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What is Music?

By Philip Dorrell in Science
Mon Dec 20, 2004 at 04:59:36 PM EST
Tags: Music (all tags)

The brain and the nervous system constitute the body's information processing system. The brain receives input information from the senses (the traditional five plus various internal senses), and its job is to generate output information, mostly in the form of nerve signals which cause particular sets of muscle fibres to contract.

We can recognise, or at least attempt to recognise, sub-systems of the brain which perform specific sub-tasks of the brain's information processing task. For example, there is an identifiable colour processing sub-system, which inputs information about the colours of light received by the retina when perceiving a scene, and which outputs information about the colours of objects perceived in that scene. Its physical location is in a certain part of the occipital cortex, towards the back of the brain. The colour processing sub-system is discussed in detail in Semir Zeki's book A Vision of the Brain.

If music is a major aspect of human mental life, then it seems reasonable to suppose that we could identify a music processing sub-system in the brain. This sub-system would be one that takes in music as its input information, and processes this information to produce some kind of output. But what is the output?

The most basic perception that comes from listening to music is simply that it is music that we are listening to. When we listen to music we perceive the "musicality" or "musicalness" of the music. The concept of musicalness as a variable quantity reflects the observation that we perceive some music to be more musical (i.e. better, or stronger) than other music.

Another consequence of perceiving music is its emotional effect. However it is generally found that the intensity of the emotional effect of music is proportional to its musicalness, which suggests that the brain calculates musicalness first, and then uses that calculated information to alter its emotional response accordingly. Yet another consequence of perceiving music is pleasure, but the extent of musical pleasure is also a function of musicalness. So we can continue under the assumption that the primary output of the music processing sub-system is musicalness.

But what is the meaning of "musicalness"? If the brain contains a system for calculating the musicalness of music, then the value that it calculates must have some meaning, otherwise why even bother to calculate it?

Does music have any meaning? We can try to answer this question by considering where music comes from. Music comes from those who compose it, and from those who perform it. Why do composers and performers make music? In practice they may have various goals, but it seems likely that, in many cases, particularly with regard to the commercial music that most of us listen to, the main goal is to make music that is as musical as possible.

However, if musicalness is a calculated property of music, and music is just something that has been created to be as musical as possible, then our understanding of the relationship between music and musicalness is too circular.

But what if musicalness was a perceived property of something else?

That Which Is Like Music But Which Is Not Music

If musicalness was a property of something else, then we might expect that something else to be similar in at least some respects to music. There is only one natural phenomenon that I know of which bears any major resemblance to music, and that phenomenon is speech. Speech is certainly like music in several respects. It has recognisable "melody" and "rhythm", and it is spoken using one of the world's most popular musical instruments - the human voice.

So we can tentatively conclude that the brain has a "musicalness-calculator", which calculates the musicalness of speech.

To sum up the argument so far:

  • The brain is an information processing system.
  • Music is information, and some part of our brain processes that information.
  • The output that comes from processing music information is "musicalness".
  • The brain sub-system that calculates "musicalness" serves some useful purpose.
  • Music exists only because it is contrived to be musical.
  • As an explanation of what music is, this is too circular, so the purpose of the music processing sub-system must relate to the perception of something else.
  • The only thing like music which is not music is speech, so the input that the music processing sub-system is designed to process must be speech.

Now normal speech is not in general very musical, and this might seem to be a fatal flaw in the theory. But we have already observed that the creators of music try to make music as musical as it can possibly be. This is consistent with the assumption that music is a super-stimulus for the perception of musicalness. The musicalness of speech may be many times less than the musicalness of music, but that does not rule out the possibility that the major purpose of the musicalness-calculator is to calculate the musicalness of speech. Indeed many perceptual systems in humans and animals are specifically "designed" (by evolution and natural selection) to perceive things in the world around us that are only just perceptible, because sometimes it matters to know something if it is at all possible to know it.

If we accept the perception of musicality as being an aspect of speech perception, then two major questions follow:

  1. What is the meaning of musicalness? (Which I asked before, and have not yet answered.)
  2. How do we explain those features of music which do not seem to have any parallel in speech, such as scales, the regularity of musical time and the occurrence of harmony?

Ultimately we must answer the first question, if the theory is to be convincing. But we will find it more productive to answer the second question first.

A general answer to the second question is that a super-stimulus for a perception may be qualitatively different from the normal stimulus for that perception. I will illustrate this general principle by considering individual musical features, starting with harmony.


The problem with harmony, in any theory that seeks to link our perception of music with our perception of speech, is that music contains simultaneous pitch values, whereas normal speech does not. It seems unlikely that the brain would devote significant resources to the perception of pitch relationships between the speech melodies of two different speakers speaking simultaneously. Indeed our most common experience of listening to two speakers is that the best we can do most of the time is filter one out and listen to the other.

A common form of harmony, in many popular forms of music, is the occurrence of chords. And a curious fact about chords is that we can perceive the quality of chords if the notes of the chords are played simultaneously, and we can also perceive the quality of chords if the notes are played sequentially. We can strum a chord on a guitar, or, we can play the notes of the chord one by one. So if there is a cortical map which responds to the harmonic relationships between notes in chords, then this cortical map is capable of responding both to relationships between simultaneous pitch values and to relationships between sequential pitch values. It is entirely possible that the purpose of this map is to respond to the harmonic relationships between pitch values occurring within a single speech melody, even though the super-stimulus for the same cortical map consists of multiple simultaneous pitch values.

Why would the brain have such a cortical map? Why would it care about the harmonic relationships between pitch values occurring at different times in a speech melody? One of the major properties of our perception of melody is pitch translation invariance, which basically means that if we transpose a musical item into a different key, it is still essential the same music. This invariance also applies to speech melody: the melodic aspects of speech, including intonation, pitch accent or lexical melody, are preserved by the operation of adding a constant interval to the pitch contours of speech. This allows speakers with different pitch ranges to speak the "same" speech melodies.

To achieve pitch translation invariant perception of a melody, it is necessary to perceive the relationships between different pitch values within the melody. Harmonic relationships are based on simple fractional ratios of frequencies, and these ratios are intrinsically pitch translation invariant. (Note that the term "translation" makes sense if we consider pitch to represent log frequency, in which case multiplication of a frequency by a ratio can be considered to be an additive operation.) This gives us a plausible explanation of why the brain might be interested in detecting harmonic relationships between different pitch values in a speech melody.

Scales and Regular Beats

Two more features of music not found in normal speech are musical scales and regular beat. I consider them together, because we can construct plausible models of cortical maps which respond to these features of music, such that there is a strong analogy between the patterns of activity which occur in these cortical maps when responding to music and which do not occur when responding to normal speech. This analogy suggests a deep connection between the roles of time and pitch, two major aspects of music which seem at first glance to be qualitatively distinct from each other.

For scales, we can start by assuming that the scale in which a musical item is played is a perceived property of that item. How would this property be perceived? The scale consists of the set of notes which occur, with the order of occurrence factored out of the perception. This suggests the existence of neurons which respond somewhat persistently to the recent occurrence of pitch values. If we consider these neurons to exist in a tonotopic map (which means that pitch is correlated with position), then their response to music will be such that:

  • regions of the map corresponding to the pitch values of the scale will be active;
  • regions corresponding to in-between pitch values will not be active;
  • this pattern of activity will be constant for the duration of the tune.

Now let us consider regular beats. If a tune is in, for instance, 4/4 time, and contains quarter notes, eighth notes and sixteenth notes, then there will be five perceptible regular beats, corresponding to once per bar, twice per bar, four times per bar, eight times per bar and sixteen times per bar. If there are neurons that respond to regular beats, and they exist in a cortical map where position is correlated with the beat period, then our piece of music in 4/4 time will cause a pattern of activity in that cortical map with the following characteristics:

  • there will be five active regions;
  • the regions between the active regions will mostly be inactive;
  • this pattern of activity will be constant for the duration of the tune.

Constant Activity Patterns

The constant activity patterns that I have just described will occur in these cortical maps when listening to music, but they will not occur when listening to normal speech. They will not occur in the map that persistently responds to recent pitch values, because speech melody is continuous, and therefore all neurons corresponding to the pitch range of the speech melody will be active, and there will be no gaps. They will not occur in the map that responds to regular beats, because the rhythms of speech are irregular, and the spectrum of irregular rhythms will be continuous rather than discrete.

If similar activity patterns exist in different cortical maps that respond to music, and if we remember that we are assuming that music has been constructed specifically to maximise "musicalness", then we might wonder if there is some relationship between constant activity patterns and perceived musicalness. Whatever musicalness is, it appears to be something that is maximised by the occurrence of constant activity patterns in cortical maps involved in speech perception, where the activity patterns include multiple zones of activity and inactivity.

Speaker's Mental State

Unfortunately the development of the theory becomes somewhat more speculative at this point, but I will persist nonetheless.

If musicalness is a perceived property of speech, then it must be something that tells the listener useful information about the speaker and the speech that they are speaking. Perhaps information about the patterns of activity in the cortical maps of the speaker tells the listener something useful about the mental state of the speaker, and this information is used within the listener's brain to adjust their emotional response to the content of the speech. (This would explain the emotional effect of music, especially given that music is assumed to be a super-stimulus.)

In order for the listener to perceive patterns of neural activity in the speaker's brain, there would have to be some relationship between neural activity patterns in the speaker's brain and neural activity patterns in the listener's brain, in a way which preserves the geometric nature of those patterns, at least to a sufficient extent that the patterns can be perceived. This implies some form of "neural mirroring". The mirroring does not necessarily have to be very accurate - it just has to be accurate enough that some observation can be made of the patterns of activity in the speaker's brain. Furthermore, the perception can be performed by combining perceptions made across as many different cortical maps as possible. We have already observed that musicalness is a very subtle property of normal speech (compared to its unsubtleness as a property of music), so this is consistent with a perceptual process that operates at the very edge of what is feasible.

Physical Location

At the beginning of this article I gave the example of the colour-processing sub-system in the brain, which occupies a specific region within the occipital cortex.

The theory of constant activity patterns suggests a more spread out location for the music processing sub-system. Indeed it implies that musicalness is determined according to patterns of activity in at least two (and probably many more) cortical maps, and those cortical maps have purposes other than the calculation of musicalness. Thus musicalness appears to be a secondary perception calculated within those cortical maps. In as much as it relates to actual physical patterns of neural activity, it seems plausible that there exists a specific type of neuron which is specialised to respond to the activity patterns which represent musicalness. These "musicalness neurons" would have their own special anatomical form, they would be spread throughout various cortical maps that play a role in the perception of speech, and their outputs would presumably have some connection to those parts of the brain that process emotional responses to speech. Identifying such a population of neurons would be a strong confirmation of the constant activity patterns theory.


Music science has experienced a revival over the last twenty years. Music and the Brain is a recent Scientific American article about scientific research into music, which could be regarded as giving a good indication of the current "state of the art" in music science. In the third paragraph of that article we get an admission that scientists do not know what are the selective pressures that led to the evolution of our ability to respond to music. Or to put it more bluntly, scientists still don't have a clue as to what music actually is.

The theory of "constant activity patterns" comes as close as any other theory to providing a plausible answer to the question of what music is. The theory unifies the roles of pitch and time, it provides a neural model of what "musicalness" is, and it even suggests a plausible evolutionary motivation for our ability to perceive musicalness: the perception of the musicalness of speech represents the perception of something about the mental state of the speaker which helps to determine an optimal emotional response (by the listener) to the content of that speech.


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What is Music? | 62 comments (49 topical, 13 editorial, 0 hidden)
one word counterpoint response (2.66 / 3) (#1)
by circletimessquare on Sat Dec 18, 2004 at 04:52:29 PM EST


The tigers of wrath are wiser than the horses of instruction.

nope, sorry (2.33 / 3) (#19)
by tetsuwan on Sun Dec 19, 2004 at 03:34:07 PM EST

atonality cannot exist without tonality. It's like Derrida without the Enlightenment.

Njal's Saga: Just like Romeo & Juliet without the romance
[ Parent ]

Music is not philosophy (2.33 / 3) (#33)
by ghjm on Mon Dec 20, 2004 at 09:02:26 AM EST

Schoenberg's music could still exist even if no other music had ever existed. Certainly, critics would be unable to classify it as "atonal" if tonal music did not exist. But there's no reason to think that atonal music couldn't have come first.

[ Parent ]
and blather before speach (nt) (none / 0) (#48)
by tetsuwan on Tue Dec 21, 2004 at 08:39:17 AM EST

Njal's Saga: Just like Romeo & Juliet without the romance
[ Parent ]

It isn't blather (none / 0) (#59)
by ghjm on Tue Jan 04, 2005 at 12:28:49 PM EST

You proposed that atonal music is to tonal music as Derrida is to the Enlightenment; that one is necessarily dependent on the other.

I agree with you that if the French Revolution had never occurred, most likely the Kong of France would have taken a poor view of deconstructionism and Derrida would have been shot, if indeed the society of his altered times had allowed him to form the ideas in the first place.

I disagree with you that there would have been no music if Pythagoras had never made the observation that plucked strings with lengths related by simple ratios produced pleasing harmonies. If this fact had somehow remained unknown to the world, we would still have had rhythms and atonal frequency variations, and there would still be music.


[ Parent ]

AFAIK (none / 0) (#60)
by tetsuwan on Wed Jan 05, 2005 at 04:09:29 AM EST

All traditional music is tonal. Tonal does not necessarily mean that all tones are related by small natural numbers, only that there is a small set of recuring tones within an octave. That doesn't mean you're never use frequencies outside of that set, it just means that evereybody knows the difference between the set and "outside of the set". IANAE on atonal music, but my impression is that if you first play the tones a,b,c and d followed by an uncorrelated e,f,g,h and i with more and more new tones being introduced, you're playing atonal music. My view is also that this is only meaningful as long as you play on the boundaries of tonality, mocking the listeners effort to interpret the music as tonal. If you move to far away from that borderline, the effect will be exhausting noise.

My comment on Derrida is that his work was not possible without the establishment of a canon, the idea of an universal knowledge base for all to learn. Your political interpretation of the process that lead to this canon is beside the point.

Njal's Saga: Just like Romeo & Juliet without the romance
[ Parent ]

you are incorrect... (none / 0) (#62)
by Wain on Sat Jul 15, 2006 at 02:55:51 PM EST

A heavily recurring pitch is referred to as centricity.  Centricity does not imply tonality.  

Now, you are correct that tonal music is typically centric to the tonic, but atonal music can be centric without having a tonic.  The first movement of Ligeti's Concerto for 13 Instrumentalists is centric to G...but the piece is certainly not tonal.

The term "tonal" in music generally refers to the current compositional styles in Western music of the common practice period (roughly 1600-1900)and defining something as tonal or atonal can be quite difficult.  Just so we're clear, atonal and tonal are both highly ambiguous terms, but the commonly accepted distinction of music that conveys tonality is the preservation of the dominant/tonic relationship (which in itself is a concept used within tonal theory).

Now, after the 1900's yes there were still LOTS of tonal composers, but that was no longer the modern style of composition...people like Schoenberg and Ives and Bartok were the new "modern" with the majority of their works.

Native music outside of the western hemisphere is for the most part atonal...it always has been...music that occurs within the western hemisphere but is before the 1600's is often atonal as well.

You are also incorrect about the meaning of atonal music...at least as far as the drives of the 2nd Viennese school was concerned.  In most modern Post-Tonal (a MUCH better term when describing Schoenberg and the like) music the pitches involved are HIGHLY correlalted to one another...often much more so than in tonality (at least when compared to the romantics...Bach would be another story).

While certainly as you say, much post-tonal music is "exhausting noise" to many people, this is simply because they have not trained their ears to hearing it.  The relationships between the pitches are foreign to them, but that doesn't mean there isn't a relationship that is being (relatively) strictly observed.

Just to be clear...so-called "atonal" music was first, and it is in much larger abundance than "tonal"

Tonal and atonal are not concrete, clearly defined terms...Wagner's Prelude to Tristan and Isolde is considered tonal, but there's a big argument about (among other things) what key it's in...Alban Berg's 4 songs are often considered post-tonal, yet the first song looks like d-minor with a series of french augmented-6th chords.

[ Parent ]

Atonal music did come first. (none / 1) (#51)
by Wain on Tue Dec 21, 2004 at 01:25:32 PM EST

Chant doesn't recognize the dominant-tonic relationship, which is the only thing you can say for certain about "atonality" (a word that is so overused it has no meaning).

[ Parent ]
what (1.00 / 11) (#2)
by Tod Friendly on Sat Dec 18, 2004 at 04:58:33 PM EST

fuck you kitten [nt] (1.20 / 5) (#17)
by Tod Friendly on Sun Dec 19, 2004 at 12:37:56 PM EST

[ Parent ]
music (2.00 / 5) (#4)
by Your Moms Cock on Sat Dec 18, 2004 at 05:22:44 PM EST

music is frederic fucking chopin

Mountain Dew cans. Cat hair. Comic book posters. Living with the folks. Are these our future leaders, our intellectual supermen?

fryderyk n/t (none / 0) (#15)
by skelter on Sun Dec 19, 2004 at 09:47:47 AM EST

[ Parent ]
It's this: (1.33 / 3) (#6)
by Tod Friendly on Sat Dec 18, 2004 at 05:37:44 PM EST

I am he as you are me and we are all togetherr.

u need more practice with ur ninja goatses lol /nt (1.20 / 5) (#11)
by Dont Fear The Reaper on Sun Dec 19, 2004 at 12:06:43 AM EST

[ Parent ]
See how they run like pigs from a gun... (none / 0) (#61)
by THE Kinky Lemur on Fri Jan 07, 2005 at 06:44:11 PM EST

...see how they fly. I'm cryiiiiiiiing... Um, sorry. That song's definately music.

[ Parent ]
I don't know what music is (none / 1) (#7)
by Sarojin on Sat Dec 18, 2004 at 06:12:48 PM EST

but I'll tell you one thing: Merzbow is not music.

have you listened to his albums? (none / 0) (#24)
by Delirium on Sun Dec 19, 2004 at 08:46:12 PM EST

It's quite good, actually.

[ Parent ]
bah (none / 0) (#25)
by prolixity on Sun Dec 19, 2004 at 09:00:28 PM EST

I went to an Ant-Zen show.. and you can't tell me the sounds the acts produced didn't express raw emotion and brutal grinding staccato basslines. Of course, Merzbow has to be one of the most prolific producers of "music" in the world, so maybe his stuff is a little lacking in emotional content.
[ Parent ]
So What? (1.57 / 7) (#8)
by Uber Banker on Sat Dec 18, 2004 at 06:29:52 PM EST

You describe this as an engineer may describe a combustion engine, rather than a psychologist or musician sttempting to have some insight (not disrespect to engineers - in the same way would it be useful to describe a combustin engine as "this makes a swirly noise as we pour it into the tank, then we turn the engine on and the car makes noise and moves according to how hard you push the pedal" as a general discussion of the internal combustion engine???). While I am none of the above, I can easily tell reading up and citing some basic insights from psychology and music may be more useful than the above hyperbole. It reads little more than an A+B=emotional responce (how do we know it's not A+B=ER|C>x,A+B=ER|C<=x or A*w1+B*w2=ER where w1,w2 are weights, or whatever???).<br>
No effort to think in an insightful way. The story is taking some blase assumptions and applying overly verbose locigal abstraction where the extrapolated error of assumption and complete lack of any evidence make this a steaming pile of crap.

-1 no fucking way.

you've got to be kidding me (1.37 / 8) (#10)
by Jason the Mathematical Solo Guitarist on Sat Dec 18, 2004 at 11:54:52 PM EST

didn't even make it past the title. -1

In a math sense this sig is just applied group theory: what we are talking about is the decomposition of the direct product of 2 irreducible representations of the rotation group into a direct sum of irreducible representations

Interesting, really (1.25 / 4) (#20)
by tetsuwan on Sun Dec 19, 2004 at 03:39:00 PM EST

My knee jerk response was to skip the first three paragraphs, but you actually got me to read the rest. I'm not knowledgable in this field, but the theory sounds reasonable enough.

+1 FP, homework or not.

Njal's Saga: Just like Romeo & Juliet without the romance

Musicalness of speech and Blackadder (2.50 / 2) (#22)
by Russell Dovey on Sun Dec 19, 2004 at 04:50:04 PM EST

On the Blackadder Christmas Special video, in the making-of bit, it is mentioned and shown that Rowan Atkinson insists on controlling the pitch and rythym of everything he says. It's a huge part of his comic ability, apparently. I found that fascinating, and your article sparked it off again.

Incidentally, how do you explain drums?

"Blessed are the cracked, for they let in the light." - Spike Milligan

Major Flaws (3.00 / 3) (#23)
by The Solitaire on Sun Dec 19, 2004 at 05:38:35 PM EST

It's good to see that you are examining music from a scientific standpoint, but I'm afraid that you've missed the mark in some places. First, you mention the implied existance of various cortical regions within the brain. Some of these, such as the tonotopic map, are known to exist. However, it is not enough to speculate that a brain area exists; it is important to obtain hard evidence for its existance. That being said, this is a K5 article, not a Nature article, so I'll be forgiving.

Second, and more importantly, you toss around the term "musicalness" as if it is in any way well-defined. It is clearly not. Music from different cultures, for example, differs quite substantially. You seem to be suggesting that there is some property of the sound that we can apprehend, that stays constant over all examples of "musical" music, regardless of style. Perhaps this is the case, but it requires lots of argument and backup. I, myself, am skeptical.

Third, you state that the brains "purpose" in this instance is to "calculate musicalness". I think that this is a misunderstanding of how the brain "computes". Though brains do compute in a broad sense, they are essentially nothing like digital computers. This statement is even stranger, since you think the brain processes that respond to music are making use of the brain areas devoted to processing speech (a view with which I am inclined, at least intuitively, to agree). If that is the case, then the "purpose" of that area is to process speech sounds, perhaps for meaning, or, more likely, for affective tone.

Finally, you state:

Another consequence of perceiving music is its emotional effect. However it is generally found that the intensity of the emotional effect of music is proportional to its musicalness, which suggests that the brain calculates musicalness first, and then uses that calculated information to alter its emotional response accordingly. Yet another consequence of perceiving music is pleasure, but the extent of musical pleasure is also a function of musicalness. So we can continue under the assumption that the primary output of the music processing sub-system is musicalness.
Two questions. First, stating that there is a correlation between emotional reaction implies that there is a reliable way to measure both emotional response and "musicalness". I know that the former is difficult at best, and given the hazy meaning of the latter, I doubt it is measurable at all.

Second, what is the difference between emotional response and pleasure? Is pleasure not an emotional response? If not, what do you think it is?

Finally, who is doing the research that shows that "musicalness" is prior in some sense to emotional response? I study emotion myself, and I'd be interested to see any work in the field.

I need a new sig.

Re: Major Flaws (none / 1) (#30)
by Philip Dorrell on Mon Dec 20, 2004 at 01:30:24 AM EST

  • I define "musicalness" to be how "good" or "strong" music is. Different people do have different ideas about which music is better than other music, and some of this variation is cultural. But one could say the same about "frightening". That is, different people find different things frightening (and some of that variation is cultural, although perhaps not as much as for music), but "frightening" is still a relatively well-defined concept, and there are specific systems in the brain that process information about what is frightening and what is not (particularly in the amygdala). Another example of a term that is both subjective yet well-defined is "sexy". For both "sexy" and "frightened", scientists have some understanding of the biological purpose of those concepts, whereas for "musical" they are still making wild guesses.
  • The way my theory deals with different styles is to observe that different styles emphasise different aspects of music. If music is a super-stimulus which optimises musicalness, where musicalness is measured locally over different cortical maps and then combined, then it is likely that there will be conflicts between the maximisation of musicalness in one location and the maximisation of musicalness in another location (because the components of information processed in different areas are not all independent of each other). A given genre of music has to "choose" in which locations it is going to maximise musicalness, and this choice defines the genre, and determines which musical aspects are most strongly emphasised by that genre.
  • One minor point: I say "a tonotopic map", not "the tonotopic map". There is more than one tonotopic map in the human brain, for example, see Tonotopic Organization in Human Auditory Cortex Revealed by Progressions of Frequency Sensitivity". And even where my theory posits different cortical maps, they may turn out to be different portions of what is physically the same map.
  • My basic working hypothesis is that musicalness is the primary quantity. If I just said that the result of listening to music is perception of musicalness, someone would inevitably ask: "But what about the emotional effect of music? What about the enjoyment of music?". Which is why I gave those effects a brief mention. To explain in full my current understanding of the relationship between "musicalness", emotion and pleasure would take another whole article, so the following is a very brief summary:
    • The further development of my theory constrains musicalness to be 1-dimensional, which contrasts with the multidimensionality of emotion.
    • I reconcile this contrast by assuming that musicalness reinforces emotion associated with music, whether that emotion be a function of the lyrics in a song, or of the similarity of the musical sounds to other non-musical sounds that have an emotional effect.
  • Yes, pleasure can be considered an emotion. Music can evoke many different emotions, and sometimes music has an emotional effect that does not seem specific to any particular emotion. But in most cases we would say that we enjoy listening to music, which corresponds to the pleasurable effect. There is a good analogy to our response to movies, where different emotions are evoked by different movies (or by different scenes within one movie), but in general we would say that we enjoy watching films. I think there is also a common explanation of the pleasurable effect, in that if something evokes emotions, and we know that the emotions are contrived and do not really apply to our own situation, then we enjoy those contrived emotions.
  • You state that you think that the areas for processing speech involved in music processing normally process speech to determine content or affective tone. I think that issue is covered by the "Physical Location" section of my article, where I point out that the perception of musicalness appears to be a secondary function of a number of cortical maps. The primary function of those cortical maps would be to process the various aspects of speech melody and speech rhythm.
  • If we could find those neurons whose activity was correlated with the perception of musicalness, then we could measure musicalness by measuring the activity of those neurons. Unlike other percepts, such as "redness", the concept of "musicalness" is (according to my theory) very strongly tied to the organisation of those parts of the brain involved in speech perception.

What is Music? Solving a Scientific Mystery
[ Parent ]
Clarifications (none / 0) (#44)
by The Solitaire on Tue Dec 21, 2004 at 12:33:24 AM EST

I think you missed my point about the term "musicalness". I'm not objecting to the subjective nature of the term, i.e. that what evokes a perception of musicalness varies from person to person, but rather, I don't think that the concept of musicalness is well-defined in any way. Defining it in terms of words like "good" or "strong" only pushes the issue back. The question then becomes what does "good" or "strong" mean with respect to music? This is a deep and very difficult question that has troubled philosophers for centuries.

What is not an acceptible answer is "whatever some set of neurons measures", since this may stretch the meaning of the word musicalness (insofar as it even has one) to the breaking point.

I'm also not sure what you mean by one-dimensional in this case. Do you mean that it could be represented (say in a computational model) by a scalar value, where emotions (which you describe as multi-dimensional) must be described by a vector?

And finally when I said "the" tonotopic map, I was not intending to say that there is only one in the brain. I was referring to the abstract concept of the tonotopic map (of which there is only one, regardless of how many tokens of that type there are).

Sorry I'm not being very thorough, but I'm falling asleep at the keys. I'll see what I can do when I'm not so tired. :)

I need a new sig.
[ Parent ]

Your second point (none / 0) (#49)
by NoBeardPete on Tue Dec 21, 2004 at 01:04:50 PM EST

You seem to think that it's significant that different cultures have different musical styles, and that this somehow detracts from the idea that there exist metrics of "musicalness". Let's consider speech, which the author is using as the main analogy.

There are well known regions of the brain dedicated to different language processing tasks. There are cognitive organs that identify words and parse grammar. But what is a word? What distinguishes a correct word from an incorrect word? Different cultures have differet vocabularies. Does that fact that different languages have different grammars somehow disprove that certain parts of the brain have the task of processing speech according to a grammar?

Arrr, it be the infamous pirate, No Beard Pete!
[ Parent ]

minus fucking one (1.50 / 4) (#27)
by buck on Mon Dec 20, 2004 at 12:48:38 AM EST

Defining music is simple. That which sounds good is, and that which sounds bad is not.

“You, on the other hand, just spew forth your mental phlegmwads all over the place and don't have the goddamned courtesy to throw us a tissue afterwards.” -- kitten
Bzzt (3.00 / 2) (#34)
by MMcP on Mon Dec 20, 2004 at 12:21:50 PM EST

the good/bad dichotomy does not correlate with the music/not music dichotomy.  Many people hate Philip Glass and still think he makes music.  Just because I don't enjoy pop music doesn't mean I stop calling it music.  Crude and disposible, perhaps.  

[ Parent ]
if it sounds good, it probally is - duke ellington (none / 0) (#45)
by auraslip on Tue Dec 21, 2004 at 01:39:30 AM EST

[ Parent ]
+1FP Annoys Phywsall (2.00 / 3) (#29)
by sllort on Mon Dec 20, 2004 at 01:21:24 AM EST

His pathetic whining is music to my ears.
Warning: On Lawn is a documented liar.
That rings a bell (3.00 / 3) (#31)
by Highlander on Mon Dec 20, 2004 at 03:26:03 AM EST

This would be a better article if you had not speculated that there exist specific neurons for music, since now anyone can say your theory is wrong if no new neuron types turn up.

While I don't disagree, musicalness may just be a side-effect of normal pattern detection in the brain. The brain should love to detect patterns, and babies have to learn language and understand emotions.

Still, your theory that some sort of almost telepathy-style remote syncing of the speaker and the listener is going on is I think true to some degree.

Moderation in moderation is a good thing.

IIRC (none / 0) (#41)
by porkchop_d_clown on Mon Dec 20, 2004 at 09:31:45 PM EST

Music affects different parts of the brain than speech; while the author of this article doesn't seem to be aware of this - or even of types of music outside of the western mode - it is true that music causes biologically distinct effects on the brain.

[ Parent ]
Commercial music (none / 0) (#32)
by Timo Laine on Mon Dec 20, 2004 at 07:08:46 AM EST

particularly with regard to the commercial music that most of us listen to, the main goal is to make music that is as musical as possible.
I don't want to sound like an elitist, but isn't this a bit like asking what literature is and then deciding to focus on Star Trek fan fiction because it is what most nerds read?

I really don't think commercial music is meant to be as musical as possible. If anything, it is meant to sound simple and familiar enough so that the listener does not need to learn anything new, but it still has to have some catchiness to it. Maybe you want to talk about the simplicity and catchiness of commercial music instead of talking about what music is in general. That would explain why you seem to think that a certain emotional response is all there is to music.

More on Commercial Music (none / 0) (#42)
by naitha on Mon Dec 20, 2004 at 10:45:46 PM EST

Commercial Music is also something lyrical that the listener can identify to. Look at a lot of your corporate Classic Rock. They talked a lot about loving their women, struggling to bring home the paychecks, etc. Credence Clearwater Revival is a good example of this. Simple Songs, Simple Melodies, but they're a classic whose songs, a good number of people have heard and love.

"To listen is an effort, and just to hear is no merit. A duck hears also."
-Igor Stravinsky,
[ Parent ]
Music is not like color (2.50 / 4) (#35)
by Eight Star on Mon Dec 20, 2004 at 01:34:42 PM EST

There may be special neurons to process color, but there aren't any special neurons to process paintings.
Music is more like an optical illusion, it's not that our brains evolved to handle it, but the opposite. It produces unexpected responses because of how we happen to be wired. A certain pattern of drawn lines produces a sense of depth, but not because we evolved to look at 3D wireframes.

Pattern recognition <--> reward system (none / 1) (#55)
by efexis on Wed Dec 22, 2004 at 09:34:08 AM EST

Thank you!

I couldn't even finish reading the artical...

Pattern recognition and prediction is linked to your reward system. It's what gives you that "eureka" buzz when you figure something out, it's what makes you curious (you become "addicted" to the chemical release during these moments). Building a context, as music often(/usually?) does, allows you to keep a larger and/or more complex pattern in your head. Then, by altering things within the context, your brain recognises differences within the larger/more complex pattern, causing futher release within the reward system.

Jokes will often do the same - build a context, then hit you with something that you wouldn't predict. The brain jolts, causing a rather interesting result. As does tickling, pretty much, but through a different sensory input.

Failure to understand the context usually results in failure to enjoy it, at least on the same level as someone who does.

LSD appears to increase pattern recognition density (the word?), causing even more release from the reward system, making you enjoy that music or pretty screensaver (especially those that take advantage of the fact) even more than usual.

(Note: over simplification. Source: my own experimentation only)

[ Parent ]

yes, searching for meaning.. (none / 1) (#37)
by fourseven on Mon Dec 20, 2004 at 02:43:07 PM EST

have you ever played any music? it's usually easier to "find the meaning" by direct experience than by verbal jugglery...

what a crock article (3.00 / 2) (#38)
by mpalczew on Mon Dec 20, 2004 at 05:12:26 PM EST

What a bunch of drooling drivel. I'm glad you have some theory you obviously need, but you postulate much and show nothing. Congratulations, I'm glad you have a religion.

Here's a slashdot-esque response.

# The brain is an information processing system.
# Art is information, and some part of our brain processes that information.
# The output that comes from processing Art information is "Atrsyness".
# The brain sub-system that calculates "Artsiness" serves some useful purpose.
# Art exists only because it is contrived to be Artistic.
# As an explanation of what Art is, this is too circular, so the purpose of the Art processing sub-system must relate to the perception of something else.
# The only thing like Art which is not art is nature, so the input that the music processing sub-system is designed to process must be nature.

-- Death to all Fanatics!

typo (none / 1) (#39)
by mpalczew on Mon Dec 20, 2004 at 05:13:44 PM EST

last line should be

# The only thing like Art which is not art is nature, so the input that the art processing sub-system is designed to process must be nature.
-- Death to all Fanatics!
[ Parent ]

Man you're a square (none / 1) (#40)
by MichaelCrawford on Mon Dec 20, 2004 at 07:18:25 PM EST

You gotta learn to rock 'n roll.

You gotta get rhythm man!

Can't you just dig it?


Live your fucking life. Sue someone on the Internet. Write a fucking music player. Like the great man Michael David Crawford has shown us all: Hard work, a strong will to stalk, and a few fries short of a happy meal goes a long way. -- bride of spidy

Music is... (none / 1) (#43)
by chushin on Mon Dec 20, 2004 at 11:09:57 PM EST

chaka bum chaka bum.

Everyone knows that. You need to watch you some more MTV.

-1 meaningless to anyone who has done LSD (3.00 / 2) (#46)
by auraslip on Tue Dec 21, 2004 at 01:40:21 AM EST

man this article is annoying (2.00 / 1) (#47)
by the77x42 on Tue Dec 21, 2004 at 02:31:51 AM EST

music is just organized noise, and it doesn't even have to be organized.

"We're not here to educate. We're here to point and laugh." - creature
"You have some pretty stupid ideas." - indubitable ‮

Maybe that's how it started (1.50 / 2) (#50)
by NoBeardPete on Tue Dec 21, 2004 at 01:25:02 PM EST

From an evolutionary point of view, it's entirely plausible that the portions of our psyche that process, identify, and appreciate music grew out of the portions of our psyche that do the same for language. I'm not sure that it didn't happen the other way, although I'm not prepared to argue strongly that it did. At this point, however, I'd say that our cognitive capacity to appreciate music has developed as its own ability, and stands apart from our capacity for speech.

Something that you completely fail to address is music in non-human species. Plenty of species of birds produce, and apparently enjoy music. In some species, the music that they produce is pretty much hard coded. In some species, different groups of birds have different styles or dialects of music, each generation learning the dominant style in its region, and maybe changing things a bit. Now, even the most flexible species of songbird pales in comparison to the musical flexibility of humans, but there is an obvious relation between their music and ours.

One might ask what the purpose of music is to a bird. From an evolutionary point of view, the most common answer is that it is used to impress or seduce members of the opposite sex. Birds that are more musical, and that spend more time singing, end up attracting better mates. Birds that have a better ability to discern good music from bad music are able to hook up with more musical members of the opposite sex, meaning their children will be more musical, and more grandchildren will be had. Once this feedback loop gets started, it can run away of its own accord, without any other purpose or usefulness.

As far as the question of what the quality of musicalness is, I'd encourage you not to shy away from a circular definition, because it probably evolved circularly. A peahen has an ability to appreciate a well-formed peacock's tail. Doubtless, it stirs her heart to see a perfect specimen. But what exactly is the quality of perfection in a peacock's tail? It is the tail that best stirs the heart of a peahen. What is the quality that a peahen's brain tries to identify in a peacock's tail? It is that the tail is of the type that peahens appreciate. The evolutionary feedback loop that gives rise to this is circular, and so is the definition.

Whether music evolved in people for the singular purpose of directly impressing or seducing members of the opposite sex, or whether it evolved because it more generally earns a musical person the respect and admiration of their peers, I think it's clear that musically talented folks benefit from their talent. Once this is the case, musically discerning people will benefit from their ability to identify and appreciate good music. The more discerning individual is more likely to mate with a more musical individual, meaning the more discerning individual has more musical children, and thus more grandchildren. This kicks off a feedback loop that results in both people developing more and more musical talent, and a more and more discerning ear for music.

I guess in the end, I'd have to say that music exists for its own sake. It exists to be beautiful, and so that this beauty can be shared with other people. And people have the ability to appreciate this beauty just so that they can appreciate it, not because it is a side-effect of some other ability. Evolutionarily, this may be because it helps one get the chicks (or the men, as the case may be). But in the end, pretty much everything evolutionarily boils down to getting the chicks (or the men), so that's nothing unusual.

Arrr, it be the infamous pirate, No Beard Pete!

Few things... (3.00 / 5) (#52)
by Wain on Tue Dec 21, 2004 at 02:00:50 PM EST

Okay, firstly, you need to quit using the term "musicalness", even in your attempts to define musicality(a much better meaningless word) you are continually jumping from something objective to subjective.

Music is better understood by persons perceiving it as a complex, extended relationship between dissonant and consonant sonorities.  Music is not unlike computer programs.

Secondly, there IS harmony in speech and in most other sounds, between the overtone series and partials, there is harmony in all things except a tone generator...which is why tone generators are really annoying to listen to.

Thirdly, music has been found throughout the world to reflect the speech patterns of its respective society in both the melodic and rhythmic patterns that can be derived from speech in that region.  It actually makes sense, folks write folk music.

There are regular beats in speech, they are generally not stressed to the degree western tonal music often is, and the rhythms are at times more complex.  It's just not as simple and rigidly held as 4/4. It's not like composers pick a meter and then only use the rhythmic value that receives one beat.  An entire composition of quarter notes would really suck the life out of anything.  Have you ever been irritated with people who give you their phone number like this: 55-52-12-6....guess why...they've  altered a rhythmic pattern that you're expecting to hear.

Scales aren't real...they don't actually exist and widely vary when you start getting into the thousands of modes that exist across the world.  Scales represent a sort of tessitura, you can just as easily say that there are scales in speech, as you can say that there are no scales at all.  They are part of a theory that was applied after the fact of composition.

The meaning of music is subjective...if I play a wedding march at my house, everyone will immediately start thinking about some sort of formal affair and procession, but if I go play it to an Australian bushmen it will be meaningless, just as his hunting music will mean very little to me.  Doesn't mean we won't like each other's stuff, just that we won't understand its implied meaning.

Most of the perception and appreciation of music comes from memory.  Composers set up (imply) musical scenarios that they either then realize by what is considered typical resolution, or they don't realize by not resolving their implication at all (consider a prolonged dominant that resolves via a deceptive cadence which is used as a pivot chord to the key if iv).  It only sounds unusual because you've been brought up in a dominant-tonic cadential paradigm, and it doesn't even sound that unusual, just unexpected.  All of your perception and ideas around that progression will be based on your memory of previous musical experiences.

how about singing? nt (none / 0) (#53)
by metagone on Tue Dec 21, 2004 at 07:28:36 PM EST

Could not parse this article (none / 1) (#56)
by johnny on Wed Dec 22, 2004 at 07:10:39 PM EST

perhaps because I have Rage Against the Machine coming through the earphones right now at a frightfully alarming volume.

yr frn,
Get your free download of prizewinning novels Acts of the Apostles and Che
Futile effort (none / 0) (#57)
by bafungu on Thu Dec 23, 2004 at 04:16:51 PM EST

"Talking about music is like dancing about architecture."

Better noise (1.20 / 5) (#58)
by shm on Sat Jan 01, 2005 at 08:36:18 AM EST

Music is better noise. Noise sometimes is better music. And Wagner's music is better than it sounds. Bill Nye

What is Music? | 62 comments (49 topical, 13 editorial, 0 hidden)
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