Saturday, January 31, 2009

Adam Buker: "Music is my religion, Objectivism is my philosophy."

 I'd like to highlight a musician/composer named Adam Buker.  As he says of himself elsewhere, "Music is my religion, Objectivism is my philosophy." What else? According to his bio at
At the age of thirteen, Adam began studying classical piano with Robert Evans. Evans taught Adam an appreciation of classical music that has deeply influenced his style of composition. Two years later, Adam began further study with IIia RadosIovav which continued until his graduation from Trico High School in 2002.

Adam attended Southern Illinois University at Carbondale though financial and personal circumstances prevented him from completing his degree program. He has studied piano with Dr. Wilfred Delphin and later with Sandra Wright-Shen. He has scored five student films and is currently working on orchestrating a large number of his piano compositions. Adam currently lives in Springfield, MO.
  Ok, so what does that have to do with the price of eggs? Well, Mr. Buker has finally decided to offer his two cents into the discussion of philosophy and estethic theory after all this time and my badgering him to do so on an older forum. Better late than never! And he's uploaded his first introductory podcast on youtube to begin his sojourn into this dangerous territory. He's already proven himself as a composer, so I have high hopes for his podcast. And do stop by his site for a listen to his music.

 Shine on, Adam!

Friday, January 30, 2009

Perigo versus Zappa

  "Insult someone's politics and risk being called a fool; insult someone's music, and you become an enemy."

 It's funny because it's true...only it's not funny anymore...

 I've already addressed where and why I think Lindsay Perigo is wrong in his musical crusade, but I've always thought that I agree more than I disagree with him. But this will not do:

Frank died in 1993 of prostate cancer at the age of fifty-two.

Good to know prostate cancer can have an upside: the removal of musical cancer.

 Perigo, sorry to tell you, the music lives on. The only cancer I see here is in your true colors. This is, however, bloggable as an "object lesson" on how musical matters have taken on a troubled status in the Objectivist culture.

 The "Frank" in question is Frank Zappa, a musician and composer whose career has spanned decades and styles, from rock to doowop to jazz to classical to atonal Varesian pomowankery. 

Thank you, Frank Zappa. 

 Thank you, not for your stranger obsessions, but for your fearlessness in exploring your interests on your own terms. For standing up to censorship and freedom of thought, even if it's sometimes thought I can't comprehend or support. 

 But what I really want to say is: thank you for "Peaches en Regalia."

I used to put this one on a tape with two other songs "Lido Shuffle" by Boz Scaggs and "Beck's Bolero" by Jeff Beck. First "Peaches, then "Lido," then "Bolero." Those three songs, in THAT order, would turn me around in a depression or simply set me off to the sky in a good mood. When I was too depressed one time, and these songs DIDN'T work, I think that made me sadder than whatever it was I was depressed about. (I don't think ANY piece of music would have helped that day.)

The day I need Perigo to dictate to me what music sends me to the "total height" is the day I shoot myself. But after his Zappa cancer comment, well, he just undercuts his own claim that he stands for musical censorship. No, he's not calling for censorship...or the initiation of force. He can't, he's "Objectivist...". But WOULD he, if he COULD? You can feel that pressure building up behind that "damn"...His methods of berating people who "don't get it" would make Werner Erhard proud. When you celebrate a man's death from cancer, not Hitler, not Hussein, but Frank Zappa?The only answer to THAT is to spit at his feet and walk away, lest I break my own conviction against the initiation of force. But I am not Perigo, I do not wish his death. May he live many more healthy years, knowing that I'd rather listen to "Peaches en Regalia."

Quote of the Day: John Coltrane

"If the music doesn't say it, how can words say it for the music?" -John Coltrane.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

The Immorality of a "Concerto of Deliverance?", or, Ayn Rand's Starship

There has been some controversy in Objectivist circles around a guy named Monart Pon and the "Concerto of Deliverance," a composition "inspired" by the "lost" Richard Halley concerto that figures prominently in Atlas Shrugged. I am not exactly sure how to describe Pon, beyond the fact that he runs a site called Starship Aurora and commissioned a piece called "The Concerto of Deliverance by a composer named John Mills-Cockell. (A Yahoo! group exists for discussion of this piece as well.) I've heard a bit of the concerto, and I'm going to withhold my personal opinion, except to say that it sounds NOTHING like what Rand described (I don't think it was meant to, however, so it should be judged on its own terms.) But aside from what the piece sounds like, the biggest controversy surrounded the very idea of someone appropriating the name, even as inspiration. Hence, the "Immorality of a Concerto of Deliverance." Pon wrote this essay as A Reply to the Critics at Objectivism Online. This is an excerpt of his defense:
Far from being ‘a clear violation of the property rights of Ayn Rand’, the album Concerto of Deliverance is a tribute to her achievement and, among other aims, a way to draw new readers to her works (which it is already doing)..As to my using and benefiting from Rand's works: don't all objectivists? Is someone who makes a movie of Anthem (now in the public domain) being immoral? Is someone who names their children after characters in Rand's novels being immoral? Is calling a website or organization 'Objectivist' being immoral? Is applying objectivism in one's life and career, and making money from that, being immoral? If it is, then we should all refrain from deriving any benefit from her, put her works in a vault, and make them taboo.

Personally, I have no problem with taking the concerto as a springboard for an original work (I've done so myself, with my own "Bolero of Deliverance.") I think the real reason for offense is that the Concerto of Deliverance, as a fictional piece of music, is so idealized that it's like looking for Atlantis; if it were to ever be discovered, it probably wouldn't live up to the hype, and no one wants their illusions shattered. That is why I personally fear an Atlas Shrugged movie: because the soundtrack will never live up to the expectation of that "lost" concerto.

Friday, January 23, 2009


The recently published Objectively Speaking: Ayn Rand Interviewed contains another instance of Rand espousing her view of Beethoven as "malevolent." On page 127, she is quoted, in response to a request to describe her preference in regards to Beethoven, Wagner, and Rachmaninoff, as saying:
I can't give you a full description, because I am not an expert on that...But I'll tell you what I hear in their music as their philosophy of life. With Regards to Beethoven, his music has what I call a malevolent universe...It is the view that has been called is the belief that man must struggle even though he has no chance of winning, and that he must perish heroically...and that is what I hear in practically everything Beethoven has ever written.
This is interesting in light of the recent web chatter on the matter (see my previous posts for more info), especially the "Julie" anecdote as told by Ellen Stuttle, where "Julie" sends Rand a selection of Beethoven. I, like others, wondered exactly what Rand had heard, and here, Rand is almost saying that she's heard "everything he's ever written." If I am reading this correctly, this suggests that Rand didn't just listen to the Fifth, with its "fate knocking at the door" motif, and she must certainly be familiar with the "Eroica" and the "Ode to Joy."

Incidentally, Rand says of Wagner that he was "malevolently" pretentious, all trimmings and motifs with "nothing to say" (OUCH! Beethoven got off easy!). On Rachmaninov, she says his is a "tragic benevolence," where life is a struggle, but a struggle that CAN be won."

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Beethoven: Malevolent or Merry-Maker?

  Now, I don’t know what Ayn Rand’s basis was for claiming Beethoven to be “malevolent” in his sense of life, what pieces she was referring to, or what she had even heard. But what I find funny is the backlash against her for even thinking it. Some people act as if she had just said the sky was green or whales lay eggs. But was she REALLY that far off? It’s not as if she was the only person ever to make this claim. I remember learning about him in grade school music class, and the overriding impression, YEARS before I’d hear about Ayn Rand, was that he was a “moody” type of guy. Even better; we had to do a drawing of what we heard, and I drew a picture of Beethoven fist-fighting…

  So I wasn’t so surprised by Rand’s statement, and didn’t even question it. But after hearing the Objectivistic ho-ha over the brou-ha-ha, I looked a little further into it. The book Classical Music In America referenced Beethoven’s music as “dark and moody.” I’m sure other texts do, as well. But what was even MORE interesting was to read Beethoven’s own words on the matter:

"O ye men who accuse me of being malevolent, stubborn and
misanthropical, how ye wrong me! Ye know not the secret
cause. Ever since childhood my heart and mind were disposed
toward feelings of gentleness and goodwill, and I was eager
to accomplish great deeds; but consider this: for six years
I have been hopelessly ill, aggravated and cheated by quacks in
the hope of improvement but finally compelled to face a lasting
malady ... I was forced to isolate myself. I was misunderstood
and rudely repulsed because I was as yet unable to say to people,
"Speak louder, shout, for I am deaf" ... With joy I hasten to meet
death. Despite my hard fate ... I shall wish that it had come later;
but I am content, for he shall free me of constant suffering. Come
then, Death, and I shall face thee with courage." Heiglnstadt (sic)
6 October, 1802.

 It’s obvious that Beethoven disagreed with this assessment, but note that he was responding to the exact same epitaph used by Rand from his contemporary critics: “Malevolent.” So it’s not as if Rand pulled the claim “out of her ass.” Like a child who sees Santa Claus, there was SOMETHING going on, even if it’s just a man in a suit or a composer in a state of righteous anger. But Beethoven’s own words give credence to the claim of holding to a “Byronic” view of his own existence, condemned to struggle despite the inevitability of defeat. One can argue whether or not he was justified, but one cannot argue that their was something there to at least warrant the claim. 

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Rand vs. Beethoven: "Du Du Du DUHH..."

   Every so often, the web comes alive with the chatter about Rand's infamous dismissal of Beethoven as "malevolent." (Usually this is harmonized with the other infamous dismissal of Mozart as "pre-music.") Recently this is been brought up as enemies come together to make the assertion that Rand was a "musical" ignoramus.

  For the longest time, those who did not have the benefit of meeting Rand in person or attend one of her lectures had to rely on second-third-hand accounts of her pronouncements and artistic "fascism." (With the publication of The Passion of Ayn Rand's Critics, one is reminded to "check one's premises, of course.) But Rand IS on record in Ayn Rand Answers answering a question on her opinion of Beethoven, where she uttered the shot heard 'round the world:

 He is a great composer, but I can't stand him. Music expresses a sense of life-an emotional response to metaphysical issues. Beethoven is great because he makes his message so clear by means of music; but his message is malevolent universe: man's heroic fight against destiny, and man's defeat. That's the opposite of my sense of life." 

 The horror, the horror...

  One can argue whether or not Rand is correct in her assessment, one would be right to ask of her which pieces she was referring to, or which ones she had heard, etc. But there's another issue involved here. As they say about pots and kettles...

  The problem I have with the reaction to this anecdote is that people are prompted to paint Rand as an "esthetic" fascist. Jeff Walker quotes someone sympathetic to Rand's p.o.v. on Beethoven in order to justify the claim of the "Ayn Rand Cult." There is a comparison to her pronouncement of Maxfield Parrish as "rubbish," which prompts a quip about the bonfires of Parrish's work raging across America. Yet Rand is also on record as saying that in the field of music, it's "every man for himself." So who's the fascist?

  I submit that what happened to Rand on this is a testament of second-handedness, by people who should know better, the so-called "individualists." Why? Because it has to be remembered that in the context of that quote, Rand was answering questions on her opinion of Beethoven. God help her, she answered. That was her mistake; may no good deed go unpunished. Maybe what Rand should have done was to pull a "Roark," and ask "Why do you care what I think of Beethoven?". To the extent that she did answer the question, and to the extent that she was in the public eye, the responsibility for defending her statements is on her, "judge...and prepare to be judged." Fair enough. Ask "why" all you want. But the issue, sadly, is not "was she wrong about Beethoven" but "See? Rand dislikes Beethoven! I told you she was a crazy bitch!"

  Because we don't have more in print on the matter from Rand herself, we can't really say much more about her opinion, since she's not here to elaborate. But there are plenty of people who claim to have known her well enough to present the full story. The Brandens are two such people, as well as Allan and Joan Mitchel Blumenthal, but another associate of Rand's tells a more intimate tale of the Beethoven question before the question was asked on another occasion. Stuttle posted a few posts on the matter at Objectivist Living, but one particular anecdote stands out:

Julie was a vivacious, glowing-with-life person, attractive, slim, mid-height, long wavy orange-reddish hair. Larry had told her of my love for Beethoven. "It's Beethoven and Rand, isn't it?," Julie said, holding the index and middle finger of her right hand up, pressing the fingers together to indicate unity: "The two are one; it's the same thing." 

  "W-e-l-l," I told her, I agreed that the dramatic sensibility did seem to me very similar, but that I was afraid she was going to be disappointed by Rand's response, that Rand didn't like Beethoven and considered Beethoven "malevolent." "Oh, she probably just hasn't heard much Beethoven!" Julie said undaunted. 

  Come the occasion, and the question. 

  Stuttle continues:

 The story didn't end with Rand's answer to Julie.  "But, Miss Rand," Julie said, innocently, exuberantly, "have you ever heard [and she reeled off the titles of several Beethoven compositions, the 4th and 6th symphonies and some non-symphonic works, I forget which ones]?" "I don't know," Rand said, just as a flat declarative statement. "Well, if I sent you some records, would you listen to them?" Rand said that she would (I surmised that Julie's style of sparkling openness appealed to Rand, eliciting her agreement). 

   The rest I can only report via grapevine sources. Rand listened to the records -- and sent Julie a letter couched in terms that changed Julie's view of Rand, and Julie quit attending the Objectivist club at the school where she was by then a student (I think the University of Michigan, or maybe Wisconsin). I never heard what became of her after that, and I don't know the details of what Rand said to her. 

  The way Stuttle tells it, you'd think poor Julie was shipped off to Siberia by Stalin...Stuttle goes to great lengths to paint "Julie" in a positive, innocent light. But what we don't get from the story is why Julie is so hung up on what Rand thinks of Beethoven to begin with, or the need to convince Rand that Beethoven was not so bad. For people who claim to be adherents to selfishness and individual judgement, what really comes off here, IMO, is a story of someone not secure enough in their own assessment seeking the approval of authority. 

  And so, a simple question-and-answer session becomes an opportunity for finger-pointing and abdication of responsibility. I thought the reason for asking someone their opinion was to learn more about something one didn't know about, to get perspective. But what is presented in these anecdotes threatens to come off more like a trap, and that's what bothers me the most. It's not a matter of "what can I learn from this person," but "how can I make this person look bad?".  The other vision that comes to mind is less devious, but still sad: the vision of finding out that one's hero does not have all the answers (at least the answers one WANTS to hear) and the disillusion that follows. Again, this is what happens when one looks for a guru. It sounds as if "Julie" already knew what they wanted to hear and would not accept anything less.

  Again, we don't have Rand to defend herself, only the "grapevine...". (I should add that Mary Ann Sures offers a different portrait of Rand's judgements that contrast with the sordid tales we know...). What I see in these stories is a lot of projecting: "By God, I LIKE BEETHOVEN, AND WATCH OUT ANYONE WHO DISAGREES!". But seeing as Rand did not feel the need to write formally on what one SHOULD listen to, and since I cannot verify first-hand the claims against Rand, I'm not going to worry myself about what Rand thought of Beethoven; I can make up my own mind. In the words of Roger Enright: 

 "God gave you eyes and a mind which are to use. If you fail to do so, the loss is yours, not mine..."

Friday, January 9, 2009

"My Composer Can Beat Up Your Composer," or, "Get Off My Bach!"

Greatest Composer. Best Musical. Top 100 rock albums. Everyone has their favorites, everyone has their opinions, and everyone has their gun cocked to defend their opinion. Wars are fought and friendships rocked over the subject of the greatest in music.

“Wagner? No, Beethoven! No, Sibelius!” “HAIR? No, CYRANO!” “YES? NO!!!!”. “Lanza??? PLAY SOME SKYNYRD!!!”

“Attack someone’s political opinions and risk being taken for a fool but assault someone’s musical tastes and you may be taken as an enemy.”

It’s funny because it’s true.

But what does it mean to say that a piece of music, or a composer, is “the greatest?” Is there any objective basis to make that claim? Even Ayn Rand wasn’t touching that one with a ten foot pole. Not because it was impossible, but because she knew that not enough was known to make that claim. (Leaving aside certain verifiable technical criteria: “Until a conceptual vocabulary is discovered and defined, no objectively valid criterion of esthetic judgement is possible in the field of music...There are certain technical criteria, dealing mainly with the complexity of harmonic structures, but there are no criteria for identifying the content, i.e., the emotional meaning of a given piece of music and thus demonstrating the esthetic objectivity of a given response.”) Not yet, anyway... 

Until then, here’s a question: Is the idea of a “greatest composer,” even if someday objectively verifiable, even desirable?

Nathaniel Branden, in his essay “The Divine Right of Stagnation” in The Virtue of Selfishness, raises this devil of a question. “Every achievement of man is a value in itself, but it is also a stepping-stone to greater achievements and values. Life is growth; not to move forward, is to fall backward...Every step upward opens to man a wider range of action and achievement-and creates the need for that action and achievement.”

Branden makes his point clear, which addresses this topic: “There is no final, permanent ‘plateau.’ The problem of survival is never ‘solved,’ once and for all, with no further or motion required. More precisely, the problem of survival IS solved, by recognizing that survival demands constant growth and creativeness.”

The scary thing about the possibility of naming the greatest musical composer or composition is not the hurt feelings of lesser composers, or the possibility that one million Elvis fans could be wrong, but the idea of the finality of naming the greatest; everything else after that would be a result of “the divine right of stagnation.” Is that it? Is there no where else to go? Can this great achievement never be topped? Why even try? “Game over, man, Game over!”

OK, a bit dramatic. But not unrealistic. If this sounds funny, reread The Fountainhead, and witness the struggle of Howard Roark against the classicists who proclaimed that no one could improve upon the Renaissance.

In discussion of futuristic science fiction, one participant in the genre commented that science fiction was not about getting the future right, because then there would be only one science fiction book, “the right one.” It really is something of a Platonic fantasy, that all these compositions are somehow imperfect models of an ideal form. And there is something of a snobbish quality involved as well in some claims. (Penn and Teller exposed this in an episode of “BULLSHIT!”, pouring refreshing tap water for unsuspecting snobs who thought they were drinking only the finest of bottled waters. Evian=Naive.) But one can be seriously committed to quality in any endeavor, and standards should strive to provide the “best of possible worlds.” Even a punk musician strives to be the best punk musician ( but this, of course, required by the twisted logic of punk, led to the the “least of all possible worlds.”) Music is no exception. But because life does require constant growth, we must never accept the greatest achievements of the past as the pinnacle of possibilities.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

"Bullshit!" Debunking the "Mozart" Effect

  The Penn and Teller Showtime series BULLSHIT! is known for exposing pseuodsciences such as esp, alien abductions, and the like. They also go after alternative medicine, bottled water, and feng shui. But surely they would have no problem with the claim that classical music makes one smarter, right? After all, classical music is a product of the great minds of the nadir of Western Civilization, right? 


I was not shocked at this one, personally, having read Don Campbell's The Mozart Effect: Tapping the Power of Music to Heal the Body, Strengthen the Mind, and Unlock the Creative Spirit years ago, finding it full of shlocky new-age claims that music is "the physician for times to come" (also the title of an anthology edited by Campbell. But I do confess to having believed that the generalized conclusion that listening to Mozart and friends before a test would enhance performance. So why is this claim bunk?

From the

The Mozart Effect is the term for the idea that listening to classical music will improve your intelligence. The idea is baloney, and yet it enjoys wide belief. Check out, where Don Campbell sells a variety of products that will supposedly help people use music to improve their minds and bodies. The Skeptic's Dictionary has a good article debunking the phenomenon. Now Stanford researcher Chip Heath and his colleague Adrian Bangerter have published research tracking the evolution of the idea of the Mozart Effect. They trace The concept back to a 1993 experiment that found college students experienced a slight rise in IQ when listening to classical music (other researchers were never able to duplicate these results). From there the concept took off. But even though the original experiment involved college students, it didn't take long before people were applying the idea to infants and teenagers. So Heath and Bangerter came up with the hypothesis that "the legend of the Mozart Effect grew in response to anxiety about children's education." And "Sure enough, they found that in states with the most problematic educational systems (such as Georgia and Florida), newspapers gave the most coverage to the Mozart Effect." It seems like an interesting case study of what fuels the spread of misinformation.
Here's a link to one explanation of how children learn regardless of music.
  It's easy to want to believe that classical music is good for our children and our health. But in this case, it's not a matter of "PC" multiculturalism, or a hatred of Western values, but a matter of manipulation by turning those Western values against itself, by making pseudo-scientific claims on legitimate products of the rational mind. It's witch-doctoring dressed up in a scientist's lab coat (like most of the ideas in psychology. See P&T's smackdown of "the Baby Whisperer".) It's hard to make the claim that a particular type of music, any type of music, enables a child to learn more effectively because it would suggest that music is merely to be consumed, when, in fact it is in part a cognitive process to begin with. Musical appreciation is a learned process, and heirarchal. One can't appreciate the contrapuntal stylings of Bach before grasping a basic melody like "Mary had a Little Lamb." (Jourdain backs this up in Music, the Brain, and Ecstasy when he points out that most children have enough difficulty banging out a pattern in time on pots and pans or keeping intonation while singing.) It may be possible that listening to contrapuntal music from an early age will stimulate the mind, but to suggest that the music itself increases I.Q. is putting the cart before the horse.

Some parents and educators may dismiss the counterclaims based on perceived results of the Mozart Effect on their own children, offering anecdotal evidence and proud testimonials. It's not to say that such music can't have an effect. But anecdotes and testimonials are not objective proof, and their is no scientific evidence that the effect is real or permanent. 

Rhythm Vs. Melody, or, Extensional versus Intensional Music

There’s an ongoing debate about which is more important to music: rhythm or melody. This dichotomy is most highlighted by the differences in emphasis between European music (melodic) and African music (rhytmic). There is one theory that argues that the differences are "extensional" and "intensional."

Predominately rhythmic music is said to be “intensional”, where tones are “not combined through space and time as simple elements into complex structures. The simple entity is that constituted by the parameters of melody, harmony, and beat, while the complex is built up by modulation of the basic notes, and by the infliction of the basic beat.” Emphasis is on timbre and variations in single tones instead of relations between tones.

European music, is melodic and “extensional.” Tones are “combined through space and time to form huge, complex structures.” This requires integration between tones in the mind of the listener, heirarchy must be established. Less emphasis on repitition than rhytmic music. More "intellectual."

Many conclusions have been drawn from this simple differentiation, some on a social level. European music, with its emphasis on heirarchy, mirrored the social structure of monarchy, with the dominant key as king. Some socialist thinkers have derided western music based on this comparison, instead celebrating “primitive music” as being more socially healthy because of its supposed all-inclusiveness. Some of the more post-modern theorists took this idea to the limit with the development of atonal and pantonal music, and serial composing, where all tones are equal, and no note can be used until the others in the series have been given a turn.

This would ignore the fact that rhythmic music is also based on heirarchy, with downbeats given more emphasis over other beats. But more importantly, it ignores that the knowledge is heirachal. Withing context, some facts are more important than others in grasping ideas. The fact that heirarchal systems of government have been used to justify tyranny doesn’t destroy the fact that heirachies are essential, which is why businesses still use such a model, and that communes don’t work for very long.

On another note: If there is any validity to the “Mozart Effect”, it’s that a listener increases his capability by grasping the complex relations between tones in complex extensional music. The question is, does the mind grasp these relations passively, by mere hearing alone? Or is it a result of active LISTENING? Calling it “the Mozart Effect” suggests that one need merely to sit back and get smarter by osmosis. If only it were that easy! How automatic a process is it? Music does not increase I.Q., a listener has to CHOOSE work at the more complex types of music (unless he’s a prodigy?). The intensional type of music is immediate, emphasis on pleasurable sensory qualities that come more immediately. If it were a food analogy, it would be similar to developing one’s palate. Sweets are immediately tasty, but one has to work to appreciate the complex recipes.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Technology: What Might Music Yet Become?

   In The Myth of Orpheus and the Future of Music, I discussed the role of change versus tradition as a key issue of musical developments. The evolution of technology has had a large role in the music of the Twentieth Century, but what of it?

  Robert Jordan, in his book, Music, The Brain, and Ecstasy, discusses technology's influence under the heading of "What Music Might Become." Jordan recognizes its benefits, pointing out that "new technology has always played a role in propelling music toward innovation." The evolution of simple horns to trumpets and trombones was the result of applied logic, and the piano replaced the harpsichord by offering a sturdier construction allowing for greater volume and expressive capabilities. Of course, it's the invention of electronics that concerns us today, but can electronics offer us new innovations in composition? Plenty of composers took on the piano, but it was only a select few who propelled it to forefront.

(Roger Waters of Pink Floyd, a band legendary for it's use of electronics, once remarked, "give a man a Les Paul guitar and he doesn't become Eric Clapton ... give a man a synthesizer ... and he doesn't become us.)

  So what of the Wired generation of music? Jordain highlights the possibilities: "Although computer-controlled synthesizers still have a long way to go before they can match an instrumental performance, they offer new vistas. One possibility is that we may learn how to cook up excruciatingly pleasurable timbers. Certainly the technical means are in place...." But he also points out the pitfalls of this approach: "... there are far too many alternatives to try them all and listen for the good ones. Instead, we'll need to derive sounds from the principles of pleasure and beauty. We have no such analytical science yet, so no immediate prospects."

  (Anyone who's ever played with a synthesizer or tone generator knows the pleasures and frustrations of going through hundreds of sounds, trying to find "just that right one.")

  Beyond tone generators, Jordain suggests that, "another option is to go on inventing more devices of melody and harmony and rhythm, as composers have for centuries. Could the music of the future be based on yet-undiscovered constructs?" Jordain doesn't believe so, but why? 


"Countless thousands of composers have spent their lives searching for new devices, and the rate of innovation has slowed to the point where it is almost impossible to concoct a worthwhile harmonic progression or metrical pattern that has not been heard before. No matter how large the continent, sooner or later every corner will be explored."

  Playing devil's advocate, Jourdain offers another possibility based on the new varieties of musical devices made possible by technology: "Computers can interleave sounds in ways too intricate for performers to coordinate, and can continuously combine sounds of diverse pitch and intensity that no player could manage. Synthesizers can also meld ('morph') sounds." This would be analogous to the new technology that enables car designers to apply paint that seems to change color as one moves past it. The implication is one of new sonic and textural possibilities: "The very idea of the discrete musical note could give way to more ethereal sonic entities."

  But is this enough? Jourdain warns, "beautiful textures and compelling devices are not the stuff of musical greatness. As we've seen, it is the largest structures that matter and that are the hardest for human beings to invent and to comprehend." This suggests that expansion of the cognitive abilities such as memory and imagination, not technology, are really the keys to the next musical advancement. But even this is problematic for Jourdain: "Can large-scale musical form be pushed any further than it has been already by Bach and Beethoven? Can sounds be arranged so that a brain is driven to perceive relations even deeper and more encompassing than those of the most powerful musical climaxes to date? ... As it is, our finest composers have been preternatural prodigies who were superbly trained and steadfastly dedicated to their craft. How can a human being do any better?"

  Perhaps this is where the new technologies can play a vital role. Jordain suggests the possibility that the use of artificial intelligence can sort through the possible sound patterns for new designs. But again, he offers a caveat that "this can only happen when someone postulates hard-and-fast descriptions of the principles by which music thrives, a precise typology of musical devices." This would require a systemizer, an "Isaac Newton of the mind," rather than another Beethoven to "describe music's deepest relations and make them analytically approachable. Like Ayn Rand, Jourdain suggests that the answers lie in the integration of musicology, psychology, and cognitive science. "Then perhaps—just perhaps—music will become even more powerful than we have known it….It will be all but lethal if it does."

Friday, January 2, 2009

Beyond Emotion, Part Two: The Gestalt Theory of Music

“The formulation of a common vocabulary of music would require these answers...It 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 serves as a base for the objective validation of esthetic judgments.”

-Ayn Rand,
The Romantic Manifesto

As stated previously, Rand believed that the current situation in psychology was not conducive to the understanding of the psychology of music, and held that the work of Helmholtz was the last great work in the field. Since the time of her writing, many technological advances have been made that allow greater understanding of physiology, which Rand considered the key to musical understanding. She might argue that the field of psychology, still in the anteroom of science in her day, is still in the dark ages. But serious work has been done to understand how music works its wonders on the mind.


(I am unaware of Rand’s understanding of the theory, if anyone knows, feel free to elaborate!)

Rand mused that music seemed to have the power to reach man’s emotions directly. But that would contradict the theory that emotions are products of man’s value judgments. John Booth Davies, in The Psychology of Music writes: “…the emotion felt has very little to do with the music itself but becomes attached to the music through a learning process. The feelings are not intrinsic in the music, but come, as it were, from outside.” The answer to how music is experienced as emotion may be found in the Gestalt theory.

The word Gestalt is German for “shape” or “form” and implies the German word for creativity, “Gestaltung.” The Gestalt theory was developed in Germany as a reaction to the Behaviorism. Wikipedia defines Gestalt theory as “a theory of mind and brain that proposes that the operational principle of the brain is holistic, parallel, and analog, with self-organizing tendencies.” The Gestalt effect is defined as “[t]he form-forming capability of our senses, particularly with respect to the visual recognition of figures and whole forms instead of just a collection of simple lines and curves.

Principles of Gestalt Theory:

Principle of Totality - The conscious experience must be considered globally (by taking into account all the physical and mental aspects of the individual simultaneously) because the nature of the mind demands that each component be considered as part of a system of dynamic relationships.

Principle of psychophysical isomorphism - A correlation exists between conscious experience and cerebral activity.

In contrast to the Behaviorist punishment/reward system of response to stimuli, the Gestalt theorists held that the Behaviorists minimized the importance of the cognitive processing of the subject. This theory allows the idea of free will by recognizing that individuals often have differing reactions to identical stimuli (for example, the differing responses to musical patterns that invoke the same emotional responses). The individual’s perception of the stimuli factors in to their response. This would include not only the sense perception, but their reasoning ability. (For example, the child who sees a parent dressed as Santa or the straw bent in the glass of water processes the sense date but is fooled in the interpretation.) This implies that reasoning is accompanied by the subjective interpretations and past experiences of the subject in perception of Gestalt patterns. This does not say that subjective experiences and opinions are proper criteria of definition, but recognizes their existence as having an influence over our interaction with the world and have to be dealt with. This is especially important when considering the “sense of life” reaction in musical appreciation.

Davies explains another aspect of Gestalt:

So far as music is concerned, the argument from here…when people here a sequence of tones, they group these into perceptual units which will be as ‘good as the prevailing conditions allow. Assuming that they can do this with some success, the sequence of tones will become meaningful, and will be a “tune” in the sense in which we have previously defined tunes.

Davies continues:

This tendency to organic separate units into some sort of whole is one of the central tenets of Gestalt psychology. Kurt Koffka…one of the pioneers of the Gestalt approach to perception, further postulated the “law of Pragnanz,” or “law of the best figure”: According to this, there is a natural tendency for observers to prefer the simplest and most stable figure available to them; unfortunately he does not offer an explanation for the terms “simple” or “stable”. Applying the law of Pragnanz to the Gestalt theory, Koffka reasoned that ‘The psychological organization will always be as good as the prevailing conditions allow. The act of perception therefore seeks to impose the best and most stable organization possible upon the percepts available….

This principle, in a musical context, seems to lend credence to Rand’s theory that people respond to music that suits their particular cognitive styles, whether it matches the cognitive marvel of the diatonic scale developed by the emphasis of reason in the Renaissance, or the repetitious stylings that are used to invoke trances or stupors, or if one prefers the spacious ambience of Pink Floyd as a parallel to finding room to stretch out in the world in luxury to the complicated contrapuntal stylings of Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos as a parallel to diligently seeking connections through mental integration of the world’s seemingly disparate offerings.

(Personally, I don’t see a dichotomy, and even if one has a preferred method of cognition, the more adaptability one has to multiple Gestalt patterns, the better! I think the great composer is one who can go make sense of many styles in an integrated fashion.)

In addition to this, it can be said that in music, some people purposely create or seek out a type of music that does the opposite, creating a complicated, dynamic system of challenging proportions. Davies offers an explanation that supports Rand’s theory that an individual increases his stress threshold in order to grow that correlates in a musical context that supports Rand’s theory as well:

…it seems likely that there may be changes in an individual’s preferred complexity level with the passage of time. For example, a piece of music which is initially too complex for an individual to like, may, with repeated playings, move down to a lower complexity level at which liking may begin to emerge. There is the possibility, however, that if a person repeatedly exposes himself to tunes of this type, a reciprocal movement might take place…if he listens to music of a type which he initially finds hard to anticipate, it is possible that repeated exposure to music of this type will, in time, cause him to anticipate rather better. In other words, his own subjective level might move upwards, so that music which was of a type judged too complex in the past might, in time, come to occupy the position of preferred complexity level.

This whole idea of threshold increase can be summed up by the eloquent Chinese aphorism “Crisis is another word for opportunity.”

Jourdain offers another look at this, to put it in context:

In the classical notion of pleasure and pain, an organism strives to maintain equilibrium…with its environment…pleasures are not absolute but rather are always relative to an equilibrium point. The same taste or feeling or sight or sound that is pleasurable in one context can become painful in another.

Davies supports this when he writes:

…We have seen that people do not listen to music in a vacuum, but rather that they know certain things about it beforehand. This knowledge leads them to expect certain things to happen, and others not to happen. Events of the past are therefore central in enabling people to have expectancies. These expectations concern not merely the music itself, but extends to a variety of other circumstances which surround the music, including the mood states which they believe to be appropriate in a particular musical context….it follows…that in musical situations where people do not have expectancies…the music will be meaningless for them.

This idea is very integral to the basis of musical appreciation. As Jourdain explains, music cognition, based on the Gestalt theory, relies on the interplay of expectations versus innovation, or what I call “deviance versus devotion.” Jourdain writes that

[a]ll emotions are either negative or positive. Negative emotions arise when experience falls short of anticipation. You expect your car to start, but it does not…Conversely, positive emotions come about when experience exceeds anticipation. You expect to work all day but are given the day off...Because most anticipations are minor ones, and most discrepancies are small, little of our emotional life registers as surges and outbursts. Most emotion bobs up and down at small waves on a sea of motivation. But we experience a feeling of well-being when small positive emotional events occur continuously, and we become depressed or irritable when a train of small negative events accost us.

This supports Rand’s theory of music quite nicely. Rand wrote that

[a] composition may demand the active alertness needed to resolve complex mathematical relationships-or it may deaden the brain by means of monotonous simplicity…the listener becomes aware of this process in the form of a sense of efficacy, or of strain, or of boredom, or of frustration. His reaction is determined by his psycho-epistemological sense of life-i.e., by the level of cognitive functioning on which he feels at home.

To give greater context to this theory, one should consider Jourdain’s elaboration of his claim that “musical expression is forever at odds with musical structure”:

When too many deviations fall together, the listener loses track of the underlying meter and ceases to anticipate coming beats forcefully…For composer and performer alike, music-making is always a tug-of-war between the maintenance of underlying musical structures and the indulgence of musical deviations…

For Jourdain, this is the crux of how music is turned into an emotional experience (as opposed to causing emotions directly):

From these principles, it’s easy to see how music generates emotion. Music sets up anticipations and then satisfies them. It can withhold its resolutions, and heighten anticipation by doing so, then to satisfy the anticipation in a great gush of resolution.

Jourdain, at this point, also identifies the definition of “expression” in music: “When music goes out of its way to violate the very expectations that it sets up, we call it ‘expressive.’ Musicians breathe ‘feeling’ into a piece by introducing minute deviations in timing and loudness. And composers build expression into their compositions by PURPOSELY [emphasis mine] violating anticipations that have been established.” If this is correct, it would mean that it would almost be pointless to compare compositions as being greater or lesser because the subjective factors and experiences of the listener MUST be taken into account, justifying Rand’s exhortation that in music appreciation, it’s every man for himself. However, it would be an interesting experiment to see how this affects Rand’s claim that to prove her theory would require “a computation of the mathematical relationships among the tones of the melody…the time required by the human ear and brain to integrate a succession of musical sounds…the relationships of tones to bars, of bars to musical phrases…”, etc. She claims that “the work involved is staggering, yet this is what the human brain-the composer’s, the performers, and the listener’s—does, though not consciously.” Does Jourdain’s theory of anticipation and expectation merely rephrase Rand’s idea, or offer an simpler explanation than the one she requires?


The Gestalt theory makes sense of the cognitive aspect of musical psychology, but is not complete without consideration of the somatic component. The Gestalt theory gives us the object of the value judgement, which is a representation of motion. The motion is transferred from the mind to the body, thus completing link between motion and emotion.

Jourdain rounds out the theory with a kinesthetic idea of musculature representation:

…if music does not channel directly to our muscles, then we must consciously put it there. It seems that we use our musculatures to represent music, modeling the most important features of musical patterns by means of physical movements large and small. At one extreme, we bounce up and down to a pulsing beat. At the other, we are immobile yet are racked by anticipations of movement, experiencing the impetus toward motions that we do not actually initiate.

He cautions us, however, that

...this view is necessarily speculative, since there is no science of muscular representation. For that matter, there is no hard-and-fast typology of physical movements or of musical devices by which we could compare sonic and somatic experience…yet it is easy to imagine two functions, that such representations would serve. First, representation provides a sort of notation system in which we momentarily inscribe features of music as it passes by, and thereby more easily remember those features over many seconds… A second function of muscular representation is to amplify our experience of music. Musical patterns that produce emotion and pleasure are replicated in a second, particularly extensive neural system-the motor system-and so emotion and pleasure arise in this second medium as well as in the direct experience of sound.

In essence, “…we use our bodies as resonators for auditory experiences.”

Jourdain references Antonia Damasio’s theory of the somatic marker hypothesis in his book Descartes’ Error. And this theory can be further explained by the parallel with a person’s reaction to a witness trauma; one can witness another person being injured and “feel” the pain vicariously. Jourdain’s theory would probably be an explanation of the same phenomenon.

Davies offers this:

Any theory of rhythm which is based on voluntary bodily movements, or which assigns paramount importance to movement would…seem to place the cart before the horse, or, at least, by its side…” Davies references a study that “…carried out experiments in the perception of rhythm, and found that ‘awareness’ of rhythm was accompanied by muscular movement. The conclusion was that rhythmical forms initiate the factor of movement in order that the impression of rhythm shall arise. This does not mean, however, that muscular movement is a cause of rhythmic perception. It could either be a concomitant, or a consequence. Indeed, it is difficult to imagine how one could, for example, tap one’s foot to a rhythm that one had not perceived…At the heart of the matter, however, lies a purely mental process involving the subjective grouping of temporarily spaced events into groups. Our own movements might be intimately related to this process…but they are not themselves the process….


The Gestalt theory of music, if correct, may offer many clues to further Rand’s dream of seeing an objective explanation of music. But even if it’s not, it’s an encouraging sign that man is on the right track, at least, putting aside mystical explanations. The existence of such books by Jourdain and Davies, at least, hopefully signifies a sea change in the intellectual climate, and further analysis and elaboration of these theories can be a stepping stone to the rebirth of reason that will bring about the next great musical innovation.