Sunday, July 13, 2008

Is music just for babies?

I’m grateful to a friend for pointing me towards a recent preposterous article on music by Terry Kealey in the Times, suggesting in essence that music is anti-intellectual, regressive and appeals to our baser instincts. Now, I have sparred with Terry before and I know that he likes to be provocative. I don’t want to seem to be rising to the bait like some quivering Verdi aficionado. But really, he shouldn’t be allowed to be so naughty without being challenged. I have to say that his article struck me as a classic case of a little knowledge being a dangerous thing.

His bizarre opening gambit seems to be that music and intelligence are somehow mutually exclusive, so that one may make way for the other. This will come as news to any neuroscientist or psychologist who has ever studied music. A large part of the argument seems to rest on the idea that perfect pitch is a sign of mental incapacity. Isn’t it particularly common in autistic people and children, he asks? Er, no, frankly. Sorry, it’s as simple as that. Terry may be confusing the fact that children can acquire perfect pitch through learning more easily than adults – but that’s true of many things, including language (which presumably does not make language an infantile attribute). Perfect pitch is also more common in Chinese people, but I think even a controversialist like Terry might stop short of wanting to say that this proves his point. Merely, it seems to be enhanced in speakers of tonal languages, which stands to reason.

But more to the point – and this is a bit of a giveaway – perfect pitch has nothing to do with musical ability. There is no correlation between the two. It is true that many composers had/have perfect pitch, but that’s no mystery, because as Terry points out, it can be learnt with effort, i.e. with lots of exposure to music. It is, indeed, even possible to have perfect pitch and to be simultaneously clinically tone deaf, since one involves the identification of absolute pitch in single notes and the other of pitch relationships between multiple notes.

Birds too have perfect pitch, we’re told, and so did Neanderthals (thanks to another of Stephen Mithen’s wild speculations, swallowed hook, line and sinker). And don’t birds have music too, showing that it is for bird-brains? Sorry, again no. Anyone who thinks birds have music doesn’t know what music is. Music has syntax and hierarchical patterns. Birdsong does not – it is a linear sequence of acoustic signals. I’m afraid Terry again and again disqualifies himself during the article from saying anything on the subject.

Similarly, he claims that music has only emotional value, not intellectual. So how to explain the well-documented fact that musical training improves children’s IQ? Or that music cognition uses so many different areas of the brain – not just ‘primitive emotional centres’ such as the amygdala but logic-processing centres in the frontal cortex and areas that overlap with those used for handling language syntax? This is a statement of pure prejudice that takes no account of any evidence. ‘To a scientist, music can appear as a throwback to a primeval, swampy stage of human evolution’, Terry claims. Not to any scientist I know.

Finally, we have Terry’s remark that music encourages dictatorships, because Hitler and Stalin loved it, but Churchill and Roosevelt were indifferent. I am not going to insult his intelligence by implying that this is a serious suggestion that warrants a po-faced response, but really Terry, you have to be careful about making this sort of jest in the Times. I can imagine retired colonels all over the country snorting over their toast and marmalade: ‘Good god, the chap has a point!’

I must confess that I find something rather delightful in the fact that there are still people today who will, like some latter-day Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, denounce music as inciting ‘lust and superstition’. It’s wonderful stuff in its way, although one can’t help but scent the faint reek of the attacks on jazz in the early twentieth century, which of course had far baser motivations. Plato shared these worries too – Terry fails to point out that he felt only the right music educated the soul in virtue, while the wrong music would corrupt it. The same was true of Saint Augustine, but in his case it was his very love of music that made him fearful – he was all too aware of the strong effects it could exert, for ‘better’ or ‘worse’. In Terry Kealey’s case, it seems as though all music leaves him feeling vaguely unclean and infantilized, or perhaps just cold. That’s sad, but not necessarily beyond the reach of treatment.


JimmyGiro said...

"Anyone who thinks birds have music doesn’t know what music is. Music has syntax and hierarchical patterns. Birdsong does not – it is a linear sequence of acoustic signals."

In one foul stroke you have assigned Philip Glass to the poor house, and poor old radio 3's world music won't get its contract renewed.

Birds have different calls for different purposes: Blackbirds have general alarm calls, some subtle warning calls (to mates on the nest when predators are near but not too close to warrant an exposing flight), and of course mating calls.

These calls are the birds communicating to each other the various 'emotional' states of alarm, caution, and lust. In order to be successfully communicated both birds must be 'singing' from the same 'book'; which would imply a syntax.

Oliver said...


Do you know of any research on musical ability/interest and its correlation or not with religious belief?

Philip Dorrell said...

For a more radical view of the "benefits" of music, you might like to read my article Music: A Drug, Which Used To Be Stronger Than It Is Now.