Stop Steppin’ All Over the Field of Music, Scientists

The field of music cognition is growing.  No need to worry, folks, a bunch of psychologists have finally figured out why we all like music.  Hooray!  I have been waiting 33 years for science to tell me why I feel sad when Hank comes on the radio.

When I found out about this field a few years ago, I didn’t care that much about it, or pay attention to it.  But after attending some lectures on the subject that basically dismissed any work done in the fields of musicology, music theory, or ethnomusicology, and after hearing my colleagues and friends rail against the assumptions made by these scientists, I too have become both personally and professionally offended by the claims the researchers are trying to make.

The biggest problem of the field is that broad conclusions on the emotional responses we have to music are drawn by putting subjects through experiments and measuring their responses to what they hear.  The music used for these experiments is primarily classical.  How many of us listen to classical music regularly?  Okay, all of you who put your hands up, quick, name your favourite Grieg piece.  No?  Fave Schubert?  No?  Put your hands down.

I’m not being a pretentious ass; I’m merely pointing out that for most of us in modern North America, our exposure to classical music is limited, and those limited exposures tend more towards the wallpaper type (soundtrack to movie, on the speakers at the mall, etc.).  Any response that we might have to classical is dictated by our notions of what it means to listen to that music: it implies wealth, education, an elite social standing; it reminds of that movie where all the people wore white wigs; you get the idea.  I’m not generalizing – of course classical has many roles and much meaning to various people, but within the broader context of what we’re exposed to (and choose to listen to) daily, it’s certainly not a universal music.

Which brings me to the next problem of this field: why do you turn on music?  What a ridiculous question, you tell me.  There’s all kinds of reasons: I’m sad; I’m happy; I’m getting over a breakup; I’m driving real fast in my car and it’s exciting; I’m trying to drown out my children screaming in the other room; I just bought this CD; I believe I can force my husband to like the Stones if I just play them two hours a day...

Yeah, the list goes on and on, and it changes all the time.  In other words, the experience of music is highly personal and elastic.  The song that makes you delirious one day is annoying and loud the next.  There’s all kinds of things to factor into listening, the most obvious of which are mood, the external environment, the time of day, the people you’re with, what you ate for breakfast (maybe).

And if the emotional component of listening to music is that diverse, shouldn’t we assume, as the next logical step, that the elements of music that catch our attention are equally diverse?  That is, I might enjoy listening to a melody and complex harmonies, whereas you are attracted to the raspy timbre of someone’s voice, while that guy over there can’t get enough of the interaction between the drum’s rhythms and the bass, and that girl really likes the undulating effect of a particular way of finger-picking the guitar.  Makes sense to me.

(By the way, what I described here is a diluted explanation of the field of ethnomusicology, which is the formal study of music in/as culture.  Ethnomusicologists are interested in the human experience of making, enjoying, participating in, music, generally employing the belief that all music is valuable and worthy of enjoyment and study, for someone.  And we are trained [hopefully] to look at not just the anthropological side of the discipline, but the musical side, by using various musical theoretical models to explain what people are hearing.)

What has caught my attention in recent weeks, among other things, is the glut of articles in the popular press dedicated to disseminating music cognition research.  Most of it is ill-conceived and not at all sensitive to the highly individualized responses that music generates.  So what, you argue, that is science.  How do you elicit a body of verifiable data if your participants are all touchy feely in their responses?  It has to be bound, concrete, somehow.

Fair enough.  Nevertheless, I find the celebration of this field of research in these articles troubling.  I also find the compulsion to universalize the experience of music ridiculous when we live in a world that is so obviously going in the other direction.  How many teenagers change their genre allegiance daily because they can watch anything they want on YouTube?  How many of those teenagers are listening to Vivaldi to reinforce the emotions they are feeling?  Vivaldi, if present anywhere, is likely one among many choices.

Yet, the articles claim that the basics of music have been discovered.  This one cracks me up.  The four essential components of music?  Let me tell you: melody, harmony, rhythm, and bass!  I laughed for ages; my husband and I were all “Aaah, hah ha ha” as we made lunch that day. (I totally make it sound like all my husband and I do is make lunch and talk about music...actually, that’s about right.  We also play with the cat and take pictures of her.)

Then there are the articles like this one, in the Ottawa Citizen.

Bad writing aside (how do a human heartbeat, solar flares, and natural disasters reside on the same level, and also, how does a heartbeat have a rhythm?  It is a beat, something that underlies and structures rhythm; it is not a rhythm in itself), the article paints a glossy picture of the poor research conducted by star music psychologist Daniel Levitin (he knows Sting=he must be cool), who claims he can find the “rhythmic fingerprint” of any given (famous) classical composer using a mathematical equation.

So the researchers examine all this classical music composed between 1500-1900 and come up with some universal declaration on the pieces’ level of rhythmic predictability without any indication as to crazy things like the function of the music.  You know, music for the Catholic Church after the Counter-Reformation (1563) had to stick to very strict rules regarding not only rhythm, but dissonance, melodic leaps, and their resolutions.  Some of the ‘great’ composers were writing for the Catholic Church (Palestrina, Vivaldi, etc, etc,) and they had to abide by these rules if they were going to get paid for their work.  Predictable?  Yes.  Necessary for a paycheque?  Yes.  But somehow now we think they were being ‘artistic’ much in the way I bet we’ll think Rihanna was being artistic by using a vocoder in 400 years.

As for Beethoven being more rhythmically predictable than Mozart...umm, have you ever played Mozart or Beethoven?  Mozart is so bloody dull that falling asleep at the piano is quite likely, whereas the harmonic, melodic, structural complexity of Beethoven is so compelling that you could make learning his late sonatas a lifetime goal.

But let’s say this equation was true and Mozart is indeed more rhythmically interesting than Beethoven.  And let’s say, for one crazy second, that you then thought about why that might be the case: possibly Mozart could play at an early age, earlier than Beethoven, and learned how to play a variety of rhythms when his brain was more pliable.  Maybe Beethoven was required to compose for students, or for publishers looking to sell to students, and he wrote more simplified rhythms as a result.  Perhaps Mozart more frequently thought of the interactions between soloist and orchestra, thus composing more complex rhythms, whereas Beethoven has more compositions for solo playing (Mozart had 41 symphonies and 27 piano concertos, while Beethoven only had 9 symphonies and 6 piano concertos).  Maybe Beethoven was always playing in cold rooms and his fingers didn’t move as quickly as Mozart’s.  Maybe Mozart drank too much coffee and the erratic rhythms in his compositions are simply the result of him being unable to play even sixteenth notes.  I mean, seriously.

Also, Beethoven was deaf.  Is there possibly a connection between not hearing and not being able to discern rhythm as easily?

What about how this study was done?  Did they look at the scores, or did they take the thousands and thousands of recordings available of these pieces and compare the performances of them?  I imagine the rhythmic diversity of the pieces is suddenly greatly amplified by the conditions brought about by live performance (or in the case of studio recordings, tape manipulation. Glenn Gould, anyone?).  Or are the researchers assuming that the written score is the final word on a musical work?

All of these are questions that could, and should, be asked by the researchers.  The problem is, there are great people doing great work, as my colleague has pointed out, like Frank Russo at Ryerson University, but they get overshadowed by the people in articles like the ones above.

A while back, one of the bands I like had a posting on Facebook about a political event they were playing.  Among the comments on the post was a snide, “Stick to music,” in other words, don’t get involved with politics when you clearly know nothing about it.  And I thought, what the hell?  I bet nobody ever tells you that you should ‘stick to [insert your job here]’ when you tried to talk about music.  Well, I’m suggesting that now.  I think really cool things could come from this field if the scientists expanded their ways of thinking about music and why it matters to people, so maybe the next step should be some friendly interdisciplinary collaboration.

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Comment by Easy Ed on February 27, 2012 at 10:06am

True story. About twenty years ago I was working at a major label in Hollywood and one of the new senior executives from General Mills was aghast at the lack of marketing skills and discipline when it came to releasing new music. He hired a vey nice fellow from Proctor and Gamble, who studied the business of music for a few days and decided that what was missing is market research. And how can you know what and when to release when you don't know what the market needs? The answer was as plain as the noses on our faces. Focus groups. So he arranged for a studio in San Francisco to be rented out for the day, and advertised for a particular group of women to apply for a day's worth of work. Stay at home moms, 24-40 years of age. The product we were testing was music from a male country music artist, and classic rock hits from the seventies. The group was assembled in the studio, music piped in and after every song the women were asked a series of questions, mostly just the same thing asked differently...would you buy it? Throughout the morning it was clear that these women were having none of it, although they thought the country music and classic rock was just fine. But with 2.6 kids, a demanding husband and soccer practice to drive to, who had the time to buy anything as ridiculous as a CD? The man from Proctor and Gamble was heating up. "Wrong, wrong, wrong" he kept yelling throughout the day. "This is clearly a bad focus group. They aren't telling us the right answers." By noon he sent them all home. A week later he took the whole show to NYC where it was repeated, this time hopefully with a more elevated level of housewife-music aficionados. Nope. Same results, different day. In a few months they found a new job for him, since I'm sure he had a two or three year contract to fulfill. He hung on, he knew how to play corporate politics. As I said, a very nice guy. His last job in the music business? President of the label's Nashville office. Seems to somehow fit into your theme in some fashion.

Comment by Melody Walker on February 27, 2012 at 11:34am

Haha! Vivaldi is a Verizon ring-back tone and a luxury car commercial to a younger generation. It doesn't remind them of "Spring" any more than a bar of Irish-themed soap. Music is so much about subjective memory and experience, and so many of these pseudo-scientists relegate it to something your baby-einstein is supposed to listen to while learning Mandarin at age 2, or something you are supposed to play for plants to make them grow. To be fair, music theorists can be just as guilty of labeling chords and modulations as universal in their effect. Ethno folks get the best perspective on just how subjective it all is, but it can be a head-up-one's-own-ass type of pseudo-discipline as well. The real question: Does music belong in the realm of academia at all? Can it even exist there, dissected into its component parts? Can music ever truly be measured by anything but the human instrument? And can its effect be articulated by anything other than itself, or the other arts?

People like to say that "writing about music is like dancing about architecture", but I see no problems there, as long as you don't try to call any of those things a "science". 

Thank you so much for writing this. 

Comment by Hal Bogerd on February 28, 2012 at 9:00am

Maybe part of the problem with this field of research is psychologists aren't scientists.

Comment by Bryan Peifer on February 28, 2012 at 11:10am

I've played acoustic since the age of six and I'm now 53.  In all my time of engrossing myself in music it has been the emotional and spiritual experience that keeps me playing.  I've had people who are schooled musicians who try to boil it all down into mathematical equations.  Okay, so if you can do that and it makes you happy, good for you.  Leave me to my drug of  Gillian, your blog proves a point.  Of course this is just my opinion not being a psychologist, but the psychiatric community must continue to do things like this to make themselves feel useful, get funding and feel important.  Since I was a young lad, I learned the guitar very easily and fast because I loved it and still do, but then honestly, I was totally useless in school.  My music was my escape from reality or, maybe it was my escape to reality.  Whatever.  Thanks for writing your thoughts Gillian.

Comment by Wile Preston on February 28, 2012 at 12:05pm
This is a great article with excellent dialogue from the readers. The idea that western classical music is the penultimate form to use as a control group is like saying that Pythagoras was the end all be all of mathematics.
Comment by Gillian Turnbull on February 28, 2012 at 1:54pm

Thanks everybody.

Melody: I agree on music theory, although it's gotten a lot better in recent years.  And ethno can be bad, but at least the discipline is drawing on other fields like cultural studies, sociology, anthropology, communications, etc., and tries to be all postmodern and reflexive.  But there are problems in the field, and its best people are always trying to fix them...most ethnos are people who rejected the narrow-mindedness and scope of theory and musicology, but those fields are being forced to change with the times.  It sounds to me like you know this already.

I think if we know that we'll never really find a true answer on what music means, then it's okay to study it academically (might make one feel rather useless though).

Bryan: yes, definitely for funding!

Comment by Lucky Mud on February 29, 2012 at 5:23am


     During the Galante years at RCA Nashville, a big shot from NYC was given a tour of the studios. He walked into RCA's Studio B (where the greats recorded), clapped his hands twice, then turned to his entourage. "The acoustics are terrible," he said. "Tear it down."

     They escorted him to the next studio, knowing he would have no idea where he'd been or how to find his way back.


     And, Gillian, this reminds me of when American scientists spent several years studying the reasons why red wine made the French and Italians so happy. They found the ingredients that were responsible and turned them into a pill.

     I have yet to hear the results of those pills, and their correlation to 'happiness.'

     And speaking of a penis, 'Ethnomusicologist' reminds me of a line from Frank Zappa's movie 200 Motels (yeah, I was one of three people who went to the movies to see it). A girl said, "Penis? That sounds like something a doctor would have hanging off of him."

     Just saying.....



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Created by No Depression Feb 17, 2009 at 9:06pm. Last updated by No Depression Sep 24, 2012.