Re-read 4.1: Langer on “the virtual time created in music”

I find Susanne Langer’s prose clear and eloquent. She would seem to be at her most passionate when she writes about life and art to share her understanding of their relationship. Consider this passage: “What, then, is the essence of all music? The creation of virtual time and its complete determination by the movement of audible forms.” Why is this important? Why is music important? Because, as she explains later in Chapter 7 of Feeling and Form, with music we may understand again the nature of time, not the moment by moment succession of mechanical ticks of the clock (which she calls “metaphysically a very problematical instrument”) in a one dimensional train, but the multi-dimensional passage of duration. Music is an image of lived or experienced time, it is vital and not mechanical, it is creative and not restrictive.

I recently talked with a young man about Joseph Campbell, one of the greatest mythologists, and his notion that modern man was somehow diminished by our lack of rituals of passage, by our loss of a shared contextual duration of lifespans and the rhythm of life. I agree with this but given how we have changed since Campbell formulated his ideas, I think he had no idea of what would come about, when so many consider their lives richer in texture through electronic friending and multi-tasking. As Charlie Chaplin recognized in his movie, Modern Times, we have reduced the richness of life by clocking. Even some of the emphasis on fitness seems narrowly focused on achievement, on adrenalin and endorphin surge, on faster and better, even as we willfully ignore the necessity and richness of the quiet reflection needed to experience fully our time here with Gaia. Consider the experience of thru-hiking on the Appalachian Trail and the many who describe it as a time of grounding, of expansive spirit among the difficult journey, and of a deepening understanding of our time here. Then consider the yokel who recently set the speed record for completing the journey and considered himself a superior man. As Yoda said, “All wrong that is.”


One more passage from Langer: The great office of music is to organize our conception of feeling . . . to give us an insight into what may truly be called the ‘life of feeling,’ or subjective unity of experience; and this it does by the same principle that organizes physical existence into a biological design—rhythm.” So, as I understand this, when we listen to music, we hear an image of life’s song emerging from matter’s noise, not as a scientific or positivistic progression of tick-tocks but as the mystic experience of attunement with some universe.

Langer was an excellent musician herself and she appreciated the modern luxury of electronic recordings, but she also said these taught us how not to listen, how to have music as the background of our lives and to miss thereby its richness. Sort of empty, non-nutritive calories, I guess, like so much of our fodder today. As we wander these trees, looking for the forest and a way through, listen for the song of the Waldenhexe. Travel on.

Re-read 4.0: Susanne Langer on Music

If you have followed this blog the past few months, you know that I have been reading and thinking about the neuroscience of music. If you have followed this blog for a bit longer, you know that one of the best benefits of my retirement is to re-read some books I read long ago. And many also know that I revere Susanne Langer in this regard.


As a child her family called her “Waldhexe” or ‘witch of the woods’ for the time she spent wandering there.

So last week with a snow storm in progress I re-read 3 chapters on music in Susanne Langer’s 1953 book, Feeling and Form, in which she developed a theory of art, basing it really upon the aesthetics of music, from her 1942 book, Philosophy in a New Key. The key here is symbolism. She would later in the 1960s and 70s carry her philosophical ideas towards biological realms. In Feeling and Form she developed the concept of virtual images into a highly potent philosophical concept, this before the age of computers and at the dawn of modern neuroscience. As it turns out, she was helped by a 1920s essay by Basil de Selincourt, “Music and Duration” in which he “distinguished, clearly and explicitly, between the actual and the virtual,” i.e., we listen to music both physically and mentally. Seems an obvious beginning for a path to understanding.

What a flood of memories rushed upon me when I read the following passage as she discussed the organizing principle of rhythm in life and music: “The most characteristic principle of vital activity is rhythm. All life is rhythmic; under difficult circumstances, its rhythms may become very complex, but when they are really lost life cannot long endure. This rhythmic character of life permeates music, because music is a symbolic representation of the highest organic response, the emotional life of human beings.”

This struck me in 1970, as it strikes me now, as profoundly true and obviously so. Ah, I was younger then and naïve; I am older now and less naïve and so can hope that we can raise our appraisal of art to match that of what might be considered our colder activities, and indeed, current neuropsychology increasingly demonstrates that even these ‘colder’ intellections are based upon feelings, upon intuitive impulses arising from our mind’s depths. This is my motivation for repeatedly discussing here Langer’s distinction between discursive, e.g.,language, and presentational, e.g., art, symbols and to pursue further understanding of how empathy and symbolization contribute to our humanity, e.g., the neuroscience of music. In 1970 Chomskyian linguistics was replacing the sterile paradigm of behaviorism and cognitive psychology was participating in the incipience of information sciences, its algorithms, modules, etc. Art then, as it had often been and is still viewed by many, was considered ‘messy’ and less of an intellectual product (and to reflect the chauvinism then and now, a feminine thing), but Dr. Langer’s writings, her intellectual life’s work actually, demonstrated the opposite, that art is one of humanity’s highest intellectual achievements and one with deep biological roots. Thanks again, Dr. Langer. Some will travel on from here now, but I will rest and enjoy the glow (and watch the snowpack melt).


Poetic interlude

We interrupt our regular programming for this poetic interlude.




Dawn had come hardly seen

Above the heavy fog filling the valley,

Above the clouds covering the ridgetop,

The world around translucent to any eye.

John Henry stepped out his door

To greet the day and orient himself

As to his place in nature.

His memory of space, the mountain’s shadow

Through the gloom, and the creek’s

Delicate silvery echoes sounding the way

Told him again, somehow never redundant,

Never commonplace or stale, all he needed to know

For now.

Closing the door behind him

He started down the valley along the creek,

Skirting marshlands and pausing to watch

A wild turkey lumber into the air

Across the water into the woods and fog

At the mountain’s base, a fearful fury

Of feathers struggling to safety, then all quiet,

All hidden, and he resumed his trail to church.


A light breeze thinned the fog

As it carried the sound ringing

From the small cast iron bell

Summoning the hearing to gather and meet

This sabbath before Beltane.

John Henry heard the call

And the conversational murmur

Of neighbors greeting each other,

Then saw the whitewashed stones

Lining the path from creek trail

To the whitewashed clapboard church

Built a generation ago

And he entered the open door

Nodding to greet each one.


Inside he listened and could not help

Wondering about the past.

Not just what they ate but how did they cook it?

Whose recipe did they use?

Not just what they drank but what grapes and yeast

Did they use for the wine?

Who made the table and chairs? By what method?

How old was the room, for he assumed that

It was not new? Was there a window with a view?

Being John Henry he wondered at the weight

Of the hammer used to drive the nails

And did they reuse the nails like he did

Or were the authorities rich enough,

And of course they were, to pay

A blacksmith for new ones to waste each time.

Buried in a stone crypt, yes,

But how were the walls shaped and painted

And what shadows flickered there in the rushlight?

What of the mice that stole the dead’s gift of grain

Back to their nest, leaving their droppings in the dust?

He wondered this and more even during the hymns,

Even during the last doxology, even as he left

Nodding his goodbyes until he saw the new sign

At the end of the white stoned path, “For Sale.”


Homeward the fog lifted though

The creek bed still breathed

With damp chill air. Above

The clouds rested more lightly on the mountain top

And the sunlight filtering through

Gently, informally promised

A warm spring day. Back home

He fed and banked his fire

Against the cold night to come,

Grasped his hammer, feeling its heft

For work the next day, knowing it too heavy

For driving mere nails, and planned next Sunday

To walk up the valley along the creek

To see its headwaters at Copernican Spring

Named long ago also before memory began.

Clyde Evely



and that concludes the interlude.  We now return to our regular programming.  Coming soon:  Re-read 4.0  Susanne Langer on Music, or How returning home feels so wondrous.

P.S.  Here in a high mountain valley in SW Virginia we have >10″ snow.




matter of scale &

a quibblous query:

I am sure most have heard the pretty momentous news about the detection of gravity waves. WOW! I only wanted to comment on the matter of scale involved.  I have posted here before that I think humans’ ability to escape our biological limitations of scale in our perceptual world, e.g., visible wavelengths in electromagnetic spectrum and roughly 20-20,000 Hz for sound waves, and the limitations of our temporal lifeline is one of our supreme achievements.  Consider these new results.  Two black holes collided a billion light years away, quite an astronomically large distance in space-time, setting off gravity waves, waves expanding and contracting space-time, that we eventually detect a billion years later and we detected these by measuring a physical change in a light beam’s length as small as a human hair relative to the distance of our nearest star.  The magnitude of the scale from largest to smallest here is momentous and deserves our respectful attention.  The scientists involved from Einstein on deserve much credit, and the ones involved in the current study announced their results only after they confirmed that the probability of error here is about 1 in 3.5 million.  We now can hear the gravitational wind as it waves through us.

And my quibble is with some of the reporting.  One news outlet headlined their report saying these results “vindicated” Einstein.  Vindicated?  Remember Einstein’s remarkable genius was to tell us what the numbers said as he daydreamed on a street car going to his day job (and of course following up on that visionary moment with thoughtful mathematical formulations).  From my perspective the use of gravitational lensing, confirming the constancy of the speed of light and the pace of mechanical time varying in relation to the strength of gravity along with many other discoveries over the past 100 years have confirmed his theory, and any vindication came and went one day in August at Hiroshima.  Travel on.

important stuff

I now return to Patel’s fabulous book, Music, Language and the Brain, where he relates research into the expressive timing of good musical performers. I posted about this some time back but a review is in order. Theoretically all eighth notes in the same time signature should be the same length, but in reality they vary a good deal with an average length of 652 milliseconds +/- 250 msecs in one study, so that eighth notes range from 400 msecs to 900 msecs. The important aspect here is that the variation is not random but purposeful, intentionally done as a way to convey the style and emotional tone of the performer in playing the piece. When music is electronically manipulated and note length is varied, listeners can tell the difference, and if the music is machine generated with all the notes standardized to some length, e.g., all eighth notes are 652 msecs, that music lacks vitality and is clearly machine made, i.e., mechanical and not musical, and listeners reject it.  Consider the musician, say a pianist, as they play a piece expressively and to do so must intuitively vary note length by such very small increments, say a fifth of a second or less. Quite a feat of motor control, and now I come to a greater consideration: how does that expressive feeling that guides motoric movements come about? Oh, my, let me list, in no particular order, what might be the biological components:

–the self, whatever that is that gives rise to artistic touch or vision or voice. This is hypothesized by Damasio to be a very complex group of brain functions from the brainstem to neocortex.

–social intelligence or that understanding which enables one self to communicate subtle emotions with another self or which contributes to well received aesthetic expression. This coalesces in the right hemisphere, we know, around the temporal-parietal junction.

–musicality in general is seen as a right hemisphere function but professional musicians rely on the left side for some important functions. Perhaps this shift in laterality comes as a musician learns to sight read (certainly left sided) and grows more automatic and facile with the movements needed to produce music.

–and now I bring in the dorsal-ventral loops composed of the long fiber networks of the cortex. I will say simply now before explicating the idea more in the following paragraphs that the dorsal loop, e.g., the arcuate fasciculus, facilitates the regular repetition or accurate mirroring of a heard or known passage, while the ventral loop, e.g., the uncinate fasciculus, facilitates the rendering of meaning and novelty from what has been mirrored. (Please see my post on 9/27/15 to better understand my use of ‘mirroring’).

I have been studying an article by Michel Rijmtjes. Corneilius Weiler, Tobias Bormann, and Mariacristina Musso in Frontiers of Evolutionary Neuroscience from 3 July 2012 entitled “The dual loop model: its relation to language and other modalities”. The dual loop is the dorsal and ventral loops mentioned just above. They focus on the left side because they are working on understanding language, so my extrapolation to the right side is just that, mine. Also, their work, like most of our neuroscience examining particular human abilities, focuses on reception, mostly because one can study the brain’s response to a specific input. Studying expression is more difficult because how we motivate, generate and enact behavioral impulses, especially those with aesthetic attributes, is currently lost in the neurological depths from whence expressive behaviors emerge. Aesthetic ones are the most problematic in this regard, because creative processes are the most distant and dissociated from the reception of input stimuli and a highly original and creative symbolic expression from an individual self. So with that in mind . . . .

These authors review many studies and hypotheses about how human language can be so different from other animal communications, i.e., a lot here to digest. The two loops are actually structures I have discussed before but did not know at the time they were part of a more comprehensive model. Both of these loops connect back (input/receptive) and front (output/expressive). The first of these is called the dorsal (sort of over the top of the brain) loop, exemplified by our old friend the arcuate fasciculus (remember it enables our ability to repeat words, so it is an important part of the mirror system) that connects Wernicke’s area of the auditory cortex in the temporal lobe with Broca’s area in the motor cortex of the frontal lobe. (See my post, Arcuate fasciculus, mirror neurons, and memes from 4/24/14). In my thinking the arcuate fasciculus organizes surface structure, the mapping of sound to motor patterns thereby enabling meanings to be understood and expressed. Here is its pictorial representation.

arcuate fasciculus

The second loop is called the ventral (sort of running along the sides of the brain) loop, exemplified here by the uncinate fasciculus that runs from the temporal lobe to the frontal lobe. It does not originate solely in Wernicke’s area nor does it end solely in Broca’s area but rather from areas cradling both of the dorsal junctures. Here is its pictorial representation.


The ventral loop is less concerned with organizing surface structure for mirroring and more with organizing deep structure, that poorly understood function whereby linguistic meaning is derived from thinking, so that we can understand and express not just words and sentences but the conceptual workings underlying them. The dual loop hypothesis focuses on how these two systems interact in the special ways required for human language.

Oh so complicated and much more can and will be said at some later time about this neurolinguistic hypothesis, but I want to swing from the left side to the right side, from language to the social intelligence captured by our musicality. (and this post is getting longer than usual already). The dorsal and ventral loops are also on the right side; we know less about them for a variety of reasons both experimental and conceptual. In my most popular post of all time cited above, that continues to gather hits to this day, I discussed the arcuate fasciculus (AF) on the right side, citing new research that confirmed it existed there (for a long time it was thought to be only on the left) and also that it seemed to help to mirror social communication. I speculated that maybe gifted mimics, such as Jim Carey,Tina Fey or Rich Little, had a stronger AF system that enabled them to mirror another’s emotional expressions, so that they can sound like and mimic facial expressions of some public figure, say President Nixon, Sarah Palin or some other public figure.

Now we can develop the dual loop hypothesis for the right side. Rijmtjes and his colleagues report that experienced musicians have a larger AF than the rest of us, most probably because they have practiced playing and mentally rehearsing musical pieces. The AF here would seem to play an analogous role from the left on the right side as it helps to mirror a piece for performance, either from hearing it before or even sight reading it, so the right sided AF would help to map the sounds and motor patterns for their playing. This is the dorsal loop’s primary function.

What of the ventral loop on the right side? If it organizes thought and semantic meaning for language on the left, what might it do on the right? Ah, what is the artistic import of any musical piece or any artistic production for that matter? (see post 11/4/15 Musical brain and artistic import) It is not standardized through convention the way words are; artistic import, to echo Susanne Langer’s writings here once more, is not from a discursive, linear symbolic form but a presentational, non-linear symbolic form. It is a symbol for a particular experience of felt life, and that is one of the beautiful complexities of our minds.

Returning to where I started, how does a musician play with exquisite feeling some piece from musical notation? How does a pianist play with vital variations of note length, tempo and loudness to give a coherent and musical rendering of the piece? Part of the answer lies in the dual loop hypothesis, wherein the dorsal AF supports the mirroring of the piece (connection between sounds and motoric production) while the ventral supports the variation of the individual performance in a (hopefully) aesthetically pleasing way. It does so by engaging the systems listed earlier, the self, the emotional responsiveness and social intelligence of the performer along with their sense of musicality (likewise the composer though that is even more complicated).

I have gone a long way to connect to the beginning and I want to close with yet another line of thinking I read about recently in the Origin of Music. A very unusual man by the name of Manfred Clynes developed, among his many efforts that included coining the term ‘cyborg’, the science of sentics. This focuses on how emotions are communicated through patterns of touch, their tempo, strength, etc. As an example, Clynes had Americans communicate how they were feeling different emotions through touch and then tried these out on Australian aborigines, who were able to decode the emotions so presented. Clynes also translated this notion to the touch of a musician as he or she plays their instrument and the piece being performed. Clynes used this knowledge to program a computer to play music with a human feel and listeners could not pick out the machine version. Clynes is clearly a genius; in addition to being an engineer and neuroscientist, he was also a concert pianist who played for and with Einstein, what used to be called a polymath.  More later. Now I think it is time to turn on the old ipod and listen to a vital aesthetic form contained therein.

dialectical path 2.1: alpha & omega: error recognition and response

My dialectical path wanders between mysticism and positivism in a noumenal sort of way and between religion and science in a phenomenal one. The latter pair both are systems with different levels, e.g., social in their churches and labs & epistemological in their seeking true knowledge. Errors are important in both. Consider this comparison of error recognition and response between the two systems: within science errors are inadequacies in experimental design and control or if the data has been gathered with utmost rigor, errors lie in our theoretical understanding. Scientific response, then, comprises reworking the experiment for greater reliability and validity or challenging and changing the abiding theoretical understanding of the ultimate state of nature. Science, like Hegel’s history, is a paragon of dialectic. Within religion errors are deviations from some god’s law or the laws of a karmic universe. The socially approved responses include individual repentance or congregants’ compassionate prayer for that individual should he or she persist in their un-repentance, or should an individual assiduously rail against the orthodox, the authorities, acting again at the behest of their god, categorize them as in the outgroup, the consequences of which range from mildly predicting their eternity in hell to their torture/murder as apostates. No dialectic exists here within their system, because errors are not ever considered as signals that the standards, e.g., god’s laws, need revision, i.e., that something is amiss with the law itself. Where is the alpha and omega here? Science is always an alpha approaching asymptotically at best the omega of understanding nature. Religion is always an omega as the alpha was already set in stone, so to speak; it may be an omega waiting to happen with the end of days, or an omega of transcendence whereby one leaves off the attachment to this dreary world, but there is no dialectic of religious thought, only evolution of church functioning.

Or consider another frame. I have recently had consideration of the phrase, “coming to my senses,” brought up again. When does someone say this? When realizing that continued effort in the same way would be futile, i.e., senseless, like when someone realizes that a relationship will never be good or healthy or that a plan of action being implemented is untenable or that some belief or assumption is rather unquestionably wrong. “Coming to my senses,” then, is when an omega moment occurs and transforms to an alpha, e.g., Archimedes’ ‘Eureka!’ or (dare I say this) Saul’s epiphany on the road to Tarsus. I use these examples to emphasize that coming to our senses is no sure road to epistemological truth; our senses are famously quite constructive and rather vulnerable to perturbation and error. Still, “coming to my senses” usually connotes a positive and adaptive change of mind. I don’t know if I have ever heard the inverse phrase, “leaving my senses;” I think we tend to say instead, “I am losing my mind.” Curious metaphor that, where the disregard of data engenders mindlessness. And that brings us up to an ever growing facet modern American culture, our fundamentalist religion and divisive politics. Better travel on now rather quickly.

Dialectical path 2.0: alpha-omega series

So in keeping with the spirit, at least, of the Dialectical Path, I want to meditate on beginnings and endings. I think modern humans have only a few boundaries of the unknowable. One is the experience of another’s subjectivity; this one will endure while humans exist. Another one is the alpha moment of the Big Bang, the creation of the universe and the rise of life within it. While we develop our conceptual understanding of this alpha based upon our positivistic efforts, and we can understand even the beginnings of life in this manner, we will not ever know the particular local circumstances and history of it. The third continues to be the omega moment of death, not the universe’s or earth’s or life on earth, but our own; none of us can know what happens after our death to our own self or the world around. These are important because beyond these boundaries, there is no continuance, and so there is no dialectic. Within these boundaries, however, we have myriad series of alpha-omega, whereby the omega becomes the new alpha and this then develops into the new omega. Pretty soon you have a real dialectic there and dialectics are important. Through them we improve our understanding over time. My guiding image throughout this series will come from my metaphor of the river delta, its estuarine living structure and function, as the brain, and I will now add another facet to the metaphor, the tidal wash, the ebb and flow, of some particular experiences we share through the biological roots of our humanity.

To start today with a basic one, consider our experience of Gaia. Yes, Gaia is both alpha and omega. Our world is, of course, a special place where life initiated or arrived and took hold and so began the history of our ecology and evolution. The end result of this, so far, is our awareness and understanding of Gaia’s existence. Yes, we created the concept but we did so based on our senses and comprehension of the world patterns and puzzles manifest there. So Gaia is an alpha moment at the origin of our world and life and it is an omega idea at the current terminus of our understanding. Now our vital understanding develops with the ongoing dialectic from the mystic sense that all life is related and the positivistic knowledge that, why yes, all life is connected through genetic flow, that the fabric of the universe can be studied at large and small scales of space and time, and that the end result, more an epistemological way station, is our positivistic rendering and explication of the old mystic song.   And so we travel on and on and on and on . . . . . with the tides of Gaia.