06 May, 2004

Neurobiology and Chopin's Funeral March

Every time I listen to the piece in question* I am struck by the fact that the listener is brought through a very specific range of emotions when listening to it. This is really a tribute to Chopin's genius, but what I find really striking is that his feat is even possible in the first place. Why is music so emotionally compelling? How can a specific passage make me weep, or feel hope, or feel light-hearted, or aggressive, etc.? Why is it that the same passage can produce the same effect regardless of who listens to it? Why do you know you're listening to a sad love song before the lyrics start?

I've been mulling over this for a couple of months now. Several explanations have been suggested to me. The first was that it's simply learned behavior: I've heard Chopin's Funeral March so many times I know it's supposed to be sad. This explanation is too B.F. Skinner for my tastes. I don't have to be told how to feel when I hear a new piece of music, the music speaks for itself. Similarly the explanation that I've absorbed some cultural instruction, been taught to associate particular intervals or progessions with specific emotions doesn't sit well - I can just as well listen to music from any culture and be swept along in its emotional currents. [NB - I apologize for my lack of proper terminology. I don't know a goddamn thing about music.]

Unfortunately the relevant fields seem to be dominated by idiots. For example, Steven Pinker (whom I consider to be a fuckwad) opines that music is "mental cheescake", a happy evolutionary accident that's simply an outgrowth of other developments, like language or some sorts of pattern recognition. Aside from the fact that I generally think Pinker is a boob, I find this claim outrageous. First of all, as usual Pinker has no evidence of any sort to back up his specious claims (and yet he gets so far in life - tragic). Second of all, it seems quite clear that music operates in very specific and complex ways on the brain. We only enjoy certain frequencies, rhythms, harmonies, and more stuff that I don't have words for. For all this to be the result of haphazard accident seems unlikely. Finally, music isn't tied to just one emotion; it's a full-on emotional language. These associations have to be intentional (e.g. God made us that way) rather than accidental. Thankfully nearly all other serious researchers in the field disagree with Pinker (who is a moron).

Then there's a crowd of hopeless dimwits attempting to pin naive evolutionary explanations on it, like "It's because of mating advantage that it evolved." Since our understanding of human evolution and the workings of the brain are incredibly primitive no one should even be hazarding a guess right now as to how something so complex evolved.

I'm gratified that there's a body of research at least confirming my observation (e.g. a lady named Carol Krumhansl from Cornell who does research on music cognition finds that music with quick tempo and a major scale makes people happy, and slow tempo and minor scale makes people sad). I'm going to try and read some of the relevant literature. Of course, anything interesting will be reported here.


*Sorry, I can't link to it. You can email me for an mp3.

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?