He Who Has Ears: Music, Neuroscience, and Evolution

| By Jeff R. Warren

A few months ago a couple of Jehovah’s witnesses came to my door. Upon learning of my profession, they pulled out one of their recent magazines with the cover article “Music: How does it affect you?” This is a question that has been asked for a long time, going back at least to the disagreements between Plato and Aristotle about how different musical scales affect moral development, and forward to the current lineup of ‘Baby Mozart’ edu-toys and the ongoing “worship wars” over what kind of music is best suited to be played in our churches. As with arguments in the past, our contemporary discussions about how music affects people reveal underlying assumptions about the function and meaning of music that are ultimately tied to ideas about artistic creation; and varying perspectives on the source of artistic creation eventually take us back to a discussion of our ideas about God’s creation—the natural world and its inbuilt systems, including evolution—and God’s creativity, something we reflect in community as part of the imago dei, not least through music.

Humanity is marked by the biological capacity for musicality. Every known culture has something like music. Understanding how we experience and create music in the present gives us clues to why and how music emerged as one of the defining features of human culture (and, therefore, of humanness itself) in the past. But thinking carefully about music and evolution can also help us reassess how we use music now: in the wider culture, collectively as the church, and even within our own homes. In a nutshell, then, this essay will examine how views on evolution impact how one assesses music’s effects and meaning. In many cases, problematic views about evolution and artistic creativity result in problematic views about music, but my argument is that an appropriate evolutionary view of music—one that looks at how music becomes meaningful within social relationships—is a view that actually enriches our appreciation of this most human endeavor, rather than trivializing it. In this first part I explore common discourses about the meaning of music and their relationship to ideas of creation. In part two next week, I suggest that understanding the role that music played in our biocultural evolution helps correct some of the myths that have made their way into popular discourse, especially with the growing popularity of trying to understand music via neuroscience.

Let’s begin by looking at a couple of popular ways of answering the question, “Where does musical meaning come from?” beginning with the idea that “music is in the ear of the beholder.” One thing that is clear from years of teaching classes of first-year university students is that they are musical relativists. They have ‘their’ music that they enjoy and even use to demark their identities, but are perfectly willing to allow others to like other music. After all, music is all about enjoyment, right? Historically, this cultural trope developed out of the post-Kantian argument of musical autonomy, the often-fashionable argument that music’s meaning is strictly musical and does not relate to other parts of the world. It is also reflected in Steven Pinker’s argument that music is ‘auditory cheesecake’. For Pinker, music used to be useful for things like attracting mates, but now we have evolved out of needing music: it’s not necessary, but is a nice extra. I might like cheesecake, but you might prefer ice cream. Either way, it won’t change the survival of the species, so we can enjoy what we like. This argument may have a harder time standing up when music is used as a means of torture at Guantanamo Bay, but it remains popular none-the-less. Like many ideas of creation and the arts, the idea of music as primarily pleasure (determined by individual taste) is a post-Enlightenment development.

This musical relativism takes a slightly more exacting form in another popular idea, that meaning is embedded within the ‘music itself’ not in the taste of the listener. This view of meaning is the starting point of Plato and Aristotle’s disagreement about the effect of certain modes, the disagreements in the early church about the usage of certain musical instruments, and the arguments of the detrimental moral impact of certain forms of popular music (which, by the way, is an argument not just limited to the 20th or now 21st centuries). It is also the foundation of the statement from one of my former conductors that if we played well enough, we would summon up the ‘spirit of Haydn’. In other words, ‘proper’ participation can reveal the meaning of the work—be that the composer’s meaning or another idealized meaning.

Musical autonomy in this case refers to the view that music stands apart and has no relations or meaning outside of itself. Many philosophers and musicologists rely on this view in an unreflective way, represented by Peter Kivy’s statement that music “is a quasi-syntactical structure of sound understandable solely in musical terms and having no semantic or representational content, no meaning, and making no reference to anything beyond itself”1. For Kivy, the heart of the autonomy argument is that music is completely self-contained. Such a view is possible because of the historical development of ‘absolute music’, referring to music without a text or narrative, typified by the development of the symphonic form in the late 18th century. It is no accident that between 1750-1850, the form of the symphony developed, Kant theorized the idea of genius, and Schopenhauer claimed music to be “pure will.” In the 19th century, music came to be considered the highest of the arts, and even at the turn of the 20th century Kandinsky claimed that all art should try to achieve the autonomy and abstraction of music.

The idea of musical meaning somehow residing within the musical work is based on an assumption that the more one can isolate and analyze something, the more can be known about it. We can certainly learn much about a rock or plant by isolating it and putting it under a microscope, and those who take music to be autonomous believe that music can also be known most thoroughly by placing it ‘under the microscope’ through close analysis of a score or recording, or through close listening. It is through such pseudo-scientific analytical acts that knowledge about music is thought to be accessed. This is also the guiding ideology of ‘music appreciation.’ But while much can be gained by close examination of rocks or music, much more can be gained by studying how a rock or (especially) music is used by people—a central point to which we will return.

It is more than a little ironic, then, that a further example of the belief in an intrinsic musical meaning is the argument that music is ‘universal’; that is, that at least some music can cross cultural barriers and mean the same thing to all people. Often this view assumes a primacy of the Western canon, as it is believed that Mozart has a universal meaning but Chinese qin (zither) music does not. In a globalized world where many cultures listen to and value Mozart, people who do not share a common language or view of the world may find Mozart a common point of contact. But finding Mozart a point of contact is not caused by the music having a universal meaning. Rather, it is an example of the way music can become a shared space where people enter into a relationship via art. The West-Eastern Divan Orchestra (a project of Daniel Barenboim and the late Edward Said) is an example of music being a common ground where people from different views of the world can connect, not an example of universalized meanings of music.

Indeed, there are many situations when music’s meanings are not shared, showing that meaning is most definitely not universal. Martin Lodge recounts the encounter of Dutch explorers and the Maori people of New Zealand in 1642. When the parties got close enough to see (and hear) each other, each group signalled with trumpets. The Dutch, thinking they were successful in making contact, sent a boat of unarmed sailors to shore. The boat was met by Maori warriors who killed more than half of the sailors. This misunderstanding was caused by not sharing a musical meaning: “The Maori trumpeting in this case was the music of war, an invitation to fight. On the other hand the Dutch trumpets played a variety of tunes intended to be welcoming.”2 Musical meanings are often shared, but are not universal or ‘in the music’.

As we have begun to see, considering music as culturally embedded lets us recognize something quite different from the arguments that musical meaning is either subjective or encoded within the music itself. Music does allow for subjective response, but not truly autonomous response—our experience of music occurs within the bounds of cultural norms. Since music’s significance cannot be abstracted from it’s embeddedness within social relationships, an attention to culture and human intentionality (not just a reductionist sense of biology) must inform the ways that music is studied, whether in contemporary culture, in neuroscience, and with reference to human evolution. Unfortunately even many Christian views of music have relied upon some of these problematic views of musical meaning, aligning ideas like individual artistic genius and the “meaning in the music” concept with theologies of creation ex nihilo. As Bruce Ellis Benson discusses in an essay in the journal Verge (and in a shortened versionhere at BioLogos), this combination or paralleling of genius and ex nihilo creation complicates the church’s understanding not only of music, but also about the Creator God, downplaying the essential element of community and interpersonal relationship inherent to both.

Next week, we’ll look at a similar tendency to abstract and quantify the way music makes meaning in the burgeoning field of neuroscience (from the “Mozart Effect” to fMRI scans), and return to the way that thinking about music within the evolution of human culture might give us a deeper appreciation of music—even of worship—within the church. In the meantime, here are some questions to consider:

How do my own assumptions of the way music is meaningful affect the ways I conceive of and use music?

Are there negative consequences stemming from these assumptions?

How have problematic views of musical meaning affected the use of music as personal identity? Or in the church? Or in the media? Or in popularized science?


1. Kivy, Peter (1990) Music Alone (Cornell University Press: Ithica, NY): p. 202.

2. Lodge, Martin (2009) 'Music Historiography in New Zealand' in ed. Zdravko Blazekovic, Music's Intellectual History (RILM: New York): p. 627.


About the Author

Jeff R. Warren

Jeff R. Warren is Assistant Professor of Music at Trinity Western University in Langley, British Columbia. He has presented and published internationally on musical improvisation, meaning in music, soundscape, modern European philosophy, psychology, and ethics. Jeff’s creative work includes jazz composition, performance on double bass, and sound installations. Jeff received his doctorate in music and philosophy from Royal Holloway, University of London.


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