Some of us are more susceptible than others, but eventually it happens to us all. You know what I’m talking about: the inability to appreciate new music – or at least, to appreciate new music the way we once did. There’s a lot of disagreement about why exactly this happens, but virtually none about when. Call it a casualty of your 30s, the first sign of a great decline. Recently turned 40, I’ve seen it happen to me – and to a pretty significant extent – but refuse to consider myself defeated until the moment I stop fighting.
I’ve been fighting it for more than 10 years now, with varying degrees of vigour and resolve. Sometimes the fight becomes too much – one tires of the small victories that never break open into anything larger – and the spirit flags. I continually if not consistently stay abreast of what’s deemed the best of the new – particularly in rap and rock and R&B (which I stubbornly and unapologetically refer to, like a true devotee of its 1960s incarnation, as ‘soul’). These ventures into the current and contemporary have reaped dividends so small, they can be recounted – will be recounted – with no trouble at all.
But why should I care? Why should any of us care? Maybe it’s about the fear of becoming what we’ve always loathed: someone reflexively and guiltlessly willing to serve up a load of things-were-better-in-my-day, one of the most facile and benighted of all declarations. If you take pride in regarding yourself as culturally current, always willing to indulge the best of everything wherever it’s found, such taste blockages can be pretty frustrating, even embarrassing. And that hoary old consolation for the erectile dysfunction of the slightly older – ‘It happens to everyone’ – is no consolation at all.
For one thing, it doesn’t happen to everyone. Musicians seem particularly immune, for obvious reasons, and so do certain types of journalists, for reasons touched on in the paragraph above. Still, it’s a very real phenomenon, as real as anything that transpires in the mind. Famously, something similar happens to us with sports, particularly spectator sports, and at a much younger age. But no one really feels too badly about that, because of the inherent meaninglessness of watching other humans engage in physical activity. It’s like ruing the day you ever stopped liking porn. But music is different. Denounce the music of the present day, and you’ve instantly become a walking, talking, (barely) breathing cliché, ripe for ridicule, a classic figure of parody and invective.
It doesn’t happen to everyone, but it could certainly happen to you.
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It’s axiomatic in our culture that a sense of wonder is something to be encouraged in others and coveted for ourselves. But a sense of wonder is dependent on an ability to experience surprise, and if as an adult you’re still surprised by certain things, then you haven’t been keeping up the way you should.
Most of us stop responding to new music because we know better. You can read that sentence and its last word any way you want; it’s still going to apply. But even if we don’t know better, per se, we still know just as good, and so we know enough to understand that it’s been done before, whatever this is we’re listening to. All of which is another way of saying: you lose your virginity only once.
This is only compounded by another factor, and it’s something I’ve never seen or heard mentioned in any discussion of this topic. It has to do with the callowness (perceived and real) of musicians younger than ourselves. As something that by its very nature appeals to our emotions, music requires that we be emotionally engaged. This can be a very difficult thing to achieve on behalf of someone who hasn’t endured as much of the world as we have.
Music requires that its consumer not just appreciate adroit execution but take ownership of a sensibility
I’m talking here about music made by those who were younger than us when we first heard them. Anybody who listens to a Beatles song today is listening to a song made by people in their 20s, but we don’t mind – we seldom even notice – because we were younger than that when we first heard the Beatles – or at least, we were younger than the living Beatles were then.
I’m not saying it makes sense, any more than emotions themselves make sense. But there’s no denying their validity. The best music achieves its effects by realising a bittersweet tension – a bit of melancholy touched with exuberance, or vice versa. This requires soul, and something resembling wisdom, and it requires the listener’s complicity, too. More than with any other art form, music requires that its consumer not just appreciate adroit execution but take ownership of a sensibility. I’m not saying it’s impossible with musicians younger than ourselves – it’s happened to me many times. But it’s certainly rare, because for the effect to work – the way it works for me whenever I hear Sleater-Kinney’s Jumpers (2005) or the Decemberists’ Here I Dreamt I Was an Architect (2002), both of which I first encountered well into my 30s – it’s because there are absolutely no weaknesses in the songs’ construction, and because the musicians manage to achieve an old-souled wistfulness and longing that transcend their youth.
More important than any of this is the adult’s safety within his identity. No longer casting about for an anthem, no longer trying on identities like new clothes, the well-adjusted adult is far less likely to succumb to the sound of a musician’s soul, unless it’s a sound that got to him before his ultimate emancipation.
The early-30s solidification of this soul is part of a process begun much earlier, when one is hitting adolescence. In an article headlined ‘Forever Young? In Some Ways, Yes’ (2011) in TheNew York Times, the cultural historian David Hajdu noticed something shared among a dozen or so legendary musicians then turning 70: they had all ‘turned 14 around 1955 and 1956, when rock ’n’ roll was first erupting’.
He took his hunch and drew it out a little further, with compelling results. Bob Dylan and Paul McCartney both had their heads turned around by Elvis when they were precisely 14 years old; Sidney Bechet, Jimmie Rodgers and Fletcher Henderson – all ‘future innovators of vernacular, cross-racial music’ – were 14 in 1911 when Irving Berlin’s Alexander’s Ragtime Band was released; Billie Holiday and Frank Sinatra turned 14 in 1929, the year Rudy Vallée codified the art of crooning; and Bruce Springsteen, Stevie Wonder, Gene Simmons and Billy Joel turned 14 right around the time that the Beatles played TheEd Sullivan Show in 1964.
It’s simply not realistic to expect someone to respond to music with such life-defining fervour more than once. And it’s not realistic, either, to expect someone comfortable with his personality to be flailing about for new sensibilities to adopt. I’ve always been somewhat suspicious of those who truly do, as the overused phrase has it, listen to everything. Such schizophrenic tastes seem not so much a symptom of well-roundedness as of an unstable sense of self. Liking everything means loving nothing. If you’re so quick to adopt new sentiments and their expression, then how serious were you about the ones you pushed aside to accommodate them?
Oh yeah, and one more thing: music today fucking sucks.
I don’t have the space here or the time in my life to do a thorough survey of the Current State of Popular Music. Probably the person who’s come closer than anyone to pulling off such a grim endeavour is the US journalist John Seabrook, in his book The Song Machine: Inside the Hit Factory (2015). To read its pages is to take a dispiriting tour through the realms of K-pop, boy bands, track-and-hook, songwriters-for-hire, Swedish song machines, pop divas, Auto-Tune, and all the other enthralling phenomena that make up the music of today.
‘This is a new golden age for pop music… the DJ Snake-Justin Bieber collaborations are the way forward’
It should be said that Seabrook does not share this contempt for his own subject. When I email to ask him what exactly he thinks of the latest pop music, he tells me, bluntly: ‘I think the pop songs today are better, and the hip-hop songs are usually better than at any time in the last 20 or 30 years.’ Then he explains this opinion with a remark that many will find unfathomable: ‘That’s mainly because the beats and instrumentation have become so much more interesting with the full embrace of electronic production. Also the vocal-recording technology is so much better – the voice is so much more textured today than ever before.’ He doesn’t stop there: ‘I think actually this is the beginning of a new golden age for pop music, when EDM [electronic dance music] will allow it to realise a new level of sonic complexity. We aren’t quite there yet, but the DJ Snake-J[ustin] B[ieber] collaborations are the way forward.’
I simply can’t follow Seabrook where he’s taking me here. Any assessment of music that concludes with the stated belief that Justin Bieber is ‘the way forward’ is an assessment that’s fundamentally flawed and manifestly ridiculous. But I do agree that rap is probably better than it’s ever been, particularly in the range of topics addressed and in the move away from relying on sampled music.
Although it’s a positive thing that rap is relying less and less on sampled music, I have to acknowledge that sampled music in rap is responsible for much of my musical preference to this day. It first happened in the mid-1980s, when I was eight or nine years old, living on US Army bases in Germany and Massachusetts. Copyright laws hadn’t yet caught up to industry-wide practice, and rap producers were sampling 1970s sounds like shopping-spree contestants pulling merchandise off the shelf: falsetto choruses; chunky wah-wah guitar riffs; over-the-top, funked-out horn arrangements; sneaky, snake-like synthesiser patterns. All of this, naturally enough, made me a hip-hop fanatic, but it also, by the time I finished high school, made me a fanatic for something else: the funk, soul and rock of the 1970s.
I had been alive for only four of the 1970s, and remembered none of them, but that didn’t matter; I embraced this sound as if it were my generation’s own, and in a strange way it was. Most of the people I’d grown up with were content to pluck this music where they found it, but I had to follow it all the way down to its roots. By the time I was in college, I was spending virtually every spare dollar I had on tapes (yes, tapes, on their way out even then, but they never got scratched, and you could get them for a couple dollars less than a CD) by James Brown, Kool & the Gang, Average White Band, the O’Jays, Prince, Curtis Mayfield, Marvin Gaye, Isaac Hayes, Michael Jackson, Parliament-Funkadelic, Barry White.
After I dropped out of college and joined the Navy, I discovered another band that had been spectrally responsible for some of my favourite rap songs – Steely Dan – and they became an obsession that transcended the parameters of mere music. That sound and that sensibility, the entire ethos of bohemian craftsmanship and bittersweet longing, both evoked and explained so compellingly on Deacon Blues (1977) – I saturated myself with this sensibility in San Diego, where I created for myself a culture of reading and writing and seagoing and distance-running and drinking. It was all so poignant and profound a way to spend one’s early 20s. Steely Dan wasn’t just a soundtrack to this lifestyle; they were a catalyst for it. My shipmates were amused by my absolute embrace of a band that (at that point) hadn’t put out an album in 20 years. But their music, to me, was the freshest thing going. Having only recently emerged from a brutal childhood and adolescence that I almost didn’t survive, I can tell you right now as I would have told you then that I’d never felt younger.
I remained indifferent to grunge: even in high school, those bands sounded like little more than pitiful whiners
This was my base, musically, and it remains my base still. But even in those years I spent infatuated with the sounds of the 1970s, I was keeping my ears open to new music. God knows, I was around it all the time – in apartments, college dorms, aircraft-carrier berthings – but little of it managed to move me. When something popped out and really seized my affection, it was usually because the artist either so closely resembled one of my 1970s icons (D’Angelo) or because he so epitomised the lyrical wordplay I’d developed a taste for in childhood (the Notorious B.I.G.). These are both, of course, ways of saying that 1980s hip hop is in a sense what I kept returning to, even when I wasn’t doing so explicitly – throughout my return to college, then grad school, and journalism, right up until the present day.
In high school, I remained indifferent to grunge from the very first chords of Smells Like Teen Spirit (1991) all the way through its run. Even in high school, those bands sounded to me like little more than pitiful whiners. I was into Radiohead – at least until the travesty of Kid A (2000) – and I got on board with the Strokes, the Hives and the White Stripes when those bands momentarily gave rock back its old good name. I’ve always been into classic rock and cool jazz and heavy metal (exemplified by those artists so canonical, it’s pointless to even mention them). I still avidly follow rap, and am a devoted fan of a couple-dozen current rappers, but no new bands interest me other than the Black Keys. Obviously, this is not what you’d call a comprehensive appreciation of current popular music.
You’d think I might have gotten the point by now and given up.
It doesn’t have to happen, not entirely. We all know it. Seabrook knows it. When I ask him if it’s happened to him, he answers categorically and in the negative. ‘I understand this is supposed to happen,’ he adds, ‘but I wonder how much of this is really true. It used to be hard to keep up, so people did give up going to record stores, etc. But now with streaming music there are no more excuses. It’s so easy to hear new music. Spotify’s daily mix makes it as painless as possible.’
Never has it been so easy to keep up, and never has doing so seemed so futile – never has the product seemed so disposable and unworthy of one’s listening time. During the weeks that I was preparing this essay – and at many other times throughout the past couple decades – I’ve been making dutiful, earnest attempts to keep up with the latest, heeding the recommendations of Pitchfork magazine, scanning the Billboard charts, checking off Grammy nominees like items on a to-do list. What it’s yielded has been very little, mostly artists – such as Iron Maiden, Leonard Cohen, A Tribe Called Quest, Megadeth – that I’ve already been fervently listening to for decades, and whom I would have been listening to even without being prompted to do so.
Some pursue new music as if it deserved to be consumed, like vegetables at the dinner table
And really, what more should I expect? The best music in life – like all the best things in life – is that which suggests itself, revealing itself not from the realms of the obligatory and the abstracted, but from the enchanted and unassailable. Even Seabrook – who doesn’t believe ‘there’s anything biologically that compels you to lose interest in new music’ – agrees ‘that when you are young, you feel more passionately about new music [emphasis mine], because your tastes and thus your identity are still forming. So the relationship is more intense’.
I’ve become convinced there’s something a little pathetic in the contrived way some of us pursue new music deep into our 30s and beyond, not really wanting to but feeling like we must, as if music somehow deserved this – deserved to be consumed like vegetables at our mother’s dinner table. All those unapologetic old fogeys willing to take a stand and denounce the music of today have a lot more in common with the youth than someone like me. At least the fogeys are willing to trust their instincts, finding their kicks where they find them, and never minding the places they don’t. As for me, I suspect I’ll keep on in my stubborn suspicion that I just might be missing something, continuing to complete my homework like a diligent little student, even though I probably should have left such kids’ stuff behind a long time ago.
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is an American writer living in Bangkok.
The 55 Bar in Greenwich Village, with its bulging ceiling tiles and strings of fairy lights taped haphazardly to the walls, looks more like the clubhouse of a rural Irish sports team than a New York City jazz venue. Yet some of the musical experiences I’ve had in that dingy basement have bordered on the otherworldly. When I’m pinned to the back of my seat by the mind-warping rhythms of a drummer, or the harmonic ingenuity of an improvising guitarist, I often have the feeling that my body ‘gets’ things in a way my brain can’t. I find myself physically responding to nuances in the musical texture that have been and gone before I have time to formulate thoughts about them. I can speculate to some extent about what I’ve heard after the fact – that snare hit was perhaps a shade early; that cadence resolved just a fraction too late – but in the moment, I can’t quite articulate what it is that I’m reacting to. My grasp on what I’m hearing doesn’t seem cognitive. It seems visceral.
But talk of ‘visceral, non-cognitive grasping’ sounds hopelessly vague from a philosophical standpoint. In philosophy, it’s common to describe the mind as a kind of machine that operates on a set of representations, which serve as proxies for worldly states of affairs, and get recombined ‘offline’ in a manner that’s not dictated by what’s happening in the immediate environment. So if you can’t consciously represent the finer details of a guitar solo, the way is surely barred to having any grasp of its nuances. Claiming that you have a ‘merely visceral’ grasp of music really amounts to saying that you don’t understand it at all. Right?
Humans do, of course, represent features of the world, and perform mental operations on that information. We owe many of our most striking successes as a species to doing just that: it’s how we built aqueducts, and steam engines, and computers. But just as often, we allow ourselves to be borne along by the currents of what’s swirling around us without abstracting away from it. Getting swept up in a musical performance is just one among a whole host of familiar activities that seem less about computing information, and more about feeling our way as we go: selecting an outfit that’s chic without being fussy, avoiding collisions with other pedestrians on the pavement, or adding just a pinch of salt to the casserole. If we sometimes live in the world in a thoughtful and considered way, we go with the flow a lot, too.
I think it’s a mistake to dismiss these sorts of experiences as ‘mindless’, or the notion of a merely visceral grasp of something as oxymoronic. Instead, I think that the lived reality of music puts pressure on philosophers to broaden their conception of what the mind is, how it works, and to embrace the diversity of ways in which we can begin to grapple with the world around us.
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Discussions about how we gain access to reality usually begin with perception. Yet philosophers of perception tend to be almost exclusively concerned with vision. Music, as a consequence, seldom makes it onto the agenda. This comes at a cost: not only has the immediate experience of events attracted far less philosophical attention than the experience of objects, but the role of the body in our experience of movement and change has been sidelined, too.
Now, the world contains many things that we can’t perceive. I am unlikely to find a square root in my sock drawer, or to spot the categorical imperative lurking behind the couch. I can, however, perceive concrete things, and work out their approximate size, shape and colour just by paying attention to them. I can also perceive events occurring around me, and get a rough idea of their duration and how they relate to each other in time. I hear that the knock at the door came just before the cat leapt off the couch, and I have a sense of how long it took for the cat to sidle out of the room.
Both objects and events have a structure. My desk lamp has parts – a square base, a hinged ‘neck’, a circular shade – which are related to each other in space in a particular way: the base is connected to the neck, which is connected to the shade, and so on. Similarly, events have temporal structure: they have parts that are related to each other in time (the knock at the door, for instance, is composed of three sequential raps roughly equivalent in duration). But events and objects differ in an important respect. If I want to examine the parts of my lamp, or figure out how exactly they fit together in space, I can squint at it, pick it up, or turn it around. But while the lamp obligingly submits to my investigations, events extend me no such courtesy. The ‘happenings’ in my environment are constantly sliding into the past, out of reach. And though I could chase after the lamp, were it suddenly to gather up its cable and flee, I can’t pursue a fleeting event to ‘get a good look’ at it.
You can experience a waltz as graceful without any idea that its grace arises via a distinctive temporal patterning
We can discern some coarse-grained properties of a drum-beat just by listening – the kick happens first, then a snare, with a hi-hat somewhere in the middle – but figuring out its precise temporal structure is much less straightforward. Was that snare slightly early, or was it slightly late? It’s like glimpsing the outlines of an intricate architectural filigree through a thick fog, without being able to clear the air. But even if fine-grained temporal structure is opaque to perception, it might not be entirely beyond our ken – because, fortunately, action is more sensitive to temporal detail than perception.
We can move our bodies in response to temporal details too fine for us to consciously experience. In a study published in 2000, the psychologist Bruno Repp at Yale University asked subjects to tap along with a rhythmic sequence of tones, delaying all the tones after a particular point in the sequence by the same tiny amount. He observed that subjects’ tapping patterns compensated rapidly for the change, despite the fact that they were unaware of it. Outside the lab, live performances often feature changes in temporal structure, such as small tempo increases, that even the players producing the sounds fail to notice even while they’re playing along.
Sometimes the temporal detail we’re tracking physically does manifest in our conscious awareness, in the guise of a characteristic ‘feel’. The beats played by the drummer Questlove on the album Voodoo (2000), by American songwriter and producer D’Angelo, have a distinctive temporal structure – the precise details of which we might fail to represent, but can experience as a kind of characteristic looseness, or trippiness. Likewise, you can experience a Viennese waltz as graceful without having any idea that its grace arises from its distinctive temporal patterning, where the first beat is lengthened, the second shortened, and the third given the barest of accents.
The subliminal tracking of temporal structure, which hovers around the fringes of conscious awareness, doesn’t just happen when we listen to and play music. It’s a core component of how we comprehend speech, too. In fact, everyday speech is saturated with fine-tuned musical features that are crucial to making ourselves understood. Say the following two sentences aloud:
I was happy.
I was happy.
You probably lengthened the word ‘was’ the second time around. By doing so, you managed not only to convey ‘I was happy in the past,’ but also to imply ‘… though not any more.’ Detecting temporal structure in sound is key to grasping what other people mean, and also to conveying meaning ourselves.
But the success of a face-to-face conversation involves more than just processing an interlocutor’s utterance and emitting a series of comprehensible noises. Consider the following everyday exchange:
Good morning! How are you doing?
I’m very well, thanks. How are you?
I’m doing great. It’s a beautiful day out there.
It certainly is!
Now imagine this brief conversation happening again, but this time with each utterance beginning half a second before the previous one has finished. Or imagine each utterance happening 10 seconds after the previous one. It’s not just what you say that matters, or how you say it: the timing and rhythm matters, too.
A 2009 study by the sociologist Tanya Stivers at the University of California, Los Angeles, and her colleagues found that it’s the norm in most languages and cultures to avoid overlaps and to take turns in conversation, with some local variation. Delivering an affirmative response to a question within 36 milliseconds is judged ‘on-time’ in Japan, while in Denmark you can take 203 milliseconds and still be judged timely. Even though the ‘huge’ inter-turn Nordic silences observed by non-Nordic anthropologists aren’t all that large, such comments reveal that deviations from one’s own acculturated norms are seen as highly salient. In other words, what is experienced as a ‘delay’ – and thus as an indicator of dissent, since confirmations are generally delivered faster than opposing statements – differs across cultures. A congenial Danish tourist in Japan might well be puzzled to find herself taken for something of a contrarian.
Musical rhythms call for conscious movement in a way that visual, tactile and even spoken rhythms do not
Rhythmic turn-taking is not the only musical aspect of speech. Greetings and farewells are ordinarily delivered in the upper part of the vocal register (hence why it’s offputting when someone flatly intones: ‘Goodbye’). The difference between expressing sincerity or sarcasm – ‘Well, isn’t that just great!’ – boils down to differences of pitch, syllable duration and articulation. And it’s hard to address a small baby without finding oneself using hugely exaggerated pitch contours, not to mention repeating words ad nauseum (an instinct for which we shouldn’t punish ourselves, however, since there’s evidence that repetition and over-the-top prosodic features aid a child’s linguistic learning). The most stirring parts of political speeches often involve repetition, and sometimes even embryonic rhythms (‘we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds’). As Cicero put it in his History of Famous Orators, the would-be master of rhetoric needs to realise that ‘even in Speaking, there may be a concealed kind of music’.
There might also be a concealed kind of movement. In a 1970 study, the psychologist Adam Kendon noticed that when a speaker singles out an individual within a group, the person being addressed begins to move and nod. Kendon speculated that the addressee thereby ‘differentiates himself from the others present, and at the same time he heightens the bond that is being established between him and the speaker’. The addressee also tended to move in time with emergent rhythms in the utterances of the speaker (an observation that recent studies have confirmed). Kendon hypothesised that the coordination of movement between speaker and listener might enable the listener to time his own entry as a speaker, much as a musician might begin to move conspicuously with the music before she enters with her part.
Movement clearly plays a role in speech, yet its role is importantly different from the role it plays in music. If you were to draw your interlocutor’s attention to the ways in which you were timing your movements, everyone would start feeling a bit awkward and the whole communicative project would derail. But attending to musical movement does not destroy its effect. If anything, it heightens it: dancing becomes more enjoyable the more you pay attention to your movements, and the movement of those around you. Musical rhythms call for conscious (as opposed to unconscious) movement in a way that visual, tactile and even spoken rhythms do not: we seem not only to hear musical beats, but to feel them, too. So just how is it possible to feel a sound in the first place?
It’s 1665. The pressing need to find a reliable way of measuring longitude at sea has led to an arms race among astronomers and mathematicians, who are scrambling to find an accurate method of measuring duration. The Dutch astronomer Christiaan Huygens has recently been catapulted into pole position by the accuracy of his new invention, the pendulum clock.
On 22 February, Huygens writes to R F de Sluse to tell him about a curious phenomenon he has observed in his workshop. Having hung two of his clocks from a common wooden beam placed across the backs of two chairs, Huygens had gone about his business before returning to find the clocks showing an ‘odd sympathy’. The pendula had synchronised. Initially baffled, Huygens eventually realised that each clock was producing small vibrations in the wooden beam, and that it was the interaction of these two patterns of vibration that was responsible for the sympathetic movement.
The spontaneous synchronisation of oscillating systems has since become known as ‘entrainment’, and it has been observed in a vast array of physical and biological systems – from the illumination patterns of fireflies to the wingbeats of free-flying barnacle geese to the tendency of an applauding audience to start clapping in synchrony.
Movement to musical rhythms used to be cast in terms of computation: the listener extracts information from musical sounds, forms a temporal representation and transforms that into an action signal. But more recently, psychologists have begun to model rhythmic musical movement as a process of entrainment, whereby oscillations inside the listener become synchronised with rhythmic cues in the environment in a relatively automatic, spontaneous way. No intervening computations are required: the existence of natural resonances between brain, body and world is enough.
If we are the only speaking apes, we would appear to be the only dancing apes, too
Appealing to little oscillators inside us might seem worryingly occult until one recalls that the brain isn’t just an inert chunk of meat. The activity of neurons can give rise to macroscopic patterns as a consequence of how they’re connected to each other – in the same sort of way that individual spectators at a football match, sensitive to the movement of their neighbours, can collectively make a Mexican wave.
Studies have shown that neuronal groups in our brains do, indeed, entrain to rhythmic stimuli. Rhythm-processing involves increased coupling between auditory and premotor cortex, a part of the brain involved in planning and executing bodily movement. It also recruits the basal ganglia, a group of structures deep in the brain involved in motor control, action selection and learning. Intriguingly, even when subjects are instructed not to move in response to what they hear, the basal ganglia is recruited in the processing of auditory beats – though not when they are presented with regular visual rhythms. Patients with Parkinson’s disease, who suffer from impaired basal ganglia function, show deficits in duration-discrimination and the ability to synchronise their finger taps with auditory rhythms.
It seems that moving in response to temporal structure is not something we have to ‘work out’ how to do. Detecting and responding to temporal patterns, in music and elsewhere, is more likely a matter of allowing oneself to be borne along by the natural, spontaneous resonances that already exist between our bodies, our brains and the temporal contours of the sounding world.
Most creatures, even our nearest primate relatives, don’t seem to experience musical beats in quite the same movement-involving way that we do. If we are the only speaking apes, we would appear to be the only dancing apes, too. But we shouldn’t be too hasty in our self-congratulation. Entrainment to other rhythmic stimuli in the environment is ubiquitous in the animal kingdom – and the uses to which our fellow beasts can put environmental rhythms is impressive indeed.
Where do birds go in the winter months? The Ancient Greeks hypothesised that they hibernated in holes in the ground, or transformed into other species of birds; other civilisations thought that they became barnacles, or concealed themselves at the bottoms of lakes. Such bizarre theories are, in a way, less implausible than what we now know to be true: that creatures weighing less than a box of matches can fly non-stop for thousands of miles over land and sea with no navigational aids, consuming their own bodies as fuel, calculating their route with such precision that they often end up landing not only in the same tree, but on the same twig as they did the year before. And a few months later, they do it all again in reverse.
So-called ‘calendar birds’ migrate at the same time every year, regardless of weather. Magnetic sensitivity and the sense of smell are thought to be instrumental to the success of these voyages. But scientists also think that migrating birds are highly sensitive to time: both to elapsed duration, and also to the presence of circannual, or yearly, environmental rhythms. The ability of these birds to ‘know’ exactly when to depart is thought to rely on entrainment to patterns in the environment that repeat annually, such as changes in the light-dark cycle. Once they get to their winter breeding grounds, where the light-dark cycle is reversed, an internal ‘clock’ is thought to keep track of how much time has elapsed since their departure; a cascade of biological events, such as fat deposit and even the shrivelling of internal organs, begins in the weeks before it’s time to return home. Once the voyage is underway, in either direction, entrainment is what allows the bird to keep track of regularities in the Earth’s magnetic field, and the ‘clock’ keeps count of how long it has been flying on each ‘bearing’.
The tiny Northern wheatear doesn’t travel the 15,000 km from Alaska to southern Africa twice a year by consciously representing the route, or the environmental patterns by which it is calibrated. Maybe the bird blindly implements the instructions of its biological sat-nav like a computer executing code: there might be ‘nothing it’s like’ for the bird to be sensitive to circannual rhythms. However, the contrary is also possible: perhaps at least some of those environmental patterns ‘feel’ a certain way to the bird, much as particular rhythmic patterns feel ‘trippy’ to us despite our failure to represent their precise structure. In 1851, the English writer Henry Mayhew noted that, as the season for migration approaches, ‘the caged nightingale shows symptoms of great uneasiness, dashing himself against the wires of his cage or his aviary, and sometimes dying in a few days.’ It is difficult to read such accounts and not sense what it is like for a bird to feel the pull of the voyage.
Entrainment provides a powerful theoretical tool for exploring how we manage to resonate with the world, and each other, in real time. It offers an embryonic account of how we can act astutely even when there’s no time for conscious thought. And while many of the entrainment processes that regulate the functioning of our brains and bodies never make it into awareness, some of them – like viscerally ‘getting’ a guitar solo – arguably do.
Our conscious experience of time is philosophically puzzling. On the one hand, it’s intuitive to suppose that we perceive only what’s happening rightnow. But on the other, we seem to have immediate perceptual experiences of motion and change: I don’t need to infer from a series of ‘still’ impressions of your hand that it is waving, or work out a connection between isolated tones in order to hear a melody. These intuitions seem to contradict each other: how can I perceive motion and change if I am only really conscious of what’s occurring now? We face a choice: either we don’t really perceive motion and change, or the now of our perception encompasses more than the present instant – each of which seems problematic in its own way. Philosophers such as Franz Brentano and Edmund Husserl, as well as a host of more recent commentators, have debated how best to solve the dilemma.
But the experience of time involves more than just the perception of events occurring at a distance from us. We also experience time by instigating events through our actions, as well as encountering the actions of others. To relish the flow of a chat with a friend, or to feel the groove of a beat, is to have a distinctive kind of temporal experience where the observation of time becomes entwined with how one inhabits it – but in each case, the experience is less a matter of representing temporal structure than of entraining to it, resonating with it.
Reasoning is often a matter of being ‘struck’ by a thought, of having one’s intellect set in motion by ideas
Is resonance without representation always a mindless affair? Not necessarily. Reason wasn’t always thought of in terms of representation, for one thing. In 1769, the French philosopher Denis Diderot offered the following characterisation of the thinker, in his dialogue with his friend Jean Le Rond d’Alembert:
The sensitive vibrating string oscillates and results for a long time after one has plucked it. It’s this oscillation, this sort of inevitable resonance, that holds the present object, while our understanding is busy with the quality which is appropriate to it. But vibrating strings have yet another property – to make other strings quiver. And thus the first idea recalls a second, and those two a third, then all three a fourth, and so it goes, without our being able to set a limit to the ideas that are aroused and linked in a philosopher who meditates or who listens to himself in silence and darkness.
This is a far cry from the modern characterisation of the philosopher as one who contemplates propositions from a position of detachment, in order to reflect on the world without being moved by it. For Diderot, at least, the philosopher must listen keenly, and attune himself to the patterns that he seeks to understand. But even cursory introspection reveals that the processes of reason themselves are saturated with resonance. Reasoning is often a matter of being ‘struck’ by a thought, of having one’s intellect set in motion by ideas. We say that a speaker’s message ‘resonated’ with us when we not only comprehend it, but find it compelling. Far from being at odds with reflection, then, resonance might be its close companion.
Human attempts at making sense of the world often involve representing, calculating and deliberating. This isn’t the kind of thing that typically goes on in the 55 Bar, nor is it necessarily happening in the Lutheran church just down the block, or on a muddy football pitch in a remote Irish village. But gathering to make music, play games or engage in religious worship are far from being mindless activities. And making sense of the world is not necessarily just a matter of representing it.
Music is a reminder to philosophers of mind that perceptual experience isn’t exhausted by vision. It prompts the recognition that conscious experience is dynamic, encompassing motion and change. But music also nudges philosophers toward a conception of the mind as more than just a very sophisticated calculator. If humans are representing machines, we are resonant bodies, too.
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is a philosopher, musician and writer-at-large whose work has appeared in TheGuardian, ThePhilosopher's Magazine and Medium's subscription programme. She holds a PhD in musicology from the University of Cambridge, and is currently working on a second PhD in philosophy at NYU. Her research interests include the philosophy of mind, cognitive science and aesthetics.