I happen to generally agree with him on this subject whereas you see “a total misunderstanding or misrepresentation”.

                So I’m afraid you’re on your own to support your case. Quoting Dan Green doesn’t do the trick, I’m afraid. Whenever I see someone using the a phrase like “and at times even strident” to make the case my eyes roll back into my head bone.

        2. Well, since it seems important, GBJ, I have gathered together as many quotations of Pinker’s views on artistic modernism as I can find on the internet. There are, alas, not so many, but they make sufficient of a case in these circumstances.
          ‘The dominant theories of elite art and criticism grew out of a militant denial of human nature. One legacy is ugly, baffling, and insulting art.’ The ‘freakish distortions’ indulged in by the painters (Picasso, I suppose, Cezanne, Matisse, Max Ernst, Max Beckmann, Paul Klee, David Bomberg…); the ‘disjointed narration and difficult prose’ and ‘literature without narrative or plot’ of writers like, I suppose, Virginia Woolf, Franz Kafka, James Joyce, Knut Hamsun, Henry Green, Proust… ;the poets who ‘abandoned clarity’ and wrote verse ‘without metre and rhyme’ (Eliot, Pound, WCW, Rilke, Valery… ), the ‘dissonant’ composers who wrote music ‘without melody or rhythm’ (Schonberg – who is a very great composer, Alban Berg, Stravinsky, though Stravinsky can hardly be accused of lacking an interest in rhythm); and the general production of “weird and disturbing art.’
          I too have my quarrels with the prescriptive and snobbish side of modernism, and its dismissal of excellent artists like, say, Thomas Hardy, Edward Thomas & David Jones as not being properly ‘modernistic’, but the aspect of modernism that is important was its encouragement of a wonderfully playful spirit, a spirit that persists in the work of, say, Christopher Middleton, the British poet who was for years at the University of Texas and is still writing, or the Scottish composer Judith Weir.

          The trouble with Pinker’s ‘diagnosis’, which goes with his surely deliberate misrepresentation and misquotation of Virginia Woolf, is that it is wholly undiscriminating and sounds exactly like the opinions of everybody’s fictional Uncle Algernon, a bore and a boor, who worked in a bank all his life, was filled with prejudices about artists and intellectuals (who all, in his view, wore their hair long and didn’t wash), as well as their productions, and who covered the walls of his house with reproductions of saccharine Victorian portraits of children and landscapes that might have been painted by Kitaly Komar and Alexander Malamid, whose splendid bit of satirical kitsch ‘United States: Most Wanted Painting’ Pinker seems to actually regard as a serious work of art, on a level with Turner, or Constable or Friedrich, and as saying something serious about art in general.
          For the rest, I can only recommend that those who are interested in criticisms of Pinker’s ideas about the arts, is that they should comb the internet. There’s a good and fair take-down in the New Yorker.

          1. Well, I can’t account for his comments sounding like Ol’ Algernon to you. To say Pinker as a “bore and a boor” is rather a stretch to me. Algernon doesn’t appear for me when I read The Blank Slate. Still, we have the progress of an actual Pinker quote instead of someone else’s framing. Ultimately, it seems that you agree with him, except that you would exempt some “modern” artists from the critique. If pressed, I imagine he would too, but he is trying to comment on overall trends in the arts. I’m sure he understands the nature of variation, distributions around means, etc.

            1. You know, if Pinker would come out and say, ‘I loathe Picasso & Henry Moore & James Joyce & Samuel Beckett & Arnold Schonberg & this artist and that musician and that writer for the following reasons…’, I might find it easier to to respect his assertions about the arts, but he doesn’t. As for the ‘the nature of variation’ and ‘distribution around means’, in all honesty I don’t think you know what you are talking about or how such concepts apply to the arts.

              1. Now there’s a gratuitous slur, thank you vary much.

                I don’t think that comment deserves a serious response.

            2. Well, as a matter of fact, I should be very interested to read an account of how Pinker uses these concepts or tools in connexion with his opinions about modern art.

      2. And where on earth do I say this: that Pinker ”lacks the familiarity with modernist art works to judge them as aesthetic objects, or to make accurate comments about the movement”?

      3. And please do carefully re-read what you wrote above; it’s really not very coherent and I think you get your Edwardians mixed up with your Georgians at one point, or vice versa.

  27. Musicalbeef:

    I don’t think I have much to add concerning the role of intuition in music writing as surfacing into consciousness as a feature of System 1 (in Kahneman’s labeling) to what I have already said and repeated.
    My objection is to your percentage of 1% inspiration to 99% perspiration.
    All of us work with both System 1 and System 2, in successive order and in varying proportion. I only wanted to underline that in some music-makers the role of intuitive creativity can be much higher than you seem to imply.
    I cited the case of Mozart, only because it is the best known case of the importance of musical intuition.
    Of course, he too used his system 2. But his use of intuition was much higher than in most other musicians.

    The major reference would be “W.A. MOZART”, by Hermann Abert. It was written in 1919, but was only translated recently in 2007, and published by Yale Un. Press. This book was itself the revision for the 5th ed. of the most scholarly biography ever produced before, of the same title, by Otto Jahn, an archeologist who became the top expert on ancient Greek vase paintings. He tackled Mozart as if he was another ancient vase dug out from the past.

    The editor for the 2007 English translation was Cliff Eisen, who is one of the top experts on Mozart documentation. His notes incorporate all the Mozart research accumulated from 1919 to 2007. This is a huge book, 1550 pages, and very heavy.
    The chapter concerning our discussion is ch. 36, p. 811-829.”Mozart’s artistic creativity”, with a lot of supporting scholarship. The major influence since Mozart’s early childhood was Johann Christian Bach, whom he met in London in 1764, at age 8.
    If you’re interested, you can also read ch. 37, p. 830-844 “Profound changes in style: The influence of J.S. Bach, G.F. Haendel, C.P.E. Bach”, a change that took place in the 1780s.

    1. Roo, I think that MB is insisting on the rational and intellectual aspect of the arts so much largely because a great many people who one might think would know better seem to think that the arts are little more than a subjective indulgence or mere ‘fun’ – people who are on both sides of the supposed arts/sciences divide. Particularly since I recently put on two brilliantly witty and horrifying plays, here in Tokyo, by Harold Pinter, one do with the Holocaust (‘Ashes to Ashes’) and one to do with torture (‘One for the Road’), and was not so long ago involved as diction coach for the Japanese soloists (the principals were famous British & Australian singers) and chorus for a production of Britten’s harrowing ‘Peter Grimes’ at the New National Theatre in Tokyo, I feel strongly about such prejudices, too. But – if I can be a bit critical, Musical Beef – I do think that it needs to be said that Bach’s great fugues are great intellectual achievements because they are first of all great MUSICAL achievements. I know that you mean this, but I think it could have been made a little clearer. I think I have mentioned it before (not in this thread), but I have always loved the distinction that the great teacher of counterpoint at the Paris Conservatoire, Andre Gedalge, drew between the fugue as a school exercise and the fugue as a musical composition (in his day, certain teachers at the Conservatoire were sniffy about Bach not following the ‘rules’ of the fugue in the proper way).

      1. I was unaware of these replies until now!

        I am insistent upon rational, considered, deliberate intent in artistic creation because whim is not a path to profundity. It may accidentally produce something interesting, but the thing that makes the greats great is that their ability to consistently produce profundity is manifestly not accidental. It is the result of DELIBERATE THOUGHT! Questionably interpreting a bon mot made on occasion by a composer does not establish that this is not the case. I hate argument from authority as much as the next skeptic, but I have two degrees specifically in music, one from a world-renowned institution. Trust me – I’ve read up on things! The picture of Mozart that is painted by primary sources is not one of an intuiter. Improvisational facility, ability to compose away from a keyboard and a hefty musical memory (able to store entire completed pieces in his head) is not evidence of working by intuition. If one studies the music itself with a musician’s understanding one will ineluctably see the design present, the architecture present. You cannot design a building with intuition.

  28. Well, Gerry, I am not sure that I can respond to you, since despite the e-mail alert saying that your comment had appeared on the website, I cannot find it – I don’t know why. And yet there is a little window that seems to allow me to ‘post a comment to Gerry’. So here goes. I am not fond of what comes across as Pinker’s politics, either, but I think rather better of some of his work than you clearly do. But his views on the arts – no. They do not even begin to be scientific, but use the authority of science to serve his prejudices. What I find curious is that most scientists would rightly be up in arms if someone from the humanities told them in the final analysis the sciences derive from a thirst for power, over nature and over their fellow-men, and that their claims to knowledge were really empty justifications, but when someone like Pinker makes the claims he does about the arts and clearly misrepresents for his own ends an essay of Virginia Woolf’s, then it seems that because he is talking about the arts, the sort of integrity that is expected in the sciences is no longer required.

    1. Tim,

      This is what Pinker wrote:

      “As far as biological cause and effect are concerned, music is useless. It shows no signs of design for attaining a goal such as long life, grandchildren, or accurate perception and prediction of the world”

      Are we clear about this?

      Pinker makes no pretense to explain or even comment on the aesthetic, spiritual, or metaphysical qualities (or any qualities at all) of music. He is a scientist who studies BRAIN FUNCTION…. He comments only on the measurable energy in the brain generated in response to measurable stimuli. The responses may occur in different locations in the brain, with differing intensities, but the cultural significance of the stimuli is irrelevant to Pinker’s interests and cannot be identified based on the measured response. For that matter, responses occurring in the same area of the brain, with similar intensities, may be equated even if the stimuli are of entirely different kinds or characters.

      So there is no point in asking Pinker for thoughts on the ability of a Beethoven quartet or a Schubert sonata or a Wagner opera to inspire higher thoughts or exalted emotions, since those are not measurable by his methods and really not of much interest in the context of his research.

      1. Thank you, Cara, for that and your condecension. I am aware that that is at the base of Pinker’s thoughts about music (with which someone like Patel, in his excellent book on music, disagrees), and if Pinker had left things at that I doubt very much that he would have raised the furore he did. But of course he didn’t leave things at that, as you very well know.

      2. Here, in the hope that some are interested, is a passage from Aniruddh D. Patel’s ‘Music, Language & the Brain’. It is a model of good scientific prose – Darwinian, one might say, in its focus, intelligence and scruple. Patel has no interest in scoring points ‘pour epater les esthetes’ (add the accents, please) but is interested only in trying to understand something that is complex and difficult:

        “… existing adaptationist conjectures about music are not very persuasive… [and] data from development, genetics, and animal studies provide (as yet) no compelling reasons to reject the null hypothesis that music has not been a target of natural selection. Thus based on current evidence, music does not seem to be a biological adaptation.

        “I hasten to add that the question is not yet settled, and that there is a little-explored area that will likely prove important for future research on the evolution of music, namely developmental studies of beat-based rhythm perception and synchronization…. Let us say for the sake of argument, however,that research in this (or any other) area does not provide evidence that human minds have been specifically shaped for music cognition. Does this force us to conclude that music is merely a frill,a hedonic diversion that tickles our senses and that could easily be dispensed with (Pinker, 1997)?

        “Not at all. I would like to suggest that the choice between adaptation and frill is a false dichotomy, and that music belongs in a different category. Homo sapiens is unique among all living organisms in terms of its ability to invent things that transform its existence. [Patel here gives the examples of written language,aircraft and the Internet.] These are all examples of technologies invented by humans that have become intimately integrated into the fabric of our life, transforming the lives of individuals and groups. This never-ending cycle of invention, integration, and transformation is uniquely human…, and has ancient roots. I believe music can be sensibly thought of in this framework, in other words, as something that we invented that transforms human life. Just as with other transformative technologies, once invented and experienced, it becomes virtually impossible to give up.

        “This notion of music as a transformative technology helps explain why music is universal in human culture. Music is universal because what it does for humans is universally valued…. music is universal because it transforms our lives in ways we value deeply, for example, in terms of emotional and aesthetic experience and identity formation.”

        That will do. The quarrel over Pinker’s views on music (as well as other arts) has not been, as Pinker pretends, due to sentimentalists affronted by the idea the arts might not be biological adaptations, but to his unwarranted dismissal of the arts as ‘hedonic diversions’ and nothing more.

        1. I should like to add that, as Patel’s writing makes clear, Pinker on that podcast is accusing his critics of doing precisely what he has done: of supposing that because an aspect of human life is ‘biologically useless’, it is therefore without value, and merely, in Patel’s words, a ‘hedonic diversion’. I find this behaviour… well, I shan’t say more.

        2. It strikes me that Patel’s “third way” not actually a third option. The simple word he could have chosen is “cultural”. He’s simply saying that music is a cultural artifact that once developed is valuable enough to be maintained. That’s just the second of the options previously offered, although without the rhetorical spin of “frill, hedonic diversion tickling our senses”.

          I rather doubt that Pinker said it could be easily dispensed with but would welcome a citation proving me wrong.

          1. I suggest, GBJ, that you look at my first comment (number 30), where you will Pinker’s actual words quoted. As for the citation, look it up for yourself. You have the book. Frankly, I find it incredible that someone should doubt the word of a scientist of the eminence of Patel, just as I find it incredible that so few people seem to care that Virginia Woolf is misquoted and misrepresented for polemical purposes – the attitude seems to be that because she is a silly artist and therefore, unlike a scientist, indulgent and narcissistic, it doesn’t matter.

              1. Ant, what I was objecting to was what appeared to be GBJ’s immediate assumption that Patel was misrepresenting Pinker in the manner in which Pinker misrepresented Virgina Woolf, about which I notice neither you nor he, in the following post, seem to be concerned.

              2. Then, given Pinker’s eminence, why should he be guilty of misrepresentation and Patel not?

                Your discussion with G.B. James has rather tediously degenerated into “he said/she said“ — but I still haven’t seen any statement from Pinker where he has dismissed music (or art generally) as worthless from a social/cultural point of view, rather than from an evolutionary adaptive point of view. But may I missed your citation of that somewhere in the foregoing effluvium. If so, I apologise.


              3. Well, Ant, I think you probably have missed some things, and I think you should make the effort to read Woolf’s essay and ask yourself whether Pinker’s take on it has any value; but I agree with you: this is getting tedious, and it’s past midnight in Japan and I’m off to bed. Good night!

            1. “Compared with language, vision, social reasoning, and physical know-how, music could vanish from our species and the rest of our life-style would be virtually unchanged. “

              Where in that sentence (which I presume you are referring to) is the relative difficulty of removing this cultural artifact from humanity addressed?

              The quote refers to the independent character of music from other bits of our cultural heritage. It says nothing about how easily it is maintain or how difficult it would be to abandon.

              Finally, I find it incredible that someone would appeal to authority the way you just did without recognizing the irony.

              How would you respond if I (or anyone else) said “I find it incredible that someone should doubt the word of a scientist of the eminence of Pinker…”.

              1. There is quite obviously in that sentence an implicit comparison between music on the one hand and language, vision, social reasoning and physical know-how, with the implication that music is comparatively easy to remove; and as I asked in my original comment, how does Pinker know what would happen if music vanished from our species? As for the irony: yes, I can see it. I was struck by how at once you doubted Patel’s words while being, throughout this argument, apparently unable to accept any criticism of Pinker or entertain yourself any critical thoughts about him. What, incidentally, do you think of Pinker’s misrepresentation of Virginia Woolf?

              2. I’m frankly agnostic about Pinker’s representation (“mis” or not) of Virginia Woolf.

                As I read the chapter in question, I can understand his description of the problem identified by those in the arts world as a function of a philosophical misfire, re: humanity as a blank slate.

                I’m nowhere near as emotionally snarled up in this matter as you seem to be. (“I am sorry that I sound so angry, but I am angry.”, below.) I have no problem with people disagreeing with Pinker on this or any other subject. But I do have a problem with assertions such as yours which fail basic reason… The relative independence/dependence of cultural artifacts from one another is quite different from how entrenched they may be. I think some of what you call “quite obvious” in Pinker is your own invention. Maybe I’m wrong, but I’ll change my view based on actual relevant quotes and not on appeals to authority.

              3. I do not know what you mean by ‘identified by those in the arts world’: if you mean that there are plenty of people in the arts world who have stood up to deconstruction, etc, then I would agree with you. There are, and have been, plenty of critics of ‘post-modernist’ nonsense other than the estimable Sokal. Or Pinker. As for Virginia Woolf’s essay, I cannot see how anyone can with honesty make of it what Pinker made of it. I find it difficult, I am afraid, to respect your ‘agnosticism’. As for relevant quotes, there have been plenty offered above, but you seem to be quite determined to be impervious to their meanings and implications.

              4. When you get access to your copy of The Blank Slate again you’ll notice that Chapter 20, titled “The Arts”, begins with “THE ARTS ARE in trouble. I didn’t say it; they did: the critics, scholars, and (as we now say) content providers who make their living in the arts and humanities.” And there then follows a quote from Robert Brustein. He then provides a list of some thirteen or so titles that make the case.

                Whether you respect my agnosticism on this subject through your anger provokes “meh” from me. I think your anger is leading you to make unnecessary accusations of dishonesty and contributing to your lack of respect for both Pinker and your fellow commenters.

        3. Well, GBJ, I am sorry I lost my temper, and I am sorry if I came across as lacking respect for you. I enjoy your comments and like your energy, though I sometimes get a little irritated since it is on occasion difficult to distinguish between what seem to me to be mere point-scoring rejoinders and comments that are making good and genuine points, as of course many of your comments are.

    1. Tim,

      If I may I’d like to go back for a moment to this line from the interview:

      “Pinker said that music is not essential to survival. It’s a confection that exists only for pleasure”


      Why does this “stick in the craw” of so many people (musicologists, academics, musicians)?

      Ultimately, isn’t ALL music about pleasure?

      If you choose to hear a piece, it’s because you want a particular experience that that piece provides. The result of that experience will, however indirectly, bring you pleasure, or you wouldn’t choose it. Any music that provides you with experiences that
      you’re glad to have can be said to be about pleasure, however harrowing, challenging, innovative, retrospective, alienating, or welcoming the music itself might (seem to) be.

      1. Cara, thank you for this – genuinely. I really do not like having quarrels, even with people, like yourself, whom I don’t know personally. Yes, of course the arts are to do with pleasure, as why should they not be? As are many other things: I doubt whether mathematicians or scientists would get very far without taking pleasure in what they do, and pleasure in the ingenious and inventive solutions offered by other mathematicians and scientists (a favourite book of mine is Hardy’s ‘A Mathematician’s Apology’). But there are of course journeymen in any profession. The problem with Pinker’s approach to the arts in ‘The Blank Slate’ is that it is fundamentally dismissive of the arts, as has been remarked on not only by myself in these comments but by numerous people who, like myself, are probably well-disposed to Pinter’s attacks on post-modernism, and who include responsible, and definitely not ‘post-modernist’, literary critics like Lisa Zunshine and Joseph Carroll, who draw on scientific findings in their criticism, as well as the neuro-scientist A.D. Patel (a pupil of E.O. Wilson), who, as you can see from the quotation above, regards Pinker’s dismissal of music as a ‘hedonic diversion’ as wrong-headed. And I think Patel raises a very important point in that passage I quoted, which is that ‘culture’ is of fundamental importance to human life in a way that it is not to any other animal species. The implication of what he says, or so it seems to me, is that just as the ‘blank slate’ view of the mind is superficial and wrong, so is a view of humanity that regards the biological basis of human life as the only important thing and everything else as superficial, as a ‘frill’ – an idea that often appeals, so it seems to me, to people who fancy themselves as ‘hard-headed’ and as able to think ‘hard thoughts’ that the hoi polloi evade. (In another of his books, Pinker – rightly – draws attention to the snobbishness that infests the arts, but snobbishness is, alas, a universal human characteristic that may be found anywhere – including the sciences: one need only think the obsession with ‘intelligence’ that afflicts at least some members of the New Atheist ‘community’ – I put ‘community’ in brackets because I was an atheist long before New Atheism came along, and do not regard myself as being a member of any such community, or any other, really, apart from the human race. I love and enjoy folk music, in particular, as much as I enjoy classical music, but I don’t make the mistake of supposing that ‘The Keel Row’, say, or Sandy Denny’s lovely ‘Who knows where the time goes’ is the equal of one of Beethoven’s late quartets, or that a judgement that one is greater than the other is merely arbitrary.) Yes, Pinker may say, innocently, now, that he is only measuring activity in the brain, and nothing more, but, alas, that was belied by his dismissal of the arts – the crude take-down of fiction, the comparisons to pornography, the references to ‘auditory cheesecake’, etc, which seem so delightfully to tickle the pleasure-centres of those who either have small interest in the arts or who for some reason have an interest in putting the arts down, an interest – or it may be a prejudice – in regarding them as, really, no more than a subjective and arbitrary indulgence. Yes, the arts are certainly more subjective than the sciences, and they are not concerned with producing testable knowledge in the way that the sciences are, but that does not mean that knowledge plays no part in the arts or that the arts are not concerned, in their way, with truth. One quality, surely, that distinguishes the paintings of Rembrandt from those of someone like Bouguereau, or Rubens’s portraits of his children from a mawkish Victorian portrait of a child, is their truthfulness and lack of sentimentality, and a lack, as in the case of Bouguereau, of lubricity. (I am well aware that there are people who like the sentimental and suppose that without sentimentality there is no tenderness, but Rubens’s portraits have in their truthfulness a quite extraordinary tenderness that is wholly lacking in sentimentality, and surely it is an important human quality to be able to distinguish between the genuinely tender and the sentimental and meretricious.) Music, too, has a content: as John Eliot Gardner, in his fascinating new book on Bach remarks, many of the subjects of Bach’s fugues have the configuration and force of a voice speaking, and Bach’s music is based on
        dance – yes, there is certainly a very strong intellectual and abstract character to his music, which attracts the kind of performer who proceeds to play Bach’s music as though he had composed it for a knitting machine, but at the base always is the expression of something that is strong and simple – and that is what makes him so interesting and great a musician: that combination of complexity and simplicity (John Gielgud once said that the most difficult thing about acting was to be simple). The relation of Bach’s (or any great composer’s) more ‘absolute’ music to their music for the voice as well as to the body (Pierre Bourdieu called music the most corporeal of arts) is a fascinating one. Also, what artistic geniuses like Bach or Shakespeare or Proust do is constantly explore – states of minds, possible emotions, all sorts of predicaments, and that exploration is what fascinates. They are not using, as the pornographer, say, does, a few tried and tested techniques to produce an expected result. That human interest in exploration lies of course behind the sciences, and should be celebrated. Now, you may repeat what you said earlier, that Pinker is merely talking about brain patterns and that value in the arts is unimportant and irrelevant, but that is certainly not what came across to me from his book, or to people such as Carroll, Zunshine and Patel, for whose work I have considerable respect. And I think that’s enough! I am tired. It has been well in the nineties every day for at least three weeks here in Tokyo, and we have been having ‘tropical nights’ every night as well, and today I have been lecturing on Purcell’s songs… So good night, and good wishes.

  29. I should like to add that those who like to assert that value in the arts is merely subjective and an expression of snobbishness are asserting very much the same as was asserted by certain doctrinaire post-modernists, the ones most responsible for wrecking the humanities departments.

    1. Any way to explain that assertion (briefly)?

      And who asserts that the arts, in general, are expressions of snobbishness?

      1. I am sorry, GBJ, I am simply not interested in responding to this..

        On 22 August 2014 23:04, Why Evolution Is True wrote:

        > GBJames commented: “Any way to explain that assertion (briefly)? And > who asserts that the arts, in general, are expressions of snobbishness?” >

        1. Whatever, Tim. It seems to me that you’ve got a rather large chip on your shoulder, leading you to make broad but indefensible (except by filibuster) assertions. If you don’t want to explain the assertions, my own view is that you shouldn’t make them.

      1. I am not very interested in playing the game of subjective/objective. It is not a very interesting or illuminating game, though many people seem to like it. I think it allows them not to think. In any event, ‘subjective’ is not a synonym for ‘arbitrary’. There are a number of very good reasons why, Shakespeare, say, is a greater poet than Thomas Campion, a poet for whom I have great admiration because of the fine-ness of his ear, and why both Shakespeare and Campion are greater poets than, let us say, William McGonagall or my fictional great-aunt Ethel who wrote edifying, sentimental and quite unreadable verses designed to teach morals to young children. There are also a number of very good reasons why ‘War & Peace’ is a great novel, whereas a merely pornographic novel is not (there is certainly well-written erotica about). Or why Joyce’s story ‘The Dead’ is so good. If you do not think (to take an example from Pinker) that Mozart is a greater composer than Andrew Lloyd Webber or, say, Danny Elfman (and both composers would almost certainly agree that Mozart was the greater, the more particularly because they know something about music), then I think the onus is on you to explain why you think in this way.

        1. Or if you don’t think it is possible to distinguish between Mozart on the on hand and Loyd Webber and Elfman in terms of the quality of their work, then again I think the onus is on you to explain why you think in this way.

        2. Nothing you say here suggests that art or how we value it is anything but dependent on human minds and perceptions.

          What’s more, you might have very good reasons for making those value judgements, and I and others might agree with them, but I don’t think you can simply assume the agreement of all people, in all cultures, in all times.


          1. Of course the arts and how we value them are dependent upon human minds and perceptions – as, ultimately, are the sciences. I have nowhere denied that. Neither do I assume universal agreement as to the status of particular artists, bodies of artistic work, or works: although I do think that nobody who had studied the Elizabethan and Jacobean periods and their arts could deny the extraordinary creativity of the English theatre in those days, even if, like the Puritans or a contemporary Islamist, they loathed the theatre. Where have I claimed or suggested that there must be absolute universal agreement? Anybody who knows anything about the history of the arts knows about the fluctuation of reputations (which often has to do with changes in the interests of artists in the present – Pound’s interest, say, in the aural subtleties of Campion and Lawes, and his – unfair – denigration of Milton), or, say, about the difficulty someone brought up in one musical tradition often has in appreciating another (I think Patel has some pages on that: the issue is rather interesting – though it does seem that there may be some musical universals where the emotional significance of certain motifs is concerned). And someone who knows something about the arts, or a particular art, is well aware of the difficulties involved in making comparisons as to value. But I am glad that you agree that we (not just myself personally)can have good reasons for thinking that Shakespeare is a great poet, Mozart a great composer, Sesshu a great painter, and Tolstoy a great novelist. The problem with this word ‘subjective’, as it usually gets bandied about in fora such as this, is that underlying it seems to be the unspoken thought that ‘subjective’ means ‘arbitrary’ and ‘unscientific’, and probably ‘indulgent’ as well. That is why I dislike its use. I also dislike its use with respect to the arts and other aspects of human culture, since it suggests that the whole of human culture except for science is a sort of sham, and not to be taken seriously; and in this, it resembles the paranoiac extremism of some post-modernists who supposed that all value in the arts was a sham and reducible to power and its impositions. Just as the latter was (and still is in certain places) destructive, so is the former. I’m sorry not to have replied earlier, but I was rehearsing until late yesterday evening.

            1. And I think that I might add that Musical Beef could take you through a Bach fugue, analysing and explaining its virtues, and perhaps I could take you through, say, a sonnet by Shakespeare doing the same, giving you reasons why I find it a good poem. You, and anyone else, are of course at liberty to reject such analyses, explanations and reasons, if you wish, but if this rejection is based only on the assumption that value in the arts is an arbitrary matter of taste, then I think Musical Beef or I would be right in not taking your rejection seriously.

              1. And just to finish off; here is a British children’s chant that I love for its humour and anarchic energy and that should please Professor Ceiling Cat and other ailurophiles:

                Ho!The grey cat piddled in the white cat’s eye,
                The white cat said, ‘Gor Blimey!’
                ‘I’m sorry, sir, I piddled in your eye,
                I didn’t know you was behind me.’

              2. Hi Tim,

                You wrote:

                “And I think that I might add that Musical Beef could take you through a Bach fugue, analysing and explaining its virtues, and perhaps I could take you through, say, a sonnet by Shakespeare doing the same, giving you reasons why I find it a good poem”


                I have to take issue with this.

                A person doesn’t need to know anything to enjoy and appreciate music on a profound level. I’m NOT talking about instant gratification, nor am I saying that the experience cannot be deepened or improved with time (Of course it does!)… The problem is that sometimes you hear people criticizing those who don’t “understand” certain strands of modern music (to take just one example) where the suggestion is that they lack the intellectual capacity or taste (whatever that is) to appreciate it.

                The point I am trying to make is that music ultimately should be able to TRANSCEND education, intellect and culture in a way that literature, for instance, cannot.

              3. I think y’all are just talking about different levels of appreciation. Anyone can appreciate a beautiful sunset but people who know a little astronomy/cosmology might reflect on different aspects of it than the average human does. What am I missing?

            2. “Where have I claimed or suggested that there must be absolute universal agreement?”

              Well, then. I think we must mean something different by “subjective” and “objective”.


              1. Well, Ant, I am sorry I really don’t see what you are trying to say, and, if I may say so (for I am not trying to put you down), I don’t think you do either. I was not going to reply, since I’m horribly busy, but I think the matter is important, so here goes, with a quotation taken pretty well at random from Charles Eliot Gardiner’s ‘Bach: Music in the Castle of Heaven’ (which – so far, since I am only part way through – I recommend highly):

                ‘Public opera had become formulaic, repetitive…. Arias henceforth provided moments for characters to step outside the unfolding drama: to reflect or give lyrical expression to a particular mood or “affect”….More and more they became opportunities for vocal exhibitions of grace, charm and virtuosity; but now in sharply defined units (known to musicologists as “closed form”), which by their nature were less conducive to subtle gradations of feeling. Gone was the flexible pattern of weaving in and out of arioso and aria and back into recitative, the fine gradations of feeling characteristic of Monteverdi and later, of Purcell, in which states of mind are explored before our eyes and ears. For composers obliged to concentrate all the musical interest in arias, one way round this problem was to contrive stark juxtapositions of mood: “My heart is grieving (A)… but ‘I will seek revenge’ (B) (section quicker and in a different key) … and yet (cue for da capo) “my heart is [still] grieving” (return to A) or “grieving still more painfully” (cue for emotionally charged embellishments of the vocal line). A structural balance mirroring various codified “affections” was thus gained at the expense of tracing in music the living growth of emotion within an operatic balance.’

                The passage is not difficult to understand and does not depend on its readers’ having a technical knowledge of music (the same is true of the whole book). I should like to ask these questions:

                Which parts of this passage are subjective and which are objective? Assuming it has parts that are subjective, how do these parts qualify those parts which you regard as objective? Or if you suppose that the whole passage, being about one of the arts, is necessarily subjective, then could you explain what this entails regarding the truth (or otherwise) of the passage?

  30. Diane,

    “I think y’all are just talking about different levels of appreciation. Anyone can appreciate a beautiful sunset but people who know a little astronomy/cosmology might reflect on different aspects of it than the average human does.

    What am I missing?”


    It’s simple.

    Understanding music theory or the technical aspects of a composition does not affect what the music sounds like, and what it sounds like is why it moves you… Musical love and appreciation always transcends our propositional knowledge about musical techniques (finding out how it works)

    1. But if people are saying that knowing something about the “technical” aspects enhances their appreciation–who are you to deny that? (Not meant snarkily.)

      With the little I know about music theory/fundamentals, I think I appreciate it more, just for being amazed that humans are both capable of and had the passion to produce such amazing works. Knowing how hard it can be makes me just that much more grateful for and moved by it.

      1. Hi Diane,

        You wrote:

        “But if people are saying that knowing something about the “technical” aspects enhances their appreciation–who are you to deny that? (Not meant snarkily.) With the little I know about music theory/fundamentals, I think I appreciate it more, just for being amazed that humans are both capable of and had the passion to produce such amazing works. Knowing how hard it can be makes me just that much more grateful for and moved by it.”


        Knowledge of music theory or the ‘instruction book’ (being on ‘the inside’ of music) is not the basis for aesthetic experience. What it describes is, but theory is the description, not the object. We still have the object without the technical data. We still have ears and we are still fully equipped to hear it. I don’t think it deepens understanding of what the music expresses on its own terms which is GREATER than its own formal content. Also, finding out how something is constructed tells you something about it but it doesn’t in the case of a musical composition give you the final finished experience, which is what the composer wants the listener to perceive. Indeed they may even want to ‘hide away’ some aspect of the construction so it doesn’t interfere with the final experience, while revealing other parts.

        This knowledge, while it can be beneficial in several other ways to listeners, does not OPEN UP any aesthetic qualities of musical expression which are otherwise unavailable.

        And earlier you wrote:

        “I think y’all are just talking about different levels of appreciation. Anyone can appreciate a beautiful sunset but people who know a little astronomy/cosmology might reflect on different aspects of it than the average human does”


        I don’t see a valid analogy here.

        First, there are a lot of people (usually academics and musicologists) who believe that a musical background, basic aural
        skills, the ability to read music, and time spent playing in ensembles DRASTICALLY alters one’s experience of music.

        Now of course nobody is dismissing the value of studying the history of a work, the technique, the style, the context but the AESTHETIC APPRECIATION (experience) is completely a different thing. Yes, I agree that ‘time spent playing in ensembles drastically alters your experience of music’, because if you do that you’re listening, and you have to really pay attention to all the details. But to then go one step further and claim (as many academics do) that ‘the ability to read music’ improves one’s LISTENING abilities?

        No, I am sorry. To me this is completely false and I should probably use another term… (bullsh*t)

        1. Cara, it really is not ‘bullsh*t’. I think that you underestimate to great degree how much knowledge you yourself possess, and I think you are in thrall to an idea of what constitutes ‘aesthetic experience’ that is, forgive me, simplistic.

          1. Tim,

            “I think that you underestimate to great degree how much knowledge you yourself possess”


            No, I am not a musician and have never studied anything about music. I’m just a longtime music lover (mainly opera).

            I don’t require another human being to help me recognize beauty and perceive nuances in a musical composition. Introspection and personal study are everything… We already know from research that a brain network linked to solitary introspection gets switched on when we encounter particularly moving artworks. Once I feel that initial ‘stab of communication’ I am on my way to further passionate exploration and the last thing I’d care about are someone else’s observations. The interest in other people’s thoughts would come much later at the end but only as a type of DIVERSION to see if their enthusiasms about the work match your own.

            People can read up on music all they want but unless they bother listening closely ON THEIR OWN they won’t get to love it. Altering one’s own brain does take some personal effort, but PIGGYBACKING on others won’t get you very far. And it seems that many intentionally confuse listening
            appreciation with learning technical aspects for performance. Yes, people are very copycat like that even when maybe they should put in some of their own initiative, one of the weaker aspects of the species

            The taboo actually seems to be someone saying that if you put your own effort in you can appreciate MUCH of music as a listener without needing to a musician or great technical expert and paying someone to achieve that.

    2. I’m not sure about this, Cara, based purely on personal experience. I once spent a year listening repeatedly to a Mozart opera and nothing but that opera. It was the first one I had listened to. It probably drove my family crazy. I read books about Mozart and the opera. I read histories of the times. As I went along I was pretty sure I was enjoying it more and more based on what I had learned about the context in which it was written.

      No doubt it drove my family nuts. Eventually I started to listen to lots of other opera (his and other composers) and became a great fan, but always wanting to learn about the context and not “just listen”.

      That, I think, argues for love and appreciation being enhanced by knowledge. For me, I think my appreciation peaked at the point where I decided that I “knew enough” to fall in love with other works. I don’t think I’ve ever loved listening to it as much as I did at that point, and I only rarely do now. Did I fall out of love because I learned too much? I doubt it, but who knows?

      1. GBJames:

        Fascinating. You sound like a sister soul.
        Could you tell which Mozart opera it was you started with?
        In my case, it wasn’t even a Mozart opera, but Turandot. Gradually I made room for a lot more. I’ve always kept Mozart and Wagner in balance.
        The most I ever listened to one opera continuously without a break was Cosi, 3h every day for a whole summer. Right now, I am fascinated by the operas of Mozart’s so-called youth.

        And you are absolutely right when saying that knowing more simply enhances our aesthetic sensitivity and appreciation. Knowing the libretto, or having at least a good grasp of the synopsis, knowing something about the historical background, about the singers themselves, reading reviews by the top experts, etc…

        Our mind is a unified whole, and any part of it influences the others in a way we cannot even analyze in terms of causality, but only observe in terms of correlations.

        What I find the most exasperating are those people who come to the Met and declare you don’t have to know anything about the libretto or whatever. You take the singer’s voices as pure sound, as additional instruments to the orchestra, and simply enjoy the global sound, without involving anything else from the working brain.

        It simply doesn’t work that way. Music is above all, an emotional impact, and in opera, the music is already linked to emotions expressed in language, written to project some emotional impact. So, knowing what emotions and feelings were intended to be projected in the opera by the composer is a must.

        Tim Harris, who is a professional producer, could say a lot on this matter, and I hope he comes back to do it.

        1. First I got hooked on Mozart’s Requiem and figured “Jeeze if he wrote something that good, maybe I should try something else.” It just happened to be Die Zauberflöte that I landed on (in German… I dislike hearing it in English). It probably could have been any of them, certainly Don Giovanni, Le nozze di Figaro, and Così fan tutte would have sufficed… they are even more brilliant.

          Tim might not answer. I think he’s mad at me. 😉

          1. I think Tim has already expressed his POV very well, most of which I agreed with.

            But the arts, unlike science, are an area in which opinion can and probably should play a part. Without different tastes we’d have no variety.

            Which is to say, no one has to “win” here.

            –Rodney King

            1. Well, thank you everyone. I think we are all basically right – including you, GBJ!. Yes, one falls in love with something – I remember coming across the poetry of Edward Thomas at the age of 14 or 15 and being bowled over by its extraordinary musical flow – something that Thomas often achieves by an extraordinarily skillful use of enjambement (he and Milton, I think, are the two greatest masters of enjambement in English poetry); in those days I didn’t know the word ‘enjambement’, which is fundamentally a way of creating a rhythmic tension and release at the turn of one line to another; but of course, as Cara suggests,such devices are understood first of all by the ear, and also tested by the ear of the poet: it’s not a matter of a poet or a composer saying ‘I’m going to throw in this device here’ for no expressive reason (though often, of course, as one composes, one discovers the expressive reason for doing something – a device works and seems to generate its reason for being there – one doesn’t start with a blue-print). And, yes, to agree with Cara again, there are certain kinds of usually university-generated poetry and music that I don’t care for since they seem to me to be sterile intellectual exercises. Although, I do have to say, that there are some kinds of rebarbative art that meant little to me at first hearing, but which I have grown to like enormously and to admire: Schoenberg’s ‘Pierrot Lunaire’, for example: and once one hears what Schoenberg is doing harmonically, he often makes other composers’ harmonies sound thin and impoverished. One might recall the riots at the first performance of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring’.

              There we are. I hoped you all liked the children’s chant about the cats. It’s not quite in the same league as The Divine Comedy King Lear, War & Piss, but…

              1. One of my postscripts; as is suggested by GBJ’s experience with Mozart, well as my experience with Enescu’s third violin and piano sonatas and his wonderful Chamber Symphony op 33, that good music, or good art of any kind, does not necessarily give up its secrets readily – I couldn’t make head or tail of Enescu’s music at first, but there was something in it intrigued me, and over a period of two or three weeks I would listen to one of those pieces every morning before setting off to work until I could make sense of them. I did the same with Beethoven’s late quartets. And a good critic or scholar or practitioner really can help one to see or hear things that one might not have noticed by oneself: I think of the great director (and playwright) Harley Granville Barker’s, as well as the critic Tony Tanner’s, splendid prefaces to Shakespeare, of Barbara Lewalski’s superb book on Milton’s ‘Paradise Regained’, and – well, I could go on endlessly…

                Here are some words of the man who, some claim, is Britain’s greatest composer, the Elizabethan William Byrd:

                ‘Only this I desire: that you will be as careful to hear (my songs) well express’d, as I have been both in the composing and correcting of them. Otherwise the best song that ever was made will seem harsh and unpleasant… Besides, a song that is well and artificially made cannot be well perceived nor understood at the first hearing, but the oftener you shall hear it, the batter cause of liking you will discover.’

      2. James:

        “I read books about Mozart and the opera. I read histories of the times. As I went along I was pretty sure I was enjoying it more and more based on what I had learned about the context in which it was written”

        I confess that — even while acknowledging its value and importance in terms of the historical record — the idea of the explanation and understanding of a piece of music in terms of its social and cultural context at the time the music was written has always seemed to me an enterprise perverse in the extreme in terms of interpretive understanding and performance; an idea inimical to the very music itself. Any music that lives beyond its time of creation will say and mean different things to succeeding generations and eras (which, in fact, is precisely what enables it to live beyond its time of creation), and attempting to fix what it has to say and means in terms of the social and cultural context of the time of its composition is not only thoroughly wrongheaded and potentially destructive, but lethally contrary to a true and meaningful understanding of the music itself qua music.

        1. “…explanation and understanding of a piece of music in terms of its social and cultural context at the time the music was written has always seemed to me an enterprise perverse in the extreme…”

          Very much so. I recommend eating babies, too.

          1. James,

            My point is that no matter how skilled a writer on music the historian or critic may be he surely can’t imagine that his prose, even at its most lapidary and eloquent, can capture even a minim of the essential character of a piece of music which merely a single hearing of the music itself would afford but a casual listener.

            Alone of the arts, music addresses and speaks directly to the center of feeling, bypassing altogether, and with no need of the interposition of, the intellectual faculty. For one to imagine that one could capture and transmit even the smallest part of the essential character of such a thing through the agency of a medium that requires the fullest interposition of the intellectual faculty to even begin to comprehend is, well, unimaginable.

              1. James,

                One final time:

                Music was meant to be HEARD, not written about:

                It makes no bloody difference how and why the music was composed, and no-one but a fellow composer, a specialist, or an intellectual poseur looking to add to his store of esoteric or inside information, cares about any of that of-no-consequence tripe. All that matters — the only thing that matters — is the music itself. If the music doesn’t itself, by itself, say what needs to be said about it, it’s ipso facto crap, and no amount of verbiage by its composer or critic will serve to make it anything other.

              2. I might add… Who are you to mandate how other folk are supposed to listen to music or appreciate it? I described my personal experience. It is one thing to claim that it isn’t like that to you. It is quite another to assert that understanding the context of a composition’s creation detracts from appreciation. The argument is hyper-arrogant, IMO.

              3. James,

                “It is one thing to claim that it isn’t like that to you. It is quite another to assert that understanding the context of a composition’s creation detracts from appreciation”

                Look at it this way.

                Our aesthetic experience of the sound of a violin depends on its tone, which in turn depends on the wood it is made of. So we can’t separate “wood” from our enjoyment, they are fundamentally connected. But it does not follow that we must know what kind of wood this is to appreciate the tone! Because knowledge of this information is separate from the fact of it being true. It matters that the violin is made from quality material, and it matters that our ears can appreciate the result of this. Whether we know what the material is, is irrelevant. Another analogy: we might decide that to appreciate the tone of a flute on a deeper level we put the sound through a spectrum analyser so we know what overtones it is made up of. This is all theory which is directly connected to what we are hearing. But does it deepen our aesthetic appreciation, or make us more open to musical expression?

                Of course not!

                It gives us something extra, outside of these things. Music theory is technical data about what we are hearing, as is the specifications of our hi-fi. It is connected to, but nevertheless exists outside of, the aesthetic experience. If a composer chooses to communicate something via the understanding of this data, they too are communicating outside of musical aesthetics, and, as I have pointed out, this information exists in the score even if the corresponding sounds do not. All of which is fair enough, we can “add” to music this way, just as we might add words to the experience. And words might well engage our minds and encourage us to listen to and appreciate the music. But I think there can be a separation made between musical expression, which only occurs THROUGH LISTENING, and an extra musical information which is nonetheless directly connected to the music, but accessible independently of it.

                You are mistaken in your belief that an understanding of the latter amounts to a deepening of the former. You are actually widening your experience outside of musical expression, as you would do if you went to see an opera, which also includes visual and verbal elements. Take away theory, and your ears can STILL be fully alert to what it references.

                In a nutshell: Theory derives from Music. Not the other way around.

              4. Roo: I think L is saying that music is super-cool and neat-o and the cat’s meow. And who’s to argue with that?

                But he uses much fancier vocabulary to tell the rest of us how we’re supposed to appreciate music. So fall in line!

  31. Roo Bookaroo,

    “Not only hyper-arrogant, but WRONG!”


    Musical compositions lack a specific, agreed upon reference to the contents of the world. But when we bring our life situations to music, we can make of music what we will. Music IDEALIZES negative and positive emotions alike. By doing so it momentarily perfects our individual emotional lives. The “meaning” we feel is not in the music as such, but in our own responses to the world, responses that we carry about with us always. Music serves to perfect those responses, to make them beautiful. Music most affects people who already have a deep emotional existence. It is the force of our own lives that drives musical anticipation and our own joys and pains that are rewarded by musical resolutions.

  32. James and Roo,

    “But he uses much fancier vocabulary to tell the rest of us how we’re supposed to appreciate music”

    Not at all. Bernard Holland said it very well:

    “Music is terrifyingly simple, something the inquiring intellectual has a hard time dealing with. Its effects can be profound and lasting, but its processes render the word ”meaning” meaningless. Music bypasses reason. It attacks us directly and unthinkingly. Music wears its illiteracy proudly, like a medal. I know this from my work as a music critic. I am helpless to write about what music is; I can only record the aftershocks it leaves behind”

    1. I feel in two minds about this, but think, Nick, you are being intemperate. I wholly agree that music is fundamentally very direct in expression, and I agree absolutely with Mendelssohn’s famous comment (quoted by Holland and quoted by me in a comment on another thread), but it has certainly been my experience in coming across music that is new to me, Enescu’s, say, or Schoenberg’s, or Balinese or Japanese music, that one has to learn to listen to it – which is what GB James was doing by listening repeatedly to a Mozart opera. It has also been my experience that a piece that is badly played is certainly not expressive of much. I really don’t think that what GBJ said deserved the savagery of your response. It is often useful to learn a little about what intrigues you – it helps, that’s all, and afterwards one doesn’t need those props. I have certainly been made more sensitive to aspects of Milton, say, or Shakespeare by some literary critics and scholars – but otherwise I have small interest in literary criticism, particularly of the ‘theoretical’ kind. Certainly, the kind of writing exemplified by that music theorist whom Holland rightly tears apart is of no use to anybody, although the kind of harmonic analyses that Donald Tovey, himself a very good performer, provides is of huge value if you are a Western musician learning your profession; for the average listener, no, although if someone wants to learn more about the composer’s and performer’s side of things, why on earth shouldn’t they?

      1. Tim,

        You wrote:

        “I agree absolutely with Mendelssohn’s famous comment (quoted by Holland and quoted by me in a comment on another thread), but it has certainly been my experience in coming across music that is new to me, Enescu’s, say, or Schoenberg’s, or Balinese or Japanese music, that one has to learn to listen to it – which is what GB James was doing by listening repeatedly to a Mozart opera”


        Of course! Attentive and repeated hearings of musical works is everything.

        But the difficulty with music is that it does not essentially exist in an intellectual construct. True, music has form and that can be analyzed with logic and music has harmony and that, also, can be analyzed within a logic construct but the intellectual analysis of music is most unimportant when compared to the effect music has on our deep emotions. Analysis of emotional content is not unusual but it, ultimately, is little more than the water running off the leaves of trees during a rain; it has little effect on the leaves and it is not a primary source of nourishment for the tree.

        Music affects us much as the sense of smell influences us. It speaks directly to the emotional content of our lives, be they physical, sexual, spiritual or indescribable. It is the art that does not require any understanding, explanation, nor analysis. All of these things can add to the art of music but, ultimately, they are little more than rain on the leaves.

        1. Nick L.

          You make a good point. What you’re saying is that the emotional impact of music means that we have a special sense for musical sounds that is a specialized sub-sense of our primary hearing sense.
          Any musical sensation impressed on our brain will, like any other impression, be immediately linked to the total store of impressions recorded in memory, and relate to our global set of impressions, emotions, immediate and spontaneous judgments, all the stuff that Kahneman attributes to the working of System 1 in our brain.
          All the analysis, dissection, translation, and explanation into learned language of harmony, structure, genre, etc…, all the stuff produced by musical science and study is the work of System 2. But System 2 can only work on the material of the immediate input of System 1 as retrieved by memory.
          The absolute priority in music is the impression on System 1.

        2. Yes, I largely agree – and I would say that the same is true in differing degrees of any art. I think that a large reason for all the furious debate here, is that people have been trying to talk about three things at once: the composition of music & the performance of music (both of which require a great deal of technical knowledge, and, as Musical Beef has rightly pointed out, calculation), & the enjoyment of music – though I think one needs to be careful about reducing everything to emotion (as Patel makes clear in his chapter on ‘Meaning’ in music): the delight of, say, a prelude & fugue by Bach, or his Goldberg Variations, or Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations lies in their wonderful inventiveness. As for the assertion that music doesn’t require ‘understanding’, unless you mean by ‘understanding’ something other than what I mean by it, I think you are quite wrong. There is the experience of not being able to make head or tail of a piece on a first listening: this could be because the piece is poorly composed, incoherent or formless, or it could be because you cannot hear on a first hearing what is going on, you cannot make sense of the piece. If, after repeated hearings, you come to make sense of it, to perceive its form, then you can surely be said to have come to understood it; and in this sort of case a good and sensitive critic can be helpful: they can help you to hear things. I have certainly benefited from reading literary critics like William Empson, and musicians like Vagn Holmboe, Deryck Cooke, Hans Keller and Hugh Wood: such people and what can learn from them are not to be sneered at. And I am thankful to those scholars and musicians who have championed composers like Byrd, Charpentier & Purcell. Also, by placing ‘aesthetic experience’ in some sort of transcendental sphere, I think you underestimate the implicit knowledge upon which our enjoyment and understanding rests. But there is the case of music that is understood all too well on a first hearing, that has no secrets, no depths, no complexities, no subtleties, that does not bear even one hearing – the sort of stuff one hears played incessantly in ‘convenience stores’ in Japan…

          Regarding ‘calculation’ in the arts, as Edgar Wind pointed out in connexion with Henry Adams’s Ruskinian assertion that mediaeval cathedrals were built by ‘faith’ (and not by ‘technology’), the mediaeval engineers who built them would not have been happy to see the important rational and intellectual work they had to do dismissed in this way. And E.H. Gombrich, in one of his essays, quotes that great example of the irrationalist artist, van Gogh, speaking of ‘the mental effort of balancing the six essential colours, red, blue, yellow, orange, violet, green. This is work and cool calculation, when one’s mind is utterly stretched like that of an actor on stage in a difficult part, when one has to think of a thousand things at a time within half-an-hour… Don’t think I would ever artificially work myself into a feverish state. Rather remember that I am engrossed in a complicated calculus…’

            1. ‘…when we bring our life situations to music, we can make of music what we will’. (Nick, above.) No, you can’t make of music ‘what you will’. If that were so, all music would be an incoherent mess and nobody would pay any attention to it.

  33. I wholly agree that theory should be the servant of music, or of any art. But my love of the arts does not mean that I am not interested in the kind of scientific approach to them that you find in Patel’s book on music, language and the brain. In fact, I am fascinated by it. But a scientific understanding of why the arts have their place in human life and why music works in the way it does on the human brain and body is not going to directly influence and certainly can never replace the experience of an art.

  34. Another good line from Pinker:

    “Academics and intellectuals are culture vultures. In a gathering of today’s elite, it is perfectly acceptable to laugh that you barely passed Physics for Poets and Rocks for Jocks and have remained ignorant of science ever since, despite the obvious importance of scientific literacy to informed choices about personal health and public policy. But saying that you have never heard of James Joyce or that you tried listening to Mozart once but prefer Andrew Lloyd Webber is as shocking as blowing your nose on your sleeve or announcing that you employ children in your sweatshop, despite the obvious [un]importance of your tastes in leisure-time activity to just about anything”

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