Monday, June 17, 2013

Varieties of Musical Pleasure

I've written a whole bunch of posts complaining about what I perceive as the poverty of the neurological explanations of music. But I don't think I have always gotten across exactly why these approaches seem to me to be so impoverished. It is because it all seems to come down to them measuring some sort of response in the brain that is related to the "reward" center or measuring the release of dopamine. This seems to me to be brutally reductionist because it is little more than saying, simplistically, that music makes you feel good. Well, I kind of knew that! But music makes you feel a lot more subtle things than that. Music can also make you feel devastated and a thousand other things.

Here is a recent article that I commented on that is typical of its genre. One odd thing is how very homogeneous all this research seems to be. They are always coming up with similar conclusions from similar methods. Are all neurological researchers cast from the same mold? Or are the conditions of their research and funding just very limiting? A quote:
MUSIC is not tangible. You can’t eat it, drink it or mate with it. It doesn’t protect against the rain, wind or cold. It doesn’t vanquish predators or mend broken bones. And yet humans have always prized music — or well beyond prized, loved it.
In the modern age we spend great sums of money to attend concerts, download music files, play instruments and listen to our favorite artists whether we’re in a subway or salon. But even in Paleolithic times, people invested significant time and effort to create music, as the discovery of flutes carved from animal bones would suggest.
So why does this thingless “thing” — at its core, a mere sequence of sounds — hold such potentially enormous intrinsic value?
The quick and easy explanation is that music brings a unique pleasure to humans. Of course, that still leaves the question of why. But for that, neuroscience is starting to provide some answers.
More than a decade ago, our research team used brain imaging to show that music that people described as highly emotional engaged the reward system deep in their brains — activating subcortical nuclei known to be important in reward, motivation and emotion.Subsequently we found that listening to what might be called “peak emotional moments” in music — that moment when you feel a “chill” of pleasure to a musical passage — causes the release of the neurotransmitter dopamine, an essential signaling molecule in the brain.
When pleasurable music is heard, dopamine is released in the striatum — an ancient part of the brain found in other vertebrates as well — which is known to respond to naturally rewarding stimuli like food and sex and which is artificially targeted by drugs like cocaine and amphetamine.
And that is pretty much how all these stories read. Yes, there are sometimes more detailed results, but the basic problem for me is that the pleasures and pains of music are complex and various. The impression I get from all the research I have read about is that the scientists either haven't noticed this or don't think it matters. They do research into how "people" listen to "music". Then they get generic results. Not surprising!

How does how someone who has no background in music listen to Ke$ha? How do they listen to Bach? How about someone who has a great deal of musical experience? How do THEY listen to Ke$ha or Bach? What kind of musical response is there when you listen to a Bach chorale? As opposed to a Bach concerto? What about a grindingly tragic chorus from a Bach cantata? What sort of mental response is there to the first movement of the "Moonlight" Sonata by Beethoven? As opposed to the "Great Fugue"? What about to the last movement of the "Joke" Quartet by Haydn? Or the Mozart Requiem?

You see, to my mind, these pieces of music are so utterly different that the response to each is going to be different. Perhaps not so hugely different if they are all unknown to you, but the more background you have, the more varied your response will be. My feeling listening to a Bach chorale is really very, very different to that of listening to a Beethoven quartet. And this is not even taking into account that different Bach chorales and different Beethoven quartets themselves inspire very different responses.

The world of music is one of incredible variety and when I read the clumsy, fumbling efforts of the neurologists to fit it into what they can measure, I am astounded that they think they are uncovering the mysteries of music. They say things like this (from the above-linked article):
In the cross talk between our cortical systems, which analyze patterns and yield expectations, and our ancient reward and motivational systems, may lie the answer to the question: does a particular piece of music move us?
If they could actually describe how a particular piece of music does actually move us, that might be a good place to start. And how about a piece like this one:

How we respond to the bittersweet complexities of that harmony are, I'm pretty sure, well beyond the ability of an FMRI to detect:

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