Saturday, February 16, 2013

Learning to Listen

I just ran across an article that I thought I was going to be able to recommend whole-heartedly--at least until I read it! The Atlantic has a report on some music research done at the University of Melbourne. From the headline, I thought it was going to be wonderful stuff:

Study: Hearing Music as Beautiful Is a Learned Trait

It starts like this:
Why does the music that to some people is lovely, even transcendent, sound to others like a lot of noise?
Researchers at the University of Melbourne attribute to the amount of pleasure we take in music to how much dissonance we hear -- the degree of "perceived roughness, harshness, unpleasantness, or difficulty in listening to the sound."
I've put up a lot of posts before critiquing 'scientific' research into music, here, here and here. Often the problem starts with the basic assumptions: if the scientists have no real knowledge of music, then they will often craft experiments to test things that are too obvious, or simply too crude. For example, the assumption that the amount of pleasure we take in music is inversely related to the amount of dissonance, is a crude one. I'm having to deduce the assumption here as the writer seems unable to state it clearly and grammatically!
Trained musicians, perhaps predictably, were more sensitive to dissonance than lay listeners. But they also found that when listeners hadn't previously encountered a certain chord, they found it nearly impossible to hear the individual notes that comprised it. Where this ability was lacking, the chords sounded dissonant, and thus, unpleasant.
Yes, an interesting and valuable observation. A great deal of music takes repeated exposure to appreciate because you can't hear what is going on at first.
The ability to identify tones and thus enjoy harmonies was positively correlated with musical training. Said study co-author Sarah Wilson, "This showed us that even the ability to hear a musical pitch (or note) is learned."
Well, sort of. Here one of the fundamental prejudices of some scientists comes out. As Steven Pinker argued in The Blank Slate,  one of dogmas about human nature is that the mind has no innate traits. However, as every music teacher knows, there are those who have an inborn propensity to hear and make music and those who don't. Or, as a Czech violist of my acquaintance used to observe, "there is talent, and there is also anti-talent!"
From a practical standpoint, the results seem to suggest that we can train ourselves to better appreciate music. ... And in fact, the researchers conducted a second experiment to test the validity of that theory. They took 19 non-musicians and trained them to identify the pitches of certain chords. Ten sessions later, the participants were better at hearing notes. They also reported that they found those chords to be less dissonant than other chords that they hadn't been taught, regardless of how technically harmonious they were.
I think that they are confusing two different things here: comprehension on the part of the listener and dissonance in the music. If you have a trained ear, you are able to comprehend and enjoy complex music which can often be dissonant. It is still dissonant, but you understand the point of the dissonance, where it comes from and where it is going. An untrained ear just hears the dissonance and not its function. Oh, and the writer is leaving out the obvious corollary: as we become more trained to listen to music, we will begin to notice how vacuous, offensive, crude and maudlin much music is. Why is that never pointed out?
The more ambitious implication of the findings, according to lead author Neil McLachlan, is that it "overturns centuries of theories that physical properties of the ear determine what we find appealing."
Now that is just weird. What centuries of theories? Who thought this? The only candidate I can think of was the 19th century German scientist, Hermann von Helmholz. But hey, anything to puff up the significance of your research, right? In the conclusion, the writer goes completely off the rails--at least I assume it is the writer as it would be strange indeed if the researchers were this ignorant:
As they explain in their discussion, the basic, 12-tone do re mi scale isn't "naturally" harmonious. Instead, it was first introduced by Pythagoras (yes, he of the theorem), who developed a system of "tuning based on successive 2/3 proportions of string length." It was a logical, mathematical method that in turn gave us "the simple mathematical relationships [that] can be found between the harmonics of common Western chords" that we've since learned to love.
First of all, the do, re, mi scale has seven notes, not twelve. The chromatic scale has twelve notes. And scales are not "harmonious" naturally or otherwise because they are notes spaced out in time. Harmony, on the other hand, is notes sounded together. Yes, Pythagoras did observe some interesting things about the proportions of overtones in vibrating strings. But what is missing here is not only Pythagoras' own ideas about the effects of music, but any hint at all that how we relate to music, whether by love or hate, has something to do with musical aesthetics.

Much of the confusion that this study seems burdened with could be alleviated by just a tiny amount of research into music aesthetics. The concept they are desperately in need of is the 'sublime' which I talk about in this post. Much of the aesthetic function of dissonance in music is to evoke the sublime, which is often more interesting than the merely 'beautiful'.

Let's have an example. Here is Le Poème de l'Extase by Alexander Scriabin that, by means of calibrated dissonance and orchestration creates a somewhat threatening beauty:


Nathan Shirley said...

Now I have to ask Bryan, did you REALLY think this article was going to be wonderful based on the headline? ;)

This headline turns my stomach. There might be a fragmented grain of truth in it. But more than anything it suggests what so many twelve-tone apologists argue without any real proof (and they either ignore, or more likely are simply ignorant of the actual proof which disproves their theory).

Pythagoras did not "introduce" the diatonic scale, what a lie! Sure he was one of the first, if not the first to OBSERVE the natural relationship of string length to pitch and to the harmonic series. But to imply the harmonic series was invented by a man is to smack fundamental science in the face! (many twelve-tonists make this mistake all the time). The harmonic series is a natural phenomenon, it isn't limited to sound waves and it CERTAINLY wasn't invented by a human! It's exactly the same as saying Isaac Newton invented gravity, that we'd all be floating in space without him!

I find it absurd that student musicians are almost never required to take even an introductory course in the physics of sound. Most have little or no concept of where our 7 diatonic tones come from, where the common pentatonic tones come from, how they relate to the 7 tones and where the 12 chromatic tones come from. How many professional musicians and "composers" could even begin to answer these basic questions? Not many. And it's a shame to see that some self-proclaimed "scientists" have their "research" published without even understanding the basic scientific principles underlying the subject of their study. But that is generally the nature of the pseudo-science we call psychology.

Instead, it apparently takes a neurologist to explain musical perception in the human mind. "Musicophilia" by Oliver Sacks is a rare and excellent example of real scientific probing into some of these questions.

Bryan Townsend said...

OK, you got me! That was a bit of a rhetorical flourish. The truth in the headline is that learning about music does improve your listening skills, right?

Oh yes, you are absolutely right about Pythagoras. I think we are pretty much on the same page, Nathan. And I agree, it is very odd that basic acoustics are not taught in music schools. I certainly had to learn on my own.

Thanks for the tip about the Sacks book. I should have a look at it sometime.

Nathan Shirley said...

>>>OK, you got me! That was a bit of a rhetorical flourish.

I thought so!

>>>The truth in the headline is that learning about music does improve your listening skills, right?

Agreed. But "Hearing Music as Beautiful is" certainly not simply "a Learned Trait." It dismisses basic scientific knowledge of sound, along with the wiring of the human mind.

Bryan Townsend said...

I think you and I and Steven Pinker are all in agreement that the mind is not a blank slate. Also, the structure of music is based on certain fundamental facts of acoustics. But the 'beautiful' is an aesthetic, not a scientific quality. Though aesthetics too is based on certain facts about the human mind.