Listening to music: Aesthetics or psychology?
Right brain, left brain:
“If music simply makes the miles go by, as it did for Dan Coren and his wife on the trip he describes, does it connect with the mind as well as the autonomic nervous system?” my BSR colleague Robert Zaller recently wrote in response to my paean to the new music composer Steve Reich. “I can sit attentively through a 30- or 40- minute piece by Beethoven or Bartok because it will challenge the mind as well as charm the ear. How long, though, can one listen to a single unmodulated chord progression without being narcotized?”
Zaller raises valid questions, as does the discussion of new music raging recently in these pages among Tom Purdom, Peter Burwasser and assorted letter-writers. (Click here.) These reactions touch upon some profound questions of musical aesthetics and psychology, like: What constitutes beauty in music? How do the conscious and unconscious interact when we make aesthetic judgments?
Philosophers like Kant and Schopenhauer, musicians like Wagner, Stravinsky, and Stockhausen, and modern scholars like Oliver Sacks and Daniel Levitin have already grappled with these questions for centuries. Undaunted, I’ve been stimulated by BSR as well as my own recent musical experiences to take a crack at them myself.
A loaded term
It appears that by “the mind” Robert Zaller means the conscious analytical intellect— the left-brain side of things— and by “autonomic nervous system” he means the unconscious and intuitive right brain. And by using the loaded word “narcotized,” he seems to imply that musical experience that works solely on the subconscious— let’s call it pure right-brain music— is somehow less worthy than music that simultaneously stimulates analytical thought.
Perhaps Robert regards works like Terry Riley’s In C or Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians as dangerous musical gateway drugs that might lead one to the really hard stuff, like Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde or Parsifal, those musical narcotics that, it can be argued, precipitated the collapse of European musical culture.
OK, I’m being facetious. Sort of. Robert’s questions deserve a more substantial answer. So, let me start with what I’ll call Coren’s Two Axioms of Musical Experience:
• Nobody is even close to understanding how the brain processes music. (See my comments near the end of this earlier article.)
• No two people hear music the same way.
The first of these axioms is based on hard data— or, more to the point, the lack of it. The second is based on my own empirical experience and cannot, of course, be rigorously proved one way or the other.
Nonetheless, I do firmly believe that no matter whose opinion you cite— Andrew Kevorkian’s, Immanuel Kant’s, or mine— generalizations about what people find to be aesthetically pleasing are never absolutely true. I regret that I hadn’t yet learned that lesson when I taught music at Penn in the 1970s. Even today, as my highly opinionated writing for BSR has demonstrated over and over, I still haven’t learned it well enough.
So: Is Robert right? Is a Beethoven quartet in some way a more worthy experience than Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians?
Part of me replies, “Of course not! And why are you getting yourself all twisted around the axles obsessing over this intellectual bullshit?”
Alas, even after all these years I remain a recovering academic— and a former Wagner scholar, to boot. And if you’ve read my contributions to BSR over the past few years, you might reasonably conclude that I listen to classical music in an unusually intellectual manner. So the truth is that I myself find it a bit unsettling that I can so easily enter the blissfully unthinking trancelike state that Reich’s or Bruce Nauman’s music induces in me and find it something of a guilty pleasure to surrender entirely to right-brain experience.
The only way I can honestly answer Robert is by drawing upon the only data I can observe more or less directly: my own abundant musical activities. In recent months these have included (listed in descending order of spiritual necessity): rehearsing with the University of Pennsylvania choruses several hours a week; playing the piano at least an hour every day; writing about music for BSR; and, once in a while, simply listening to music.
I’d never thought about it much before, but now that I’m mulling over these questions, I’ve been struck by how each of these activities entails a different blend of right and left brain function, and not in ways I might have expected. That’s where I’ll resume in my next article.♦