Jump to content
Objectivism Online Forum

Mimicry in Music

Rate this topic


MisterSwig
 Share

Recommended Posts

What is music? What purpose does it serve? Can it be objectively understood?

I play guitar and write my own songs. I've thought about music quite a bit over the years, and my starting point has been the idea that music is essentially an auditory re-creation of reality. Much like language, it probably began onomatopoetically, through simple singing that mimicked sounds in nature, like the melodies of bird calls or the rhythms of footsteps. Clapping and basic instruments were probably invented to accompany singing, and thus a whole art form was established, perhaps as a means of remembering important cultural events and information.

Various musical tools, like early wind or stringed instruments, may have been originally designed to represent particular sound-producing objects or animals in nature, and unique rhythms and melodies were intended to mimic specific sequences of sounds in nature. Perhaps this is still how music works: it is merely another way to symbolize, in auditory form, aspects of nature.

On the more sophisticated levels of music, a long and complex melody could be thought of as an imaginary speech that is spoken in a language we don't yet understand. Despite our ignorance of the foreign language and the conceptual meaning of the speech, we can still recognize certain objective qualities. We can ask, for example, whether the melody or speech mimics anything in reality that we do conceptualize, such as a fast or slow pace, an ordered or random combination of elements, a harmonious or dissonant fluctuation in sound, smooth or abrupt changes in tone or volume. The recognition and evaluation of such qualities in a piece of music, or a speech we don't fully understand, will naturally cause us to think or feel a certain way, based on the simple things we do understand about it.

Mimicry, of course, is a key factor in human development, and I suspect that it's crucial to understanding the nature of music. In considering a piece of music, my first question now is: what aspects of nature are the elements in the song trying to mimic?

And now I leave you with the immortal Steve Vai, using his guitar to mimic the baby-talk of his child.

 

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Many animals communicate with sounds, which can't be granted the same status as conceptual, human language.  And we evolved from animals, of course, and share many of the same neurological systems.

 Young infants begin to learn at a very, very young age (as in days) to understand and use sounds to both communicate needs and gain information about their environment which later - through conscious focusing - eventually become concepts, words and language.  The cognitive mechanisms which support the non-verbal sounds infants make (and which are understood by parents) and the non-verbal sounds parents make (and which are understood by infants) are the requisite and necessary cognitive mechanisms that make music even possible.

However music, especially Western Music, with it's Major and Minor Modes, circle of fifths, melodies, counterpoint,  fugues, arias, concertos, etc. is very much like a verbal language that one learns (with no small effort) and is continually built-upon and expanded down through the ages - much as verbal languages has been.

Edit: I'll add, that while music can be "mimicry" in nature, such as the programmatic works R. Strauss, etc., not all music is mimicry.  I don't know that mimicry of nature was the beginning or genesis of music (although it certainly might have been).

Edited by New Buddha
Link to comment
Share on other sites

On 21.12.2016 at 1:51 AM, MisterSwig said:

What is music? What purpose does it serve? Can it be objectively understood?

This entire chapter of How Music Really Works covers those questions and many more. This is probably the most mindblowing songwriting textbook ever attempted. The chapter on lyrics is unique in all of music literature. You can read the first six chapters online.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

1 hour ago, KyaryPamyu said:

This entire chapter of How Music Really Works covers those questions and many more. This is probably the most mindblowing songwriting textbook ever attempted. The chapter on lyrics is unique in all of music literature. You can read the first six chapters online.

Thanks for the link. I like that the author rejects postmodernism and acknowledges free will in the development of music. But I'm concerned by the implication that music predates language. I don't think the author grasps the importance of a conceptual consciousness in the origination of music. This is probably due to the belief that music is half-instinctual and half-learned, which I reject as nonsense.

Quote

How much is music innate, and how much is culturally acquired? Probably something like half and half. But you can’t disentangle genetically inherited influence from culturally acquired influence because musical universals show up in varying degrees in the music of all cultures.

 

Edited by MisterSwig
Link to comment
Share on other sites

2 hours ago, MisterSwig said:

Thanks for the link. I like that the author rejects postmodernism and acknowledges free will in the development of music. But I'm concerned by the implication that music predates language. I don't think the author grasps the importance of a conceptual consciousness in the origination of music. This is probably due to the belief that music is half-instinctual and half-learned, which I reject as nonsense.

By 'innate', the author is refering to the music processing modules within the human brain. What he means in the part you quoted is that, while musical universals are innate in the brain, they take many different forms within culture, and the particular tastes and preferences in music that you have are partly influenced by your culture and peer group (the half and half part). Pop, rock, classical and jazz sound very different from eachoter, but they are merely various ways of using musical universals such as repetition, rhytmic and melodic patterns, melodies made of sequences of proximate pitches and many more. If you violate those musical universals the brain does not recognize what it hears as music, or, if some musical universals are present, it sounds like a very alien and bizzare form of it. Contrary to modernists, you cannot 'condition' your brain to like Schonberg. The reason people prefer Mozart is not a matter of conditioning, but pertaining to the identity of the human brain.

If I remember correctly the author does cover language in depth, including mentalese, so check those parts out.

Edit: I just remembered the perfect piece to illustrate mimesis in music: Prokofiev's Peter and the Wolf! 

Edited by KyaryPamyu
Link to comment
Share on other sites

5 hours ago, KyaryPamyu said:

This entire chapter of How Music Really Works covers those questions and many more. This is probably the most mindblowing songwriting textbook ever attempted. The chapter on lyrics is unique in all of music literature. You can read the first six chapters online.

Thanks for the link Kyary, I'm working my way through it.  The Chomsky part is fairly dated (in my opinion) but there are many good ideas and insights so far.    In lieu of Chomsky, there is some interesting work being done by various psychologist/cognitive scientists associated with Embodied Cognition that you might find interesting.

The author in your link goes into more detail on what I touched on briefly in my post above - what he calls Motherese.  I read Ellen Dissanayake's book Homo Aestheticus soon after I graduated from Architecture School (early 1990's) and her ideas on the Empathy Theory of Art formed much of my thinking, primarily with regards to the visual arts.  I was not aware of Dissanayake's work on music.

Edit: From the link:

Neither infant nor mother need to learn how to communicate emotionally with each other using this “musical” system. It’s inborn in both.

This is a little to Chomsky-ian for my taste.  Infants not raised in a nurturing environment tend to not, themselves, be nuturing mothers/parents.  And this "musical" system is not unique to Humans - all animals which nurture off-spring exhibit similar LEARNED behaviors.  I recall some gruesome films of  infant monkeys raised in isolation end up being severely socially and cognitively retarded and make poor mothers in turn.

 

Edited by New Buddha
Link to comment
Share on other sites

3 hours ago, KyaryPamyu said:

By 'innate', the author is refering to the music processing modules within the human brain.

Yes, that's where I disagree. I don't believe in "music processing modules." I think the author made them up (or borrowed the idea from Kant) to provide some basis for his conclusion in the "desert island experiment."

Quote

 

Suppose a population of children were to find itself in total social isolation, having to raise themselves, without ever having had any contact with adults and a pre-existing culture. No previous enculturation whatsoever. Impossible in real life, of course, because we humans need others to feed and nurture us for a long time until we become self-sustaining. But this is only a thought experiment— nobody will die of starvation or exposure.

What would happen? Because humans have inborn brain adaptations, including adaptations for language and music, the individuals making up this hypothetical culture-free society would create culture, just as individual humans create culture everywhere in the world.

 

The author sets up a thought experiment, which he admits is inherently flawed, and then proceeds to use it as proof for his theory about "inborn brain adaptations" or "processing modules" which allow these children to create culture ex nihilo.

This isn't biology or reason. It's fantasy.

Those children would die of old age before figuring out how to make fire. No way they are creating a musical culture. Even primitive human culture required millions of years of animal evolution and interaction to form. I doubt a few kids on an island are going to produce it in the measly couple dozen years before they die from tooth infections, assuming the magic that keeps their bellies full doesn't extend to providing dental care.

Edited by MisterSwig
Link to comment
Share on other sites

7 hours ago, MisterSwig said:

Yes, that's where I disagree. I don't believe in "music processing modules." I think the author made them up (or borrowed the idea from Kant) to provide some basis for his conclusion in the "desert island experiment."

Not really. He takes the theory from scientific literature, which is thoroughly cited in the 'Notes' section at the end of the book. To say he makes it up to prove a thought experiment is absurd and a skewing of what he actually writes.

The human brain, like the brain of all animals, has a specific identity. Blank slate or tabula rasa proponents seriously think that the nature of the brain is restricted to emotions, language, concepts, memory, connotation, sexual arousal and the subconscious. The brain has far more adaptations than that. If the brain has identity, this doesn't discredit volition.

Quote

Stroke victims develop acquired or receptive amusia if they suffer brain damage to modules that process music. If you develop amusia this way, you can recognize the lyrics of a song you had known before you acquired amusia—but only when somebody speaks the lyrics to you. If they sing the lyrics, you can no longer recognize the tune. You have a hard time grasping or perceiving music. You can’t follow a melody, identify the sounds of various musical instruments, or make sense of chords.

The author makes a thought experient in which a population of kids is raised in total social isolation, but the kids can somehow raise themselves (yes, it's impossible, but so is Ayn Rand's indestructible robot thought experiment. That's why it's an experiment). The thing is, those kids would create a language and culture. But by culture he is not referring to 21st century New York, or German Romanticism or even late Paleolithic era culture. What he means is: basic customs, traditions, mythology. It wouldn't happen in one generation. It would start very modestly as a gradual process spanning many generations; but it would happen nontheless. I believe Richard Dawkins illustrated this is a video I saw way back where he teaches a game to a little girl during kindergarden recess. He predicts that the game will soon spread to the entire group of kids and sure enough, it does (games like that are what he calls cultural memes).

Edited by KyaryPamyu
Link to comment
Share on other sites

7 hours ago, KyaryPamyu said:

The thing is, those kids would create a language and culture. But by culture he is not referring to 21st century New York, or German Romanticism or even late Paleolithic era culture. What he means is: basic customs, traditions, mythology. It wouldn't happen in one generation. It would start very modestly as a gradual process spanning many generations; but it would happen nontheless.

And how would it happen? You talk about a "gradual process." What's that process?

7 hours ago, KyaryPamyu said:

I believe Richard Dawkins illustrated this is a video I saw way back where he teaches a game to a little girl during kindergarden recess. He predicts that the game will soon spread to the entire group of kids and sure enough, it does (games like that are what he calls cultural memes).

Yes, and that little girl had already been taught a language and was not trapped on an island. Transmission of cultural units requires that there first be a shared language and second a cultural unit to transmit. The kids on the desert island don't even have a language yet. Who will teach it to them? Nobody. They must create it themselves. And that took mankind thousands and thousands of generations to accomplish. Because man works with concepts, not modules.

Edited by MisterSwig
Link to comment
Share on other sites

5 hours ago, MisterSwig said:

And how would it happen? You talk about a "gradual process." What's that process?

Culture is constantly growing and diversifying. Two musical genres (cultural infrastructures) might blend togheter in order to create a third genre, with the first two genres remaining in circulation. People might blend elements from the culture of an invading tribe into their own culture.

Quote

Yes, and that little girl had already been taught a language and was not trapped on an island.

Well, can you think of something that you can teach somebody without using verbal or sign language? And what would stop the meme from spreading on the island, as opposed to a kindergarden playground?

Quote

Transmission of cultural units requires that there first be a shared language and second a cultural unit to transmit.  

Animals have culture and distinct forms of language. As far as humans go, two thirds of all human communication is non-verbal. This type of communication evolved before language. Lastly, language itself is a cultural unit, not the thing that makes the creation and/or spreading of every single cultural unit possible, although some depend on it (e.g. stories and myths).

Quote

man works with concepts, not modules.

Why can he work with concepts, while a cat cannot? Unless you propose that the ability to form concepts comes from somewhere outside of your nervous system, the answer is that man's brain is structured in such a way as to give him this ability - unlike the cat's brain. Concepts are a small part of the story. People create languages with an interesting talent for distinguishing 'verbs', 'adjectives', 'nouns'. Without even knowing those terms, or what they mean.

I might be wrong, but you seem to suggest that all cognition is based on language, and for some reason, even music apreciation. But humans think without language - they translate their thinking into verbal language, sign language, visual mental images, painted pictures and so on. If you destroy the parts of the brain that deal with language, you can't create language. If you do the same with the music-processing parts, you can speak but you will experience Beethoven just like a cat does: as gibberish, random sounds.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

2 hours ago, KyaryPamyu said:

And what would stop the meme from spreading on the island, as opposed to a kindergarden playground?

The fact that it doesn't exist. What meme are you talking about? What cultural unit will these children invent? It would take a genius level epiphany for one of them to invent a single word like tree.

Quote

Animals have culture and distinct forms of language.

I don't think we have the same conception of what culture means. What non-human animal species has culture and language?

Link to comment
Share on other sites

On 12/23/2016 at 3:09 PM, KyaryPamyu said:

I just remembered the perfect piece to illustrate mimesis in music: Prokofiev's Peter and the Wolf! 

Thank you. I made this my Christmas morning gift to myself. I have many classical albums. Peter and the Wolf reminded me of Saint-Saens' Carnival of the Animals, which I'm listening to now. It's another masterpiece of mimicking animals in musical form.

Of course one composition includes narration and one does not. This makes Peter easier to comprehend objectively. Carnival is more difficult, but it does have section titles, which let you know the animal or thing the music is intended to represent.

Music has sound and motion. So with some conceptual guidance, as in the sort these two composers provide, we can objectively connect the musical sounds and motions to objects in reality that make analogous sounds and motions, and thus imagine an artistic representation of reality. But without such conceptual guidance, we might be abandoned to our own completely subjective fantasies.

Today the greatest examples of mimesis in music are probably popular movie soundtracks, which are so well representative of the moving images and dialogue that people listening only to the soundtrack can recreate the various movie scenes in their heads.

Edited by MisterSwig
Link to comment
Share on other sites

3 hours ago, MisterSwig said:

Thank you. I made this my Christmas morning gift to myself. I have many classical albums. Peter and the Wolf reminded me of Saint-Saens' Carnival of the Animals, which I'm listening to now. It's another masterpiece of mimicking animals in musical form.

I played it a few years back with my university orchestra. If I recall correctly, Saint-Saens avoided publishing it during his lifetime in order to maintain his reputation of being a serious composer.  He had a lot of fun with it though.

Quote

Music has sound and motion. So with some conceptual guidance, as in the sort these two composers provide, we can objectively connect the musical sounds and motions to objects in reality that make analogous sounds and motions, and thus imagine an artistic representation of reality. But without such conceptual guidance, we might be abandoned to our own completely subjective fantasies.

I completely agree with you, but mimesis and connotation are just one aspect of music. Before you have any type of music, you need the building blocks. Some musical scales simply don't sound good, while others do. This has to do with the ratios of frequencies you are using. The overtones and frequency ratios also determine which intervals or chords sound consonant, or dissonant, or happy (major triad) or sad (minor triad). For music to sound good it must also contain a tonal gravitational center. A melody has to follow certain rules.

A purely musical piece focuses on melody, phrase, form, harmony and rhytm. Musical mimesis is the manipulation of those elements to suggest animals, behaviours, human character, water riples and so on. Sound design suggests emotions or events in a non-stylized way, i.e. without regard to melody and form, only with conveying emotions (such as fear, suspense or conflict).

All music is more or less a combination of those three cathegories. Some genres, like symphonies, tilt strongly to the pure music side. Program music - pieces that are based on stories or poems - tilts to the mimesis side. Certain parts of movie sountracks tilt a lot to the sound design side. But all pure music necessarily has mimetic elements, and program music usualy incorporates all cathegories. 

  • A Brahms symphony is an example of pure music (he was very much influenced by the 'pure music' trend in the philosophy of his time)
  • Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet is a great example of all three elements combined. It moves effortlessly through character themes (melodies), suggestions of sunrise (mimesis), and moments such as that famous dissonant chord at the beggining that could scare anybody (sound design).
  • Perhaps the perfect example of pure music is found in art music, which adds another layer: abstract construction and form. There's no way to fully appreciate a concerto or symphony without learning about the sonata form, because the entire musical content is dictated by abstract rules: when to modulate, how many themes to put where, when to develop them and so on.
  • Opera takes it a step further by combining many other arts such as stories, texts, dance, acting, and crafts such as dress design. 
Edited by KyaryPamyu
Link to comment
Share on other sites

I forgot to mention than an emotion can be triggered by a purely musical event. For example, a dominant seventh chord is a combination of sounds that, when played togheter, create a sense of tension in humans. If you resolve the tension to a tonic chord, you feel a sense of relief. This is because your brain wants complex frequency ratios to be resolved to simple ones. This does not mimic any event. It is the event that is happening right before you, and you respond to it.

Edited by KyaryPamyu
Link to comment
Share on other sites

Join the conversation

You can post now and register later. If you have an account, sign in now to post with your account.

Guest
Reply to this topic...

×   Pasted as rich text.   Paste as plain text instead

  Only 75 emoji are allowed.

×   Your link has been automatically embedded.   Display as a link instead

×   Your previous content has been restored.   Clear editor

×   You cannot paste images directly. Upload or insert images from URL.

Loading...
 Share

  • Recently Browsing   0 members

    • No registered users viewing this page.
×
×
  • Create New...