Beyond Emotion: The Cognitive Theory of Music

JoeM's picture
Submitted by JoeM on Thu, 2006-02-09 02:17


By Joseph C. Maurone

Ayn Rand claimed that the nature of musical perception had not been discovered because “the context and the shrinking scale of modern psychology and philosophy would have made an undertaking of this kind impossible. Peruse your local bookstore’s music section, and it would seem to be the case; most popular books on music are based on mystical theories of music’s origins. But the not so popular books are the ones that have attempted a serious study through means of mathematics, physiology, and psychology, but do not speak to the laymen as easily as do theories of “mystic” origins of music. Fortunately, the publication books such as Robert Jourdain’s MUSIC, THE BRAIN, AND ECSTASY and Anthony Storr’s MUSIC AND THE MIND provided a remedy in the form of a popularization of the theories of musical psychology. Some more in-depth studies include books on the psychology of music by Carl Seashore and Paul Davies. These books promote a theory of music that is very similar to the one presented by Rand in THE ROMANTIC MANIFESTO.
Rand’s hypothesis, based largely on the work of Helmholtz, was that if one “experiences an emotion without existential object, its only other possible object is the state or actions of his own consciousness.” She asks: “What is the mental action involved in the perception of music?”, while emphasizing that the question is not aimed at the consequential emotional reaction, but how music is perceived and processed. Her theory involves the integration (“it’s the integration, stoopid!) of tones into percepts, which are in turn integrated into concepts, and the compounding of concepts into wider abstractions. Rand notes that the initial process of sensory integration is automatic, developed in infancy and “closed to an adult,” but that the integration of concepts into more developed concepts is a stage that is “fully volitional and demands an unremitting effort.” (See R. Bissell for his argument concerning the problem of Rand’s and Helmholtz’s understanding of tones as percepts and sensations.) These tones are integrated into a melody, a type of auditory entity. A person’s appreciation of certain music will depend on the quality of a person’s automatic processes combined with his acquired abilities. “A man’s acceptance or rejection of that music depends on whether it calls upon or clashes with, confirms or contradicts, his mind’s way of working.”
Because the process is largely dependent on automatic processes, Rand concluded that “One’s reaction to music carries a sense of total certainty, as if it were simple, self-evident, not to be doubted; it involves one’s emotions…one’s values, and one’s deepest sense of oneself…”. She attributes this factor to the “mystical clamor about the ‘spiritual’ or supernatural character of music,” and claims that mysticism steals a very real phenomenon, which is the product of man’s integration of body and mind.
When people think of music, they refer to its capacity for invoking emotions. The question has been how does music achieve this effect? Is it the scales, is it the timbre, is it all in the mind? Rand herself commented that music seems to reach man’s emotions directly. But the key word is SEEMS. This is the same author, after all, who put the words “emotions be damned!” into the mouth of her heroic composer Richard Halley, who wanted the “understanding” of his listeners. Her musical theory is consistent with her overall philosophy, denying that emotions are a primary but instead a product of reasoning.
Understanding of what is the next question. What is there to understand in music? The other big question has been, does music have meaning? If one is looking for “conceptual” meaning, the answer is surely “no.” Music does not communicate concepts, but a sense of life, Rand wrote. She believed that music could not “tell a story, it cannot deal with concretes, it cannot convey a specific existential phenomenon...” But she wrote that even that was too specific for music. She wrote “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.”
So what does music communicate that we are supposed to understand? The answer lies, as Rand noted, in looking beyond the effect, which is the emotional response to the patterns of sound, and go to the root of emotions. Emotions, if Rand is correct, are responses to value judgments. Emotions, while not tools of cognition, spur us on to choice and action. Motion is the key here. Motion is a trait found specifically in life that has to seek out its sustenance, as opposed to plant life, which is stationary and has no brain to co-ordinate movement. And patterns of sound are not music until integrated by the human mind.
An emotional reaction to music is not simply based on movement, however. The mind is not simply reacting passively to stimuli in a behavioralist fashion. Even Rand muses that “music is experienced as if it had the power to reach man’s emotion’s directly.” But that would presuppose a part of the brain that housed emotions, and the idea that one merely need trigger a brain spot to create an emotion (as opposed to creating a bodily somatic effect). Obviously there is no one “happy” or “sad” center of the brain, and if Rand is right about emotions being value estimates, then there must be an intermediary process that converts the succession of tones into what the mind perceives as music. It is not music, no matter if it’s Slayer or Rachmaninoff, until the brain has turned it into such.
(Hence the common complaint of a listener confronted with a foreign style of music that such is not music at all, but noise. In most cases, the listener simply has not learned to integrate the patterns of sound presented to him…and assuming that the patterns are indeed possible of being integrated and not truly noise in the sense of having no structure or hierarchy of tones as opposed to simply being simple, banal, boring or repulsive to the listener, or unfamiliar. Here is a good moment to remember Rand’s chastisement against claiming the “objective superiority of his choices over the choices of others.)
Having summarized Rand’s theory of music, we can look at the prevailing theories of music psychology and see how well they support Rand’s hypothesis.

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Gestalt Theory

JoeM's picture

Thanks, guys. I really think Rand's musical theory is not that far off from the truth, as some would claim that it was influenced too much by her literary theory. Make sure to take a look at the Gestalt Theory followup to see how much of the current thinking on the matter supports her own theory, which see claimed to formulate based on introspection, without the use of computer technology, controlled experiments, or sophisticated brain imaging devices.
If it's "sooner than we think", at least there's the inklings of a path to an objective study of music.

First time I've had a chance

Landon Erp's picture

First time I've had a chance to sit through it and evaluate it.

Lots of food for thought, keep it up I think you're on to something.


It all basically comes back to fight or flight.

Can't Wait

James S. Valliant's picture

This is great stuff.

Not only that! :-)

Lindsay Perigo's picture

You've truly posed a challenge, Joe. To be attended to when time permits! Keep going! Smiling


You said a mouthful there,

Lanza Morio's picture

You said a mouthful there, Joe. Well done.

I can't think of anything specific to respond with but if there is something specific on your mind that you'd like to focus on I'm happy to explore it. I have thoughts about how our volition is tied to our music choices...but it's a bit confused at the moment.

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