An Unanswered Question

Did you know that infants recognize music? Not only do they recognize it, but they can become attached to it, even specific songs or styles of music. They “dance” to it. Many are captivated by an opportunity to punch a few keys on a piano. Are they just enthralled by noise? Are they simply responding to auditory stimuli?

Even unborn babies hear music. Some expectant mothers say that they feel kicks when music plays, or even when particular songs play. Some researchers have claimed that playing Mozart or Beethoven for your unborn baby can increase brain development. Are unborn babies merely responding to harmonically correspondent sound waves?

Isn’t it simply amazing that music can match our emotions and create moods? Are we taught to resond to music in certain ways? Then, how is it that every person in the world knows that a minor chord is supposed to be sad and a major chord is happy even if they don’t have a clue what minor and major mean? How come suspended chords produce suspense? Why do children respond appropriately to the conveyed emotions of music?

As that movie plays there is music in the background. It goes largely unnoticed, but is sorely missed if absent. It tells us to be in suspense, to be crying, to be happy, perky, remorseful, and romantic. How can music communicate so well?

How come we can instantly recognize when the words of a song don’t match the music? When the words are peppy but the music is slow, something feels wrong. If music doesn’t communicate independent of words, then how can this be?

Why do we so connect with music that we can reject every happy song if we are gloomy, and every sad song if we are happy? Why does music produce such intense longings and excitement? And why do we even consider some music to be inappropriate?

I want someone to explain to me how music can connect with us on so many levels in so many ways if all it amounts to are frequencies, waves, pitch, volume, and tempo. How can a physical phenomenon without words or facial expressions or body language be a form of communication?

If God did not create music and us, then how can these things be?


10 thoughts on “An Unanswered Question

  1. How can a physical phenomenon without words or facial expressions or body language be a form of communication?

    Two words: Information Theory.

    We’re pattern-seeking organisms with the desire and the capacity to communicate. We can decide on something that we wish to communicate – an emotion, an idea, a concept, a feeling, an ideology – and devise a pattern that will, when experienced by another organism, be interpreted in such a way as to reveal that ‘something’ to the mind of the interpreter.

    In this way, we can communicate that which cannot be expressed in words alone.

    Nature created us, then we created music. The reason music speaks to us so strongly and so beautifully is because that is the function for which it was created by us in the first place. We create music precisely because we want to express emotions and concepts that could not be communicated through words, facial expression and body language alone. And we want to do it in a way that is moving, forceful, and beautiful.

  2. Ha! I just had a thought:

    If the beauty of music and art comes from God, why then are so many of the best artists and musicians moral relativists?

    The Devil has all the best tunes.

  3. Ubiquitous,

    I’m not sure how you can claim that we invented music. Are you telling me that song birds never whistled a note until some guy decided what music was? Have you ever heard a meadow lark? It whistles in the diatonic scale!

    Music theory was developed by humans…but it was all based on what sounded good. The communication medium existed prior to the theory.

    Besides that, if music was invented by people, that still doesn’t answer the question of how it communicates so well with those untaught to respond…like infants…and how every person in the world has the same ideas about what music communicates. If everyone is taught to respond to music in certain ways then that is some education system, and we need to look into it to incorporate into our public school system.

    Think about it…everyone knows a sad song when they hear it. Everyone. How can this be if we created music? We created German and Latin, but people must be taught to understand them…they are not universally understood like music.

    We create music today, but we choose chord progressions and melodies that convey moods. Imagine the first guy who ever tried to do this…do you seriously think he went around deciding which tune was supposed to be sad and which was supposed to be happy? I doubt it…he picked out a melody that matched his mood. The match was already there…he just discovered it.

    Discovery is not the same as creation.

    As for the best artists and musicians being moral relavists…that is a rather subjective judgment, but even if it is true it says nothing about the origins of music and why we connect with it so well. Artists don’t have to recognize its origins to use it.

  4. Music theory was developed by humans…but it was all based on what sounded good. The communication medium existed prior to the theory.

    Well, yeah – but you don’t have to know about Information Theory to generate and interpret information in much the same way that you don’t need to know about Music Theory to perform and enjoy music. The Theories are only meant to explain Information and Music for the very reason that Information and Music already existed and required a useful explanation.

    I don’t know if that’s what you meant or not. I don’t know whether we agree or disagree on that part. Either way, I presume that the next question to ask is: Why does music sound good in the first place?

    Think about it…everyone knows a sad song when they hear it. Everyone.

    Yep. How do we all know and agree (roughly) on what music ‘means’. In other words, why do we all agree, more or less, on what constitutes a ‘happy’ sound from an ‘angry’ sound or a ‘sad’ sound?

    Tone and sound are intimately connected to our emotional states for a reason. The predesessor to language would have relied mostly on grunts, the tones of which and the emotional reactions to those tones constituting a pre-language kind of ‘communication’. So it makes sense that we’d be emotionally connected to sounds. That’s our animal ancestry speaking to us; not God.

    Some good examples of this can be found, where sometimes we agree with animals about how things sound, and other times we don’t. For example, it’s surprizingly easy to ‘talk’ to most mammals with the tone of your voice alone. I’ve even been lied to by animals in this way.

    I remember once when I was young we had a puppy, and I wanted to play with her. She wanted to go outside, so I crouched down in front of the door to the room so she couldn’t get past.

    She made it pretty clear – a little growl, and a bit of a whimper – that she didn’t want to play with me at the time… But I was seven, and I didn’t feel like listening to her.

    So she took a few steps back, flicked her ears up, yapped exitedly, wagged her tail, and got down into the ‘I’m about to playfully pounce on you’ pose. I stepped forward to play with her, only to have her zip around me and bolt for the back door.

    The capacity for sound to influence emotion is really just one of the oldest forms of communication between animals, which would have been an natural consequence of the evolution of hearing and the capacity to make noises.

    So it shows that sometimes – in the case of the puppy I grew up with – we’ll agree with animals on what sounds good. This could be due to the fact that they’re our very near cousins, or it could be due to the fact that similar kinds of sounds could evolve convergently to fill similar kinds of roles, the same way that an alarm call at the sight of a predator needs to be loud and piercing or hushed silence is a universal ‘sound’ for staying hidden. Certain kinds of sound lend themselves to certain kinds of function. So it makes sense that sometimes we agree with animals, some of which may be very distant cousins indeed.

    In other cases, we should be expected to disagree with animals quite strongly over what some sounds should mean – and we do. Just take a cat on heat as an example. It’s just not an attractive sound to humans, but male cats come running.

    Another example would be birdsong. Most birdsong sounds – to us – to be pretty, innocent, and musical. Much of the time, the real meaning is much differnt. ‘Keep away, this is my territory’ or ‘my chest is big and red, please let me mate with you’ or ‘oh, look, the Sun just came up’.

    Music only feels mystical because it touches us so deeply. But of course it touches us deeply! The capacity to respond to music was ‘installed’ way earlier than complex reasoning and language. It flies in through our sensory organs and cuts straight to our emotional chemistry. It is left to our cerebral cortex to scramble after the sensation and try and work out where it came from.

    And it may be that the reasons for that mystical feeling aren’t mystical in and of themselves – but isn’t that really to be expected? When you explain how a magic trick is really just sleight of hand, it seems less magical the next time around.

    But on the other hand, knowing the reasons for the meaning in music doesn’t make being touched by music any less wonderful. Indeed, there’s a good argument to be made that seeing the reasons for the meaning in music clearly actually illuminates and strengthens our enjoyment of it. That’s certainly the case with me.

    On an aside:

    Discovery is not the same as creation.

    Actually, there’s an argument to be made that ‘creation’ is just a special sub-category of ‘discovery’… But that’s the subject of a different thread.

  5. Ubiquitous,

    I think I can follow you when your explanation revolves around “sounds” as communication. But, there is a huge step between “sounds” such as grunts, yaps, and chirps and the complex interplay of musical tones. An antelope’s alarm call is a repetitive, sharp, loud call, often a single note, or at the most two notes. A puppy growls at one pitch and yips excitedly at another. But, pitch, volume, tempo, and articulation only comprise a small portion of the elements in music that cause an emotional response.

    Again, keep in mind chords and chord progressions, the interplay of notes sounded simultaneously (something nearly unheard-of in the animal kingdom). Keep in mind major and minor melodies, key changes, mixolydian, dorian, ionian, and other modes, suspensions, sevenths, nineths, modulations, intonation, harmony, and rythm, along with volume, pitch, articulation, and tempo. Even the very same melody played in different keys portrays different moods (for example, the key of G tends to have a “brighter” sound than Eflat). Our illiterate predecessors did not communicate in this language. Grunts, sighs, and Tim Allen-style vocalizations cannot account for the complexity of music.

    I understand what you are trying to do…how you are trying to explain the communication behind music…but your jump in logical progression is just too great. A few vocalizations strung together, even in a sing-songy way, does not account for the array of emotional responses to musical elements that such vocalizations could never begin to produce. This explanation assumes too many things, overlooks too many things, and is just too unbelievable and unsatisfactory. And, it still does not explain how every person in the world agrees on the emotions of music (whether they like the music or not)…no human-developed communcation medium enjoys such universal acceptance.

    By the way, I appreciate your responses and your civility. Thanks for taking the time to address questions that you don’t have to address.

  6. By the way, I appreciate your responses and your civility. Thanks for taking the time to address questions that you don’t have to address.

    Don’t worry about it. I find this stuff interesting in it’s own right. And as far as the civility thing goes, I find it really interesting to think about how surprized people on either side of the atheist/theist discussion get when they’re confronted with civility in their opponents. I suspect that the majority on either side of the issue are perfectly civil, but the vocal minority of uncivil individuals on either side give their home team a bad name with their opposition.

    I understand what you are trying to do…how you are trying to explain the communication behind music…but your jump in logical progression is just too great.

    I get what you’re saying too… But I’d like to caution you against trusting your personal credulity on this point too much.

    You’re right – there is a big jump between the kinds of thing I talked about, where primitive sounds could be expected to tie into emotional states. But I don’t think that it’s an insurpassable one.

    Consider the metaphor of refined sugar. There’s a strong argument to show that our ancestors would have developed a tendency to enjoy the taste of sweet things in the past. That would have been very primitive indeed. Much later than that, we developed the ability to perform enough complex reasoning that we discovered how to refine that sweetness into something much stronger, that never would have occurred naturally – but because of it’s concentration, tasted much sweeter and was much more enjoyable than anything that would have been natural. Thus was the confectionary industry born.

    I think that something very similar to this could be the explanation for music. Our ancestors would have the kind of emotional attachment to very simple unrefined music. Then when complex reasoning came along, we were able to refine the experience of that music in ways that intensified the experience.

    And, it still does not explain how every person in the world agrees on the emotions of music (whether they like the music or not)…no human-developed communcation medium enjoys such universal acceptance.

    The thing to remember is that although you’re right, you’re only right in the most general terms.

    For example, there is a piece of music titled ‘Mist’ that I really enjoy. Its interesting here because it has no lyrics, so there’s nothing verbal to give it meaning. I’m not too sure about the origins of the music – I have a vauge idea that it’s Scottish or Irish – but whatever the origins, it’s good. If we get nothing else out of this discussion, if you at the very least find Mist and listen to it it will have been a discussion worth having! 😀

    It’s also interesting because whenever I listen to Mist, it makes me think of clouds rolling over frosty mountains on a background of green pastures. When my ex-girlfriend listened to it, it made her think of a crowded bar with a dancefloor full of people dancing an Irish jig. In myself, the music inspired a sense of awe in nature – in her, the music inspired a sense of… hedonism? Hedonism is too strong a term. A sense of the desire for the simple and innocent pleasures of social bonding, perhaps? A sense of fun? I can’t find a word that exactly fits.

    So we agreed in general terms that Mist is happy music – but in the specifics, it was very different for each of us.

    I think that fits pretty well with my general idea that we can ‘refine’ happy music from the influences of our ancestral past – but that the essential meaning will still depend on our personal interpretations – the music doesn’t embody anything on its own, only what we put into it.

    I’ve read over this a couple of times, and I’m not doing a very good job of explaining this… The idea I’m trying to get across feels very simple in my head, but I’m struggling to find the words and it’s coming out all verbose and convoluted. My apologies.

  7. Ubiquitous,

    Sorry for the delay in response…

    I only have a couple points in response.
    First, I think your sugar analogy falls short of characterizing the complexity of the music issue. Perhaps if, rather than refining sugar, we used the illustration of the development of fine cuisine it would come closer…but even our complex foods today do not carry an inherent communication like music does. You may have fond memories and wonderful emotions as you eat apple pie, but that is only because it reminds you of your grandmother and her apple pie…or of a 4th of July cookout years ago…or some other experience. But, music can bring up emotions and thoughts the very first time you hear it that are not grounded in past experiences. Some of our emotions connected with music are from past experiences, but many are not.

    Anyway…I think the sugar analogy is sorely inadequate, as well as any food analogy.

    As for our disagreement about what music communicates…you’re right, there are some more complex interpretations that we disagree about. But, as you said, we still agree what is happy and sad and if the music fits the words. And if there is some disagreement…well, that’s just inherent in communication. Even the best form of communication will get misinterpreted. It is the fact that music communicates, and communicates so well, that is so amazing.

    You said: “the music doesn’t embody anything on its own, only what we put into it.”

    I completely disagree…for every time that a person wants to write a song he selects from the variety of notes, chords, rhythms, etc., that exist that which communicates what he is after. He doesn’t give meaning to the music…he selects the music that already has meaning. And when we hear it, we know what the writer intended in general terms because it has meaning independent of our own emotions…independent of our own interpretations.

    Well…I’m sure we won’t ever agree…but I appreciate the discussion.

  8. Clint,
    I believe God does make music – every day. All you have to do is go outside and listen to the birds, bugs, and frogs play their tunes. Music can definately touch your heart. Music has always been a big part of my life. It has influenced me to make changes in my attitude, my commitment and more. The words of a song are so important, but the music enhances the words. Music gets your attention and adds to the feeling of the words. Music even without words can make me cry or laugh. Music is a wonderful thing. Thanks for talking about it.

  9. I’m not sure the point being driven here, but Jubal in Genesis 4:21 is the first musician. These instruments were obviously his inventions. God’s music in the creation, in birds is communicating something so that birds are talking to birds. We don’t really understand what they are saying. The babies do respond to music and it’s always fun to watch them dance to it. It’s cute for what it is. It still remains pretty subjective and childish compared to the kind of music we have in the church – which engages the mind and spirit. “I will sing with the spirit and I will sing with the mind also” (1 Cor. 14:15).

  10. Dan,

    Thanks for the comments.

    Just to clarify for you…
    My point with this article was to give evidence for the existence of God. I was just thinking about how music is universally understood as a form of communication. It communicates so well, and often the messages are not all that subjective. Certain arrangements of pitch, volume, and tempo can induce the same emotions in everyone. I believe all “naturalistic” explanations of why this is so fall short, and that God is the best explanation.

    I hope that helps. Let me know if you would like more explanation.


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