I was at my parents’ place last week. We sat down one evening - the collective televisual experience always having been a staple of family life - to watch What Makes a Masterpiece?. This programme on More4 (so the more highbrow end of Channel 4’s output, right?) set itself the task of exploring the role contemporary science has to play in our understanding of music, asking ‘if the next artistic masterpiece really could come from a lab, and if science can make us all great artists.’ I was outraged after about five minutes but kept watching out of a morbid fascination.
What follows is basically a rant about how shit and wrong it was. I doubt many of you watched it and I wouldn’t really recommend it, except (if you’re a particularly committed/bored reader) to follow along with the argument I’m making. But I think, in its own clumsy way, it bumped up against quite an important issue - the relationship between science and the arts (or indeed the humanities more generally).
Philosophy and theory have a long and rich history of suspicion towards attempts to ‘reduce’ their chosen realms of enquiry to the quantifiable, measurable strictures of science. In recent times, this hostility has probably been felt most strongly in debates around gender, sexuality and race, where moves to biologise or essentialise the issues at hand have almost unfailingly served to propagate whatever dominant discourse is going - with generally negative consequences. A classic example would be the old ‘[insert race/gender category other than white male] are in possession of smaller brains and therefore are biologically predisposed to their inferior position in society.’ This tendency is still in rude health today, albeit in more complex and variegated forms (check out the comments on YouTube vids of Judith Butler if you have a few hours to piss away). Always the tendency is to say ‘this social/cultural phenomenon is rooted in the incontestable scientific realities of the body, and therefore should be accepted unquestioningly.’ Conversely, theory aims to expose the flaws in an empirical reading of reality, in order to show that there are areas of life where a scientific interpretation is fundamentally inadequate. Obviously this is a more urgent project in the areas outlined above than it is in relation to music - but the same basic issues are carried over. Don’t get me wrong, science is a totally valid - and essential - abstraction by which we understand the world. But the temptation is to extend its reassuring absolutes and stable certainties into areas where they don’t apply - what Alfred North Whitehead would call ‘the fallacy of misplaced concreteness’.
Philosophers like Whitehead and Deleuze have a healthy respect for science. They both drew heavily on the scientific theories of their day in explicating their own philosophies. Deleuze has gone on to be an inspiration to scientists working at the vanguard of chaos theory and the like. But for both of them, science has a very specific place in our understanding of things. It operates exclusively in the realm of the actual - the measurable, the observable - but not the virtual, the wellspring of infinite potentiality from which our observable world emerges. Its role is to generalise - to extrapolate universally applicable rules from a series of encounters with reality. As a counterpart to this, philosophy - as Deleuze sees it - deals in the singularity of events, in the fundamental capacity for difference which is inherent in being. Science may be used as a springboard, but the philosopher’s trajectory is always away from the actual, the measurable, towards the theoretically infinite variability hidden beneath it. When you put it like that it seems pretty high-minded. I’ll go back to the More4 programme to explain some of the failings of a scientific approach to art that it (unwittingly) showcases.
What Makes a Masterpiece? is hosted by Channel 4’s ‘Culture Editor’, bescarfed man-ghoul Matthew Cain. As is convention, he plays the presenter-as-willing-ignoramus, blundering into science experiments in different parts of the world armed only with a list of nearly-stupid questions and his own slack-jawed wonderment. A lot of the programme is spent exploring ways in which modern science can supposedly ‘demystify music’s so-called magical powers, and for the first time explain exactly how they work.’ We’ll see about that Cain.
There’s an early encounter with ‘musicologist Ian Cross’ in an out-of-hours nightclub somewhere in the UK. His experiment involves setting up a silent disco scenario, whereby two groups of test subjects are played two different songs over their headphones, but encouraged to dance in the same space. The result is that those from the same group - listening and dancing to the same music - gravitate towards each other, in spite of having no idea which song the other dancers are listening to. Cross’ conclusion is that this is to do specifically with the different ‘rhythms’ the dancers are responding to - as Cain puts it in typically simplistic terms, ‘it’s all down to the underlying basis of music - its rhythm.’
This is a classic musicological approach, in that it treats a single musical characteristic - rhythm (it’s not even clear whether they mean rhythmic pattern or tempo in this terminology) - as ‘pure’ and therefore extractable, operating independently of and distinct from not only all other musical characteristics, but also any non-musical factors. In choosing two tracks which simply have a ‘different rhythm’ (one is ‘In Da Club’ by 50 Cent, the other is some recent eurotrance-ish thing), the experiment fails to consider: 1) other musical characteristics - timbre, say - which might induce people to dance in a certain way; 2) all the cultural baggage which comes with the subjects hearing a particular track - particularly one they undoubtedly already know - and the ways in which that might connect with particular culturally constructed ways of moving the body; and 3) the difference in experience between having music blasted into your ears though headphones and the bodily impact of music over a loud soundsystem in a more conventional club setting. Clearly the latter has more relevance to how music has been experienced collectively over the past few milennia (before the Sony Walkman basically all collective musical experiences involved sharing the soundwaves), but - for clear practical reasons - it’s neglected here.
The experiment shows that people dancing to the same music are subconsciously drawn towards each other - a phenomenon apparently called ‘entrainment’. Fine. Their body language will likely be recognisably similar - like calls to like. But attributing this to the ‘power of rhythm’ is totally spurious - a typically blinkered musicological approach to something far more complex and nuanced. There’s no examination of what it is in the music that induces people to move in this or that way. The two pieces of music used are only chosen, as far as I can tell, on the basis of their difference relative to each other - the characteristics they possess in themselves are irrelevant. This is an experiment about social dancing, not music (and a flawed one at that).
We’re told that a shared experience of ‘rhythm’ releases some hormone or other which promotes social bonding and sexual attraction. Music brings people together. Cross’ conclusion is that, ‘precisely because it can’t be ambiguous, [music] allows people to relate to each other much more easily, because there isn’t language to get in the way.’ Doesn’t music have a language - one which isn’t shared by everyone? Try playing Japanese Gagaku at the Diamond Jubilee and see how long it takes for a Yeoman Warder to lose it and start shooting. Again, this is a conceit typical of musicology as a discipline - music somehow exists in a vacuum, where certain commonalities (usually, but not exclusively, commonalities within the Western classical tradition) become ineffable absolutes.
This is all well and good (or rather it isn’t), but musicology has been a whipping boy for cultural theorists for a few decades now. More worrying is the contribution of ‘psychologist Dr. Larry Parsons’ at Imperial College (I’m putting them in scare quotes cos I can’t be bothered to google them to check facts, not because I think they are frauds). His experiment involves festooning the excitable Cain with monitors measuring heart rate, breathing, sweating, body temperature etc., before piping into his ears three different pieces of music clearly intended to be archetypical of particular musical ‘moods’.
The first is, in Parsons’ words, a ‘very pleasing Mozart piece’. Cain’s narration notes insightfully that ‘it’s written in a major key, usually associated with happy music’, adding that ‘it’s certainly making me feel pretty good’. My memory of sitting through ‘pleasing Mozart’ at school and then music college, during my not inconsiderable ‘trying to convince myself that I like classical music’ phase, was generally of intense boredom and frustration. But who am I to argue with the culture editor of Channel 4? Apparently the nice music leads to an increase in his heart rate and temperature.
festooning the excitable Cain
Next up is some excoriating Russian thrash metal. ‘Larry, what are you doing to me, it’s hideous, get it off!’ bleats the man presumably in charge of Channel 4’s music programming. The music triggers anxiety, causes an adrenaline rush and makes his breathing erratic. Fair enough - he hears music he doesn’t like, his body responds negatively. But what’s fudged is the point where his body decides it doesn’t like it. For people who listen to Russian thrash metal every day, I doubt they consistently have this response. For some, noisy, distorted music can be cathartic or even meditative, even if for Cain - although given his exalted position in the culture industry we might hope for a more measured response - it is ‘hideous’.
The final specimen is an adagio by Baroque composer Albinoni. Perhaps predictably, it’s ‘in a minor key, which is often used to express sadness.’ Apparently it elicits a complex emotional response from Cain, gradually putting him in a ‘meditative state’. As the format dictates, Cain closes things off with a nice leading question: ‘so together, does all this information show that music can control our emotions?’ Fucking obviously. Obviously it can. If you’ve ever heard a piece of music and felt sad or happy then you’ve definitively solved that problem for yourself. This experiment looks at physiological responses to music, nothing more. What’s more, just as Cross with his silent disco seemed obsessed solely with rhythm, Parsons’ choice of music suggests that he is only interested in harmony - specifically three very limited categories: ‘major key’, ‘minor key’ (both using an even tempered 12-tone scale, might I add) and ‘other/dissonant/deviant’.
Cain sums it up neatly: ‘Larry’s experiment shows that when we listen to upbeat music in a major key, our heartbeat increases and our bodies settle into a dynamic regular rhythm. Dissonant music produces anxiety and adrenaline, causing us to become emotionally withdrawn. And sad music in a minor key creates the most complex response of all, gradually putting our bodies into a meditative state.’
This is a splendid example of how this kind of research can be interpreted in such a way as to support a dominant cultural discourse: ‘dissonant’ music is inherently bad, socially undesirable, negative. People who listen to it are making themselves ‘emotionally withdrawn’, which is to suggest that they are somehow stunted or incapable of cooperating with society at large. Don’t shoot the messenger guys, it’s science! Far be it for this foolish man to suggest that people might listen to this music because the effect it (arguably) induces chimes with their own experience of socal alienation, or perhaps even more directly that people may listen to it precisely because glassy-eyed reactionaries like himself consider it so objectionable.
At this point Cain flies to Montreal (presumably on the programme’s frankly over-generous budget) to meet neuroscientist and former record producer Daniel Levitin. No scare quotes for him, as I’ve actually read one of his books. His experiment is the most sensible yet. Cain is put in a CAT scanner and played one of his favourite pieces of music - presumably, therefore, selected by him (I couldn’t tell you the name but it’s a Classic FM stalwart). As he listens, neurological activity is recorded in order to show the precise parts of the brain which respond to a pleasurable listening experience. There are no pretensions of absolutism here, no sketchy aesthetic choices made by the experimenter.
It’s still problematic though. Levitin states that, ‘there are are number of regions [of the brain] that music will activate regardless of what kind of music it is. Any kind of music will activate your auditory cortex...that’s the part of the brain that processes sound whatever it is...and that’s gonna happen with any music.’ This seems at a glance to be a truism but it conceals a very basic assumption - that all music exclusively or necessarily deals in sound. I guess I could get a bit of flack for this but I’m very much of the Adam Harper camp. He wisely modifies the hotly contested term ‘music’ (is John Cage’s ‘4’33’ music? Skrillex is ‘just noise’, right?) with the assertion that ‘music objects’ (a phrase which has a rigorous definition in his own aesthetic framework) are art objects which ‘relate primarily to the production of sound.’ That’s not to say that they don’t, or can’t, involve non-musical variables as an integral part of their identity. In fact, non-musical characteristics are often fundamental to a given music object - the vibe of the crowd at a clubnight, say, or how comfortable the seats are at the Royal Festival Hall (not very for the taller gentleman - Steve Reich’s ‘Music For 18 Musicians’ almost ruined).
The logical conclusion of this is that, as Harper points out, ‘musical objects can also be entirely non-sonic. The distinctive costumes worn by rock bands such as Devo or Kiss can be said to be musical objects. They are art objects relating primarily to the production of sound, they are part of the musical experience.’ Ultimately, music is continuous with life in a broad sense - the boundary separating the two is far from clear. The result of a scientific practice in which this very basic assumption is made unquestioningly (music = sound), is that arguments like Harper’s are made to seem like unhinged pedantry, the esoteric logicking of an academic whose insights are entirely divorced from reality, when in actual fact they move towards a deeper and more accurate understanding of what music really is. Science obstructs aesthetics by failing to recognise its importance, by blundering into its back garden and trying to stick a flag in it.
Levitin and bearded cohorts
Later in the programme, Cain gets Levitin to explain (with the aid of his Country and Western band, heh) the role of tension and release in Western functional harmony (though obviously it’s not defined as such, as to define it would be to demarcate it and suggest that there are traditions and forms outside of it). Levitin and his bearded cohorts play a dominant chord, which invariably leads to a tonic - ‘some chords lead inevitably to others, by the tension that’s inherent in them’, states Levitin, displaying a certainty which is common in music theory circles even as it is conspicuously absent in the majority of contemporary music-making (where’s the perfect cadence in this Daniel? Or maybe it’s a plagal?). By Levitin’s account, the satisfaction induced by a strong harmonic resolution triggers the release of neurochemicals like dopamine (the example provided is the sputum-rock climax of Coldplay’s ‘Fix You’). Cain asks, ‘so are these neurochemicals the same thing as emotions?’ Levitin’s response: ‘emotions are simply neurological, neurochemical states. So happiness, sadness, passion, love, fear - they’re particular patterns of firing accompanied by particular neurochemical secretions, that cause us to have this feeling that seems ineffable.’
Here we’re tipping into an ugly kind of neurological determinism. There is an implied logical progression: [harmonic resolution as defined by Western classical harmonic schema] -> [neurological/neurochemical response] -> [happiness]. Clearly there’s something missing in that sequence, a crucial gap between the experience of music and our attendant response, whether conscious or otherwise. It seems supremely arrogant to assume that somebody from a culture entirely divorced from ours, whose music making uses a scale of 20 or 40 notes and is completely alien to our ears, would also get a dopamine rush from Chris Martin’s sonic discharge. Why does a given piece of music work for some people and not others? To what extent is that based on their past experience of music, and indeed of life? Can we ever accurately define or quantify who will be affected by what music and in what way?
Whatever your rationalisation here - and there have been many - clearly this is a conundrum that science can, at best, accept as being outside its jurisdiction, and at worst (as in this programme) attempt to plaster over with generalisations, whistling a pretty tune (probably Beethoven’s 5th or something) while glibly pretending it doesn’t exist.
Eg White and (the lower back of) Will Young
To wrap the whole thing up, Cain undertakes the task of making his own piece of music using the various morsels of understanding he’s picked up. It’s clear to you and me (and probably him) that it’s going to sound shit. That’s obvious. But the process is revealing in itself. First he goes to a lab at Goldsmiths, where his neurological response to a series of distinctly unlovely MIDI loops is measured and his ‘favourites’ singled out. The resultant tawdry collection of Logic synth preset sounds is taken to songwriter ‘Eg’ White (Adele, Duffy, Will Young - all the good shit) who, crucially, does the actual creative bit which none of the experiments shown are able to supplant (nor, I think, are they intended to, but such is the conceit of the programme). Yes, there are half-arsed references to what’s gone before - the tempo is high to ‘get the heartrate going’, there’s a ‘strong rhythm’ to ‘bring people together’ - but essentially this is a songwriter writing a song (with a bit of auxiliary input from a grinning fool).
Cain then takes his song to ‘music analyst Mike McCready’ in New York, to be tested against this database he’s devised called ‘Hit Song Science’. The premise of Hit Song Science is that ‘virtually all music ever recorded’ (got any Evan Parker mate? No? What about Farley Jackmaster Funk?) is fed into a database with figures recorded for a large number of variables - what these variables are isn’t fully explained but it seems to be a range of things including key, tempo, chord progression and the gender of the lead singer. Apparently when you fill this database up and then isolate only the songs that have been chart hits, it becomes apparent that they are grouped, in this multi-dimensional space, in a number of ‘hit clusters’. The logic then follows that, if you feed an untried song into the machine, its probable chart success can be measured by the extent to which it falls within range of one of these clusters.
Apparently the system has an 80-85% success rate. McCready is quick to provide some examples: ‘we predicted the success of Norah Jones well before she was on anyone’s radar. We also predicted which of the original Maroon 5 hits would be the first to blow up.’ I can’t think of a better encapsulation of the failings of this kind of scientific approach to music. As before, confronted with a series of totally non-quantifiable determining factors - what makes a song reach number one is surely the sum total of an incalculable number of micro-decisions on the part of discerning consumers - the best approach is to deal in generalities: to use a statistical analysis of pre-existing data in order to predict future behaviour - defining what can be by mapping what is.
What this is thrusting at is a kind of majoritarian science of music: scientists can map a ‘majority response’ from listeners by establishing patterns and averages, but it will always only be statistical; its insight can never be deeper than that. The tendency of this approach is to average out the human relationship with music, to work in generalities rather than singularities. The result is a pseudo-aesthetics which valorises sameness over difference, repetition over change - hence the high strike rate on insipid, risk-averse shit like Maroon 5. How ridiculous - patronising, even - to assume that, in spite of the vast changes in the cultural landscape over the past half-century, popular tastes can no longer stray outside of what’s already known. I expect Hit Song Science, if it had constructed its database a few decades earlier, could never have predicted the ascent of hip hop to chart ubiquity. An industry relying on such a system in their risk calculations (apparently several major labels have used it) is basically a walking corpse waiting to exhaust its supply of retro-reruns (sound familiar?).
Indeed, as Deleuze would argue, and Harper after him, the very nature of any artform, and of being itself, is change. Music should always be oriented towards its own dissolution, always looking for ways to break out of the strictures of convention. Paranoid fears that artists could be replaced by machines are missing the point - as soon as any area of music-making becomes territorialised by a generalising apparatus, the artists will already be elsewhere, propelling themselves into the beyond, the outside. Music has no absolute criteria other than change. A top-down imposition of psuedo-scientific ‘laws’ will always be one step behind.
In fairness, I’m sure the scientists in What Makes A Masterpiece? were to some extent misrepresented, their hyper-specified experiments slapped around ruthlessly in the editing suite until they resembled something with broader applicability. And undoubtedly there are more clued up researchers out there working with a far deeper understanding of these issues than I have. But a show like this is nonetheless indicative of the way in which science is viewed by a wider audience in a culture that increasingly treats the scientific method as some mystical panacea. If the outcome of this is Norah Jones and Maroon 5 then I think I’ll take my chances in the luddite wilderness.