How does music work in our minds? What is "music" anyway?

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How does music work in our minds? What is "music" anyway?

Post by Davodintei on Fri Oct 03, 2014 11:48 am

Hi everyone!
I am a fellow audiophile and music purist and most of these questions occurred to me while having my listening sessions. Listening to music (actively) can bring forward - like new experiences do in general - new ideas, thought processes, inspiration. Music can be so powerful if you know how to listen, it never ceases to amaze me.
What's also remarkable to me is the observation that the more complex the music is that I listen to - the more complex are my thought processes. Or, more in general - the mood of the perceived music interferes directly with the mood of thoughts.

Over the time I've been collecting my thoughts and theories (I always write something down on a piece of paper when there is something I'm interested in that I want to develop further) about this topic, about how music works in the mind and how it is perceived.
I know nobody with who I can discuss about things like that, so I figured that if there could be a place, it's here.
I've copied some of my written thoughts in English and scanned them so I could share them here as well. It would make me really happy if you guys could give me some input on this or if we even could develop some sort of discussion about how music works.

I need to clarify this first: Everything that I write here is only theory and therefore I can simply not know if this applies to everyone if I draw conclusions about others based on myself. In fact, these thoughts are very personal and I wouldn't ever claim them to be complete.
I also apologize in advance - I'm not a native speaker and therefore I often find myself wondering about the right/most precise expression in certain cases.

*I'm specifically uncertain with the differentiation between the words "sound" and "tone". (In German I use "Geräusch" for "sound" and "Klang" for "tone").
With "sound" I mean the actual waveforms. The physical sound.
With "tone" I rather mean the way a specific sound is perceived and how it sounds to us subjectively.

** The [Texture/Consistence of rhythm elements] technically shouldn't be listed in the Rhythm-section in the first place. I've just put it like this for my own convenience.

*** The Rhythm-section is incomplete. I'm sure it's where most of the energy comes from, but I've yet been too lazy to reflect about it in depth.

What do you guys think?

Best regards,
David flower

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Re: How does music work in our minds? What is "music" anyway?

Post by HC on Sat Oct 04, 2014 4:03 pm

Hey David,

I would be more than happy to engage in your theories on music - after all, it's one of my favorite topics as well! As you can imagine, I think this could be a pretty deep and thought-provoking topic, so biting off individual discussions is probably best! Let's see how this turns out!

Is there any way I can convince you to type up some of the words from your scanned paper? I tried reading it, but it's a bit difficult, even when I attempted to zoom in.

Also, have you ever read any of the following books:
- This Is Your Brain on Music by Daniel J. Levitin
- Musicophilia by Oliver Sacks
- Silence by John Cage

A lot of the topics you want to cover have to do with neuropsychology, which, as you can imagine, is a pretty dense topic in itself...

Let's see if we can crack this one open!

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Re: How does music work in our minds? What is "music" anyway?

Post by Davodintei on Mon Oct 06, 2014 9:25 pm

I guess I'm so used to my own handwriting that I forgot to consider that it might not be readable to others...sorry about that!
I wish I could translate my thoughts more fluently into written language...I'm so slow when it comes to formulate whole sentences.
Anyway, I'm going to try to write some of them down:

Before I start, it might be a useful comparison to think about what thoughts actually are and of what they consist. (Yes, I know this is a long shot.)
My belief is that the "basic unit" of a thought construct is (visual) imagination. Imagination depends from personal experience and memory. When I say the word "tree" I have a projection of how a tree looks like in my mind. This is what puts "life" into language after all. Of course, it gets more complex than that. Morphemes (the smallest meaningful unit in a language) get systematically connected and put into order by the rules of grammar which then allows us to build more complex sentences. What's so fascinating about this, is the way of how abstract things can be grabbed hold of with language to make them comprehensible for others: Visualized metaphors! For example, think about the act of explaining something: "Bring light into darkness"...or "to illuminate"..."to clear something up"..."to clarify"...even when you anatomize the word [ex|plain] shows that metaphors are being used to express something more abstract which - again - base on (visual) imagination. In fact, you can find them anywhere...and if you analyze every word separately that I'm writing down right now you will have a distinct idea about any of them (of course, there is not always a clear visual image but at least you can put each of them into a context where they make sense to you personally).

But why do I start with language when I originally wanted to talk about music?
Well...I believe that the perception of music also is based on personal imagination. But in a much more complex and powerful way than language.
Language offers you a restricted, clearly arranged selection of words that you combine. You can be really creative with it but in comparison to what's expressible with music the range is quite limited.
On the handwritten paper in my previous post I started by dividing musical perception into two dimensions:
• Rhythm
• "Tonal Dimension"

For this post I rather want to focus on what I conveniently called "tonal dimension" and explain my theories on it.

I tried to think of a way to understand why certain elements in music give me certain thought-associations or why the mood of my emotions can correlate with the mood of a certain piece of music. Why I see images and even get lost into a whole scenery when I close my eyes, only by listening.
My first thought: Each single sound that I hear is subconsciously and automatically being put into context. For example, when I stand next to the street and close my eyes I still hear cars passing by. I can locate them, I can tell if it's a diesel or a petrol car, if there is a truck passing by, if there is a person walking behind my back or a dog barking somewhere in the background. That's because I'm familiar with those sounds. When I listen to a sound of a car passing by on my headphones it gives me a similar sensation (depending e.g. on the quality of the recording). Well, at least I can still tell that I'm listening to a car because this sound is connected with a distinct prospect in my brain based on my imagination (->memory).
Of course, music isn't (only) built of car sounds and this example is quite banal overall. Normally music consists of more abstract elements. But still...take Amon Tobin's "ISAM" for instance: The sounds that I can hear - regardless of how they were produced - I do reflect them through my personal musical horizon...or to put it differently, my imagination filters the input to give me a personal listening experience. I might experience something completely different than another person (my flatmate insisted that he was hearing a recording of a toothbrush as one of the elements used in the track "Journeyman").

Okay, I try it from a different angle:
Imagine standing on top of a hill somewhere in Iceland. You're completely alone, you have no idea where you are, you have lost the way. It's winter, so it's dark at all times. You start to feel desperate because you slowly realize being in an extreme situation. Suddenly those green polar lights appear...followed by a very distinct noise that you have never ever heard before. You don't know where it comes from. You're scared.
From now on you will connect this very noise - regardless of what it might be and where it came from - with this personal experience, with the feeling of being scared, with Iceland and those green polar lights.
Some time later, you're listening to a song which contains this Iceland noise (or maybe just a similar sound) as one of its elements. You might not reflect about the sound consciously...all you know is that you don't like it. Or maybe you think of polar lights.
I know, this is very hypothetical and a little clownish example. I hope you get the idea.
Maybe this is more relatable: Do you know this horrible noise of somebody roughly scratching a fork on a plate? I've once read an article about this sound being perceived as a threat by the human psyche. So apparently sound perception even manifests itself in the DNA.

So what's my whole point of all this?
To sum it up:
Sound perception is based on imagination (or thought-associations) which again depends on personal experience/memory. So music stimulates imagination.

Now the question is...Is there a distinction between sound perception and musical comprehension (understanding melodies, harmonies etc.)?
I don't have any clue. My vague guess on this would be that some of the latter (for example reacting to certain frequencies) might also be contained in our DNA. Maybe this is even a third dimension. Rhythm, sound and melodies. Or maybe you even should distinguish between perception based on memory and perception based on genetic foundation. Then again, wouldn't also rhythm be part of the DNA-based perception?

Okay this is getting way too vague and hazy. I should call it a day!
But yeah, this is what I think about sometimes. I should read one of those books.

Maybe someone here who has another way of seeing this? Or maybe someone with ACTUAL knowledge about it who can enlighten me?

To those who read until the end - I appreciate. I hope you will have a great rest of your day!


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Re: How does music work in our minds? What is "music" anyway?

Post by soillodge on Tue Oct 07, 2014 7:31 pm

I read an article once that some university wrote. I think it was in MIX magazine, back in the 90's. The gist basically was that the average person only can differentiate a limited amount of sounds within a piece of music. Like with traditional rock music, you can isolate the vocals, the lead guitar, maybe the drums. But that same person cannot isolate other guitars, the bass guitar, horns or strings, choral arrangements, synths. All of that sort of blends together. Probably why my parents called everything I was listening to growing up as "noise". It is the same with visual perception for most people. I learned about this in the military and I found it very interesting. We were supposed to move into a situation fluidly and assess everything accurately. Now I do the same thing with music, so I found your post very interesting.

I think you have a point, talking about familiarity and imagination. I think it also applies to chords, rhythms, and even structure. "Pop", music is all very similar when you break it down. These similarities force people to think what they are listening to is "good". Like how the image of a golden field in broad sunlight with a huge tree heavy with fruit is supposed to make you feel good. It plays on familiarity and instinct. The sun is safe, the tree is shelter, the fruit means you will survive. Music is the same way I think.

But then think about music that is not safe. My favourite kind of music actually. Not all pretty sounds and structures, but also filled with dissonance and noise. It does not make you feel safe. But I think it makes you feel alive. Blues and Jazz are like this, at their core. You FEEL the music. So even if you break it apart and try to recreate the tones, the structures, the sounds, you still do not have the feeling and it falls flat. So how does one perceive that? How does familiarity fit in? Is it that you can match the emotions? You feel what you think is behind the music, and then relate to that?

I honestly do not think there is any answers to your questions, or mine. Only personal observations and resolutions. Music and imagination is very personal. Your imagined scene about the sounds of the Northern Lights is interesting. You should read a bit about synesthesia. It is amazing how the senses can become intertwined.


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