14 min read 🤓

Y've got the music in ya

january 01, 2010.

You may frown and call it old news:
"It's what Kiki Dee told us back in 1974, and god knows, she did not make that up all by herself ..."
For who could deny that at heart we truly are musical animals?
Like language, music is a trans-cultural human property. Documented examples of a human culture lacking some form of music there are none, just as there is, as far as we know, not a single human culture without spoken language.

[ Theme ]
In his recent book 'Iedereen is Muzikaal', written for a general public, Dutch music cognition pioneer Henkjan Honing presents current scientific evidence cover for the thesis that what are considered the basic cognitive skills that we put to work when perceiving and reacting to music are innate, rather than skills that we acquire through learning.
Henkjan distinguishes three of these elementary - and supposedly exclusively human - musical skills:
1. the sense for rhythm,
2. relative pitch, and
3. the sensibility for nuance (how we perceive musical timing, intonation and phrasing).

The empirical evidence showing that because of culture and learning humans actually may lose some of their original innate power for auditive/musical discrimination is remarkable. A nice example is the outcome of a study by Hennan and Trehab ( * ). It showed that an average north-american adult listener, who usually will have no trouble identifying the singular rhythms that dominate most of western (popular) music, was little capable of discriminating composed rhythmic measures, like 7/8, that are commonly used in for example eastern european folk music. This was, unsurprisingly, not the case for adults of serbian-bulgarian origin, who had been exposed to such rhythmically more complex music much of their lives, and readily identified both the singular and compound measures. I guess this one would expect to be the case. But, surprise! The researchers also showed that six month old north american babies were capable of recognizing, not only the singular rhythms of the music their parents usually listen to, but also the more complex, composed 'foreign' ones ... Apparently this skill then must get lost when the babies grow up to be north-american adults, because over the years they are just not exposed enough to such 'different' rhythms.

Henkjan Honing also argues that, contrary to common opinion, having absolute pitch - being capable of naming musical notes without having to compare them with some prior given reference tone - is an acquired cognitive skill rather than a very special talent that only a happy few among us brought along with them into this world. He also suggests that, though it may be relatively rare to be able to name pitch in an absolute manner, most humans will remember pitch (and tempo) of music that they regularly hear in such a manner that they will be able to tell whether pitch and/or tempo of a recording of that music are correct. In other words: most of us do hear in an 'absolute' way, and whenever you play back your favorite tracks on your brain's internal audio device, you're likely to hit the right pitch and step in the right beat.

sacksLike Oliver Sacks in his Musicophilia (in chapter 9, a fine collection of facts and anecdotes related to absolute pitch brought together under the delightful title 'Papa blows his nose in G') Henkjan observes that 'absolute pitch', instead of being an advantage for one's experience of music, often, on the contrary, is more of a pain in the ass.
He also cites evidence that animals (maybe with the exception of certain parrots) utterly lack the skills necessary for musicality, though they do have an absolute sense of pitch. Both authors moreover refer to studies by e.g. Safran ( ** ) that show how, for example in a learning test of tone sequences, infants will rely on absolute pitch, and adults on relative pitch. The reason? Relative pitch is essential in our perception of sound as music: it is through relative pitch that we recognize a melody also if it is sung or played in a different key, or even 'out of tune', or temporally distorted in some way of another. Like the sense of rhythm, relative pitch is at the heart of the (exclusively?) human ability to 'hear in perspective'; to hear tunes as being - essentially - 'the same', though in an absolute - a measured - sense they are 'miles apart'. A question that interests me is whether one would be somehow able to show that skills used in the perception of rhythm are independent from those called for when perceiving 'pitch'. Or are these musical skills correlated? I would actually rather conjecture the latter.

eureka The idea that our experience of music, hence our innate 'musicality', relates to the ability we have to perceive of an equivalent of visual/spatial perspective in the auditory/temporal field, I find highly suggestive and very exciting indeed.
It is here that one feels a first faint ray of light being shed on the problem of what it is that makes 'our music'; why it is false to identify music with 'just' sound, and why also defining music as 'organized sound' still sort of misses the point ...
The boys and girls attending the legendary 1964 Dutch live appearance of the Beatles (in an auctions hall - Veiling Op Hoop Van Zegen - in the village of Blokker) hardly will have heard the same sound that they knew from the radio and from the records on their gramophones, with all the sobbing and screaming that went on, and a sick Ringo Starr being replaced by Jimmy Nicol. But they surely did hear the same music... Or take the badly degraded monophonic recording of Beethoven's seventh symphony that I found on the crashed audio cassette I picked from the mud along the tram track passing in front of the Brussels Gare du Midi. Though the sound left on the damaged tape is a mere shadow of the one that emanated from the full blast orchestra that I heard performing Ludwig's 7th in the Amsterdam Concertgebouw some years ago, there is no convincing argument that will allow me to defend a statement to the effect that the music I heard in the Concertgebouw is other than the one I hear when I play back the restored cassette tape.

Or is there?

I think you see what it is that I am trying to get at ...
Paraphrasing Dave Chalmers: no doubt that music is a real hard nut to crack ...

In Iedereen is Muzikaal the author proposes us to see music as a game. "Music plays with the listener" is the book's main slogan. It is the author's 'way out' of the ongoing discussion surrounding the observation that given the massively important role of music in human life, it does not seem to play any role whatsoever in a practical (an evolutionary, a survival) sense. But then, some scientists reason, if music is not 'adaptive' and of 'no use', why did it evolve?

[ Variation ]
Henkjan and myself treaded similar paths for a while, when in the mid-1980's we both frequented the then Utrecht based Institute of Sonology, and both were seduced by the idea - pretty ancient, really - that a music's most intimate and innermost secrets, like nature's, ultimately will reside in its structure, its architecture, its logic... in its 'mathematics'. Whence, in order to reveal these, one did best apply a structuralist, a formalist, a mathematical approach to the arts of sound. In his book Henkjan explains how through his early attempts to program a computer to listen and identify the tempi and rhythms played by a human percussionist he came to question this idea of 'music as numbers', as it dawned on him how little indeed we know about what it is that actually happens when we listen...
Though I followed a very different long and winding road, and these days our daily practices may be worlds apart, I as well eventually came to dismiss the idea that via the sole laws and logic of its structure one eventually will come to a deeper understanding of what music is. I arrived at a conclusion similar to what is a central theme in Henkjan's book: that music arises through the act of listening, and that there is no music without a 'musical listener': when we listen, we make music.
Also these, of course, are a fine handful of slogans. They're like short-circuits, plugging an A with an A to produce a bang and some buzz, to catch your attention.
But what - if anything - do they mean?

Iedereen is Muzikaal is Henkjan's personal account of the attempts within the relatively young interdisciplinary field of music cognition to apply scientific methods in order to answer this question, by providing objective facts that back up the slogans. As said, the book is not meant for specialists, but addresses a general public. Its style is a bit wavery, adorned as it is with the occasional 'feel good' phrases sounding as if they came straight from a boy scouts' music appreciation session, and with several rather sudden switches in tone, which does not always manage to unify the voice of the scientist with that of the author speaking as a passionate individual. In the end it left me with the feeling that in fact both had been restraining themselves, and neither actually spoke out as loud and as clearly as he should have.
Overall though, I found Iedereen is Muzikaal a rewarding and positive read. The book is clearly structured, and does manage to clarify what it is that the boys and girls at the music cognition department are after; why this sort of research is worth doing; and also why it is so very hard to clearly answer some of the apparently obvious and simple questions about what it is that goes on when we listen to music.
(It is thus that the book implicitly, via a strategic flanking movement, also addresses academic policy-makers. I do hope that they will get the message. Or, better even: hear the music ... :-) ...)

[ Exposition ]
Music cognition's arguments are utterly compelling: we were born with a beat, and get caught by reflexive surprise when there or then one of them goes missing; whether we are trained as a musician, or see ourselves as being inveterately amusical, our brains - ah! great and only gateways to our body's surroundings! - come equipped with a sensitivity for pitch, timing and phrasing that enables us all to intuitively distinguish what is 'right' from what is 'wrong'; traditionalist, hard-core atonalist, noisician and self-proclaimed musical ignoramus alike will pretty much faultlessly pick out the one or more notes that are off in whatever melodic line, no matter whether or not they heard the 'right one' before...

Now that is food for thought. I could not help being reminded of Pierre Schaeffer's resigned lament when towards the end of his lifelong looking for a novel framework for the 'organized sound of the world', one that would bypass the traditional notions of rhythm, timbre, tone and tempo, in an interview with Tim Hodgkinson he sighed that - "unfortunately" - it had taken him "forty years to conclude that nothing is possible outside DoReMi". Now that is maybe pushing things a wee bit far, but if indeed (as music cognition research seems to confirm) the human brain does come pre-equipped with a 'DoReMi'-framework, that would suggest that there must be a core of truth in Schaeffer's observation: for of course it is awful hard to get a fish to fly ...


[ Fuga ]
At this point you should take a moment to scroll up, and have a good look at the two photographs on the covers above.
They are, I think, highly revealing.
The covers of these two books, each of which in its own way deals with 'music and the brain', are basically the same (notwithstanding the fact that the one is a portrait of Oliver Sacks, and the other not-a-portrait of Henkjan Honing :-) ...).
Both prominently show a listener enjoying music played back through a set of headphones.
Both listeners have put their right hand upon the very spot where the sounds originate. This is a common gesture, often made in an attempt to shield off possible 'alien' sounds coming in from the 'outside' and get even more 'inside' the music. And both listeners wear a very private smile: their eyes are closed, thus telling us that whatever is going on, it is going on inside their heads. The pictures show their retreat from all that is space, and thus quite forcefully underline that musical hearing (contrary to the hearing of a mere succession of acoustical events, that I like to call factual) is "the manifestation of time eventuating" (as Viktor Zuckerkandl nicely put it in his 1956 Sound and Symbol: Music and the External World.)
By representing the listener's intuitive - reflexive(!) - attempt at withdrawal from space into the sole dimension of (internal) time, both photographs, and probably both unintentionally so, illustrate the intimate connection that exists between our experience of music and our experience of time. Curious therefore that it is this time that, in the one book as much as in the other, mostly seems muffled in disregard, and kept quietly hidden away in a far and dark corner. Except, maybe that is, in the Musicophilia's 15th chapter (In the Moment: Music and Amnesia), which is a very thoughtful exposure of a severely amnesic man's entrapment in a neverending chain of nows, none of which has a past and none of which leads him on to a future. With a few exceptions, most notably so, when the man was playing music; which he continued to do, artfully, faultlessly. It was only as music that he could keep time.

Time is surely other than a neutral canvas along which our music unfolds, and that we'll need to invoke merely to measure a beat or settle a tempo.
Music and time intertwine.
Quite evidently the one can not be without the other.
And, well... given that here we approach the end of the post while tha hands of tha clock push tha dawn of a new decade, and in my guise of 'poor lonesome blogger, a long long way from home' you probably by now can almost hear me yodel and rock on the back of an old worn horse up the far away mountains drawn against a clear moonlit sky... I will even dare boldly conjecture that also conversely in our brain there can not be the other without the one.


[ Reprise ]
Henkjan goes to great length arguing that music differs from language, in the sense that for example the successful formal generativist approach in linguistics fails when applied to music.
It must be the ur-intuition, the gut feeling, that music does tell us something, and indeed tells it loud and clear ("... of je nou hoog spring of laag springt ..."), that accounts for the fact that still - explicitly and implicitly - the text continues to speak of music as a 'wordless language'.
[Rightly so. I recall that time ago, in a different context, I referred to language and music as the two sides of a one coin. I still feel that's an appropriate image. But, as with 'the art of music', a formalist - 'mathematical' - approach also will fall short of getting to the heart of 'the art of language'; whence manages to bring to the fore what - structurally - distinguishes music from language (but then who would want to deem them 'the same'?), will fail though to teach us about that what (we will continue to 'feel') they have in common.]

[ "The way I see it, Barry ..." : Wrap-up and condensed coda ]
Other than e.g. Steven Pinker, let me tell you that language evolved as a split-off from music. Not the other way round. First there was music (Henkjan suggests as much, in the discussion of IDS - infant-directed speech - that opens the book).
Visual perspective induced our notion of space, in which things can appear in a many different places, but still be perceived as 'the same'. Auditory perspective induced our notion of time, in which things can occur at a many different instances, but still be perceived as 'the same'.
Thus, in days long gone, music gradually woke us from being trapped in an eternal. Now. Now. You try to imagine what a such coming into being will have felt like...

Music sticks around to remind us.


[ Iedereen is muzikaal. Wat we weten over het luisteren naar muziek. Henkjan Honing. Nieuw Amsterdam Uitgevers, 2009.
Translations of Henkjan Honing's book into English and other languages are scheduled for 2010.
www.iedereenismuzikaal.nl has a divers collection of sound examples, listening tests and video clips related to the content of the book. ]

notes __ ::
(*) E.E. Hannon, S.E. Trehub - "Metrical categories in infancy and adulthood", Psychological Science, 16(1), 2005; pp. 48-55 [ ^ ]
(**) J.R. Safran, G.J. Griepentrog - "Absolute pitch in infant auditory learning: evidence for developmental reorganization", Developmental Psychology, 37(1), 2001; pp. 74-85
J.R. Safran - "Absolute pitch in infancy and adulthood: the role of tonal structure", Developmental Science, 6(1), 2003; pp. 37-45 [ ^ ]

tags: music, cognition

# .341.

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