Music is an art without an apparent object – there are no scenes to look at, no
sculptured marbles to touch, no stories to follow – and yet it can cause some of the most
passionate and intense feelings possible. How does this happen – how can sounds from
resonant bodies produce emotion (1) in man?
Music is experienced as if it had the power to reach man’s emotions directly…Music communicates emotions, which one grasps, but does not actually feel; what one feels is a suggestion, a kind of distant, dissociated, depersonalized emotion — until and unless it unites with one’s own sense of life. But since the music’s emotional content is not communicated conceptually or evoked existentially, one does feel it in some peculiar, subterranean way…How can sounds reach man’s emotions directly, in a manner that seems to by-pass his intellect? What does a certain combination of sounds do to man’s consciousness to make him identify it as gay or sad?…The nature of musical perception has not been discovered because the key to the secret of music is physiological — it lies in the nature of the process by which man perceives sounds –and the answer would require the joint effort of a physiologist, a psychologist and a philosopher (an esthetician). (Rand 1971, 52-56)
Further, what is the possible biological function and evolutionary origin of this
process by which sound elicits feeling? As Ray Jackendorff says “there is no obvious
ecological pressure for the species to have a musical faculty, as there is for vision and
language” (1987, 211). In other words, there is no immediate and obvious biological
function for music, as there is for vision or language. One researcher in the psychology of
music aptly summarized the problem as follows:
Musical messages seem to convey no biologically relevant information, as do speech, animal utterances and environmental sounds – yet people from all cultures do react to musical messages. What in human evolution could have led to this? Is there, or has there been, a survival value for the human race in music? (Roederer 1984, 351).
One might object to this characterization with the question “But you are comparing
apples and oranges when you compare music to vision and language. Instead, you should
be comparing hearing to vision, and music to painting; you should be asking: What is the
biological function of art?”
I first wondered about the biological function and evolutionary origin of music over
twenty years ago, while I was reading Ayn Rand’s article on esthetics,
“Art and Cognition.” In that article, Rand gives an answer to
the question “What is the biological function of art?” in
general, but is only able to suggest an hypothesis about
music’s biological function. The problem lies, as I
mentioned at the start of this article, with the fact that
music does not, apparently, involve the perception of
entities. In the following, I shall attempt a fuller answer and thereby shed some light on
the question of how sounds from resonant bodies produce emotions in man. My attempt
is made possible by recent scientific research into the nature of the brain.
Unlike many twentieth century theorists, Rand’s esthetics is integrated with her
complex and persuasive philosophy of reason, reality and
man’s nature and I think her esthetics deserves special
attention as part of my examination of the nature of music.
I will examine some of the historical theories of musical
meaning, then the more recent scientific investigations into
the nature of music, including some of the current theories
of music’s biological function. I shall review some theories
of the nature of emotion and the relation of music to
emotion. I shall then offer my theory of the biological
origin of music. Subsequently, I shall consider Rand’s
hypothesis about the nature of music, in light of the
research evidence. Lastly, I shall suggest some possible
research which might confirm or disconfirm my theory.
I have gathered evidence from several areas of the
research literature in search of an answer to the question of
music’s evolutionary origin and biological function. I
believe this evidence indicates that music evolved out of the
sonority and prosody (2) of vocal communication and that
musical elaboration of those elements has a special
biological communication function. Prosody evidently
facilitates linguistic syntax – that is, the sound of language helps us understand the
meaning of what’s said (Shapiro and Nagel 1995).
Furthermore, some aspects of one’s pitch (3) perceptions in
music are evidently influenced by one’s native language and
dialect (Deutsch 1992).
More neuropsychological knowledge is needed to prove my
thesis – but I leave the reader to turning over the evidence
I have assembled, along with his own knowledge of music, in
considering the question: Why does man make music?
Brief History on the Theories of Music’s Nature
From the ancient world to the nineteenth century, men
theorized about music based on their experience of it, and
only a little scientific knowledge about the physics of
music which was first examined by the Pythagoreans. Two key
ideas have been repeated down through the ages:
1. Music is a form of communication, a kind of
language; in particular, the language of feeling.
2. Music can form or inform one’s feeling or
The Ancient Greek “idea of music as essentially one with
the spoken word has reappeared in diverse forms throughout
the history of music” (Grout 1973,7). The Greeks “were
familiar with the idea that music can alter the disposition
of those who hear it. They acknowledge its power to soothe,
to console, to distract, to cheer, to excite, to inflame, to
madden” (West 1992, 31). Aristotle believed that “music has
a power of forming the character, and should therefore be
introduced into the education of the young” (Politics 1340b,
10-15). In one way or another, music touched everyone in
Greek civilization (West 1992).
The Greeks seemed to implicitly acknowledge music’s
connection to language in their refusal to create or accept
purely instrumental music. The early Middle-Age Europeans
did likewise, but eventually divorced music from voice, so
that by Hegel’s time, instrumental, wordless music was
considered a superior form (Bowie 1990, 183)
A connection of music to language was mentioned
frequently in late nineteenth century examinations of music’s
meaning. There are many, including Schopenhauer, Hegel, and
Tolstoy, who subscribed to the idea that music is “another
language,” the language of feeling.
Hegel relates music to “primitive” expressions, such as bird-song or wordless cries. Schleiermacher suggests the ambiguous status of music in relation to natural sound and to speech: “For neither the expression of a momentary sensation by a…speechless natural sound, nor speaking which approaches song are music, but only the transition to it” (Bowie 1990, 183).
Langer (1957) points out that music fails to qualify as
a language because it does not have fixed denotation.
And Nietzsche, in an 1871 fragment, took issue with the view
that music represents feeling:
What we call feelings are…already penetrated and saturated with conscious and unconscious representations and thus not directly the object of music, let alone able to produce music out of themselves (1980, 364, quoted in Bowie 1990, 230-31).
Feelings, Nietzsche claims, are actually only symbols of music, which has a prior ontological status. This opposes the commonplace in some Romantic thinking that music is the language, in the sense of the “representation”, the substitute, for feeling…Nietzsche’s view makes some sense if one ponders the fact that music can lead to the genesis of feelings which one had never had before hearing the music. (Bowie 1990, 231).
The modern scientific investigation of music began with
Hermann von Helmholtz’s study of the physics and
psychological effects of the tones and keys of music (1954
). Helmholtz argues that music does not use all types
of sound, only those “due to a rapid periodic motion of the
sonorous body; the sensation of a noise to non-periodic
motions.” (Helmholtz 1863, 9). Most researchers do not
question what sounds make music, but write with the
assumption that they are referring to sounds caused by
periodic vibrations (Aiello, Molfese, Sloboda, Stiller,
Lange, Schopenhauer, Trehub, Zatorre, etc.). “Tonal
stimulation is a constant factor of all musical stimulus”
(Meyer 1994, 13). The neurophysiological musical research
often revolves around contrasting responses of subjects to
periodic (tonal) versus nonperiodic (noise) sounds. Warren,
Obusek, and Farmer (1969) found the interesting fact that
subjects could not accurately perceive the temporal order of
four nonspeech, nonmusical sounds.
John Sloboda (1985) has examined various contemporary
scientific theories of musical meaning, among them the idea
that music mimics environmental sounds. The mimickry theory
is intriguing, but it seems to have a problem sufficiently
explaining the depth and range of meaning in music. Indeed,
music can aptly imitate some natural sounds, as did Saint-
Saens, in his “Carnival of the Animals.” But, even in music
considered to be as programmatic as Berlioz’ “Symphonie
Fantastique,” we cannot find environmental sounds of which
the music would be an imitation. To this point, Helmholtz
“In music one does not aim at representation of nature; rather, tones and tone sensations exist just for their own purpose and function independently of their relationship to any environmental object” (1863, 370).
Other theorists suggest that music has its effects by
expressing tension and its resolution (Schenker 1935;
Bernstein 1976). Tension and resolution are certainly a
large part of the musical experience, but they name only very
general qualities of it and do not seem to address the vast,
varied, and subtle ways music can make us feel.
Manfred Clynes sees music as the embodiment of the forms of emotion, “emotionally
expressive dynamic forms which we have called essentic forms”
(1986, 169). Clynes (1974, 1986) theory of music seems to parallel, for sound,
what Ekman proposed for facial expression. Ekman (1977) found that there is a
systematic relation between emotion and facial expression, and suggested that
this is a result of inborn “affect programmes” (automatically
triggered sequences of emotion), an idea also accepted by
by Tomkins (1962) and Izard (1971). Clynes thinks the essentic forms are biologically
determined expressions of emotion, experienced the same way
across cultures, which idea seems similar to “inborn affect
Essentic forms are specific spatio-temporal forms biologically programmed into the central nervous system for the expressive communication and generation of emotional qualities (1986, 169).
Clynes seems to be using the word “form” metaphorically. It
usually refers to the three-dimensional, spatial aspects of
things. He seems to be saying that the physiological nature,
intensity, and timing of music-evoked emotions have great
similarity among individuals. Just as, typically, one’s pulse raises, one’s muscles tighten
and one’s breath seems to become more ragged when one is angry, so there are typical
bodily changes due to the feelings which music evokes. This typicality is illustrated
and represented by the shape of the graph produced by
subjects’ fingers during experiments with Clynes’ sentograph.
The graph’s shape thereby represents the “form” of the
emotion. He has interesting data showing that the same music
will evoke similar motor responses in people of vastly
different cultures. His sentograph, which measures motor
response, attaches to the subject’s finger and records, on a
graph, subtle movements of the digit upon exposure to music.
Clynes found remarkable similarity among individual’s
responses to a given composer and between the responses of
different individuals to the same composer’s music, as
represented by the forms on the recording graphs. De Vries’
research confirms Clynes’ hypothesis that emotional responses
are similar among subjects and showed that responses to music
were “not affected by a subject’s familiarity with or
evaluation of a piece” (De Vries 1991, 46).
In a view which seems consonant with Clynes’,
Jackendorff points out that dance is closely related to
music, and that
going beyond crude rhythmic correspondences, we have undeniable and detailed intuitions concerning whether the character of dance movements suit or fail to suit the music. Such intuitions are patently not the result of deliberate training…This suggests that…a cognitive structure can be placed into close correspondence with musical structure…[which] might encode dance movements…[which can be] provisionally called body representation -essentially a body-specific encoding of the internal sense of the states of the muscles, limbs, and joints. Such a structure, in addition to representing the position of the body, would represent the dynamic forces present within the body, such as whether a position is being held in a state of relaxation or in a state of balanced tension….There is every reason to believe that such a representation is independently necessary for everyday tasks. …It would likely be involved as well in correspondences between emotional and muscular states -for instance, one carries oneself differently in states of joy, anger, depression, elation, or fear. (1987, 238-9)
Consonant with this view, Hevner (1936) found that
individuals show general agreement about the emotional
content of pieces of music and that there is broad agreement
among members of a culture about the musical mood of a piece,
even among children as young as three years of age (Kastner
and Crowder 1990). And Stiller notes that
a number of important musical universals have been identified: Melodies worldwide are made mostly of major seconds; all musics employ dynamic accents, and notes of varying lengths; and all display extensive use of variation and repetition…the universality of music suggests that there may be a biological basis for its existence. (1987, 13)
Research confirms the everyday experience that music
causes emotional states which can seriously affect our
actions. Konecni (1982) found that subjects who had been
insulted by confederates working for the experimenter were
quite aggressive about shocking those confederates. But
subjects who had merely been exposed to loud, complex music
were almost as aggressive about shocking confederates as the
insulted subjects had been! In another experiment subjects
were able to shape their moods by their musical choices, and
thereby optimize their moods. Depending on the way they felt
when they came to the experimental session (anxious or angry
or happy), and how they wanted to feel afterwards, they could
pick music that changed the way they felt entirely – once
again supporting the idea that the sounds of music have a
direct effect on emotions.
In many respects, mood is a better concept than
emotion to describe the results of music. Giomo says “This
affective meaning, labelled ‘mood’, is of an individual and
nameless nature, not truly describable using emotion labels”
(Giomo 1993, 143). Sloboda points out that “the ability to
judge mood is logically and empirically separable from the
ability to feel emotion in response to music. It is quite
possible to judge a piece of music to represent extreme
grief, yet be totally unmoved by it” (1991, 111). DeVries
(1991) suggested that there are two steps in reacting to
music: one in which music directly activates “programmes”
which trigger emotions and a second in which a person allows
themselves to experience the emotion or suppresses it,
depending on the congruity of the emotion with, among other
things, their personality and cultural background.
In searching for an evolutionary origin to music,
Konecni, as does Roederer (1984), posits that music helps to
synchronize the emotional states necessary for collective
action, such as the excitement needed for the hunt or battle.
Many primitive tribes seem to use music in this way (as do
college bands during football games). And, indeed, a few
other species, such as birds and cetaceans, have music-
like behaviors (4), wherein they produce sounds of periodic
vibrations and which are intimately tied to intra-species
communication and collective action. Stiller claims that
“Music helps to insure…cooperation — indeed, must
play an important role in that regard, or there would have
been no need to evolve such a unique form of emotional
communication” (1987, 14). He quotes Alan Lomax to the
effect that music organizes the mood, the feelings, the
general attitude of a group of people. This seems to echo
the Ancient Greek view that music teaches men how to feel
like warriors or like lovers.
…there may be a certain cultural advantage in having some rudimentary form of music to help synchronize collective rhythmic activity or to serve some ceremonial aspect of social life, no particular reason is evident for the efflorescence of musical complexity that appears in so many cultures (Jackendorff 1987, 214).
The socio-biological theory of musical meaning may
explain some of the psychological roots of music’s evolutionary origins but what
determines the kinds of sounds which can cause the experience
of emotion, i.e. the neurological roots? And why do we have so many kinds of music
which we listen to for its own sake?
The Neuropsychological Data on Language and Music
Why should certain kinds of sounds be able to directly
evoke feeling? By what means, what neuropsychological
As have so many in the history of music theory, Roederer
(1984) wonders whether the answer lies in the unique human
capacity for language. Human infants have high motivation to
acquire language, as evidenced by the assiduous way they
attend to, imitate, and practice language. Language
activities are very pleasurable; if they were not, human
infants would not be motivated to perform language-related
activities as much as they do. On this evidence, I venture
to say that humans have built-in developmental pleasure/pain
processes for producing and listening to language. Language
acquisition is a cognitive activity that is highly motivated
and important to survival. Are the emotions aroused for
language acquisition the evolutionary link between sound and
emotion? That is, are humans moved by sound as a result of a biological need to be
interested in acquiring language?
Experiments show that there are strong similarities in the way in which people perceive structure in music and in language…[but] overall, the syntax of music has much more latitude than that of language. Thus, in the syntaxes of music and language, we must remember that music is far more flexible and ambiguous than language (Aiello 1994, 46-9).
Furthermore, neuropsychological evidence seems to be a
odds with the proposal that language is the basis of music.
The areas of the brain which primarily process speech are,
apparently, mostly different from those which process music
(5). Investigations into the brain areas which process
speech and music have turned up the interesting finding that,
in most infants, the left hemisphere responds more to speech
sounds and the right to musical tones, as indicated by a type
of EEG called auditory evoked potentials, (Molfese 1977).
Measures of how much attention a neonate paid to left or
right ear stimuli (as indicated by “high amplitude non-
nutritive sucking”) indicated that most infants responded
more to language sounds presented to their right ears (left
hemispheres) and to musical sounds presented to their left
ears (right hemispheres) (Entus 1977; Glanville, Best, and
Levenson 1977), although Vargha-Khadem and Corbellis (1979)
were not able to replicate Entus’ findings. Best, Hoffman,
and Glanville (1982) found a right ear advantage for speech
in infants older than two months during tasks in which
infants had to remember and discriminate phonetic sounds and
musical timbres. Infants younger than two months showed an
ear advantage only for musical notes, and that advantage was
for the left ear. In older children and adult non-musicians,
damage to the left hemisphere usually impairs language
functions but tends to spare musical abilities, including
singing. Damage to the right hemisphere, particularly the
right temporal lobe, tends to leave language functions
intact, but impairs musical abilities and the production and
comprehension of language tone and of emotion expressed
through language or other sounds (Joanette, Goulet, and
Zatorre (1979) found a left ear advantage for the
discrimination of melodies versus speech in a dichotic (6)
listening task with both musicians and nonmusicians. He
found cerebral-blood-flow evidence that right temporal lobe
neurons are particularly important in melodic and pitch
discriminations (Zatorre, Evans, and Meyer 1994). Tramo and
Bharucha (1991), following the work of Gordon (1970), found
that the right hemisphere seems to process the perception of
harmonics (tested by the detection of complex relationships
among simultaneous musical sounds). Damage to the right
temporal lobe impairs the ability to recognize timbre (7),
and time cues within tones that determine the recognition of
timbre (Samson and Zatorre 1993). These authors suggest that
“the same acoustical cues involved in perception of musical
timbre may also serve as linguistic cues under certain
circumstances” (Ibid., 239). There are now indications that
timbre and phonetic information are processed through some
common stage beyond peripheral acoustic processing. Research
is underway to determine whether voice identification also
proceeds through this same timbre-phoneme nonperipheral stage
In a critical review, Zatorre (1984) notes that right-
sided damage can produce deficits in tasks that process
patterns of pitch and timbre differences. Adults with
partial or complete excisions of the right temporal lobe were
found to be significantly impaired in the perception of pitch
(Zatorre 1988). Kester et. al (1991) found that musical
processing was most affected by right temporal lobectomy. In
a review of the literature on the infant’s perception of tone
sequences, or melodies, Trehub (1990) found that human
infants do not use local pitch strategies characteristic of
nonhuman species, that is, they do not depend on the
recognition of particular, or absolute pitches, to identify
tone sequences. Rather, like human adults, they use global
and relational means to encode and retain contours of
melodies, with little attention to absolute pitch. (Although,
interestingly, Kessen, Leving and Wendrich (1979) found that
infants paid very close attention to experimenters’ singing
and could imitate pitch quite well.) In other words, human
infants have the ability to recognize exact pitches, but the
exact key in which a melody is played makes little difference
for human recognition of melody, while animals depend on the
particular pitch in which their “song” is sung to recognize
it. This seems to imply that even human infants are
extracting the abstract pattern of the sounds, rather than
using the sounds as signs, specific perceptual markers, of
In reviewing the research on infants’ perception of
music, Trehub (1987) suggests that infants have the skills
for analyzing complex auditory stimuli. These skills may
correspond to musical universals, as indicated by infants’
preference for major triadic chord structures.
The evidence indicates that human infants have the
ability to recognize and process music in a fairly complex
way, at a very early age. Furthermore, music processing in
most infants and adults seems to occur primarily in the right
And infants, like adults, appear to find music
interesting: they tend to pay attention to it, they like to
engage in imitations of adult pitches and, they learn to sing
as soon as they learn to speak (Cook 1994).
The Neuropsychological Data on Emotions
How does the data on the neuropsychological processes
involved in music relate to the data on the
neuropsychological processes involved in emotions? It is
well-established that for most people, right hemisphere
damage causes difficulties with the communication and
comprehension of emotion (Bear 1983; Ross 1984). Apparently,
the right hemisphere mediates the processing of many types of
emotionally-laden information: visual, facial, gestural,
bodily, and auditory.
The evidence suggests that the right hemisphere has a
special relationship with the emotional functions of the
human mind, specifically in being able to process and project
emotional meaning through perceptual information (Kolb and
Whishaw 1990). For most people, the right hemisphere
performs integrative visual functions, such as grasping
visual gestalts and comprehending visual and architectural
wholes; the inability to recognize faces is sometimes the
consequence of right temporal lobe damage. (Kolb and
Whishaw, 1990) Right hemisphere damage can often lead to the
inability to be aware of whole areas of space in relation to
oneself, called perceptual neglect. (See A. Luria’s The Man
With A Shattered World for an agonizing description of what
the world seems like when one’s brain cannot perform these
visual and kinesthetic integrations.) Neglect of half of
perceived space, called hemi-neglect, is a frequent result of
extensive right parietal damage. The right hemisphere is
fundamentally involved in comprehending the connotative
meanings of language, metaphors and nonliteral implications
of stories; and the right hemisphere seems to be involved in
the comprehension of meaning commmunicated through sound,
especially voice. Oliver Sacks discusses patients with
For such patients, typically, the expressive qualities of voices disappear – their tone, their timbre, their feeling, their entire character – while words (and grammatical constructions) are perfectly understood. Such tonal agnosias (or ‘aprosodias’) are associated with disorders of the right temporal lobe, whereas aphasias go with disorders of the left temporal lobe (1987, 83).
He also describes aphasics (9) who are not able to grasp the
denotative meaning of words and yet are able to follow many
conversations by the emotional tone of the speakers.
With the most sensitive patients, it was only with [grossly artificial mechanical speech from a computerised voice synthesizer] that one could be wholly sure of their aphasia (Ibid., 80-1).
The patients would use all kinds of extraverbal clues to
understand what another was saying to them. He claimed that
a roomful of them laughed uproariously over a speech given by
Ronald Reagan because of the patent insincerity of it.
Rate, amplitude, pitch, inflection, timbre, melody, and
stress contours of the voice are means by which emotion is
communicated (in nonhuman as well as human species), and the
right hemisphere is superior in the interpretation of these
features of voice (Joseph 1988). Samson and Zatorre (1993)
found similar cortical areas responding to pitch and timbre
in humans and animals. In dichotic listening tasks, Zurif
and Mendelsohn (1972) found a right ear advantage for
correctly matching meaningless, syntactically organized
sentences with meaningful ones by the way the sentence was
emotionally intoned. The subjects could apparently match
such nonsense sentences as: “Dey ovya ta ransch?” with “How
do you do?” by the intonation the speaker gave the sentence.
Heilman, Scholes, and Watson (1975) found that subjects with
right temporal-parietal lesions tended to be impaired at
judging the mood of a speaker. Heilman et. al (1984) also
compared subjects with right temporal lobe-damage to both
normals and aphasics (4) in discriminating the emotional
content of speech. He presented all three types of subjects
with sentences wherein the verbal content of the speakers was
filtered out and only the emotional tone was left, and found
those with temporal lobe damage to be impaired in their
emotional discriminations. In a similar study, Tompkins and
Flowers (1985) found that the tonal memory scores (how well
the subjects could remember specific tones) for right
braindamaged subjects were lower than those of other
subjects, implying that right braindamage leads to a problem
with the perceptual encoding of sound, put not necessarily
with the comprehension of emotional meaning per se.
The human voice conveys varied, complex, and subtle
meaning through timbre, pitch, stress contour, tempo, and so
forth and thereby communicates emotion.
What is clear is that the rhythmic and the musical are not contingent additions to language….The “musical” aspect of language emphasizes the way that all communication has an irreducibly particular aspect which cannot be substracted (Bowie 1990, 174).
Best, Hoffman, and Glanville found that the ability to
process timbre appears in neonates and very young infants,
apparently before the ability to process phonetic stimuli
Through the “music” in voice, we comprehend the feelings
of others and we communicate ours to them. This is an
important ability for the well-being of the human infant, who
has not yet developed other human tools for communicating its
needs and comprehending the world around it – a world in
which the actions and feelings of its caretakers are of
immense importance to its survival. Emotion is conveyed
through language in at least two ways: through the
specifically verbal content of what is said, and through the
“musical” elements in voice, which are processed by the right
hemisphere. One of the characteristic features of
traditional poetry is the dense combination of the meaning of
words with the way they sound, which, when done well, results
in emotionally moving artworks (Enright 1989). Mothers
throughout the world use nursery rhymes, a type of poetry, to
amuse and soothe infants and young children, that is, to
arouse emotions they find desirable in the children. “Music
can articulate the ‘unsayable’, which is not representable by
concepts or verbal language” (Bowie, 1990, 184). “Men have not found the words for it
nor the deed nor the thought, but they have found the music” (Rand 1943, 544) .
Was nature being functionally logical and parsimonious
to combine, in the right hemisphere, those functions which
communicate emotion with those that comprehend emotion?
As social animals, humans have many ways of
communicating and comprehending emotions: facial expression,
gesture, body language, and voice tone. I propose that
music’s biopsychological origins lie in the ability to
recognize and respond directly to the feelings of another
through tone of voice, an important ability for infant and
adult survival. (The tone of voice of an angry and menacing
person has a very different implication than that of a sweet
and kind person.)
If inflection and nuance enhance the effect of spoken language, in music they create the meaning of the notes. Unlike words, notes and rests do not point to ideas beyond themselves; their meaning lies precisely in the quality of the sounds and silences, so that the exact renderings of the notes, the nuances, the inflection, the intensity and energy with which notes are performed become their musical meaning. (J. M. Lewers, quoted in Aiello 1994, 55)
Furthermore, I propose that the sound literally triggers
those physiological processes which cause the corresponding
emotion “action programmes,” “essentic forms,” or whatever
one wishes to call these processes. This would explain the
uniquely automatic quality in our response to music.
I am proposing that the biopsychological basis of the
ability of sound to cause emotions in man originates in man’s
ability to emotionally respond to the sounds of another’s
voice. Theoretically, this ability lies in the potential for
certain kinds of sounds to set off a series of neurological
processes resulting in emotions, which events are similar to
those occurring during the usual production of emotions.
As so many in the history of musical theory have conjectured,
music does result from language – but not language’s abstract,
However, I should posit that it is not the ontogeny of
language per se that caused the development of music in
humans. Many nonhuman animals communicate emotion and
subsequently direct and orchestrate actions of their species
through voice tone, and there is considerable evidence that
humans do likewise, which argues that this ability arose
before the emergence of language.
Returning to my earlier
discussion of motivation in the infant acquisition of
language, it seems more likely that the pleasures and
emotions communicated through voice (which motivate the
acquisition of language) are another biological application
of the ability of voice tone to emotionally affect us, rather
than an initial cause of emotion in voice. Human’s were
already set to be affected by voice tone when we acquired the
ability to speak. Pleasure associated with vocalizing likely
developed into pleasure in language acquisition.
However, music, especially modern Western music, has
gone far beyond the kinds of auditory perceptions and
responses involved in simple tone of voice alone. The
ability to emotionally recognize and respond to tone of voice
was developed early on in the evolution of Homo sapiens, as
evidenced by the same ability in our closest animal
relatives, the great apes. The history of music seems to
show that humans greatly expanded on the use of voice tone
through their ability to abstract. It appears that men
created instruments, learned how to distill and extract the
essence of tones and their relationships, rearranged and
expanded the range, timbre, and rhythm of sounds used both by
voice and by instruments, and thereby created a new, artistic
means of expressing a huge range of emotions.
The evidence found by Clynes and others indicates that
there is a special pattern of sound for each emotion or mood,
which pattern humans are able to recognize in various voices,
both human and instrumental. Helmholtz noted that the major
well suited for all frames of mind which are completely formed and clearly understood, for strong resolve, and for soft and gentle or even for sorrowing feelings, when the sorrow has passed into the condition of dreamy and yielding regret. But it is quite unsuited for indistinct, obscure, unformed frames of mind, or for the expressing of the dismal, the dreary, the enigmatic, the mysterious, the rude…[and it is] precisely for these …[that] we require the minor mode (1954 , 302)
The implication of the evidence is that humans have learned
how to abstract the sound pattern evoking, for example
triumph, and then re-present this pattern in its
essential form in a musical composition, giving the listener
an experience of the emotion of triumph rarely possible in
life. Through abstraction, the emotion-provoking sounds have
been rendered essential and rearranged into new patterns and
combinations, thereby enabling humans to have an emotion-
evoking artistic experience far greater than that possible
from the sounds of the spoken voice alone. Many theories of
music, to some extent, recognize that music makers take the
fundamental qualities of music and rearrange them to invent
new ways of feeling – see any number of essays in Philip
Alperson’s book What is Music?
In relation to this theory, it is noteworthy that only
the sounds of periodic vibrations can be integrated so as to
evoke emotion because the voice produces periodic vibrations
in its normal operation. (Despite the best efforts of modern
musical theorists, all else is experienced as meaningless
noise.) In the history of music theory, thinkers have placed
most of their emphasis on the relations and perceptions of
harmonies (Grout 1973; Lang 1941). My proposal for the
biological basis of music concerns a system generally without
harmony – the human voice (there are some harmonic overtones
in any voice or instrument). How do these factors relate to
one another? Historically, music began as plainsong without
accompaniment and as simple melodies.
The fact that music could achieve simultaneity, that it could have vertical as well as horizontal events, was a revolutionary discovery….Now music had a new kind of interest, the accidental or contrived vertical combination of two or more pitches” (Aiello 1994, 44)
Although polyphony (10) was created some time during the
Middle Ages, apparently the conscious use of harmonic chords
was developed even later.
Helmholtz mentions that
A favourite assertion that “melody is resolved harmony,” on which musicians do not hesitate to form musical systems without staying to inquire how harmonies had either never been heard, or were, after hearing, repudiated. According to our explanation, at least, the same physical peculiarities in the composition of musical tones, which determined consonances for tones struck simultaneously, would also determine melodic relations for tones struck in sucession. The former then would not be the reason for the latter, as the above phrase suggests, but both would have a common cause in the natural formation of musical tones (1954 , 289).
In other words, harmony and melody complement each other,
using the same mathematical relationships of tones and their
perception. Harmony does this simultaneously, melody does
this over time. However, harmony is not an equal partner in the creation of music,
because we can make music without harmony and because harmony does not make
music on its own: music requires a sequence of sounds and silences through
time. Harmony developed as man abstracted musical
qualities in sound, rearranged them, and used them
simultaneously. It is likely that theoreticians have focused
on harmony in their analysis of music because complex
harmonies are a major part of modern western music and
because melodies are more difficult to analyze due to the the
element of time. Given the historical development of music,
I believe the emphasis on harmony is an artifact of human
analytical ability. Moreover, an harmonic chord on its own
is not music – it is always necessary to have a sequence of
tones to have music.
Beyond Neuropsychology to Music as Art
I have posited a biological/evolutionary origin to music, but I have not, as yet,
proposed a survival function for it. Before I do that, I would like to address the wider
issue of the biological function of art per se. In her article “Art and Cognition,” Rand
(1971) presented her theory on the cognitive foundations of art.
This theory is of particular interest to me, not only because
it is founded on and well-integrated with her revolutionary
philosophy of Objectivism, but because it is specifically
based on man’s cognitive and motivational nature, on what she
called his “psycho-epistemological needs” (11), and thereby posits gives an answer to the
question of art’s biological roots. Her hypothesis in no way addresses or accounts for my
original question, What is the evolutionary basis of the ability to respond to sound? With
her hypothesis, the question remains unanswered. But her theory
is worth addressing because she asked and attempted to answer
many of the fundamental questions about music’s nature.
Rand argued that art is a means of making
conceptual yet concrete the information of the senses, which,
thereby, makes that information more meaningful to us.
The visual arts do not deal with the sensory field of awareness as such, but with the sensory field as perceived by a conceptual consciousness.
The sensory-perceptual awareness of an adult does not consist of mere sense data (as it did in his infancy), but of automatized integrations that combine sense data with a vast context of conceptual knowledge. The visual arts refine and direct the sensory elements of these integrations. By means of selectivity, of emphasis and omission, these arts lead man’s sight to the conceptual context intended by the artist. They teach man to see more precisely and to find deeper meaning in the field of vision. (Rand 1971, 47)
Painting makes conceptual the sense of sight, sculpture the
sense of sight and touch, dance the sense of body motion, or
kinesthesia, and music the sense of hearing.
But Rand argued that music does not follow exactly the
same psycho-epistemological process as the other arts.
According to Rand, the art of music embodies man’s sense of
life by abstracting how man uses his mind.
The other arts create a physical object,…and the psycho-epistemological process goes from the perception of the object to the conceptual grasp of its meaning, to an appraisal in terms of one’s basic values, to a consequent emotion. The pattern is: from perception – to conceptual understanding – to appraisal – to emotion.
The pattern of the process involved in music is: from perception – to emotion – to appraisal – to conceptual understanding.
Music is experienced as if it had the power to reach man’s emotions directly (Rand 1971, 50)
In other words, upon listening to music, it can cause us to
experience feelings which we subsequently appraise. Whether
we like or dislike the feelings caused by the music (or have
some complex reaction to it), helps determine what kinds of
music we individually favor. An interesting facet of the
musical experience is the fact that many unrelated images
tend to come to mind when we listen to music, imagery which
seems to correspond to the emotions. It is as if our minds
find it illogical to have feelings with no existential
objects to evoke them, so our minds provide images of an
appropriate nature. This process seems reminiscent of others, such as the way in which
we “see” faces in myriad visual images, or think we hear voices in the sound of the wind.
The common thread between them is the mind’s automatic attempt to make sense of the
world, both external and internal.
According to Rand, how might sound evoke these emotions?
If man experiences an emotion without existential object, its only other possible object is the state or actions of his own consciousness. What is the mental action involved in the perception of music? (I am not referring to the emotional reaction, which is the consequence, but to the process of perception.)…The automatic processes of sensory integration are completed in his infancy and closed to an adult.
The single exception is in the field of sounds produced by periodic vibrations, i.e., music…musical tones heard in a certain kind of succession produce a different result -the human ear and brain integrate them into a new cognitive experience, into what may be called an auditory entity; a melody. The integration is a physiological process; it is performed unconsciously and automatically. Man is aware of the process only by means of its results.
Helmholtz has demonstrated that the essence of musical perception is mathematical; the consonance or dissonance of harmonies depends on the ratios of the frequencies of their tones…[There is] the possibility that the same principles apply to the process of hearing and integrating a succession of musical tones, i.e., a melody — and that the psycho-epistemological meaning of a given composition lies in the kind of work it demands of a listener’s ear and brain (Rand 1971, 57-8)
Music gives man’s consciousness the same experience as the other arts: a concretization of his sense of life. But the abstraction being concretized is primarily epistemological, rather than metaphysical; the abstraction is man’s consciousness, i.e., his method of cognitive functioning, which he experiences in the concrete form of hearing a specific piece of music. A man’s acceptance or rejection of that music depends on whether it calls upon or clashes with, confirms or contradicts, his mind’s way of working. The metaphysical aspect of the experience is the sense of a world which he is able to grasp, to which his mind’s working is appropriate….A man who has an active mind…will feel a mixture of boredom and resentment when he hears a series of random bits with which his mind can do nothing. He will feel anger, revulsion and rebellion against the process of hearing jumbled musical sounds; he will experience it as an attempt to destroy the integrating capacity of his mind.” (Rand 1971, 58) 1971)
In other words, she proposed that the arrangement of sounds
in music causes one’s brain to perform a sensory/perceptual
integration similar to those performed during the solution of
an existential problem, and that one emotionally reacts to
the kind of cognitive work which the music makes one perform
through the integration.
In line with the assumptions of musical research, she
notes that only sounds caused by periodic vibrations can be
integrated by the human brain. We can analyze the sounds of
music as follows: simultaneous sounds into harmonies,
successions of sounds into melodies, or what Rand called
“auditory entities” and percussions into rhythms.
According to Rand’s hypothesis, musical sounds are
physiologically integrated by the brain and our emotions are
in response to the type of integration performed. She
proposed that the musical integration parallels perceptual
integration in nonmusical cognitive activities, and that we
respond emotionally to the type of integrating work music
causes us to perform. Her hypothesis assumes no direct
physiological induction of emotion, but proposes that the
emotion is a response to the kind of cognitive work caused by
the integration of the sounds.
Is this view consonant with the scientific facts?
Rand’s hypothesis supposes that a perceptual integration
results in emotions such as joy, delight, triumph, which are
normally generated in humans by a complex conceptual
cognitive activity. I am not aware of any other purely
perceptual integrations in other sense modalities which
result in such emotions (although there may be some visual
stimuli, such as a beautiful sunset or graceful human
proportions, for which we have in-built pleasurable
responses). In this respect, sound seems to be unique.
Idiot-savants and some individuals with IQ’s in the
teens, respond fully to music, as well as
A man whom childhood meningitis had left mentally retarded as well as behaviorally and emotionally crippled, but who…was so familiar with… all the Bach cantatas, as well as a staggering amount of other music)…evincing a full understanding and appreciation of these highly intellectual scores. Clearly, whatever had happened to the rest of his brain, his musical intelligence remained a separate – and unimpaired – function (Stiller 1987, 13).
Under Rand’s theory, is this possible? Such cognitively
impaired individuals would not normally perform many complex
conceptual mental integrations, nor experience the feelings
accompanying those integrations. One might infer that these
mental cripples, unable to self-generate cognitive activities
which would allow them the pleasures of deep feelings, are
enabled the life-giving experience of such feelings through
music (hence, some of them completely devote themselves to
music). That is, their cognitions are not complex enought to produce many profound and
pleasurable feelings on their own, but they are able to pleasurably shape their emotional
world with music. Presumably, if their perceptual abilities are
intact, their brains could still perform the integrations
necessary under Rand’s hypothesis. But how could their
psycho-epistemological sense of life respond to the
activities, in that they are not capable of much in the way
of conceptual activity?
However, consider the following:
If a given process of musical integration taking place in a man’s brain resembles the cognitive processes that produce and/or accompany a certain emotional state, he will recognize it, in effect, physiologically, then intellectually. Whether he will accept that particular emotional state, and experience it fully, depends on his sense-of-life evaluation of its significance.” (Rand 1971, 61)
Here, she seemed to say that the processing and integrating
of the sounds are very similar to the physiological processes
involved in the existential evocations of emotions. In other
words, her statement seems to imply that she thinks the music
physiologically induces the emotion, which is subsequently
evaluated and accepted or rejected.
It seems to me that Rand was not perfectly clear as to
the exact nature of music’s production of emotions. On the
one hand, she seemed to say that the emotions are a reaction
to the kind of cognitive work the music causes us to perform.
On the other hand, she seemed to say that the music
physiologically induces the emotion.
Parsimony inclines me to take this analysis one step
further and propose that musical sounds induce the
neurological processes that cause the emotions; then we react
to the feeling of those emotions. Instead of proposing, like
Rand, that the essence of music is epistemological – we react
to the kind of cognitive work music causes – I would like to
maintain that the essence is metaphysical, like the other
arts – we react to the way the music makes us feel. That
is, by neurologically inducing emotions, music shapes our
feelings about the world. If painting is the concretization
of sight, music is the concretization of feeling.
Rand recognizes this to some extent, “How can sounds
reach man’s emotions directly in a manner that seems to by-
pass his intellect?” (1971, 54) This question seems to imply
that she thinks the musical sensory integration affects
It is relevant to the issue that there are direct
sensory projections from the ear to the amygdala, a nuclei of
cells at the base of the temporal lobe (where so much music
processing seems to occur). The amygdala is part of the
limbic system, considered essential to the production and
processing of emotion. Although part of the temporal lobe,
the amygdala is not considered to be part of the cortical
sensory analysis systems that process the objective
properties of an experience. Instead the amygdala is
believed to process our feeling or subjective sense of an
experience (Kolb and Whishaw 1990) – that is, how we feel
about an experience, such as the warm cozy feelings we might
get at the smell of turkey and apple pie. It seems possible
that the sounds of music could be directly processed by the
amygdala, resulting directly in emotion, without going
through the usual “objective-properties” processing of the
other cortical areas. This might be how they “reach man’s
emotions directly in a manner that seems to by-pass his
intellect?” (Rand 1971,)
However, we might find a resolution to the seeming
duality of Rand’s musical hypothesis by further reflecting on
music’s nature. I believe the key lies in the complexity of
music. There are large elements of cognitive understanding
and processing involved in more complex music, e.g., there is
a definite process involved in learning to listen to
classical music, or any kind for that matter.
Musicians are much more sensitive to and analytical
about music, and, interestingly, apparently use different
areas of their brains than do nonmusicians when processing
music. Musicians do quite a bit of processing in the left
hemisphere, in areas that apparently process in a
logical/analytical manner. Some music triggers some emotion
in almost everyone, although I think that perhaps mood, as
suggested by Giomo, would be a better term to describe much
of the psychophysical state that music induces. We can
listen to music, know what emotion it represents, but not
want or like that emotion. In this way, Rand seems right
that music causes our minds to go through the cognitive steps
which result in various emotions. However, in line with the
arguments made by many, not everyone can follow the cognitive
steps necessary in listening to all music: there is a certain
amount of learning involved in the appreciation of music and
it seems to be related, for example, to learning the forms,
context, and style of the music of a culture. Beyond that,
there is learning involved in absorbing and responding to
music of different genres: jazz, blues, celtic folk, african
folk, classical. One gets to understand the ways and the
patterns of each genre such that one’s mind can better follow
the musical thoughts and respond to them with feeling
Music can take on a cognitive life entirely its own,
apart from and different from the kinds of thoughts and
feelings resulting from life or the other arts. As the
Greeks thought, it can teach us new things to think and feel.
Certainly, the kind of utterly intense emotion felt through
exalted music is rare, if possible at all, through other
events of life. Listening to contemporary music such as the
Drovers (Celtic style), I realized that it made me feel all
kinds of wonderful and unusual bodily feelings, which had no
regular emotional names, although they were similar to other
emotions. This might explain why we like to listen to the
same piece of music over and over. “Wittengenstein’s
paradox: the puzzle is that when we are familiar with a piece
of music, there can be no more surprises. Hence, if
‘expectancy violation’ is aesthetically important, a piece
would lose this quality as it becomes familiar”
(Bharucha 1994, 215). We do not particularly like to think
about the same things over and over, but we generally like to
feel certain ways over and over. We listen to the same piece
over and over because we enjoy the mood, the frame of mind,
into which it puts us. Of what else does the end of life consist, but good experience, in
whatever form one can find it? Thinking is the means by which we maintain and
advance life, but feeling happy is an end in itself.
To resolve Rand’s duality: the basis of music is the
neurological induction of mood through sound (made
possible, in my view, by our ability to respond to the
emotional meaning of voice); however, humans have taken that
basic ability and elaborated it greatly, abstracting and
rearranging sound in many, many different ways in all the
different kinds of music. Responding to more complex music
requires more elaborate, specifically musical understanding
of the sounds and their interrelationships. This
understanding requires learning on the part of the listener
and complex cognitive work – to which the listener responds
Hence, there are two emotional levels on which we
respond to music which correspond to the two aspects of
Rand’s hypothesis: the basic neurological level and the more
complex cognitive level.
My hypothesis on the evolutionary basis of music in our
ability to respond to emotion in tone of voice would need a
vast array of experiments to be proved, including further
inquiry into the neurological structures which process voice
tone and music. Presumably, if the hypothesis is true, a
significant overlap would be found in the the areas that
process voice tone and the areas that process music.
Particular care would be needed to discover which neocortical
structures are involved in these functions, including an
examination of such structures as the associative areas
including the temporal lobe, and the limbic structures. And
subcortical areas such as the hypothalamus and brain stem,
presumed to be involved in emotional processing
(Siminov 1986), would need to be examined as well.
A technique such as Positron Emission Tomography (PET)
(12) might be useful in such an inquiry. Experiments
indicating that this overlap exists in young infants would
show that this was an inborn, and not a learned ability.
Care would need to be taken in arranging several experimental
conditions for comparison. Techniques such as the one
described earlier in this essay, wherein the verbal content
was filtered out of sentences, would be useful. Comparisons
of the response to (1) voice with no verbal content or music,
(2) music with no voice, (3) voice with music, with and
without verbal content and (4) nonemotionally meaningful
sounds made without voice would be important.
Also, it might be found that voice with no music, voice
with music, and music with no voice are each processed in a
different set of areas. Alternatively, it is possible that
no subcortical emotional effects would be found from voice or
music. Or, perhaps, the processing of the voice and/or the
music would be found to be spread over both hemispheres of
the brain in a way which did not become evident in the evoked
potentials. Some of the brain damage studies found that
right hemisphere damage did not universally cause amusia or
failure to comprehend or express emotional tone, and that
some subjects recovered their abilities to express or grasp
emotion through language. Furthermore, it is difficult to
know how varying individual brain organization might express
itself in the processing of these tasks.
Interesting and observable differences might be found
across languages or language groups. The relation, if any,
of a language to it’s folk music would be fascinating (13).
Here I’d like to recall Jackendorff’s comments. He
remarked on the ability of music to make us feel like moving,
and that there are specific ways we seem to feel like moving
to specific kinds of music.
Ultimately, if we learn enough to specify exactly the relationships between the
elements of music and what feelings are evoked, we will be able to decipher music as
“the language of feeling.” I look forward to the research which will resolve these
questions on the biopsychology of music.
Again and Again
Rachmaninoff’s sighs, Haydn’s Surprise, Joplin’s glad cries — Make poetry pale.
–John Enright NOTES
1. “An emotion is the psychosomatic form in which man experiences his estimate of the beneficial or harmful relationship of some aspect of reality to himself.” (Branden 1966, 64). This definition is echoed in Carroll Izard’s work Human Emotions (1977) “A complete definition of emotion must take into account all… of these aspects or components: (a) the experience or conscious feeling of emotion, (b) the processes that occur in the brain and nervous system, and (c) the observable expressive patterns of emotion, particularly those on the face…scientists do not agree on precisely how an emotion comes about. Some maintain that emotion is a joint function of a physiologically arousing situation and the person’s evaluation or appraisal of the situation” (1977, 4).
2. “Prosody” is pitch, change of pitch, and duration of intonations and rests in speech.
3. “Pitch – 23. Acoustics. the apparent predominant frequenc sounded by an acoustical source.” (Random House Dictionary of the English Language, New York: Random House Publishing Co., 1968)
4. The activites are “music-like” because they employ sequences of sounds made by periodic vibrations. However, because of the cognitive levels of the animals involved, the “songs” are not abstracted, arrayed and integrated into an artwork and thus are not music. It is even likely that the animals experience their “songs” as integrated perceptual experiences, which communicate valuable information to them, or trigger a series of valuable actions in them. Because our physiology is so different from that of birds and cetaceans, we may not experience the “songs” as perceptually integrated units, but the respective animals might. Regardless of whether the “songs” are perceptually integrated or not to the birds, dolphins or whales involved, the “songs” are still not artworks, because they are not conceptually organized (Nottebohm 1989). Likewise, animals usually seem indifferent to human music. There are at least two reasons for this: their physiologies are different, thus they do not hear and perceptually integrate sound the same way humans do; and they do not have the power to abstract patterns from percepts the way humans do. Trehub (1987) found that, unlike animals, even human infants process music by relational means and do not rely on absolute pitch the way animals do.
5. In brain research, investigators have found evidence for the same general types of brain processes in the same areas for 95% of the subjects. I am reporting the kinds of functional asymmetries which have been discovered for those 95%. Thus, when I note that “language functions are in the left hemisphere and musical tone recognition in the right,” I am referring to this 95% of the population.
6. In a dichotic listening task, the subject is presented with two different stimuli to his different ears, simultaneously. Whichever stimuli the subject tends to notice indicates that the ear to which it was presented has an advantage for that kind of stimuli.
7. “Timbre – 1. Acoustics, Phonet. the characteristic quality of a sound, independent of pitch and loudness but dependent on the relative strengths of the components of different fequencies, determined by resonance. 2. Music. the characteristic quality of sound produced by a particular instrument or voice; one color.” (Random House Dictionary of the English Language, New York: Random House Publishing Co., 1968)
8. There is evidence that musicians in particular do what appears to be more logico-analytical processing of music in the left hemisphere (Bever and Chiarello 1974). Messerli, Pegna, and Sordet (1995) found musicians superior in identifying melody with their right ear. Schlaug and Steinmetz found that professional musicians, especially those who have perfect pitch, have far larger planum temporales on their left side (Nowak 1995).
9. Aphasia is a condition in which a person has difficulty in producing and/or comprehending language due to neurological conditions.
10. Polyphony is a type of music where multiple voices sing independent melodies. Often, the melodies selected do harmonize beautifully, but polyphony is not considered harmonic in the ususal sense, because it does not use harmonic chords in its composition, but relies on the incidental harmonization of the tones of the multiple melodies into chords.
11. “Psycho-epistemology is the study of man’s cognitive processes from the aspect of the interaction between the conscious mind and the automatic functions of the subconscious.” (Rand 1971, 20)
12. Positron Emission Tomography is a technique which measures the rate of glucose metabolism in neurological structures during tasks. The brain uses a tremendous amount of glucose whenever it works. It is inferred that brain structures using the most glucose during a given task are the ones performing the neurological processes necessary for that task.
13. My thanks to Mr. Peter Saint-Andre for pointing out these possibilities.
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