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Psychology and Music


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Abstract

The application of the scientific method to topics within the general area of aesthetics is by no means the only useful approach, and... it does not meet with universal approval. On the other hand, much of the work on aesthetics is of a highly subjective nature, and frequently confuses empirical fact with pure opinion. Many of the so-called musical laws, for example, are not laws in the physical sense (e.g. the law of gravity) but are conventions (e.g. the laws of harmony) which musicians have simply agreed upon. Furthermore, whilst the scientific study of music might with some justification be seen as a rather dull, unexciting and concrete-minded thing to undertake, in the sense that it has none of the beauty of poetic appeal of the actual subject matter, it can serve a very useful purpose in exposing certain beliefs as pure mysticism; hopefully, in this process, making such things as 'good taste', 'sensitivity', 'musical understanding', and so on, into comprehensible entities common in varying degrees to almost all people, rather than magical properties of some sort of musical priesthood.

John Booth Davies, The Psychology of Music, 1978, Hutchinson


Now, if you watch a tracing of the pressure wave when a violin is playing some note, what you see is a complicated wiggly line repeating itself at the fundamental frequency but with smaller wiggles of higher frequency superimposed. What has happened is that the different sine waves that constitute violin noise have summed up to make the complicated wiggly line. It is possible to programme a computer to analyse any complicatedly repeated pattern of wiggles back into its component pure waves, the separate sine waves that you would have to sum up to make the complicated pattern. Presumably, when you listen to an instrument, you are performing something equivalent to this calculation, the ear first unweaving the component sine waves, then the brain weaving them together again and giving them the appropriate label: 'trumpet', 'oboe' or whatever it is.
But our unconscious feats of unweaving and weaving are greater even than this. Think what is happening when you listen to a whole orchestra. Imagine that, superimposed on a hundred instruments, your neighbour in the concert is whispering learned music criticism in your ear, others are coughing and, lamentably, somebody behind you is rustling a chocolate wrapper. All these sounds, simultaneously, are vibrating your eardrum and they are summed into a single, very complicated wriggling wave of pressure change. We know it is one wave because a full orchestra, and all the noises off, can be rendered into a single wavy groove on a phonograph disc, or a single fluctuating trace of magnetic substance on a tape. The entire set of vibrations sums up into a single wiggly line on the graph of air pressure against time, as recorded by your eardrum. Mirabile dictu, the brain manages to sort out the rustling from the whispering, the coughing from the door banging, the instruments of the orchestra from each other. Such a feat of unweaving and reweaving, or analysis and synthesis, is almost beyond belief, but we all do it effortlessly and without thinking...

Richard Dawkins Unweaving the Rainbow, p71-72, Allen Lane 1998

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