Friday, December 6, 2013

Friday Miscellanea

I think I will make this a regular Friday feature. My schedule on Fridays is such that I don't have much time, so I will have a look around on the web and see what items might be of interest.

First up, is a report from the economists on the "creative sector's" contribution to the US economy: $500 billion dollars. This sort of thing, trying to quantify the "value" of the arts and culture in the economy, has been going on for a long time, of course. This is just a more ambitious attempt. The hidden assumptions behind it are what trouble me. Here is how they put it:
"One of the challenges that's always been there for economists and even lay people and certainly policy makers is to understand what is the arts' value," Ilyengar said. "Here's a measurable, legitimate, rigorous way of tracking the contributions of the creative economy in the country."
"Measurable, legitimate, rigorous" and completely wrong! The value of arts and culture is not fundamentally economic, but aesthetic. Measuring just the economic spindrift thrown off will mean fundamentally misunderstanding what the arts and culture are and how they function in a society. It means that the most important musician of 2013 is Madonna, because she earned the most money. It means that classical music has only a very tiny function in the culture. I'm sure readers of this blog will know that I have many reasons for disagreeing with this!

The brain scientists are still going at it. Here one blogger summarizes how music affects our brains:
We can usually pick if a piece of music is particularly happy or sad, but this isn’t just a subjective idea that comes from how it makes us feel. In fact, our brains actually respond differently to happy and sad music.
I have written before about what I see as problematic about this. That was not exactly the post I was looking for--for some reason the search widget on my blog doesn't seem to work any more! What I have noted is that garden variety emotions, like happiness and sadness, have objects. We are happy or sad about something. This applies to emotions like anger and love as well (if love is a mere emotion). But the moods and expressions we hear in music do not have objects; they are merely suggestive of certain sensations. You might think of them as metaphors. A piece of music is not actually happy, sad nor angry; nor was the composer happy, sad nor angry when he or she wrote it. The performers likewise do not share these emotions and finally, neither does the listener. Music does not MAKE you happy or sad or angry because it neither contains nor communicates these emotions.

What we hear when we listen to music are musical moods and expressions. These may be beautiful, or coarse, or threatening, or charming, or languid, or agitated or a thousand other things we have no words for. But what they are not are garden variety emotions.


So why are scientists always going down the rabbit-hole? Well, if the only tool you have is a hammer, then every problem looks like a nail. If the only tool you have is a magnetic resonance imager, then you are going to scan a lot of brains. I just don't think that it is going to tell you anything about music or how and why we enjoy it.

The article I linked above comes in several parts. Here is one I found particularly hilarious. It explains how our musical "choices" (I guess they mean "tastes" but are just afraid to use that word) predict our personalities:
To break it down, here is the connection they have found:
  • Blues fans have high self-esteem, are creative, outgoing, gentle and at ease
  • Jazz fans have high self-esteem, are creative, outgoing and at ease
  • Classical music fans have high self-esteem, are creative, introvert and at ease
  • Rap fans have high self-esteem and are outgoing
  • Opera fans have high self-esteem, are creative and gentle
  • Country and western fans are hardworking and outgoing
  • Reggae fans have high self-esteem, are creative, not hardworking, outgoing, gentle and at ease
  • Dance fans are creative and outgoing but not gentle
  • Indie fans have low self-esteem, are creative, not hard working, and not gentle
  • Bollywood fans are creative and outgoing
  • Rock/heavy metal fans have low self-esteem, are creative, not hard-working, not outgoing, gentle, and at ease
  • Chart pop fans have high self-esteem, are hardworking, outgoing and gentle, but are not creative and not at ease
  • Soul fans have high self-esteem, are creative, outgoing, gentle, and at ease
Of course, generalizing based on this study is very hard. However looking at the science of introverts and extroverts, there is some clear overlap.
You know what this reminds me of? With about the same amount of scientific rigor? Yep, horoscopes. Here is what the stars reveal about your personality:
Aries (March 21- April 20): Aries is the first sign of the zodiac. Those who are Aries are independent and courageous. They enjoy leading others and bringing excitement into the lives of others. An Aries is enthusiastic and very goal-oriented.
Taurus (April 21- May 21): The second sign of the zodiac, those who are a Taurus are solid and fight for what they want. A Taurus is very easy going but can also be stubborn. A Taurus can be procrastinators but also have a good-work ethic.
Gemini (May 22- June 21): Gemini is the third sign of the zodiac. Geminis have many sides and are known for their energy. They are very talkative and are considered social butterflies. A Gemini will always take their lives in the direction they want to go.
Cancer (June 22- July 22): Cancer is the fourth sign of the zodiac. This sign is marked by inconsistency. They enjoy security but also seek adventure. A Cancer is not very predictable and always keep others guessing.
Leo (July 23- August 21): Leo is the fifth sign in the zodiac. Leos have high self esteem and are very devoted. They are also very kind and generous. A Leo is known for being hot tempered yet forgiving.
Virgo (August 22- September 23): The sixth sign of the zodiac, Virgo is very mind oriented. They are constantly analyzing and thinking. They enjoy bettering themselves and those around them.
Libra (September 24- October 23): The seventh sign of the zodiac, Libras are known for their diplomatic nature. They get along well with everyone and are ambitious. They have very expensive taste and work hard to make money.
Scorpio (October 24- November 22): The eight sign of the zodiac, Scorpios are very intense. They like to question everything and work hard at making sense of things. Scorpios treat others with kindness and loyalty.
Sagittarius (November 23- December 22): The ninth sign of the zodiac, a Sagittarius has a very positive outlook on life. They have vibrant personalities and enjoy meeting new people. They can also be reckless.
Capricorn (December 23- January 20): The 10th sign of the zodiac, those who are Capricorns are marked by their ambitious nature. They have very active minds and always have to be in control of their lives.
Aquarius (January 21- February 19): Aquarius is the 11th sign of the zodiac. Aquarians don't always care what others think about them. They take each opportunity they have and work towards formulating new ideas.
Pisces (February 20- March 20): Pisces is the 12th and last sign of the zodiac. Those who are Pisces are extremely sensitive and reserved. They like to escape from reality. A Pisces is a very good listener and friend.

Most people's musical tastes span different genres. The amount of selectivity they exhibit can also vary enormously. Some people seem to enjoy most music in a kind of non-specific way. Others have intense likings and dislikings for different songs on the same album or different pieces by the same composer. Other people, and I list myself among them, like outstanding examples of pieces in widely varying genres. I have heard rap songs that I was quite taken with, but at the same time, there are Baroque pieces I find horribly tedious. So, of course, I won't fit into any of those predictions. Neither will most of us.

Just more dreary pseudo-science, I'm afraid. But it looks so impressive with all those nifty charts and diagrams...

Let's hear some music! Does this make you happy or sad?


Shantanu said...

You know, I have read that post of yours before - the one which describes the distinction between garden variety emotions which have objects, and more subtle and suggestive emotions that music contains. I admit I read that post but never really understood what you meant, but today I did! I happen to be listening Beethoven's Op. 127, and again, it sounds sensual and seems to paint a (musical) picture of our inner world... says nothing concrete, but expresses a huge lot. Seems to be this is the essence of musical metaphor. Maybe the way you describe the effects of music depend on what music you hear! On listening to three-chord rock music, you will always reach the conclusion that music has very defined, concrete meaning which can be put into words - but we know better...

Bryan Townsend said...

I didn't come up with this idea, of course. It comes from the work of philospher Peter Kivy. But it is an important point, I think. Music can be agitated, but it can't be angry because anger is always directed at an object. We are always, if we are mentally healthy, angry ABOUT something. Music can evoke all sorts of mental states and sensations, but they are only metaphorically related to emotions such as anger.

Good description of Beethoven's Op. 127!

Joel Lo said...

Hey, Brian!
It's been awhile since the last time I read and commented on your blog. You haven't lost your style, I see... hehehe.
I had already seen the personality-musical choices list before. When I first saw it, I thought "Oh my!... if Bryan sees this, his going to have an infarct" Fortunately, you found it hilarious (as I did). That thing seems to be taken from a Cosmopolitan magazine. Hahaha... But don't get confused, that is not science and I would say, that's not even pseudo-science. It seems more like a bunch of people making a poll and having fun with the results.
On the other hand, I think the subject of emotions-moods of music, it's more complicated than either what you say or what that study suggest. Actually I could find both aproaches quite similar (maybe what they call "percieved emotion" is a mood, and "felt emotion" is what you call emotion). Once we've entered in this domain of feelings and emotions and all that, concepts tend to be a little unespecific.
What worries me is that, reading this post (and comment), you mean that a composer never could have said "I want to make a joyful piece, a piece which make people happy"... because he always would have failed. I mean, the composer could just create a mood, no matter how hard he tried to express the feeling, and people could never say "I feel more happy when I heard this" (even if the listener doesn't have an object to be happy about)... un less they're mentally ill (!).
I think that everyone has an idea of what music makes us feel. There will be variance among people's responses and variance among people's words to define it: "mood" "feeling" "emotion"... some people would say that there's no feeling of sadness if there's nothing to be sad about. But could it be that sadness (a felt, real emotion) is just a "mood" originated by a reason... or a piece of music.

Bryan Townsend said...

Welcome back, Joel! And thanks for the very cogent comment. Yes, "not even pseudo-science"!

Your critique is quite right: in trying to rein in the foolishness of the attributing garden-variety emotions to music, I may have thrown out the baby with the bathwater. Yes, composers do want to write joyful music that makes people happy. Ironically, they also want to write sad music that also makes people happy, which is where the complication comes in.

I want to distinguish emotions inspired by music from garden-variety emotions because I think they are a bit different. The mechanisms are different and the results are also different. It is because of this that we voluntarily listen to "sad" music (the scare quotes are necessary) because it makes us feel good, perhaps similar to the way that "having a good cry" makes us feel good. My impression is that the ecstatic, exultant joy that music can make us feel is different in important ways from the happiness we feel when pleasing things happen in ordinary life: we see our beloved, we get a big check, we find the ring we thought we had lost. Here, the happiness has objects in the world that we are interacting with. We are always happy because of x. But with music, it is a very complex sheaf of moods and mental states that include things that may resemble happiness and sadness, but that are, I'm pretty sure, different.

Every Haydn symphony has a couple of quick movements that we could call "happy", but they are so different from one another that if we were to attach specific descriptive words to them, I would want to find unique ones for each unique piece: "that presto with the burbling horns that makes you feel joyful and slightly apprehensive at the same time because of the way the oboes are always sounding those dissonant little ornaments"! Similarly, every Haydn symphony has an adagio or andante that is languorous and "sad" because it inspires those melting or drooping moods that we often all lump together as "sad". But again, it is only by metaphor and each slow movement is different and needs a more specific description.

This is all kind of complex. But thank you very much for the push-back. It reminds me that, while I have a few ideas about these things, they fall far short of an actual theory!

The only thing I am really sure of is that while I would avoid things in real life that would make me sad or irritated, metaphorically "sad" or "agitated" pieces of music are things I might enjoy.