December 20, 2008

Why music? And why so much music?

The Economist asks:
Other appetites... have been sated even to excess by modern business. Food far beyond the simple needs of stomachs, and sex (or at least images of it) far beyond the needs of reproduction, bombard the modern man and woman, and are eagerly consumed. But these excesses are built on obvious appetites. What appetite drives the proliferation of music to the point where the average American teenager spends 1½-2½ hours a day—an eighth of his waking life—listening to it?
1½-2½ hours a day? That seems positively abstemious. I had the impression that many people were listening to music constantly. And why stop at "waking life"? Aren't people playing music all night?

Anyway, The Economist notes 3 theories for the evolution of music in human culture: 1. sex, 2. social glue, 3. accident and invention. All 3 theories are discussed at length at the link, but let me concentrate on the sex theory -- that people make music to attract sex partners. The theory is reinforced by the way musical achievement tends to track the human being's sexual development. One study of jazz musicians found "that their output rises rapidly after puberty, reaches its peak during young-adulthood, and then declines with age and the demands of parenthood."

This may be the best answer to the question my son Jac asked the other day: "Why does every great, long-lived rock band lose their greatness?"

Meanwhile, just yesterday, I was going on and on about how there's way too much music. It's playing everywhere, people are listening on iPods everywhere, and that I hardly ever want to listen to music. There is a lot of music that I acknowledge is good and that I even know I like, but that doesn't mean I want to listen to it. I specifically enjoy the absence of music, and I seek it out. If silence were a track I could have on my iPod, it would be on my most-played list. Etc. etc. etc. Now, I'm thinking: What was I saying???

45 comments:

EnigmatiCore said...

I think the only thing to do is for you to have sex soon and see what happens.

ricpic said...

God forbid a modern day
reductionist/determinist/materialist would say the appetite for music has anything to do with an innate aesthetic sense.

Ann Althouse said...

"an innate aesthetic sense"

If it's innate, you have to ask why it's innate. Why did it evolve? That is the question at issue here.

jimbino said...

And I imagine that young men devote themselves to math and chess to attract mates!

Windbag said...

Meanwhile, just yesterday, I was going on and on about how there's way too much music.

I don't think I could type those words; cut/paste made me choke a little. I have music with me constantly. Either it's running through my head, I'm playing the piano, or I've got something going on the iPod or CD player. Sort of like Bill Cosby and Go Carts. He and his friends took their music everywhere with them. It warded off the monsters' attacks.

1 1/2 - 2 1/2 hours for kids is great, as long as it's quality stuff...no hip/hop or rap or Michael Bolton/Mariah Carey-type garbage.

john cage said...

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hUJagb7hL0E is this music?

Simon said...

Music is a good, but as with almost everything else, being unable to choose it - or to turn it off - is hell. These days, one faces an almost constant barrage of noise; we have a customer who pipes a country music station into their offices, something that I would have thought would strip someone of their sanity.

Simon said...

john cage said...
"is [Cage's 4:33] music?"

That old chestnut, huh? No, it isn't. It's art, to be sure, performance art, even - but it isn't music.

UWS guy said...

I actually ranted on this subject in your comment section not that long ago. NPR's clearly classical is chronic musical masturbation when offered the real thing people are burnt out. New York phil recordings suck up all the oxygen.

rhhardin said...

Trombone is no good for babes. I'd suggest lute.

ricpic said...

I'm not at all sure that our innate aesthetic sense evolved. Maybe it was just there from the start. Maybe it has no survival value at all. What "use" is music? What use is our attraction to bright, clear colors? Why did neolithic man decorate pots? Dye hides? Dance to the rhythm of a stick striking a rock or a stretched skin? Innate and unevolved and useless. Is that so impossible to accept, that no purpose is discernible in art?

somefeller said...

It may be that an innate aesthetic sense may have evolved, but not as something that provided a particular advantage at a given time. When I was in law school I took an elective course where Steven Jay Gould was one of the teachers, and he spent one lecture talking about what he termed "spandrels" . The idea, summed up in the wiki quote I'm linking to, is that a characteristic that is considered to have developed during evolution may be a side-effect of an adaptation, rather than arising from natural selection. The analogy he made was to the beautiful decorative spandrels in basilicas or other elegant old buildings. The spandrels may be something wonderful to view, but it would be a mistake to say the basilicas were built for the primary purpose of displaying them. Perhaps music, and all other aesthetic senses, started out as evolutionary spandrels, and either remain so or became something more than that (namely, something of value that is selected for in reproductive strategies) only in recent historical time.

Paul Zrimsek said...

One of the advantages of writing for a tony publication like the Economist is that you can get away with saying that sex beyond the needs of reproduction is excessive. Try that on a conservative blog and see what it gets you.

Cedarford said...

Why so much music?
Because, I think, technology has made it cheap..dirt cheap and in many cases free for the taking and capable of being reproduced digitally to nearly infinite consumers.
Previous to that, music - if you look at it historically - was once so expensive it could only be done with the help of masses springing for hiring the musicians at special occasions - with regular, high quality music only available in the churches and royal courts.

Even in most of our history with mass broadcasting, it cost the broadcaster a hefty sum, and gave the masses much music they didn't like - despite the efforts of broadcasters and concert promoters to figure out their target audience.
And within living memory of most Americans..music was bound in expensive plastic albums or CDs..a substantial budget expenditure...

Those days are largely gone. So music became ubiquitous, everywhere, and cheap..Like other digital worlds like Facebook, gamer communities..
******************
my son Jac asked the other day: "Why does every great, long-lived rock band lose their greatness?"

There are some musicians and singers that defy time and actually become better and richer in product offered than in their youth...and even with them they still decline when they get senior citizen type old (Frank Sinatra, Streisand, Horowitz) - but the general pattern is the best music is behind an artist when they get to their early 30s.

There are anologues. Luckily for humanity, most skills and careers grow with age - but certain ones are the provenence of youth.

Mathematicians. Poets. Painters. Chess. Golf (at the elite level..though a great golfer can still hit the ball as far as when they were 25, age seems to impede "touch", the finest hand-eye coordination, the nerves needed to putt for money, and most importantly the ability to completely concentrate, on shot after shot and what the opposition is doing..)

I would also add that many musicians start in sync with the youthful mass market..and rather than move on with their age cohort, they try and reinvent themselves to make new music for a new generation. Few succeed at this. Or the "dinosaur rockers" who stay with the same formulae - (65-year old fabulously rich grandad Mick Jagger singing of hardscrabble youth in rebellion for the last 45 years, in various reformulations.) American Idol contestents mainly singing 20-40 year old stuff ...

William said...

Time goes by and moves on over us, but at least with music the beats are measured and one can dance for a bit to the passages of time....I recently saw Shine a Light, the Martin Scorcese/Rolling Stone concert fim. They played for the millionth time the anthems of their (and my) youth. Mick Jagger still has the moves and for a while can imitate the energy. Keith Richards is a spent force. All his sins are written in Gothic script on his face and footnoted in his body. In the beginning, their music expressed sex and energy and rebellion. Now the music expresses the memory of sex and energy and youth. The pretty girls in the front row wave their arms to the music, but their faces no longer show rapturous longing. The Rolling Stones are no longer Dionysius at midnight. What pretty girl swoons when she hears Harry James play Begin the Beguine? That moment and the Rolling Stones moment has passed. But music signified that passing moment and helps the survivors to savor it for a moment more before it disappears forever.

BJM said...

More Brit nanny state twaddle from a bitter magazine desperately clinging to the shreds of the information franchise.

"Music hath charms to soothe a savage breast, to soften rocks, or bend a knotted oak." -William Congreve

The exception is of course 99.9999% of public music. My personal bete noir are the remixes Starbuck's plays/hawks. One can imagine the knowledgeable smirk on the producer's face as he commits the over-caffeinated to hipster hell.

UWS guy: I feel pretty much the same way about all of NPR's programming.

BJM said...

William: beautifully put.

I watch Scorsese's The Last Waltz at Thanksgiving for exactly that reason, to mark the passage of time and my youth, as do the empty chairs at the feast table.

commenter said...

ann,

i doubt you have ever heard silence. you've hear white noise that you think is silence. But complete silence deep in the recesses of a dark cave — after about 24 hours that might drive you insane.

TosaGuy said...

I seriously doubt that anyone of the Ipod generation can handle 20 minutes of silence without going through withdrawal.

I am in my late 30s and have to visit the Madison campus frequently for my job. A major difference between now and when I went to school (not Madison) is that today's students are never not plugged into something whether it be an ipod or cell phone. They are always listening to music, on the phone, texting, eating or drinking...they can never just walk to class, look at their surroundings or take a minute to notice a person that walks by.

In about 30 years.....invest in companies that make hearing aids or the next great thing in hearing technology.

chickenlittle said...

But complete silence deep in the recesses of a dark cave — after about 24 hours that might drive you insane.

Long ago as a teen, my father used to take me to what Jacques-Yves Cousteau called the Silent World. Besides the visual, my lasting memory that world is the sound of my own breathing.

I think in a deep dark cave I'd hear my own heart beating.

Bissage said...

I think in a deep dark cave I'd hear my own tinnitus.

Anthony said...

Yeah, SJ Gould went on and on with the hyperfuncionalism of a lot of what passes for "evolutionary explanations" but still people do it. Lately it's been used in a new food fad with the raw food movement; adherents claim that our Pleistocene forebears ate raw stuff so why shouldn't we?

I suspect music appreciation is part of the language facility that seems to have been the result of a single gene alteration. It might have had some functional utility. . .music is rhythmic and might assist in remembering information. But hey, that's just another hypothesis I pulled out of the New England Journal of My Ass.

Christopher said...

Music is an aid to the formation of self indentity, group identity, and class identity. It also cements social bonds. That's why you get all of these heated musical debates, because the subtext isn't about quality or artistry (no matter how much people insist that it is), it's about identity. And identity is rooted very, very deeply in the self, to the point that most people aren't really aware of their own identities or their attempts to maintain them.

If our impulse toward musical expression 'evolved', then it probably evolved in large part for reasons related to the needs above.

matthew said...

If silence were a track I could have on my iPod...

I've never tried them, but you might want to check out noice cancelling headphones

Who knows, maybe the effect of cancelling out music will be similar to the effect of drugs.

Chip Ahoy said...

Pardon me.

* removes ear buds *

You said something?

Alex said...

This is typical Althouse - she's a fuddy duddy, doesn't understand today's music scene - thus it's crap and not worth listening to.

alt Rock is where it's at.

3D said...

No music like British music. Now and for ever.

blake said...

Yeah, 3D! Dowland rocks!

blake said...

adherents claim that our Pleistocene forebears ate raw stuff so why shouldn't we?

Because they're all dead?

blake said...

The need for the aesthetic is spiritual.

Don't believe me?

Just wait until you die. You won't be hungry, you'll only be mildly interested in sex, and yet you'll still crave beauty.

(Just make sure to post about your findings here.)

Ole said...

The thing about listening to music is that you do it while you're doing something else. I spend at least five hours each day listening to music, but it doesn't mean that's all I'm doing. In fact it makes working, cycling, etc. more fun for me...

rhhardin said...

German music you don't find on the radio much anymore.

3D said...

From American music I like country fiddlers.

jaed said...

Just wait until you die. You won't be hungry, you'll only be mildly interested in sex, and yet you'll still crave beauty.

Can we perhaps have a comment from Sir Archy, if he is lurking presently? Being dead, he should be able to speak with authority on the matter. I confess I am curious.

John Burgess said...

I thin ricpic and somefeller likely have it right. An appreciation of music slipped in with something else that was evolutionarily important, perhaps the detecting of particular bird song or animal sounds.

One having entered, though, it's proved extraordinarily stubborn. Except for the deaf and tone-deaf, people of all races seem to have some sort of appreciation hardwired into their systems.

I know that any music that has drones as part of it will instantly catch my ear and my attention. Celtic, Indian, it really doesn't matter. There's something in the drones that 'speaks to me', no matter the era of its composition.

Some forms of music (or 'so-called music') leave me cold. But there's no particular type of music (other than as noted above) that really grabs me. I can enjoy individual pieces from just about any period of music, classic to modern. But I don't have a favorite genre of rock or pop or even classical.

Daryl said...

To understand the human brain, you must understand that the portions responsible for interpreting raw sensory input are massively parallel pattern recognition machines.

For example, with regard to sight, people recognize faces. People will recognize "faces" in things that are not faces, because our brains are designed to look for those patterns. Newborns recognize faces. Newborns will look at pretty faces longer than they will look at ugly faces. This stuff is deeply, deeply hardwired into our brains. It has nothing to do with culture or education--it's in there while we're in the womb, and it can be tested the moment we're free of the womb.

People across different cultures can recognize good works of art. They often (not always) experience the same feelings when looking at artwork. In fact, people can tell when artwork is flipped from left to right (when they compare a mirror image to the original, without knowing which is which, they will usually be able to tell which is the original).

The only explanation that makes sense is that our brains are hard-wired to recognize certain patterns, and good artwork taps into that by causing our brains to light up in a certain way.

Likewise with music. Our brains are constantly analyzing the sounds we hear in order to decide what type of noise they are. Music engages our pattern-recognition hardware in a way that just about never occurs in nature.

It isn't that we evolved a special appreciation for music. There is no form of sensory input we have that we cannot enjoy if someone plays the right "notes" in an interesting pattern.

rhhardin said...

This stuff is deeply, deeply hardwired into our brains.

This is the mysterious ``explanation effect.''

It's a bottoming-turtle for deep thinkers.

blake said...

The only explanation that makes sense

Heheheheh.

Turtles-all-the-way-down, indeed, rh.

Clyde said...

Why so much music? Because we can! Comparing the range of music available today to the past is like comparing the number of channels on your cable or satellite television to the old days of the three networks and PBS. And it's not just music or television, it's anything having to do with data, because of the Internet, which gives us far more information than we used to be able to find at the most extensive libraries, and far more quickly.

This is a wonderful time to be alive. I can carry around far more high-quality music on my iPod than an average person could have heard in a lifetime only a century or so ago.

Today, the problem isn't finding content, it's sifting through the cornucopia that's available. Sometimes I find new things serendipitously. I'm looking for X and I stumble across Y. Those can be the best kind of discoveries.

John Burgess said...

rhhardin: You mistake a description for an explanation.

I suppose you don't like the idea that grammar is hardwired into human brains either?

I don't see how stating that music seems to be hardwired into the brain comes even close to explaining why it is hardwired. That, in fact, is the point of the comments about 'spandrels'. They don't necessarily have a point, a reason. They're just there and the brain makes use of those circuits in interesting and various ways.

nansealinks said...

I think in a deep dark cave I'd hear my own heart beating.

and then you might imitate it on a drum.

and then you would notice that the different areas of a drum actually create melodies.

and thus music is bor(is this what the article said? because i didn't even click on the link.

commenter said...

of course, i guess the iPod people could ask you all why you all listen non stop to political dialogue.

I havent watched tv all year, except for the three or four days international CNN in November. I am waiting for a two hour recap of the year to see what i missed. I don't thing anything real important. In february, my son, who gave me the idea and I are going to sit in front of our analog sets and watch it all turn to snow as the broadcast world goes digital. (We wont sit togethern, but thousands miles apart) I think it will be a cosmic white out event.

would althouse unplug her political meanderings if some young kid unplugged thier iPod for a week?

Anthony said...

I admit I've never really gotten into listening to a portable music device while out in public. Every now and then I'll plug it in and listen on the bus, but that's about it. I tried walking and listening a couple of times, but I felt kind of. . . .I dunno, isolated. I could imagine people screaming at me while a bus barrels down on me and me being oblivious.

At work I have something on all day though, either some form of classical or "new age" which is really kind of modern classical. It's not distracting while working but it gives me some other input besides work-related stuff.

Let me tell you that back when I was doing fieldwork in Egypt regularly I would have KILLED for an iPod. 2-3 months of nothing but the same tapes or CDs over and over again, plus the bulk of carrying them. I just can't say enough good about MP3 players generally.

Hazy Dave said...

I understand John Cage's 4'33" is now available as a ringtone.

Kev said...

(This seems like a good post in which to return from a long hiatus, since it's right up my alley.)

"john cage"--thanks for posting the link to the 4'33'' video; I'll admit that I never thought to look for one!

When I was in college, I transcribed this piece for saxophone quartet and actually performed it in public. (And of course, I like my arrangement much better than the orchestral one in the video, which I think was scored way too heavily. *grin*) There was a lot of audience participation--mostly coughing, although it was not the cold and flu season--in the performance (which Cage would have liked, as he believed that any sound occurring in nature could be classified as music). We in the quartet liked the rehearsal better, because most of us, as college music majors, were not used to that level of silence at any time during the day.

And by the way, if you'd like to part with $5.95 for no reason other than to own a conversation-starter, you can actually buy the sheet music for this piece.