Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Music and Belonging

Let's see, I haven't done a post bashing anyone for a while now, have I? I think it is the music "researchers" turn. Something I do from time to time is look at what scientific research is claiming to discover about music. There is this disturbing trend to try and understand everything in terms of science and statistics. I call this "scientism" as it is as much ideology as method. The problem usually is that the researchers have little experience or knowledge of music and design experiments based solely on whatever ideas or methods are currently fashionable in science. For example, the fMRI machine can measure levels of activity in the brain and generate pretty pictures so they designed a number of experiments where people listened to music while the fMRI took pictures. The results from these experiments were amazingly shallow and uninformative, but that didn't seem to slow them down any! Then, of course, journalists stepped in, dumbed down the results even further and concocted sensational and misleading headlines. Voila! Scientism.

I just ran across an article that is the usual blend of ignorance and arrogance. Here is the link:


And here are the first two paragraphs:

The question of why humans invented music—and continue to be enthralled by it—has long puzzled scholars. While some, including Charles Darwin, have guessed it grew out of a courtship ritual, recent research has focused on its ability to strengthen bonds within a community. Think military marches, or fight songs at a football game.
newly published paper presents intriguing evidence supporting that hypothesis.Chris Loersch of the University of Colorado and Nathan Arbuckle of the University of Ontario Institute of Technology argue that music developed “as a form of social communication, a tool to pass information about the group’s shared mental state to a number of individuals at once.”

Notice how, right from the beginning, a very odd posture is adopted: here we are sitting around puzzling over why music was invented. Actually, if you look at what "scholars" have said about music, going all the way back to Plato, they have rarely puzzled over why music was "invented", but talked about its effects. By "scholars" they mean "scientists" and by "long" they mean about a hundred years. The headline, "Why we evolved to love music" is another of these odd contortions that scientists do when trying to study something that is really not a scientific problem--but they are going to make it one! Here is the next paragraph:
“As it became increasingly adaptive for humans to live in social groups, various biological and psychological mechanisms evolved in order to maintain a group structure,” they write in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. “We hypothesize that human musicality is one of those mechanisms.”
Notice that what is being talked about here is history--well, prehistory, actually--from a time when there is close to zero evidence about anything musical. I think we may have a bone flute or two. But there is even considerable controversy about whether this bit of bone is even a musical instrument, though a few archeological musicologists have reconstructed whole instruments and ventured to play on them. Here is a clip of the instrument being played:

It may trouble some listeners to hear the first melody is the famous Adagio, misattributed to Albinoni. As Wikipedia says:
The Adagio in G minor for violin, strings and organ continuo, is a neo-Baroque composition popularly attributed to the 18th-century Venetian master Tomaso Albinoni, but composed by the 20th-century musicologist and Albinoni biographer Remo Giazotto and based on the purported discovery of a manuscript fragment from Albinoni.
They go on to play several other tunes, including ones by Beethoven and Ravel. This just underlines, for me, the fact that we may have a fragment of an instrument from 40,000 years ago, but not the tiniest bit of music!! Zip, zero, nada, nichts, rien! But our scientists are going to go ahead and speculate anyway. They are going to base their speculations about how and why music played a role on human evolution based on some current studies. Here is how they are described:
In one study, 112 adults recruited online filled out a series of surveys. One measured their “need to belong,” asking them to agree or disagree with such statements as “If other people don’t seem to accept me, I don’t let it bother me.” A second measured their emotional reactivity by assessing their agreement with such statements as “I get upset easily.”
A third survey measured their emotional and physical reactions to music. They revealed the extent to which they agreed with such statements as “When I listen to music, I can feel it affect my mood” and “When I hear music, my foot starts tapping along with the beat.”
The researchers found their response to music has a “unique predictor” of the need to belong, above and beyond their general emotionality. In short, those who reported a greater need to belong also tended to have more intense involvement with music.
And out of these meager results, they imagine they are demonstrating this conclusion:
 Even today, people sing hymns to affirm their commitment to their church, and sing national anthems to demonstrate their love of country. Outcasts find their own communities through outsider genres such as Goth.
In all of those cases, music doesn’t simply entertain or uplift. It binds us together.
As Loersch and Arbuckle put it: “The powerful psychological pull of music in modern life may derive from its innate ability to connect us to others.”
Hmmm. "The powerful psychological pull of music in modern life may derive from its innate ability to connect us to others." Hard to know where to start with that! OK, first of all, the starting place of this article was the role music played in human evolution: a problem in evolutionary biology. I pointed out that this was a problem of history: we have no evidence. Then somehow it turns out that what we are actually talking about are some rather dumb psychological tests that supposedly connect social engagement with musical engagement. I suspect that this 'tendency' is nothing more than a statistical correlation. This is the basic problem with all statistical research: it cannot easily distinguish causality from simple correlation. Did you know that 100% of people who go to hospitals when they are sick die? It's true. Mind you, they may not die for decades later, and there is probably no causal connection, but the statistics say that hospital visits are correlated with 100% human mortality.

So unless these folks have something more to say about music and society than regurgitating what musicians and musicologists have known for hundreds of years, i.e. that "people sing hymns to affirm their commitment to their church, and sing national anthems to demonstrate their love of country. Outcasts find their own communities through outsider genres such as Goth," then I am going to continue to think that this kind of "research" is close to being completely useless as it tells us, with no particular scientific rigor, what we have already known for hundreds if not thousands of years.

Now let's listen to some music that was sung in church:

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