Saturday, April 11, 2009

Cutting the Gordian Knot of Rand's Theory of Music



  The formulation of a common vocabulary of music . . . would require: a translation of the musical experience, the inner experience, into conceptual terms; an explanation of why certain sounds strike us a certain way; a definition of the axioms of musical perception, from which the appropriate esthetic principles could be derived, which would serve as a base for the objective validation of esthetic judgments . . . .

 Until a conceptual vocabulary is discovered and defined, no objectively valid criterion of esthetic judgment is possible in the field of music . . .No one, therefore, can claim the objective superiority of his choices over the choices of others. Where no objective proof is available, it’s every man for himself—and only for himself. 

-Ayn Rand, "Art and Cognition"

Rand set forth a mighty challenge musically, positing that to answer the question of how music induces emotions would require the "joint effort of a physiologist, a psychologist, and a philosopher (an esthetician.)" Lindsay Perigo claims that Rand "set the bar too high" and proceeded to "cut the Gordian knot." While I strongly disagree with Perigo's motivations and method, I think it is fair to ask if the knot was tied too tight. Rand believed that the matter was a cognitive one ("was it mathematics?"). Some Objectivists argue between a cognitive and expressive dichotomy. 



 I don't believe there is a dichotomy, but a division of labor. Specifically, I believe the cognitive aspect is the means to the expressive aspect. I've already provided an argument for Rand's theory, "The Gestalt Theory". But where Rand theorized that the "deciphering" of the "puzzle" of sonic patterns was the source of musical emotions, I don't think that is the case. (At least not entirely; not that it COULDN'T be, if someone consciously chooses to make it the case.) While there may be something to her claim that one gets bored with "too simple an integration," I believe we can cut the "Gordian knot" by applying "Occam's Razor." Rand's explanation requires unconscious mathematical ability and "reversals" of epistemology. There's another explanation, a simpler one which is demonstrable, and can be summed up in one word: empathic projection.  



Music communicates emotions, which one grasps, but does not actually feel; what one feels is a suggestion, a kind of distant, dissociated, depersonalized emotion—until and unless it unites with one’s own sense of life. But since the music’s emotional content is not communicated conceptually or evoked existentially, one does feel it in some peculiar, subterranean way. -Ayn Rand, "Art and Cognition" 
 This "way" may be "subterranean," though it's not so peculiar when one considers the phenomenon of empathy. A theory of empathy is a scientific concept, and beyond my scope to completely discuss, but the science, as I understand it, involves what are called "mirror neurons."  The current Wikipedia passage describes it as thus:
The human capacity to recognize the bodily feelings of another is related to one's imitative capacities, and seems to be grounded in the innate capacity to associate the bodily movements and facial expressions one sees in another with the proprioceptive feelings of producing those corresponding movements or expressions oneself.[21] Humans also seem to make the same immediate connection between the tone of voice and other vocal expressions and inner feeling.

 All this, while scientifically complicated,  would provide a much-simplified answer to Rand's challenge. So why did Rand over-complicate this? I believe the clue is in her preference for logic over feelings, as well as her arguments against so-called "abstract art." Rand's arguments against it were about the "disintegration" of the senses from concepts to percepts. (Randall R. Dipert offers a theory that Rand's "Aristotelian, anti-Platonic theory of art consist in emphasizing substance as the main purpose or value in art." I could see Rand rejecting non-representative symbols and such out of a rejection for the "Platonic ideals." But I submit that the projection theory eliminates the need for such.) However, one not need to favor postmodernism to "start from the beginning," so to speak, and reverse the process, to start with integration from simpler premises. Not every can understand advanced mathematics, but that doesn't mean they can't understand music, even complex music. The process of projecting is the means to this. I think at some level, Rand would have agreed; when "abstract art" was considered in the context of "decorative art," Rand wrote that a "representation element" would be a clash. What Rand did not pursue in that brief comment was the issue of the emotional effect of decorative art. And yet, she see music as working against the normal "perception" of art:
The fundamental difference between music and the other arts lies in the fact that music is experienced as if it reversed man’s normal psycho-epistemological process.

 The other arts create a physical object (i.e., an object perceived by man’s senses, be it a book or a painting) and the psycho-epistemological process goes from the perception of the object to the conceptual grasp of its meaning, to an appraisal in terms of one’s basic values, to a consequent emotion. The pattern is: from perception—to conceptual understanding—to appraisal—to emotion.

 The pattern of the process involved in music is: from perception—to emotion—to appraisal—to conceptual understanding.

 Music is experienced as if it had the power to reach man’s emotions directly.
  There are "mathematical" elements in color theory and perception, such as the ration of lightwaves, etc. but knowledge of that is not necessary in order to appreciate color. Rather, color seems to be associated with temperatures through experience and projection. We see blue as "cold" and red as "hot" as a result of experience with cold blue objects and red hot fire. It's not an arbitrary grouping, but based on objective properties filtered through our particular sensory apparatus. 

 So, too, with simple shapes. Consider the following examples from Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics: (click to enlarge) 
















  





 Rand has made disparaging remarks, usually in reference to science fiction and "geometric  towards symbolic symbols, but unlike her reasoning about "abstract art," she does not spell out her beef. But her cavalier dismissal does not take into account the phenomena in McCloud's examples. The examples here are similar to the phenomenon in music. These are non-specific examples of the descriptive words that McCloud's uses, and yet, they seem "right." This is what Rand does when she says that 

Music cannot tell a story, it cannot deal with concretes, it cannot convey a specific existential phenomenon, such as a peaceful countryside or a stormy sea. The theme of a composition entitled “Spring Song” is not spring, but the emotions which spring evoked in the composer. Even concepts which, intellectually, belong to a complex level of abstraction, such as “peace,” “revolution,” “religion,” are too specific, too concrete to be expressed in music. All that music can do with such themes is convey the emotions of serenity, or defiance, or exaltation. Liszt’s “St. Francis Walking on the Waters” was inspired by a specific legend, but what it conveys is a passionately dedicated struggle and triumph—by whom and in the name of what, is for each individual listener to supply.

  Musical patterns and shapes, in the form of chords and scales, as well as the tone and shape of musical effect in speaking, are not unlike these examples. The speaker might be conveying representational information, but the tone and shape of his or her voice convey the emotion. Like color, we don't have to know the wavelengths/mathematical rations of the sounds to get the point. Whether or not we are "born" knowing those emotional nuances or learn them via association, we "project" an emotional tone that is picked up by the listener. 

 Rand talked of a "conceptual language of music" being needed; but by over-complicating it, she muddied the waters to what we already know: The tone and the shape; musical is translated from sound to conceptual language by talk of direction and color temperature. If a scale goes up, we project it as rising; if the tone is harsh or fast, we differentiate it from a joyously slow rise, like the anticipation of a roller coaster ascending. The variations are almost endless. Again, an example from McCloud that visualizes this:


 This can be demonstrated in the idea of dance. Rand called dance the "silent partner of music." I think it's necessary to go the next step, and call dance a demonstration of how music projects emotion. Actually, Rand DOES, indeed, make this argument. She writes that " The dance is the silent partner of music and participates in a division of labor: music presents a stylized version of man’s consciousness in action—the dance presents a stylized version of man’s body in action." She continues to describe the physical connotations of emotion in a manner that is similar to the preceding images from McCloud:
 Every strong emotion has a kinesthetic element, experienced as an impulse to leap or cringe or stamp one’s foot, etc. Just as a man’s sense of life is part of all his emotions, so it is part of all his movements and determines his manner of using his body: his posture, his gestures, his way of walking, etc. We can observe a different sense of life in a man who characteristically stands straight, walks fast, gestures decisively—and in a man who characteristically slumps, shuffles heavily, gestures limply. This particular element—the overall manner of moving—constitutes the material, the special province of the dance. The dance stylizes it into a system of motion expressing a metaphysical view of man.
 Only purely "cerebral" music is meant to be listened to as a cognitive "exercise," that doesn't explain the need to dance, which is tied to the idea of emotion; emotion as "motion." Emotion may not be a "tool of cognition," but it is a powerful motivator. It is meant to MOVE us, mentally and physically. This would fit in with Rand's emphasis of life as progress, action, etc.. But to start from a cognitive level ignores the "baser" levels of human emotion. This is where I wish Rand had more of a biological basis in her philosophy; not that she denied such, but she was simply not a biologist. She knew it was needed, but left that to the sciences. She can be forgiven, given her time period, of not having the knowledge of the brain that we have today. (She did call on neurologists in furthering the understanding of music.) But would she have accepted it? Let's not speculate; let's look at our own knowledge. The brain is structured in three parts: the reptilian, the mammalian, and the neo-cortex. The sub-structures of the brain respond to sound and such on a different level than the melodic and the cortex; memory, namely long-term memory, is needed to appreciate melody. But in order to have melody, motion comes first, and the older parts of the brain have a part to play. The nervous system responds to the same stimuli differently in different people. Some people like it "fast and furious," others don't.  Other parts are "conditioned" to respond to sounds in nature as flight-or-fight mechanisms, hence; loud harsh sounds stimulate certain responses.

 Now, none of this is to say that this is complete, or that Rand is totally wrong; I think her approach works for more "conceptual" arts like literature. But I think she made a mistake in not starting from a simpler base and working her way up. She started to, in her description of the reversal of the cognitive response to music in contrast to the other arts. But I think her emphasis on the cognitive aspects prevented her from going further than her observations on dance might have allowed. This is echoed in the support of Rand's admires who give a "cognitive" definition to emotions, such as this one from a poster named Jeff Perren on the never-ending music thread on Solo:

The analogy overlooks a crucial distinction: emotions are not primitive sensory states, nor are they entirely or even primarily associational. They are, in important part at least, the consequence of evaluations. At bottom, this view denies volition and its importance in human selections and reactions.

 I find this view working from the "top" down, and ignores the structural evolution of the brain, and emotions in general. It's beyond the scope of this piece to develop that, but the work of neuroscientists such as Antonio Damasio points the way to a fuller understanding. For example, Damasio points out that the auditory system is closer to the parts of the brain that regulate the body, and life, and the triggers that control the somatic aspects of music. There are distinctions in emotions, such as cognitive and non-cognitive emotions. At any rate, I do not argue against that claim to make the case for a primarily "sensory state" explanation of music, but an evolution from a more primitive version of emotions to a more advanced, "cognitive"-based emotion. I think my theory provides Rand's "cognitive/gestalt theory" with the explanation for the somatic component. From there, it's for science to figure out. 

  Incidentally, Dipert mentions that a similar theory was put forward by noted philosopher Peter Kivy. While I haven't read Kivy myself (though I now plan to!), I don't claim that my theory is purely of my own working; the Scott McCloud references are indicative of that. That said, I think what makes a "empathic projection" theory so plausible is the simplicity of it, that anyone can potentially have see its effects in their day to day lives, such as in the example of "feeling" the pain when witnessing an injury in progress. 

 This brings me to an end of my speculation on Rand's theory of music. As a musician, it's given me much insight into my craft, and I'm forever indebted to her for that. At the same time, the quest for an answer to her challenge threatens to be a dead end if I cannot take into consideration the "empathic" aspects of emotion that she rejects or downplays. (Ironically, I think that the physiologist and psychologist that she calls for would tell her that those aspects are crucial to answering her challenge.) Her dismissal of those aspects of counter-productive to what musicians, at the core, are capable of; musicians have been achieving these effects for years; to be told that "it's all math" goes against everything we experience. What I am after, as a composer, is not a "cognitive" puzzle for my listeners, or even for myself, but an understanding...in other words, empathy. While the notes and chords are the means, they are not the ends; while the Gestalt theory explains how the mind integrates those notes and patterns, it is not for their own sake. And I have to make a confession: I've never been comfortable with the "emotions be damned!" exclamation of Richard Halley. But to understand that quote, within context, it has to be weighed with his other statement: 
"Feelings? Oh, yes, we do feel, he, you and I-we are, in fact, the only people capable of feeling-and we know where our feelings come from."

 On the surface of it, I have no problem with THAT statement. But the Objectivist explanation of feelings, if it does not include the phenomenon of empathic projection, will forever be inadequate to fully explain the phenomenon of music, no matter how accurate the cognitive theory proves to be. Otherwise, emotions truly ARE damned. But an empathic theory without a cognitive theory will do no better. Together, however, they truly overcome the reason-emotion dichotomy (as poetically described in the "Apollonian/Dionysian" symbolism of Nietzche's Birth of Tragedy in the Spirit of Music, depicted above on this site's banner) that Rand rightly rejected. So from there, I am happy to take that insight and move on from her challenge and devote more time to the actual creation of music. 

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