Understanding Music Through The Lens Of Cognitive Neuroscience

Understanding Music Through The Lens Of Cognitive Neuroscience(Dhrupad16/Wikimedia Commons)
  • Even if we were to completely understand the evolutionary purpose of music, we would be no closer to understanding music itself.

    Excerpts from Roger Scruton’s Music As An Art:

Music As An Art. Roger Scruton. Bloomsbury Continuum. Page 272. Rs 1931.

Many animals have the capacity to hear music, but only humans, I suspect, hear music as music. What is involved in this capacity, and what do we gain from its exercise? Why and how might it have arisen, and what evolutionary function does it serve?

Books and articles on the cognitive neuroscience of music have proliferated in recent years, and there is a great need, it seems to me, to get clear as to what they are about. Here is a definition of music taken from a recent article by Ian Cross, appearing in a collection devoted to The Cognitive Neuroscience of Music:

Musics are cultural particularisations of the human capacity to form multiply-intentional representations through integrating information across different functional domains of temporally extended or sequenced human experience and behaviour, generally expressed in sound.

I think ordinary music lovers would be bewildered by that way of describing the art of Mozart. And they would want to know by what theoretical path the author could have arrived at such a definition: in the service of what intellectual agenda, and on the strength of what experience of the thing itself?

First, there is a certain picture of the human condition that motivates much of the recent research in this area. According to this picture, human beings are evolved organisms, whose distinctive capacities are to be explained as adaptations acquired in the course of a long but ever-accelerating trajectory from the apelike condition of their ancestors. There are many puzzling features of human beings; but they will cease to be puzzling, once we see how they emerged through the process of adaptation.

Secondly, there is a picture of the human brain that is associated with the ‘adaptation’ model of the human psyche. According to this picture, the brain is a digitally organized network of synapses, which process information received through the senses and which produce responses that, on the whole, and in normal conditions, contribute to the organism’s survival. The brain works by carrying out ‘computations’, and this is how we should understand such features as perception, emotion and belief – namely, as aspects of the computational process that generates appropriate responses from given inputs.

If we accept all that, then of course we immediately confront important scientific questions about music. For example: is music an adaptation? Are there dedicated neural networks involved in ‘processing’ musical input? Does music have a cognitive significance like that of language, or is it sui generis, and disconnected from the process of gathering information about the world?

Cover of the book <i>Music As An Art</i>
Cover of the book Music As An Art

Consider the question whether music is an adaptation. There are two broad ways you might set about answering this: one is to speculate about the possible functions of music in the lives of humans; the other is to look at the extent and variety of musical behaviour, with a view to discovering whether it emerges widely and spontaneously in human infants. Either way you find yourself looking at musical behaviour in an altogether new light. Nothing is stranger, from the evolutionary point of view, than the silent audience in a concert hall, listening with rapt attention to a sequence of intensely organized sounds, and then departing for a quiet supper. How on earth could this behaviour have an adaptive function? But when you see concert-going and the classical tradition as a kind of attenuated version of collective singing and dancing, and set collective singing and dancing in the context of military and religious affirmations of the community spirit, it might begin to look a little different. And when you study mother–infant vocalizing, and the emergence in all cultures of the lullaby and the spontaneous infant song, you will begin to think that music must be an adaptation after all.

There is no settled view among evolutionary psychologists concerning the origin and function of music. Some, such as Steven Pinker, consider music to be ‘evolutionary cheese-cake’, whose attractions are a by-product of other and more important adaptations; others believe, with Geoffrey Miller, that musicality confers an independent reproductive advantage on the genes that produce it. But the fact is that either way such theories have little or no bearing on the nature and meaning of music.

The case is like that of mathematics. It could be that mathematical competence is a by-product of other and more useful adaptations, or it could be that it is an adaptation in its own right. But neither theory tells us what mathematics is, what numbers are, what makes a mathematical theorem true or what mathematics really means. All the philosophical questions remain when the evolutionary account is called in. And the same is true of most of the problems that concern philosophers of music.

Matters are otherwise with the computational theory of the brain. There is no doubt that this has cast light on the understanding of language. And it is not implausible to suggest that, if the computational theory goes some way towards explaining language, it might go some way towards explaining music too. For it reminds us that music is not sound, but sound organized ‘in the brain of the hearer’.

Musical organization is something that we ‘latch on to’, as we latch on to language. And once the first steps in musical comprehension have been taken we advance rapidly to the point where each of us can immediately absorb and take pleasure in an indefinite number of new musical experiences. This recalls a fundamental feature of language, and not surprisingly results from linguistics have been transferred and adapted to the analysis of musical structure in the hope of showing just how it is that musical order is generated and perceived, and just what it is that explains the grip that music exerts over its devotees.

We should recognize here that music is not just an art of sound. We might combine sounds in sequence as we combine colours on an abstract canvas or flowers in a flowerbed. But the result will not yet be music. It becomes music only if it also makes musical sense. Leaving modernist experiments aside, there is an audible distinction between music and mere sequences of sounds, and it is not just a distinction between types of sound (e.g., pitched and un-pitched, regular and random). Sounds become music as a result of organization, and this organization is something that we perceive and whose absence we immediately notice, regardless of whether we take pleasure in the result.

Sir Roger Scruton is the author of Understanding Music and The Aesthetics of Music as well as numerous bestselling books of philosophy, history, fiction, and criticism. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, a Fellow of the British Academy, and an Honorary Bencher of the Inner Temple. He currently teaches an MA course in philosophy for the University of Buckingham.


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