Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Music for Monkeys

At Wired they have a story about music composed to appeal to tamarin monkeys. Monkeys don't like our favorite music and generally don't respond to it emotionally. So a composer and some scientists wrote music, "based on the pitch, tone and tempo of tamarin calls." The monkeys did respond to this music. You can listen to two samples at the wired article. It's definitely not the most appealing or evocative to our ears. It really makes one wonder what makes music so appealing to us.

Kant for example, didn't think too highly of music. he thought it was pretty low on the scale of art, saying it was tantamount to color patterns, like say fabric or wallpaper. Poetry was the most sophisticated art form to him. I think Kant came to this conclusion because he just didn't get music, and probably wasn't exposed to very good music (the great musicians of his day didn't tour much, and he never left his home town). And I understand why he doesn't get music. It seems much more clear to me why I find other forms of art appealing, but I can't explain what makes music appealing.

Darwin talks about the origins of music in Descent of Man, and I think he gives us some insight into how emotions are conveyed through music. He says that what we hear as, for example, power or softness or playfulness (or whatever) in music is just us hearing by extension the power or softness or playfulness of the person's physical movements while playing it. It's almost like, when we hear a really forceful section of piano music, we are as if imagining a pianist forcefully attacking the piano keys, though we don't actually literally visualize this in our head. Thus, music is almost like an extension of body language, an extension of the emotion we see conveyed in body language. Our tone of voice similarly conveys emotions. For example, a higher pitch of voice usually evokes defensiveness, and its caused by us sort of clenching ourselves up, like a boxer clenching themselves in preparation for receiving a punch. So when we hear this higher pitched voice we are hearing, as it were, the defensive clenching.

This might explain why monkeys don't find our music appealing, since they won't hear the physical/bodily motions that are conveyed in sounds appealing to us. But they will hear it in sounds more similar to the vocal calls they make. This might provide some insight into what makes music appealing, but much is still unclear.

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