the musical brain and artistic import

A longer post here than usual:

So I have finished Jourdain’s Music, the Brain, and Ecstasy; not sorry I read it and appreciate the opportunity to quibble. Chapter 7 discusses musical understanding and he contrasts the meaning between music and language. I liked his presentation of deep and surface structure (from Chomsky) and have long used this in my thinking. I did not find his presentation of “meaning” very knowledgeable, but then I have recently read Patel’s Music, Language and the Brain. Patel does not question the difference between the deep structures of language and music so much as to hypothesize what these might be.

Both Jourdain and Patel base their thinking on empirical studies, clinical and experimental. To no surprise of the initiated, Susanne Langer explored the differences between art and language through her philosophical musings back in the 1950s and further researched their biological implications in her 3 volume Mind: An essay on human feeling. If fortunate, read Langer’s 1957 Problems of Art, a clear exposition of the difference between discursive symbols, exemplified by language, and presentational symbols, exemplified by art. (For further understanding along the philosophical vein, read her Philosophy in a New Key and especially her aesthetic statement in Feeling and Form). Presentational symbols are virtual constructions in which each element has no meaning independent of the total gestalt, as opposed to discursive elements that are lexical items of steady and stable meaning no matter the context. Further, presentational symbols are then not constrained by the necessities of linearization in the form of a grammar transforming deep to surface structure, e.g., sentences. Instead, presentational symbols express some symbolic formulation of an experience in a complex, contextual, non-linear structure, i.e., painting, music (yes, I know music is half linear but the elements depend upon the total gestalt for significance–makes it hard to study empirically), sculpture, architecture, dance, drama, poetry, fiction, etc. In Problems of Art Langer determines that linguistic meaning is just that and another term is needed for the deep structure of art and this she terms ‘import’.

Our challenge, then, is to understand how the artistic brain generates and expresses import and how this is different from linguistic meaning. Oh, I could expand here a long time but strive for short posts. Let me just start with a discussion of hippocampal functions as perceptual processing flows back to front into areas for action, i.e., motoric behaviors, contrasted with the cortical fasciculi running between posterior and anterior areas, e.g., arcuate fasciculus, superior longitudinal fasciculus, and uncinate fasciculus.

Remember that the hippocampus determines old and new information, thereby initiating mnemonic input and retrieval, as well as cooperating with limbic structures involved in valence, e.g., does it feel good or bad or what? Information from the visual, auditory, and bodily orientation systems converge for integration in the entorhinal cortex of the temporal lobe before merging into the hippocampus that then communicates with frontal areas.


In a post of long ago (try 2/14/14& 4/11/14), I discussed old/new processing across species. Basically, as the brain evolves with a MEMBRAIN and its interior mind, old/new shifts from a concrete and immediate context to virtual one displaced from the time/space context. Thinking about musical import helps to understand how this shift happens.

Consider again the long cortical fasciculi. The superior longitudinal fasciculus is a complex group of fibers arising from the O-T-P (occipital-temporal-parietal) conjunction and communicating with frontal areas. The arcuate fasciculus is a part of that and communicates specifically the motor patterns for speech on the left side and, somewhat more speculatively, motor patterns for empathic communication on the right. Other parts serve to help control attentional processes.

Sobo_1909_670_-_Uncinate_fasciculusarcuate fasciculus

The uncinate fasciculus arises in the anterior temporal lobe where it merges through the entorhinal cortex into the hippocampus and then communicates with prefrontal areas.

The idea is this: the hippocampus is bound to ambient processing of the old/new in the here and now and survival and social; the cortical fasciculi permit the processing of old/new in the mind with mental structures in the subjective interiority. While the arcuate fasciculi carry information pertaining to the surface structures to be expressed and received, the other fasciculi contribute to the construction of deep structures, i.e., linguistic meaning and artistic import, using old/new information the definition of which is not constrained by ambient and emotional conditions and is controlled by the processes of symbolic generation.


What about music? Like all art or presentational symbols, its import comprises experiential information from the ambient and emotions in a whole gestalt that has been constructed through control of hippocampal mediation, e.g., the autobiographical associations with the tune as well as the emotional arousal, and the non-immediate, now virtual mental forms here presumed to be mediated by cortical fasciculi. Aesthetic sensibility typically is understandably more right sided given its focus on the present context. This is in contrast to linguistic meaning that is more left sided given its focus on contextually independent elements. Music, especially harmony and melody, derives from the aesthetic processing of sounds to render artistic import either for reception (quite common) or expression (not so much), thereby rendering some vital emotional knowledge about life into communicable form. And then we have ear worms, segments of surface structure looping probably through the arcuate fasciculi until something else rings in its place. Listen up and travel on.

Lucy in the sky with diamonds, Lucy . . . .

Lucy in the sky with diamonds, Lucy . . . .

Recalibrating the art history of music

So reading Robert Jourdain’s book Music, The Brain, and Ecstasy, I wondered some more about the biological roots of music. Mr. Jourdain observes that we moderns listen to music almost on demand in incidental and volitional ways and states that the special participatory nature of music has consequently diminished. Before the concert form arose in the parlors of the rich in the 17th century, he says further that musical experience was lacking for most and that to a peasant in the middle ages, music was mostly work songs and lullabies. I believe this neglects a lot of history.


We have a bone flute estimated at 43,000 years old. We have the earliest literature derived from oral traditions mentioning bards, poets, songs, lutes and lyres from 8000 years ago. Musical scenes on pottery derive from the same time. Lao-Tzu mentions music and voice in the Tao Te Ching from the 6th century BCE. Drums are more fragile with time’s passage but I think it is a safe assumption that they are at least as old as the flute. We have visual art from 45,000 years ago, so some aesthetic sense was rising. (Remember we have an estimate that modern languages appeared 500,000 years ago, fire and cooking 1.8 million years ago, and tools from over 2 million years ago—see post 5/2/15).


As discussed a few posts below on 9/8/15, A. Patel in his masterful book, Music, Language and the Brain, says that the best candidate for a distinctive musical evolutionary trait is our ability to keep a regular, e.g., metronomic, beat (though more recent research shows some of the same in bonobos). Susanne Langer in Mind: An Essay on Human Feeling, v. 3, imagines that dancing to the beat provided the opportunity for mathematical advancement in the discovery of patterns, even in fractions, as some rambunctious young dancer double-timed the steps and jumped the beat. And let us not forget Pythagoras (say 500 BCE) and his followers who found mathematical patterns in tonal octaves or even earlier, Apollo as the god of music.


The development of technology for making instruments, musical notation and finally recordings are in some ways analogous to the development of glyphs with oral language—we began a new learning curve. Same with the influence of photography on painting.   My point here is really that there is a long and largely unconsidered history to music that we are actually just beginning to explore with any rigor. Yes, music is participatory in its inception and now we listen more passively but so did the Greeks listen to Homer and other bards strumming the lyre, playing the pan pipes, and beating the drum. And music is pervasive in human culture. In the mid-19th century Alexander Carmichael gathered hundreds of songs and chants from the oral traditons of the Scottish people in his Carmina Gadelica. These pieces were about every facet of daily life and spiritual practice from both pre-Christian pagan times (say <400 C.E.) and Christian times. These accompanied, no doubt, a rising tradition of the Ceilidh, a social gathering centered around music, dance, and conversation (with perhaps some whisky about). Music, especially drums and trumpets, has been martial for a good while too. The English banned the great Highland pipes (bagpipes were known in 1000 BCE) in the 1700s as instruments of war (listen to a grand piper summoning the warrior spirit and you will understand). Later, with the development of excessive zeal from the reformation and the heightened superstition of the devil and dance, preachers ordered many of the Scots highlanders to destroy their fiddles, etc.

My, my, so much to consider, and here is one last item. Remember the research, again posted below on 8/27/14, that musical memories are some of the last to go in Alzheimer’s, even after memory of others’ and one’s own identity. So now we have music as magic, spiritual, daily, ritual, repression, expressive, mnemonic, emotive, martial, social, participatory, dance, mathematical, and starkly aesthetic as in sublimely artistic (think Mozart and Beethoven). Better travel on. And a one, and a two, and a . . .

Evolution technicalities

I finished A. Patel’s fine book, Music, Language and the Brain, a week or two ago. I took my time reading it mostly because he covers a lot of ground in detail and also because I enjoyed pondering what was left unsaid. Back in the day I cannot remember anyone discussing how music and language were similar; their differences were so noticeable as to preclude such speculation. Dr. Patel does a remarkable job documenting how some commonalities in brain processing exist between the two and exploring just a little how the two may have common roots.


He looks at the evidence for music being a specific product of human evolution, as language certainly is, and concludes that right now it does not look that way. I am not sure I understand him here, not disagreeing as I do sometimes when I quibble with an author but not agreeing because the points being made seem to rely on technicalities to which I am not privy. Certainly music is not evolutionary like a recent discovery in the Inuit genome that lets them eat a diet of fat without an increase in cardiovascular disease despite their diet. The Inuit actually have fewer heart attacks than the rest of us. The same genes that help them with their diet (that appeared in the last 40,000 years or so) also lead them to be an inch shorter and 10 lbs lighter. This is natural selection helping us to adapt to current exigencies, but music?

While leaving the door open for more data on music’s evolutionary status, Dr. Patel instead calls it a “transformative technology” like the control of fire or the invention of writing or the internet, a discovery of a tool so important that its use spreads throughout the human domain. (Never mind that the druids refused to use writing for their teachings, relying instead on memorization. They were old school to an extreme, a bit like the Shakers or Amish. Would they have survived longer or better if they had written their esoterica down? What form would this survival have taken?)

Dr. Patel does list one musical feature as possibly naturally selected, i.e., constituting a specific domain, innateness apparent in our development, and particular to humans, and that is a regular beat. Not just rhythmic but metered. Drumming as its exemplar provides a social domain, its perceptual-motor development comes early enough and with minimal stimulation to be innate, and other species do not manifest it (though see my post on bonobos dancing 2/16/2014).

Take me to the river, throw me in the water.

Take me to the river, throw me in the water.

Still I conceive of music as an art form and have difficulty thinking of it as just a transformative technology rather than an evolutionary product growing from the deep biological roots of empathy and symbolization. Langer identifies dancing and drumming as a biological substrate for the development of numbers and fractions. Even further, is mathematics a ‘transformative technology’ or evolutionary product? And going even one more step, what about spiritual awareness, the one commonality in religious experience William James identified as the “mystic sense”? Did we evolve to apprehend this mystery or did we discover a way to conceptualize and use our ignorance of life and death in cultural development.

Do you hear what I hear?

Do you hear what I hear?

I am not exactly satisfied with this rendition of the issues but think I will travel on now to search for a better way. Perhaps that will come with reading a new book, The Origins of Music, touted on its back cover “as representing the birth of biomusicology.” Oh what a wonderful modern world. Travel on.

How quick and subtle we are

When I worked as a speech-language therapist many years ago, I led parent workshops to help them understand and promote healthy language development. One facet of this was to present how complicated articulation was and how normal development of articulation varied a great deal. For example, many children say “tow” for “cow” early on in their speech development and self –correct (grow out of it) after some months. I always emphasized how complicated and how skilled a linguistic performance was. A common issue was how chronic ear infections affected development; speech is not easy to understand with the distortions resulting from middle ear congestion and from 6 months to 18 months, the brain is learning to process the auditory stream in a very specific manner in order to understand speech with facility. Likewise, speaking is a highly skilled behavior. A simple sentence, such as, “I want to go outside,” takes less than a second to utter and involves the articulation of around 14 phonemes, each requiring its own positioning of the vocal tract, i.e., lips, tongue, pharynx and larynx. Precise movements made in milliseconds with finely modulated breath control. Even our laughing is different from chimps’ laughing because of our breath control. I found it amazing that some 2 year olds, mostly girls, spoke with great clarity and was not amazed that some 4 year olds, mostly boys, still spoke with an errant phonemic pattern. speechsignal So speech is quick and subtle—I haven’t even broached topics of individual voice and interpersonal effectiveness and persuasion. (Remember Walter Cronkite saying, “And that’s the way it is” and we knew it was). And while we are discussing quick and subtle, let’s consider musical performance. I started reading Music, Language and the Brain by Aniruddh D. Patel, a comprehensive review of research on the topic. I can understand the linguistics and brain well enough but I struggle with some of the musical concepts. Dr. Patel discusses some research made possible by computer technology over the past decade or so into the timing of piano playing. Wow! Looking at one classical piano sonata, a researcher measured the length of all the eighth notes. Theoretically these are all of the same length and when computer reads a score, all the notes are the same, thus the flat, machinelike quality of some computer music. When a good pianist plays the score, however, the notes vary in length, with the average eighth note lasting 652 milliseconds with some lasting only 400 msecs and others going over 800 msecs. This variation is intentional as it results from the human player’s interpretation of the piece—these tiny variations convey the pianist’s musicality and expressiveness.  It is his  or her art. music-notes Other researchers manipulated musical pieces to approximate various degrees between very standardized computer plays to natural human performance. People were able to detect very subtle differences and always preferred the one closer to the natural performance. Yes, computers are fast and helpful; human art is quick and delightful. John Henry wins this one. Travel on.