Thursday, July 4, 2013

Beauty and the Brain

I have posted a lot of criticism of scientific research into music and aesthetics because it often seems to me to be based on crude ideas about music. Just because you have a shiny machine that goes beep doesn't mean you don't have to formulate your questions well.

But not all scientific investigation into aesthetics is misconceived. I just ran across a couple of very interesting articles where the authors seem to really understand the complexities and philosophical context of the problems of aesthetics.

One article, by Johanna Kieniewicz, is a very thoughtful overview of the field of neuroaesthetics. Here is a sample of her discussion:
If aesthetic judgements are, as Kant suggested, created by our brains, can we determine what parts of our brains are responsible for judgements of beauty? Although the fMRI scan is the traditional tool of those studying neuroaesthetics, Conway and Rehding have concerns about the experiments as they are currently conducted. What are we measuring? Might it be some complex mixture of perception, reward, decision-making and emotion? They also note the low spatial and temporal resolution of fMRI scans, suggesting that “brain imaging provides a blurry, although seductively glossy view of brain function.”
When we look at a brain scan, are we in effect getting an impressionist look at our response to beauty? Some studies have named the medial orbito-frontal cortex(mOFC) as the “beauty centre” of the brain; however, Conway and Rehding suggest that the mOFC is just one of a number of brain regions responsible for value judgements, and it also seems to be responsible for making decisions that have nothing to do with beauty.
She is referring to another paper, by
  • Bevil R. Conway and 
  • Alexander Rehding called "
  • Neuroaesthetics and the Trouble with Beauty" that is well worth looking at. Here is a sample of their discussion:

    Aesthetics has a complex history. The term derives from the Greek “perception” and was coined by Alexander Baumgarten in 1750 as the study of sensory knowledge. But following Immanuel Kant's Critique of Judgment in 1790 [2], aesthetics began focusing on the concept of beauty, in nature and in art. During the nineteenth century, the term became largely synonymous with the philosophy of art. These three connotations—perception, beauty, art—point in different directions but are often conflated in neuroaesthetics.
    As you can see, they are well-acquainted with the philosophical background to aesthetics, which is, in my view, essential before you begin a scientific investigation into beauty.

    All questions about beauty in music are pretty tricky, not only because of the usual problems of variety of taste, but also because it is usually difficult to report in words one's reactions to music. What would you say about this music by Ockeghem, for example:


    Rickard Dahl said...

    Well, lots of things can be said. I believe that wordless music can say alot more than music with words. One of the greatest things about music is that it can mean so many things and it can mean nothing (simply music). Some people like to think of different emotions, scenery, historical contexts and compositional or instrumental aspects for instance when listening while others (like I often do) just listen to it without thinking too much about what it means, it's just music, it sounds good. Ofc, the best is the middle ground with a bit of each approach.

    As for what I would say about that piece, hmm, well, a few things:

    Divine, religious, praising God, beautiful, sounding simple but in reality probably really geniously crafted (amazing counterpoint, plenty of beautiful harmonies), easy to listen to compared with some other medieval sacred music I've listened to (especially since most of it is in just two parts), really enjoyable, shamefully neglected by the general public (which can be said about most classical music anyways) and so on.

    Bryan Townsend said...

    Thanks Rickard for taking a stab at it! Excellent report of your reactions. Now here is the problem. Each piece of music, especially good ones, is unique. But when we talk about them, we tend to say similar things. Every time I would put on a piece of orchestral music by Debussy my mother would say that it reminded her of waterfalls. Suppose you had to report your reactions to a bunch of pieces like the contrapunctuses (contrapuncti?) in the Art of Fugue? What could you say differently about each of them?

    Your description of the Ockeghem Kyrie could be of almost any movement from his masses. In that sense, how is it a good description of your reaction? Unless you would have the same reaction to all those different movements. Possible, I guess. This is just a way of illustrating the problem of talking about music. Ordinary words tend to be too indefinite, which is why we turn to technical terms and musical examples.

    The Missa Prolationem of Ockeghem is a masterpiece of counterpoint: ingenious as you say. Each movement consists of mensuration canons which means that all the voices are singing the same material, but at different pitches and in different time signatures. Ockeghem was the first composer to write canons on imperfect intervals such as the 2nd, 6th and 7th in this piece. Three hundred years later, Bach emulated this in the Goldberg Variations.

    Roman Shoehorn said...

    The tone of the piece is solemn, deliberately so I would think; there is a sense of 'divine contemplation' that suggests liturgical music (a scan of Wikipedia bears this out). There is some interesting overlapping of melodic ideas between treble and bass clefs, with some ear-tickling vocal harmonies, especially when the two lines are in contrary motion - something about the way early-music vocal ensembles performing this stuff tend to 'terrace' the dynamics slightly when a phrase moves upwards in the treble register? There is a thematic focus to the piece when listening with the score but the theme is modified progressively in various ways, with many alterations to the general texture, that its recurrence is understated, yielding an ethereal, almost improvisory favour to the music. The allure of the work draws, I think from both solid structural foundations and the use of musical syntax in a way allows the structure to remain secondary to the affective quality of the work.

    How is the work ‘beautiful’? One way of thinking about beauty in the arts is that it is beautiful because it evokes associations of aesthetic beauty we derive from the natural world; that is, our sense of beauty is grounded in nature, our phenomenological sense being derived from the senses of the body, and artistic beauty is somehow borrowed from this realm. I would find this somehow incomplete though. Where would this leave the Photo-realist art of Jeffery Smart for example? There is clearly a beauty about his paintings, even if it’s beauty of an oddly austere, antiseptically urban, man-made quality. Likewise there is nothing ‘pastoral’ about the Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony in any literally evocative sense; and I don’t really listen to music in order to beguile myself with romantic notions of nature: a great deal of the pleasure in music for me comes from interacting with it; recognising and following it’s logic and structure; having a sense of how the isolated elements form a cogent whole. I’ll leave cheap and easy sentimental naturalism to New Age music. I sometimes think beauty only exists when we pay attention to it. And we can only pay attention when there is some kind of structure and narrative available for us to wrap our senses around. Expressionism on its own – minus structure and narrative - is just so much cheap wallowing in bright hues and fanciful, alluring affects; or worse the cobbling together of excruciating, unlistenable avant-garde works under the banner of some extra-musical philosophical/socio-politic agenda.

    I think there are perhaps two or three kinds of beauty implicit in the work: The beauty of elegant structure; the beauty of stasis and inward contemplation, --(implied by the ‘free,’ ‘floating’ _sound_ of the music of itself)--; and the timbral, humanistic allure of the collective singing voice. The human voice is the very first musical instrument after all, and quintessentially human.

    (The sublime gives way to the ridiculous right at the end - is that Laurel and Hardy?)

    Bryan Townsend said...

    Fascinating comment, Roman. Yes, solemn, liturgical. "Kyrie eleison, Christe eleison, kyrie eleison" is the only part of the Catholic mass that is in Greek and it means "lord have mercy, Christ have mercy, lord have mercy". Yes, the structural foundations are very strong. The fact that the music consists of mensuration canons means that the second voice is always singing the same as the first voice, transformed rhythmically and on a different pitch. As you say, it is very hard to understand how musical beauty derives from nature--one of the mysteries of music!

    I have to disagree about the Pastoral Symphony of Beethoven: it IS pastoral in a literally evocative sense. There is the storm, the peasant dancing, but most of all, the quotes of three different bird calls. Some have seen a pastoral quality even to the way the themes are developed.

    But very nice summary: "beauty of elegant structure; the beauty of stasis and inward contemplation, --(implied by the ‘free,’ ‘floating’ _sound_ of the music of itself)--; and the timbral, humanistic allure of the collective singing voice".

    Nathan Shirley said...

    I think the key difference is approaching it neurologically rather than psychologically. Psychology can be such an extremely soft science, it often can't explain ANYTHING, let alone one of the most complex subjects we know of- music & aesthetics.

    Bryan Townsend said...

    It cleared up a lot of confusion for me when, a couple of decades ago, I made the decision to simply stop believing in modern psychology (basically, since Freud). I don't use the terms and don't believe in any of the assumptions and therapies. Solved all my psychological problems!!