Comusication: Towards a new general theory of music

In order to build a general theory about music, a social scientific approach must be accepted, based on evidence collected from individual and collective experiences all over the world and from history. First, music has historically not been a means in the struggle for survival, but rather a “language” to establish better emotional communication within human communities. This cohesive role is crucial in order to have a new insight into the real meaning of music. Although it is based on a specific sense, it is different from other functions of hearing, such as understanding words or as a tool for completing a representation of the real world. And one of its most distinctive features is its connection to emotion. That is not the case with words, which can have an objective meaning, like “chair”, which can become an object represented invariantly in our minds. The same melody can have a totally different meaning in
different emotional contexts: the French national anthem has a completely
different emotional impact on a native of France than on someone born in
Argentina; and it will surely have a different “meaning” when it is sung at the
beginning of the school day or in a homage to soldiers fallen in combat. The
same can be truth on a smaller scale. In the context of a music school, the
interval of a perfect fifth (as between C and the G immediately above it) may
sound as an abstract sequence or superposition of notes, without any particular
emotional connotations, but in another context it can transmit a supernatural,
magical feeling.

This connection between music and emotion could be the
external translation of some kind of physical wiring between the cells of
different parts of our brains: those located in organs related to our emotions
(“the reptilian brain”) and those in the neuronal regions of the cortex devoted
to higher functions. As far as we know, there are no scientific experiments in
this specific direction, but there is strong indirect evidence of this link in
its external expression: behavior. We can find evidence of this influence in the
results of music therapy, in the powerful effect and emotional impact of film
music, in how often a simple song can awaken memories of past emotions of
sorrow, joy or faith, etc.

Are there any common elements to every kind of music? Why
is this type of human expression so widespread throughout history and cultures
all over the planet? We will try to get an objective answer by considering the
facts most common to all humanity, like gestation and social behavior.

Prenatal education

About 20 weeks into gestation, the first sense that the
human fetus develops is hearing, a long time before it has any input from the
real world through vision, touch or other senses. From this point on, the human
fetus is subject to a genetically determined educational program based on the
acquisition of the primary concept of regularity. This program coincides with
the stage of synaptic growth and consolidation between the neurons of the fetus’
brain. This simple program is based on an association of the concept of
regularity with the gratifying and pleasant sensations of its mother’s
heartbeat. On the other hand, the changes of this beat’s regularity are
associated with a discharge of adrenaline right to the fetus’ blood stream
through the umbilical cord. The fetus reinforces the cortical synapses connected
with the concept of regularity during the following weeks and months, broadening
the capacity for discernment with the inclusion of a category for noise, which
every irregular beat event will fall into. This category, associated with an
unpleasant self-somatic sensation, will at first encompass all sorts of
uncomprehended sound signals, like the kinds of sounds arriving from the world
outside its mother’s placenta. Also, the fetus begins to perceive these outer
sounds (especially its mother’s voice, transmitted through the vertebrae closest
to her womb) filtered by the aqueous medium of the amniotic liquid where it
grows. Liquid media transmit sound more quickly than air, but they filter high
frequencies, softening the timbre (or “color”) of the sounds, something that
will soon be categorized as a pleasant sensation (as anyone can experience
simply by submerging his/her ears in a bathtub).

These experiences are common to all human beings and other
mammals too, but only humans develop such broad neural activity during this
period, creating new neurons and synapses, especially in a specific part of the
brain called the neo-cortex, a part more developed and connected to higher
mental functions than in any other species. This categorization happens prior to
birth and to any functional differentiation of the sense of hearing between
music and other kinds of sounds.

First hearing patterns

The prenatal educational program lays the foundation for
further sensorial experiences. First, it consolidates the primary model or
representation of regularity that will later on accommodate further
subcategories of regular sounds. One of the most important also takes place at a
very primary level: sounds with a regular pitch, what we commonly know as
musical sounds. This kind of input requires a very low level of interpretational
effort necessary to understand the sound inputs of hearing. The same can be said
about a regular, simple beat progression, that may be translated into a binary
division of the beat into two sub-beats that the newborn tries to imitate by
regularly shaking noisemakers like rattles.

The same kind of analogy regarding regular and binary
subdivision of the beat could be applied to pitch. If we duplicate the frequency
of a pitch, the result is a sound an octave higher than the fundamental. Hearing
also perceives this simple variation as an analogy that can be categorized along
with the regular pitch. This equivalence of octaves (e.g., the interval between
a C on the piano and the next C up the keyboard) is a musical phenomenon common
to all human cultures. One of the most obvious examples is when a male adult and
a child (or a female adult) sing the same melody: actually they sing in parallel
octaves because of their different voice registers. Thus, regular pitch becomes
a flexible category capable of encompassing many invariant representations of
analogies to a basic model of regularity that evolves over time. But this
capacity does not end here. Gradually, the newborn’s mind will be capable of
accommodating new and more remote analogies to regularity in his/her mental
representation of the original.

Noise, Silence and Sound Information

But what about irregular sounds? At first, these
misunderstood sound events fall into a general category of noise. But gradually,
in association with the input and consequences of other senses and experiences,
they can transform into distinct new categories. Some of these noises became
part of a new analogy to regularity. For example, a steady noise can saturate
some part of the hearing bandwidth so that we can’t really hear it. This is the
case with our own blood flow, pumping through the veins close to our ears, or
the very high, steady sound of the electrical activity of our nervous system.
These are the sounds that the composer John Cage discovered when trying to
perceive absolute silence inside an anechoic chamber, as he describes in his
book “Silence”. These sound are always sounding as long as we are alive, but we
do not interpret them because of their steadiness. In conclusion, we could say
that exposure to a steady, regular noise is, in fact, perceived, but is not
interpreted, creating a new category called “silence”.

We can see a lot of indirect evidence of this process. For
example, many babies (and adults) have trouble getting to sleep in a very quiet
foreign environment, because their minds associate silence with a pattern of
regular noises (night birds, insects, the train passing at 11:11 p.m., a
lullaby…). Silence, by this definition, is an analogy to noise associated with
some kind of strong regularity. On the other hand, some noises start acquiring
meaning by association with past experiences. The first is the newborn’s
mother’s voice. This kind of irregular sound perceived during the late stages of
pregnancy becomes the first recognizable sound object (or event) associated with
pleasant sensations thanks to the self-somatic sense of nutrition, the warmth of
maternal touch, and seeing her face. Therefore, after birth, hearing her voice
facilitates the baby’s interpretation and understanding of sound information. In
this way, the newborn initiates an intelligent, real-world sound information
categorization process, reinforced by association with positive emotions. This
primary process triggers a complex sound information modeling process , by which
he/she will associate vocal sounds with other human beings close by (father,
brothers and sisters, etc.).

Musical Information and Ellipsis

Most sound information is made up of noisy events. Names,
words and the sounds of objects (including animals and other manifestations of
sound in nature) in the environment we grow up in get their signification
(mental representation) as an abstraction derived by association with other
senses. But musical information is rooted to the first sound patterns learned
during gestation. As we pointed out earlier, the primary concept of regularity
has been incorporated into our categorization in association with emotions, not
objects. Starting from the maternal heartbeat, we learn to accommodate sound
analogies like musical sound (steady pitch) and musical beat (independently of
its velocity or tempo). By this means, we are ready to process further analogies
like octave equivalence and binary subdivision of the beat. A step deeper into
this learning process, we are able to accept and categorize other subdivisions
of rhythm and pitch as musical information.

For example, we are able to recognize a subdivision of the
beat into 3, 4 or more equal parts, as in compound time, where the first two
sub-beats are linked together, but the third one is not. This irregular rhythmic
pattern may or may not be associated with other experiences (like dragging one
foot while limping, with the other one stepping properly). A completely
different but likewise simple variation of the sequence of identical beats may
be linking together the first two, but not the following pair, giving a pattern
based on a subdivision of the beat into 4 parts. These rhythmic irregularities
do not translate into noisy sound events, but rather into a new kind of
“object”, not necessarily associated with other senses but instead with the
primary categorization of the regularity of the beat and the related emotions .

In the field of pitch variation, we have seen the analogy
of duplication of a fundamental frequency with the acoustic result of the sound
of its octave. An analogous situation to the irregular rhythmic patterns we have
just seen is the further multiplication of the fundamental frequency by other
whole numbers such as 3, 4, and so on. These exact multiples are the natural
upper harmonics of a sound. Each new prime number in that infinite series sets a
new note whose frequency is a whole-number multiple of the first note of the
series, which in turn is called the fundamental. Therefore, the note that
vibrates three times as fast as the fundamental (the third upper harmonic) sets
a new interval. If the fundamental were a G, that third harmonic would be the
second D up from the fundamental. If we obviate this octave leap (by
equivalence), the interval would be a perfect fifth, made up of 7 semitones in
the Western musical tuning system. The fourth harmonic is an octave higher than
the second one, and two octaves distant from the fundamental. The same note will
reappear at the eighth, 16th, and 32nd places, and so on.
As for the D, it will reappear at higher octaves in the sixth and 12th
positions, and so on. In the prime-number positions of the series, we will find
new notes that form new intervals with the fundamental: the major third in the 5th
position (B), a note out of tune with the Western tuning system in the 7th
position (a lowered F), etc.

This mathematical relationship can become a powerful source
of analogies for the emergence of new musical sounds, which will make up the
basic building blocks for melodic development. But additionally, hearing these
natural intervals requires a lower interpretive effort. Thus, the use of those
building blocks in melodies coinciding with a simple rhythmic pattern can soon
be categorized as musical information: minor irregularities over regular
repetitive patterns developed over time. In order to be categorized this way,
these kinds of variations must be repeated over time, something that
characterizes all basic melodies all over the world.

But as we said before, the simple identical reiteration of
an irregular pattern (like those categorized as noise) may come to be
interpreted as silence, so we can find a universal trend to add some small new
variations or irregularities after some identical repetitions. We can appreciate
this kind of process in every musical culture on the planet and in songs with
basic forms like A – A – A – A’ (this last being a rhythmic-melodic variation of
the original).

The reiteration of musical information over time, either
identically or with minor variations, also produces a predictable musical
behavior: we expect to keep hearing the same musical pattern. Sometimes it
happens, but mostly it does not, since the original musical information does not
disappear completely from our minds, given that we have already created a
prediction about it. This is a powerful tool in the hands of musicians, who use
it to create different layers of musical representations associated with related
or opposite emotions, which can interact to create a new, dynamic and
multi-layered interpretation. We call this kind of musical pattern that actually
does not keep sounding an ellipsis. These patterns are related to musical
information, in that they carry information, though not sound information. They
are also related to silence, because we are not aware of that information. And
they are the opposite of noise, that is perceived but not interpreted.

Musical signification

This interaction is shown in the following diagram, in
which arrows show the transformational paths as we described them.

After birth, we gradually start developing a more
sophisticated mechanism for categorizing musical events that surround us. The
reiterative ones are just obviated (their information is silenced); the simplest
ones begin their transformation into musical information we can deal with: their
reiteration transforms them into a kind of structural memory: an ellipsis, that
coexists and interacts with the perceived musical events, to create a richer,
more complex mental representation. In this way, we can accommodate an ever
greater number of “recognizable musical objects” due to our knowledge,
understanding and memory capacities.

After birth, musical information, unlike other general
sound information, remains associated to emotions due to its origin, but
develops a more mental processing. These growing intelligence capacities
(memory, prediction, signification) allow the incorporation of musical social
habits, like a tuning system, modal and scale material, a local type of
rhythmic-melodic patterns and variations, and so on. These habits are learned
during one’s very first years and have a long-term impact on our musical
preferences and capacities.

This paradigm will also allow us to configure a local
musical language that can easily spread and be universally understood based on
the same elements of emotional association and signification processing. It is a
human communicational process that I have dubbed comusication.

© Jorge Luis Rozemblum
Sloin. All right reserved.