The Resilient Human Hypothesis

Standard
isolation

“Isolation” by xkcd

Are we trapped in our technology? Does media change what it means to be human? Is some new trend in media going to alter who we are? Do you ever yearn for the days when people could talk instead of [insert use of media here]? These are common concerns that have echoed throughout the world since (at least) Socrates. Before I go any further, I don’t mean to infer that these concerns are unfounded or totally incorrect. Clearly, media does change how we communicate: go back slightly more than two decades and you wouldn’t even be able to be bored by my blog because the World Wide Web wasn’t invented yet.

220px-randolph_scott-publicity

Randolph Scott went one step further and peaced out the day I was born.

The point being, I don’t think I need to convince anyone that media changes our society. What I am arguing, however, is that media doesn’t change what it means to be human.

There’s a fair amount of disagreement on what exactly humans need in our lives to be healthy and happy, but social contact with other humans is generally accepted as a fundamental part of our lives. So what gives? How can everything be different, yet nothing changed?

Here’s an aside that illuminates the idea a bit: remember how good movies used to be in the days before Michael Bay and the junk we have now? I do too. But we’re wrong. It’s just that, over time, the junk gets forgotten and the good stuff is kept. Well, they are forgotten unless you’re a masochist and love bad movies. (Hmm, that might make for a good blog post…)

masochism

I do make her watch cheesy movies, the worst I can find. (La la la!)

Right, so bad movies are forgotten. But so are failed attempts to redefine how we communicate. This brings us to the first formal statement of the Resilient Human Hypothesis:

Communication technologies and mediums that fulfill human needs for communication are the ones that permeate society and last a long time.

This is hard to demonstrate thoroughly since it’s a negative and not a whole lot of people are willing to share their utter failures with the world. But here’s an example: the chat room.

Yes, my friends, there was a time in the early days of the internet that strangers would join a shared text space and type words at each other in a real time dialog. They were popular for a while, but mostly they’re relegated to a niche. What do we have instead? Chat rooms with people we know or are accessible to our social circle. These are typically called group messages now instead of chat rooms. People in group messages are more real to us than strangers.

giphy

Ah, the glory days of the internet…(?)

So why the rise and fall of chat rooms? I’m sure there is more than one cause, but I’d be willing to bet that talking with strangers via text doesn’t quite scratch the “needs to be social” itch. It was the closest thing you could do a long time ago since group messaging a bunch of friends wasn’t possible, and not everyone was on the internet yet or as much. So it lasted as long as those circumstances lasted and then left the mainstream consciousness. Sure, we still communicate quasi-anonymously through spaces like reddit or tumblr. But usernames become recognizable as individuals, and it isn’t a real time conversation like a chat room.

What does it all mean?

What I’m driving at is this: media works for us and not the other way around. We are too complex and too old of a species to be fundamentally changed by smartphones in just a few years. We have the same needs and desires as people from hundreds of years ago, so clearly the smartphone is serving us and not changing us on a fundamental level. And it isn’t just serving the individual, it’s serving the collection of individuals in our society.

Yes, the smartphone changes our environment in a litany of ways, but it is succeeding as a communication medium because it is scratching an itch to be social. We are still the same! And I would make an identical argument for any popular medium.

Let’s define music!

Standard

Goodness, I have written lots of word about music, but I’m not sure if I have ever thoroughly defined what I mean by “music.” In this post you’ll find my definition, of course, but I want to clarify right up front that this may read to be slightly antagonistic. In a sense it is meant to be, but ultimately it is about how to define music in the context of communication. I’m trying to push boundaries, not hurt feelings.

I don’t claim all of these thoughts as my own, but this may be a unique synthesis of standing ideas. I’ve also touched on some of these ideas in previous posts, but I wanted to put them all together.

Music describes a way of thinking about sound.

Music is a bit like the infamous Supreme Court ruling on pornography: it’s hard to define but when you’re presented with an example, you recognize it immediately. Once you start leaving the very obvious examples, it gets kind of hard to find the boundary between music and regular sound. That’s because music describes a way of thinking about sound, not a specific kind of sound.

I think the most famous example of pushing the boundaries of music in the western world might be John Cage’s 4’33.” A pianist sits down, prepares to play, then does nothing for 4 minutes and 33 seconds. Is that music? Well, Cage would certainly say so but the audience in the music hall is split. Some say yes, some say no. Who is right?

I would argue that 4’33” in that example is definitively music, and here is why: the context. In his autobiography, Frank Zappa argued that context is key. He called it “putting a frame around it.” Let’s explore this a bit. The audience in my example above is at a music hall to hear music. A performer sits at an instrument, prepares to play, then plays silence for 4’33”. While it is certainly up to audience members to decide how much they enjoy the performance, they can’t really argue about whether or not music happened because the context clearly articulated that music happened.

Here’s another example: you’re walking in the woods alone, and you come to a clearing to find a pianist sitting at a piano. As you approach, she hops up and says “ah! I just finished my performance of 4’33”! What did you think?” Did you hear music for the last 4 minutes and 33 seconds? I don’t think so. There was no contextual clue to encourage you to think about sounds as music for the previous four and a half minutes. (Unless, of course, you just so happened to be doing it on your own free will, but the odds of that are remote.)

Another way to think about it is the old paradox: don’t think about an elephant. It’s impossible to not think about an elephant when you are given this prompt. Similarly, the people in the music hall are thinking about music and thinking about sound as music. Even if they’re thinking “ugh, this is stupid, this isn’t music,” they are still thinking about sound as music.

Music is communication.

When we hear sound as music, we are interpreting and processing it. Music is inherently more vague in its meaning than language, but there is still meaning. Music has emotional impacts, triggers memories, and causes physiological responses. Language does all of these things, too.

I think a lot of people get hung up on the idea of “music is communication” because music isn’t specific or declarative. I agree wholly that music is non-specific and non-declarative. I can’t play you a tune on a recorder to ask you to get me a beer (I would if I could, though!). And if you ask 10 people to listen to the same song, they’ll each tell you something different when asked what it means.

However, language suffers some of the same faults. Has anyone ever misunderstood you? Or have you ever said something that came out wrong? Of course you have. Language is specific, but the interpretation is difficult. I think music suffers a somewhat similar fate: a composer can intend to convey a scene or a feeling, but different audience members will have different responses.

Also, I’m blogging right now. (Duh.) But why? Well, blogging has a certain set of affordances that other kinds of communication lack. I could say this out loud, but only the other people near my desk would hear me. And once I’ve said it, it’s gone forever. I could write a book, but that means people need to buy it to read my thoughts. I could write a poem, but my prose is terrible. The point is that I’m writing this in blog form because it seems to be the best way for me to share these specific ideas in a way that I want to share them. Music is no different. I can express things that are difficult or impossible to express outside of music.

I think a more complete analysis of the affordances of music would be a swell thing to do, but here’s a short sketch: musical expression has no substitute mode of expression. I can’t accurately tell you about a piece of music, I can only approximate it in words. Information is lost when I talk about it compared to you experiencing it first hand. I think what is lost is the thrill and the emotion. Not only am I sharing words, but I’m sharing my interpretation of it. I’ve taken the experience out of it. It’s like baby food: the nutrition is there, but the experience of texture is lost in the processing.

Music is interesting.

Unlike language, music is inherently interesting. Language is designed to convey specific ideas. The goal is clarity and meeting expectations of normal patterns of communication. Sentences have at least a noun and a verb. Normal communication is utilitarian and functional. Musical communication is impressionistic and fanciful.

Part of the joy of listening to music is the blend of having your expectations met and defied in unexpected but carefully constructed ways. A piece of music establishes or implies a set of rules, but then defies those rules for your enjoyment. For example, a common thing to do in a pop song is to modulate up part of the way through the song. This defies expectations because the song has clearly established itself to exist in a given key, but then everything suddenly shifts upwards. The foundation the song was built on just got pushed upward a little bit. It’s startling, but it can be pleasant when done artfully. Another example is establishing a phrase (a pattern) by repeating the structure, but then unexpectedly stopping the pattern short. Again, this can be quite exhilarating and pleasant when done carefully. Imagine that happening in a conversation, though. Someone is talking to you and they just stop right in the

… Language doesn’t work that way, does it? Language is meant to inform and music is meant to challenge and entertain you, in a broad sense. Attempts to describe music in terms of musical forces (like physical forces) sometimes stumble because music does unexpected things. A thrown ball will always obey physical forces. In that sense, it is uninteresting. Music, however, will only sometimes obey musical forces and that’s part of the point.

Music is important.

Music is a means of expression for both performers and listeners. It is therapeutic. Music helps build identity both for individuals and groups. These are concrete, real psychological benefits. Music helps us survive, and it helps shape societies.

And now, I think a brief explanation of what music is not would be useful.

Sheet music is a lie.

Sheet music is not music nor is it an accurate representation of music. It is a shorthand expression and a necessary means to preserve musical ideas in the era before recording audio was possible. It is a useful guide for memorization and performance. Systems that explicitly or implicitly rely on sheet music as if it is real music are faulty.  Sheet music captures onsets and durations in an abstract and imperfect way, and make little to no attempt to capture feeling.

Schenkerian analysis is a way to analyze music, but it is not the way.

Schenkerian analysis is a useful tool to analyze music of a certain type when asking certain questions. However, since it is by far the dominant (heh) method of musical analysis, it is often applied to situations where it is not relevant or meaningful. Schenkerian analysis also presumes that sheet music is an accurate representation of music. Schenkerian analysis is performed on sheet music, not actual music. It is also produces a tautological result: each piece of music can be reduced to simpler and simpler versions, eventually ending in a descending pattern of notes. On the surface, this is a stunning revelation about how music works but the problem is that Schenkerian analysis demands this outcome.

When studying the psychological implications of music, it is important to ask questions about the music that most people actually experience.

Remember, music is a phenomenon that exists in the mind. It then follows that it is important to study the kinds of music found in most minds. And I think it’s safe to say that Schubert isn’t it. It’s time to roll up our sleeves and dig into the music of the now.

Music perception and cognition research largely limits itself to SERIOUS CLASSICAL MUSIC and maybe jazz when feeling cheeky. This is a problem! And please don’t think I’m knocking serious classical music or jazz, or the study of this music. It’s very important and relevant and I am grateful that people do it because both of the forms of music profoundly influence our current popular music.

What I am advocating is that music be studied in such a way that is more related to how most people experience music. Artificiality is a challenge in any line of research, but this stumbling block seems easy enough to avoid. The barriers to studying popular music are institutional elitism, not practical issues.

Anyway, I hope you enjoyed this or at the very least found it provocative. I know it helped me a lot to codify all of these thoughts in one place, so I thank you for the indulgence.

Metaphors, music, and learning from the absurd

Standard

It finally happened. I think every graduate student gets one, and I got mine: a reading assigned for class that is completely blowing my mind. Steve Larson’s Musical Forces is provocative, funny, and controversial. Larson argues that, like the physical world, music has forces that govern (or, in the case of music, “influence” might be appropriate) its motion through time. Music has forces that are similar to the physical forces because of the one thing common to every human: the experience of having a body and existing in the physical world. And we base all of our knowledge in metaphor for the physical world. (Note: “base,” “in,” etc.)

 

Larson even says he can quantify the musical forces. You’ll have to read it yourself to see if you agree. I have yet to make up my mind.

Anyway, time to pivot:

1761013715_b52beca319_z

… says the pawn shop, without a hint of irony.

I’m finally starting to gain some perspective on what truly interests me and the conceptual continuity that connects all of my expression. From a personal perspective, I see little distinction between my identities as a scientist and a creative. Research, to me, is a fundamentally creative endeavor and despite the stereotypes about creative types, I think scientists and creatives face very similar problems:

 

  • What hasn’t been done yet?
  • How can I synthesize things that have been done to produce new things?
  • How do I know if it’s good?
  • When is it done?
  • What do I do with it when it’s done?
  • What value does this create?
  • What else could I have been doing if this fails?

The threads that I see more and more connecting these aspects of my life are all about levels of abstraction. Cast in another light, it might be described as metaphor in the same way that Hofstadter and Larson mean it: cross-domain mapping. (As well as allegory, which is intra-domain mapping). Now, before you recoil in horror at that jargon, let me clarify this idea a bit while also making it more opaque.

Cross-domain mapping is about making an association between two unrelated things. First of all, think of domains as categories. The classic example is “the legs of a chair.” Chairs don’t have legs. Not really. Animals have legs, and a chair is not an animal. We call those sturdy vertical protuberances on the bottom of a chair “legs” because their function and form are evocative of actual legs. An example of intra-domain mapping is something like saying “[song a] starts the same way as [song b].” They don’t literally start the same way, but we choose to relate them. Surely the notes played, arrangement, tempo, etc. might be highly, highly similar but they aren’t literally identical. Larson calls this kind of comparison “hearing as.” Going back to the legs of a chair, that would be an example of “seeing as.”

Right about now, if you’re still with me, you might be thinking “oh, well this isn’t so hard.” But there’s that sense of something lurking in the depths, isn’t there? A sense of unease. An ugly question rears its head: what exactly qualifies as a domain? The short answer is that there is no answer. There are big, obvious domains that would be hard to argue as being part of the same domain like cars vs dogs, South Indian cuisine vs Southern Indiana cuisine, blogs vs good sources of information, and so on. Got it? Good.

For your consideration, what is this pictured below?

uss_enterprise_ncc-1701-a

Depending on your individual knowledge, possible answers range from “that Star Wars thing” to “the Enterprise NCC-1701-A, a refit Constitution class cruiser, under command of Admiral James T. Kirk.” Now, given the disparity between those descriptions, and not even considering everything in between, can you see how it would be hard to define universal, concrete domains? Let’s go further. Is the ship below the same or different from the one above?

uss_enterprise

Very quickly, you’ve probably come to the conclusion that “it depends – it’s complicated.” You’d be right. Domain mapping gets complicated quickly because domains are highly context driven as well as individualized.

There’s good news, though. Metaphors and allegories can organize nicely into hierarchies depending on your level of analysis: human vs animal -> animal kingdom vs plant kingdom -> multicellular life vs single cellular life -> … Whatever the context or individualized knowledge you possess, we all have hierarchies of abstraction.

giphy1

Inevitably, you end up with this trope.

And at least right now, that’s the thing that interests me: how do we, as humans, manipulate these hierarchies of abstraction to communicate effectively? Music, to me, is a primary example of this. I could orate, paint, or even write all I want to try and have you understand a piece of music and it wouldn’t matter one bit if you haven’t actually heard it. The music-ness of the abstraction of thought is part of communication itself, and it can’t be expressed in any other way. At least, I don’t think so.

Furthermore; when creating music, how do we manipulate levels of abstraction to communicate something? What does it mean to strum a guitar? When I’m working with my bandmates on a new song, what do we talk about and why? How does it influence what we play? And when assembling a song for dissemination as a piece of media, what does it mean to put the guitar in the mix one way or another?

Brian Eno talks at length about some absurdities he uses when working with other musicians to provoke and evoke certain moods, vibes, or styles of play. One of my favorites is Oblique Strategies, which was originally a deck of cards meant to be a guide through abstract ideas and commands when stuck on some sort of creative task. Follow that link, check out a few cards.

You draw a card and read it, then put it back down in a huff. What the hell does “Change nothing and continue with immaculate consistency” mean? Well, it’s up to you whether or not that prompt relates something meaningful to you. It’s a pointedly absurd way to provoke someone into thinking about different levels of abstraction, but none the less it’s a tool that people (myself included) swear by.

I don’t think there’s any one answer to any of the questions I’ve raised about manipulating levels of abstraction. I do think if I constrain myself to one type of communication (recorded music) there’s probably commonalities to what it means to experienced listeners and what it means to them on some basic level, since we have so much more in common than different because we’re all grounded in the same physical reality.