For more than a decade the media have been eagerly reporting on exciting advances in brain research and genetics, which arrive almost monthly. These areas of science have become immensely confident and hopeful. They are the finger posts to a time when age-old mysteries about human nature will be explained once and for all. I recently saw a television report on neurologists investigating the mystery of music, for example, why it exists and how we respond to it.
My reaction to this report came in two parts: fascination at the ingenuity of the research and frustration that it’s taking knowledge down the wrong path. Let me fill in both.
Researchers at McGill University in Toronto have been hooking up subjects as they listen to music. As one would predict, various parts of the brain light up in response to music, and through MRIs and other forms of brain imaging, it’s been determined that music creates its own pattern of response. Raw input that reaches the auditory center in the cortex, responsible for interpreting all sounds, gets scattered to specific locations where rhythm, tempo, melody, timbre, etc. are separately processed in a matter of milliseconds. The prefrontal cortex even compares the music you are hearing now to music you expect to hear from past experience. By comparing the two, your brain can be surprised by something it never expected to hear, and further this can be a delightful surprise or a distasteful one.
All of this extremely complex communication between tiny areas of the brain goes on unconsciously, but without it, music would be just random noise. You may claim that you feel music in your soul, your heart, your gut. In fact, your total response is neurological. The research also shows that the brain gets “hard wired” in childhood according to what system of music you are exposed to. A Chinese baby’s brain develops specific connections that respond to Chinese harmony, thus leading to its enjoyment. A baby born in the West, exposed to Western harmonies, is hard wired to enjoy that system but not the Chinese, and vice versa. Finally, the researchers could take a musical performance and gradually change it via computer software to see if the brain notices any difference. As the music became more mechanical and less personal, for example, the brain often didn’t notice any difference until the change was glaringly obvious. This might explain “tin ears” and at the other extreme, a professional musician’s subtle ability to detect the finer points of musical style. Different wiring leads to different levels of appreciation.
All of this is moderately fascinating. It mostly corroborates things known to common sense and ordinary observation already. A million-dollar MRI machine wasn’t needed to tell us that our brains respond in various ways to music, or that one person’s response isn’t the same as another’s, or that Chinese music generally grates on Western ears. But the promissory note is a big one. As with so much brain research, we are told that these are early days. Give the scientists time and they will unravel everything about music. In particular, they will answer why music developed in the evolutionary scheme of Homo sapiens to become encoded in our genes. Apparently every historical age, going back as far as civilization is measured, has contained some form of music. Why did evolutionary forces favor this behavior as a survival mechanism? Between them, brain researchers, geneticists, and evolutionary biologists will provide a definitive answer in the foreseeable future.
I’d like to argue why this whole scheme of looking at music is wrong-headed and will yield no answers that get near the truth. The current connection between music and the brain is useful only if the listener is a robot with a robotic brain. That’s exactly the model being used here, and no amount of passing fascination makes it anything but what it is: inhuman to the core. When brain research is medically useful, as in treating Parkinson’s disease, for example, or aiding in the recovery of stroke victims, the following factors pertain:
— A brain function has gone awry in some organic way.
— The impaired function can be isolated.
–The impaired function can be observed.
— The mechanics of correcting the impaired function are well understood.
No one can argue against the enormous progress made in analyzing all these factors when it comes to various diseases. Medical science can look into brain functions with ever-increasing accuracy, allowing surgeons to do their work more finely and leading to drugs whose action is localized and specific. However, where music is concerned, almost none of the deciding factors are in place.
— No brain function has gone awry.
— The brain functions that produce music are complex and mysteriously connected.
— The actual transformation of noise signals into meaningful music cannot be observed physically.
— The mechanism whereby music arose in every society is not at all well known, since there is no evolutionary advantage to the higher brain.
Is this just a matter of being behind the curve? If we were as concerned about music as we are about malignant brain tumors, would a heap of money and research yield better answers? Not if the whole model is fundamentally wrong. The brain somehow produces music out of raw physical data (vibrations of air molecules); everybody agrees on that. But a radio also produces music, and yet it would be absurd to say that the two are equal. A radio is a machine working through fixed, predetermined processes. However much it may appear to be similar, the human brain is no such thing.
Music points to a truth that science isn’t set up to accept: music is a function of the mind. The brain processes what the mind desires to hear. When a person likes or dislikes music, the mind makes that decision, not the pleasure-pain centers in the brain. When a composer like Beethoven gets inspired, his mind provides the inspiration, not his neurons. How can one be so sure? The answer would fill a book, but let me divide it into three compartments.
1. Contradictions and flaws in the mechanistic model.
–If the brain is hard-wired from childhood to hear Chinese music in China, Indian music in India, Japanese music in Japan, and so on, why do all these countries have symphony orchestras, entirely filled with native musicians, playing Western classical music? You can’t call the brain hard wired when connections can be changed at will. Determinism looks good in the schematics of a neurological network, but it breaks down in real life. By analogy, brain researchers are trying to tell us that house wiring can change from AC to DC current on its own. That’s the equivalent of my brain “deciding” to like Chinese music.
–If a dozen interrelated areas of the brain combine to process music, as opposed to processing the sound of a buzz saw or wind in the trees, how does the raw input know where to go beforehand? The auditory center receives all the raw data in the same way, along the same channels from the inner ear. Yet the buzz saw noise gets shunted away from musical processing. The data from a piano, on the other hand, goes straight into musical processing. This implies that the auditory center already knows which one is music, but it doesn’t. That’s a later function. Thus the mystery remains of how music is distinct from mere noise. We see where each one goes; we don’t know why.
— The prefrontal lobes compare new music to a person’s expectations from the past. This enables new music to surprise and delight us by defying our expectations. But there are times when new music creates just the opposite reaction in the same listener. I may not be in the mood for jazz one day and yet love it the next. I may be bored by Ella Fitzgerald only to discover that she’s wonderful. In other words, musical response is indeterminate and subject to unpredictable changes. No mechanical system can explain this variability, and reducing it to randomness only pushes the problem deeper. The pre-set chemistry in a neuron can’t be expected to produce one response and its exact opposite.
2. Positive reasons for understanding music as a product of mind, not brain.
— Music exposes why some human behavior makes no sense biologically or in terms of evolution. We love music because we love it, not because our ancestors made more and better babies if their genes carried a response to music. Searching for the evolutionary need for music puts the cart before the horse. Instead of requiring music to survive, we enjoy surviving thanks to music. Our minds delight in it. By any reasonable Darwinian perspective, human hearing should have favored the keenest possible sensitivity, so that our ancestors could hear a lion a hundred yards away instead of ten or twenty. Not getting eaten is a good way to survive. Or like the arctic fox, we should be able to hear a mouse move under two feet of snow. More food in winter leads to better survival. But we didn’t evolve with that kind of acuity; instead we evolved the totally useless, totally joy-enhancing love of music.
— Music is personal, whimsical, and unpredictable. That’s not a flaw that science needs to correct or explain. It’s part of human nature. On one famous occasion, enemy soldiers walked out of the trenches in World War I to sing Christmas carols together. Which is more human, that behavior, or fighting to the death in a senseless war? Both, actually. Human nature, like music, is inexplicable in its complexity.
–Music is self-generating. Something new is created spontaneously. New styles arise out of sheer inspiration. You cannot derive Beethoven from the data put into a computer from Mozart. There’s a creative leap between the two. But let’s say that one could build a super-computer and input every possible musical chord and phrase (there would be more of these than atoms in the universe, by the way), and let’s program the computer to develop all possible musical styles. In time it would produce the music of Beethoven purely at random. But that’s the very thing that invalidates the computer-brain model, because a Mozart or Beethoven didn’t spend a million hours tapping out random combinations until a new style emerged. Instead, a musical genius was born, a single musical mind who listened to the old style, creatively grew beyond it, and changed classical music forever.
3. The “Hard Problem”
Much recent publicity has been given to the mind-body problem, as it was traditionally called, now dubbed “the hard problem.” It concerns the relationship between the brain’s physical processes and the mental results that seem to result. If the brain produces consciousness through the activity of neurons, there is a path to producing consciousness in machines by imitating the electro-chemical setup of neurons (or a parallel mechanism using digital coding). In that case, a computer could also produce music, and in time, it could possibly turn into a composer of genius. Such is the position of supporters of Artificial Intelligence.
But music is one area where this promise is certainly going to be hollow. There is no physical process that turns air vibrations into music. Inside the brain there is no sound; it is a completely silent environment. Yet we hear music in our heads, or so we say, just as we hear our thoughts, only far more vividly. The music of a violin seems to be “out there” in the world. This is entirely an illusion, however, because music, like every other sensory artifact, depends upon a mysterious transformation from quantity to qualia. That is, the measurable data of input from the sound wave hitting the eardrum somehow turns into music, with its qualities of sweetness, emotion, pleasure, and all the rest. Human experience isn’t built from data. It is built form qualia, the infinite qualities of the world that get processed by our nervous system. The processing manipulates data, but the qualities are not the product of data. Music is entirely of the mind. It cannot be found in a radio, a piano, a violin, or a collection of neurons sending chemical and electrical signals to one another.
This is just the briefest sketch of my response to music and the brain. Science doesn’t benefit by being restricted, since we don’t know what the future holds. Even so, trying to apply a mechanical model to the brain when only a model of mind works is futile. It’s like trying to explain bad driving by staring at a diagram of the car’s carburetor. In the end the machine model of the brain only pretends to be a mind, and society is left further away from understanding the real thing: how meaning comes into the world and why it means so much.