Rambling on – 13: Dancing in your head?

I came to a stop last time with Roger Scruton’s declaration that there is nothing to be learned about music – or its meaning – by studying sounds animals make. He held to that because he interpreted a range of evidence, including the usual mix of evolution of various traits, ethology, neuroscience and psychology, to indicate that whatever the sound, music comes from the perceptual processing that we bring to the acoustic moment. So whatever animals may experience when they make sound, or hear it, it won’t be music.

Some of the leading biomusicologists tend to agree nowadays. But they – Henkjan Honing, for instance – do so to defend an intermediate position. There is music – what we experience when we hear the right sounds – says Honing, and musicality. That is the perceptual ability to break down and reconfigure the right stimuli to produce music in our minds. There is no music without musicality, and it is a collection of abilities that appears unique to humans. In us, it seems to be innate, albeit developing in ways that tie it in deeply to the culture each of us is born into.

Looking at other species can help pin down the things that distinguish human musicality, though. I’ve only talked about a couple of other creatures that make sounds, birds and gibbons, and there are quite a lot of others – from the Madagascan hissing cockroach to humpback whales. But it seems there are things we humans can (nearly) all do that none of them can.

There are two main ones. One, not mentioned here yet, is picking up a beat. Honing has tried pretty hard to show experimentally that some other creatures – especially monkeys – can follow a beat, without success (though there might be something like it happening with cockatoos). Nor do other creatures show any detectable ability to follow a tune. They do not perceive melody. Some may have absolute pitch, but relative pitch passes them by. For us, it is everything.

Highlighting these two things – beat and melody – and their perception as the keys to human musicality seems especially fitting in an attempt to work through responses to Ramblin’. Like all Ornette Coleman’s work, it is positively saturated with both. Here, as throughout his life, Coleman is a supreme melodist – a thing that sometimes got obscured during the tetchy discussion of “free jazz” in the years after Ramblin’ was recorded. But it’s clear now that, far from making things easy, moving away from set chord changes and developing improvisation along melodic lines only really works well if you are good at making up convincing melody on the spot. The fact that rather few musicians seem able to do that is one reason Coleman had rather few convincing emulators for a couple of decades.

Anyway, analysis of rhythm and melody, sensitivity to timbre and dynamics, and the cognitive processing that breaks up streams if sound into meaningful chunks – phrasing, in other words – and the interrelations between all these characteristics of an acoustic stimulus, are all going on when a person is delving into musicality. As Honing says, less helpfully I guess, as well as beat induction and perception of relative pitch, “sensitivity to all kinds of musical nuances is necessary” for musicality. Those, as usual, turn out to be the ones that are hard to describe.

Other creatures cannot do some of these things, presumably have never felt the need to, and certainly can’t so them all at once. We humans, even those who may count themselves “unmusical” because they have no skill in execution, certainly can. As Honing emphasises, “the essence of music and musicality lies not so much in producing it as in listening to it”.

If that’s an interim conclusion, it still perhaps amounts to not much more than saying, “when we enjoy music, there’s a lot going on at once”. It does unpack this rather glorious feature of being human in a bit of detail. But for some the question remains why we gradually evolved the ability to do this. (Is it cheesecake or not?) There’s an interesting portmanteau explanation recently on offer from some who have pondered the origins of music which is worth a look here before moving on to other aspects of Ramblin’. More on that anon.

This is No 13 in a series of posts loosely related to a single piece of music – it starts here, and may go on for some time.

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