Finding Meaning In Music: An Interdisciplinary Discussion

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How do we find meaning in music?

The Presidential Scholars in Society and Neuroscience kicked off this year’s series of seminars with “Music and Meaning,” a seminar designed to examine the ways we find meaning in music from an interdisciplinary perspective. Bwogger Ramisa was there.

The seminar began with a welcome from Pamela Smith, Professor of History and Chair of the Presidential Scholars in Society and Neuroscience. David Freedberg, Professor of the History of Art and Director of the Italian Academy, then briefly took the podium to discuss the history of these seminars before handing the podium back to Smith, who introduced the moderators of the seminar, Jacqueline Gottlieb, Professor of Neuroscience, and Andrew Goldman, Presidential Scholar in Society and Neuroscience.

Gottlieb began by introducing the topic of music and how it relates to neuroscience by providing two contrasting viewpoints. First, she stated, “Music is an essential part of our lives. Without music, life would be a mistake.” She countered this, however, with, “From my perspective as a neuroscientist, music should not exist.” She explained that nervous systems are adaptive systems to learn to increase biological fitness, and from this perspective, music and art are just signals that should be ignored like other stimuli that have little to do with biological fitness. Tying this topic into the idea of “meaning,” Gottlieb then defined meaning as what humans look for in everything; human beings have a drive for making sense of the world, constantly searching for predictability, which in turn becomes meaning. We, however, are struggling to find out what we find meaning in. Gottlieb left the audience with two questions. What do we find value in? And what makes things interesting and worthwhile to us? She then introduced how the speakers would address those questions.

David Huron, Arts and Humanities Distinguished Professor at Ohio State University, began his presentation on “aesthetic hedonism” by stating that art has no predefined function. If art didn’t offer some element of pleasure, humans would simply ignore it. But how exactly does music evoke pleasure? Huron examined this through the lens of several different emotions, how they relate to pleasure, and the observation that when pleasure is evoked in listeners, it usually is in response to negative emotion. Huron backed up this claim by describing a film filled with purely happy scenes and asked the audience, “Who would on Earth would want to watch this thing?” (To that, he answered, “grandparents.”) In general, Huron argued that the principal attraction of art lies within the different, complex pleasures it evokes.

Next, Aniruddh Patel, Professor of Psychology at Tufts University, examined music and meaning from the perspective of evolutionary neuroscience. He touched on the history of meaning in instrumental music, using the archaic bone flute as an example, to lead on to his point that although modern music processing is complex, it mainly builds upon simpler older processes. Patel illustrated his initial point that some of the brain mechanisms used to derive meaning from instrumental music are even older than language by stating that a widespread intuition is that animals share our interpretation of music more than they share our interpretation of language (and cited the Classical Music for Dogs album on Amazon). Contrary to this point, however, through scientific evidence, he deduced that some basic mental processes we use to derive meaning from music may rely on recent neural specializations.

The final speaker, Elizabeth Tolbert, Professor of Musicology at Johns Hopkins University, took a more anthropological approach to the topic. “Music is about people,” she began her presentation. Tolbert stated that when we listen to music, we are hearing the intentions and subjectivity of other human beings, creating indirect social interaction. To illustrate this, she played the audience a Finnish-Karelian Lament, a lament in which elderly women imitate a crying sound. The traditional listeners of the lament are aware that the woman is not actually crying, but they also know that it represents crying. In this case, the fact that the lament is modeled on crying but doesn’t “mean” crying has larger contextual references, similar to what Tolbert argued happens more generally in music. She said that it could mean anything, but is ultimately about sociality.

After the presentations were complete, the speakers gathered for a discussion on the topic, first mediated by Goldman and then open to the audience. As I sat in the Italian Academy, sitting with many sharply-dressed scholars, I was absolutely mesmerized by the interdisciplinarity of the topic. The idea that many discoveries about humans and the way we process and think about things are still being made is an idea that excites me to extraordinary levels. After listening to the presentations and hearing the speakers’ responses to the questions they were asked, I felt as if I learned so much more than I thought I would have going in.

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