Category Archives: Philosophy

May I Share My Earworm?

Voilà: my new Philosophy & Music videoclip, which should warm you up to my three lecture course on music — how it moves us, why it matters.

Don’t forget to turn on the sound. Unless you’re allergic to earworms: the music I made to go with it has been playing in my mind for two weeks, barely going to rest at night.

Memorability is an essential feature of what we tend to call a “good tune” (not, of course, of good music). Memorability and “catchiness”, which implies memorability, but also something seemingly contradictory — the feeling that it is new, yet familiar — the déjà-ouï.

Certainly music may be both. Often the familiarity will derive from some background pattern (primarily harmonic), the novelty from foreground features — typically, melodic. Most of the world’s music is based on prefab patterns. The scope for creating new melodies to a given harmonic pattern is not infinite. So, an appealing, potentially popular tune will never be 100% new, or even 50%, I would say, though there is no way of measuring musical novelty.

And the catchier it sounds — the stronger the feeling that it has a right to be there (as I feel it, from the maker’s perspective) — the greater the risk that actually it has already been there. You may carefully and deliberately craft your tune from scratch, changing a note here and there, but still have no guarantee that the unpredicted and unpredictable end result (voilá) won’t happen to be a duplicate of something that has been out there all along.

But that’s no reason to silence the worm.

Reverend Father Adam, Whence Didst Thou Get Music?

What is the origin of music? — And how does music relate to language? Scientific research into these questions is booming. Psychologists, neurologists, cognitive scientists, biologists, archaeologists, anthropologists, linguists and musicologists are in the origins business. Despite the fact that we’ll never have the kind of evidence that may lead to a scientifically valid answer.

Theories may be fables. They still can be evaluated by how well they connect the things we know, and by their power to inspire new enquiries.

One idea that may seem obvious and common sense is that there are aspects of language — more particularly, of speech — that can be called ‘musical’ and expressive: the ‘rhythm’ and ‘melody’ of speech, or prosody. Rudiments of melody, or intonation, are present in the most basic human and animal vocal expressions — screams, calls, sighs, grunts, and so on.

So maybe before there were language and music there was vocal expression, a kind of primitive communication that with growing complexity developed into true language on the one hand, into music on the other. Or, as it has often been put, into the ‘language of ideas’ and the ‘language of feelings’. It being understood that linguistic prosody belongs with the latter rather than with the former.

This sounds like a common sense idea, and it is a quite popular hypothesis in recent scientific research. It inspires more specific inquiries into the musical features of language,  into the linguistic features of music, and into the question how both are processed by our brains.

Not every idea that strikes us as obvious must always have been so. What seems trivially sensible today may be yesterday’s nonsense, or revelation.

Herbert Spencer was a popular philosopher of the Victorian age. In a somewhat prattlesome essay on The Origin and Function of Music, published in 1857 in Fraser’s Magazine for Town and Country, Spencer pointed out that vocal sounds are expressive because we recognize them as the product of the bodily effort of making them. A happy, open, relaxed sound is made by a happy, open, relaxed body. An anguished sound is made with tensed muscles. And so on. Human shouts, sighs and cries are, just like those of animals, a primitive but effective medium of expressive communication. In music this is developed into an a full-fledged “emotional language”, which is “only second in importance to the language of the intellect; perhaps not even second to it” (p. 407). Spencer thought this expressive-communicative potential of music could explain its evolutionary function. Here he disagreed with Darwin, who thought singing was most likely to be explained as courtship display.

In recent scientific literature Spencer has got a lot of credit for his idea — particularly for establishing a link between muscles and the sound we make. If your muscles contract, you squeak; of they relax, you may yawn or produce another low pitched sound. It even has entered the literature as Spencer’s Law. That is, one of Spencer’s Laws: because there is also Spencer’s Law of Equal Freedom, Spencer’s Law of Cognitive Development, Spencer’s Law of the Survival of the Fittest (also known as social Darwinism), and the equally sinister Spencer’s Law of Why We Shouldn’t Worry. Leaving aside what looks like a Wild West pulp novel titled Spencer’s Law.

Too much credit for Spencer, at least within the realm of music. For Spencer, who cited no sources, did little else but echo an eighteenth-century commonplace. In 1746 Étienne Bonnot de Condillac had proposed the term ‘action language’ (langage d’action) for what linguists nowadays call protolanguage. He thought of it as the common precursor of music and language, consisting of spontaneous cries along with gestural elements. That roughly similar ideas were proposed a little later by Jean-Jacques Rousseau is well known. And that high and loud taxes our muscles more than soft and low has, no doubt, been known since times immemorial.

The idea that prosody is an evolutionary link between music and speech has resonated strongly through the European intellectual world, around 1750. We may find its echo in unexpected places, such as the writings of a German-Dutch musician and writer with the jolly name of Jacob Wilhelm Lustig, who for more than six decades played the organ in Groningen.

In the sixth of his Twelve Discourses on Useful Musical Subjects (Twaalf redeneeringen over nuttige muzikaale onderwerpen, 1756), Lustig too adopts the theory of the expressive protolanguage, casting it however in an orthodox Christian creationist framework. The inventor of music is Adam, and since Adam began his life in Paradise, the first sounds he produced could not have been anything else but “resounding joy and admiration”, “praise and thanksgiving to his Creator” (p. 278).

It may be noted that Rousseau too located the origins of music and language in paradise, albeit a secular paradise, complete with palm trees and fountains. “There, around those fountains, the first discourses were the first songs”, Rousseau wrote sometime in the 1750’s (it wasn’t published until 1781). Here’s Lustig in 1756 (p. 281): “it is not unreasonable to conclude that the two first singers [Adam and Eve] were also the first poets”.

Like Spencer, Lustig bluntly assumes that (in Spencer’s words) “All music is originally vocal”. The inventor of music is therefore not the biblical Jubal, “father of all who play stringed instruments and pipes” (Genesis 4: 21). Jubal has only done what Scripture says he did, inventing musical instruments. It is to Adam, his great-great-great-great-grandfather that Jubal poses the question I’ve quoted in the title. And here is Adam’s answer, taken from Lustig’s Introduction to the Theory of Music (Inleiding tot de muziekkundesecond edition, 1771, p. 125-6) — I won’t try  to reproduce the weird flavour of the eighteenth-century Dutch:

Jubal. — Reverend Father Adam, how did you get music? […]
Adam. — I noticed that I was capable of making many various vocal inflections, which on different incidents I gradually changed, and therefore produced by song rather than speech. […] Also, love, joy, grief and other passions often elicited all kinds of inflections and intonations: in this we simply followed the prescription of nature, in such a way as the passion inspired in us. From this originated the first known melodies. They were reproduced by one singer after another, following our innate tendency to imitate, disseminated everywhere, and used as a basis for novel ones.

What distinguishes this and similar Enlightenment fantasies from Spencer’s is mainly, maybe, the latter’s interest in animal behaviour. Eighteenth-century thinkers, and particularly orthodox Christians, may not have been so eager to put human singing on one line with the howling of dogs, the mooing of cows, and the screaming of monkeys (nor were, of course, many nineteenth-century aestheticians).

Does it matter to present-day research when these ideas originated, and how credible they seemed at a given time? — To make a long answer short, I think it matters. Because ideas need a context, and narrowing the context narrows our perspective on that idea and our ability to develop it. In other words, I think that research into human psychology cannot ignore the history of ideas.

Whose mine?

The first instance of this peculiar abuse I encoutered was a beginner’s piano book. Not the one from which I myself learned the notes and keys – decently titled First Piano Book (Het eerste pianoboek, by Jan Bouws). Its abusive competitor was My First Piano Book (Mijn eerste pianoboek), by somebody calling himself Folk Dean.

Whose book is Folk’s? Folk’s, of course. Not mine or yours.

Despite, or thanks to its irritating title Folk’s (actually Theo’s) book seems to have been a commercial success. Its pronominal abuse (My first …) may have been fashionable on the pedogogical market when it first came out in 1957. But it truly boomed after Windows 95 put My Computer onto your desktop. Nowadays there is hardly a commercial or public website which does not have a corner reserved for you not called yours but mine. It feels both idiotic and intrusive – them using my word for what’s supposed to belong to me.

If you say I and I say I
you mean you, but I mean me.

Indexicals – those words that change meaning depending on who’s using them, or where, or when – are sophisticated and disconcerting. They subvert the desire, instinctive and infantile, for a stable relation between word and object.

And that’s maybe the main reason why this abuse of the possessive pronoun is so annoying – it addresses me (and you) as an infantile kind of person, a halfwit without powers of generalisation, a toddler for whom all mine is mine, as mother can only mean one mother: its own, not anybody’s female parent.

It even reaches down into my private parts (and yours). Chilling.
Nel mio intimo


Thoughts on Selves

Looking inward, I catch myself having certain thoughts and sensations. Thinking ‘I’m having this thought’ constitutes a second order thought. Having such second and higher order thoughts is what I am inclined to call ‘consciousness’, as against ‘awareness’, or unreflective wakefulness.

By linking these higher order thoughts to the constancy of proprioception, the active communion within my body, I create the experience of ‘self’.

‘Consciousness’, according to William James (1904), “is the name of a nonentity”, “the faint rumor left behind by the disappearing ‘soul’ upon the air of philosophy”. James based this judgment upon his own looking inward, shaped by his philosophical pragmatism. He did not deny the reality of consciousness as a ‘function’, but its existence as ‘entity’ or ‘thing’, and object of scientific enquiry.

One century after James discarded it, the ‘rumor’ persists. Intuitions different from James’s (or of contemporary eliminativists) continue to inspire philosophical and psychological theories. There seems to be something irreducible in our personal phenomenology, which, apparently, calls for a conception of consciousness as an entity which (obscurely) ‘supervenes’ upon physical reality.

Having higher order thoughts depends upon an ability to represent by means of generalised systems of signification. This, I suspect, is the origin of language (rather than the other way around); and it seems to distinguish humans from other animals, which do have representations, but no powers of arbitrary generalisation.

Our ‘selves’ are the product of self-representation or consciousness. As a human creation, consciousness does not belong to the natural world. It belongs to culture, and is irreducible to biology (and hence physics) in precisely the sense that a painting, qua artwork, cannot be reduced to molecules and atoms. To say that artistic qualities ‘supervene’ upon physical properties isn’t saying much, without stipulating the processes which give rise to these qualities. That is the subject matter of aesthetics.

Unlike outer-world creations such as paintings, individual consciousness is inaccessible to anyone but ourselves. But it is doubtful whether there would be much consciousness to think of without its being embedded in sociocultural life.