Metaform and Metaforming - Quotes

Relevant Quotes - David DeutschIan CrossRichard DawkinsJohn Blacking

David Deutsch, The Fabric of Reality, Allen Lane 1997

The reason why higher-level subjects can be studied at all is that under special circumstances the stupendously complex behaviour of vast numbers of particles resolves itself into a measure of simplicity and comprehensibility. This is called emergence: high-level simplicity 'emerges' from low-level complexity. High-level phenomena about which there are comprehensible facts are not simply deducible froom lower-level theories are called emergent phenomena. For example, a wall might be strong because its builders feared that their enemies might try to force their way through it. This is a high-level explanation of the wall's strength not deducible from (though not incompatible with) the low-level explanation I gave above... The purpose of high-level sciences is to enable us to understand emergent phenomena, of which the most important are, as we shall see, life, thought and computation.

I have...argued that none of the four strands [quantum physics, epistemology, the theory of computation, the theory of evolution] can be properly understood independently of the other three. This is possibly a clue to the reason why all these prevailing theories have not been believed. All four individual explanations share an unattractive property which has been variously criticised as 'idealised and unrealistic', 'narrow', or 'naive' - and also 'cold', 'mechanistic' and 'lacking in humanity'. I believe that there is some truth in the gut feeling behind these criticisms. For example, of those who deny the possibility of artificial intelligence, and find themselves in effect denying that the brain is a physical object, a few are really only trying to express a much more reasonable criticism: that the Turing explanation of computation seems to leave no room, even in priciple, for any future explanation in physical terms of mental attributes such as consciousness and free will...There is an explanatory gap.

Ian Cross, Music, Development and Evolution in Music, Mind and Science, 1999, Ed. Suk Won Yi Seoul: Seoul National University Press:

Posing the evolutionary question about music may seem a luxury when there are so many other interesting questions that can be asked, but it does seem to be necessary at the present moment. Over the last decade a number of increasingly sophisticated theories of the evolution of mind and society have been formulated in the context of an ever-closer convergence between the concerns of human evolutionary theory and those of cognitive science. Music has begun to receive attention from an evolutionary perspective...

Pinker is partly right in linking music to different domains, but ... music not only links to but integrates information across the different domains.

...more or less the first thing we did when we developed the capacity and desire to produce diverse and technologically complex objects (probably between 40,000 and 30,000 years BP) was to produce musical instruments (bone pipes).

Infancy research appears to reveal a common predisposition for the acquisition of musical competence that is manifested in early interactions and that can be functional through play, in the development of exploratory competences.

processes of enculturation or even of formal musical training can differentiate and progressively modularise these behaviours and their underlying representations into mature musical competences.

The repeated co-occurrence facilitates the development of cross-domain links, particularly between the linguistic microdomain of prosody, the social domain..., and the motoric or sensory domain. has a unique social funcitonality; it has the capacity to afford conditions for social interaction that do not necessarily equire the unique and fixed attribution of meaning or intentionality to any of the actions or productions of the participants...

Ian Cross, Music and Science: three views in Revue Belge de Musicologie, Vol LII (1998), pp207-214.


It seems that if we are to apply science to music, that science must be capable of elucidating the intentional as much as the must be in the form of a cognitive-scientific research programme, which would involve the scientific study of all aspects of the musical mind and of musical behaviour at all achievable levels of explanation - in terms of neurophysiology, psychoacoustics, cognitive psychology and cultural psychology - by theoretical and empirical inquiry, and by means of theoretical and formal modelling and by practical experiment.


Explicit rejections of science or of the premises of science, as having any utility for understanding music are to be found in many pseudo-philosophical sources. For example, Scruton (1983, p87) straightforwardly rejects the possibility of scientific accounts of music because 'science deals with the material, and music, being intentional, is not material'....Johnson (1997) states that 'there is no genuine absolute, no given that is not ideological in origin, hence no understanding [of a piece of music] except in terms of interpretation'... [Nicholas Cook], in his book 'Music, Imagination and Culture' (Cook, 1990) situates music scrupulously within culture, rejects the applicability of scientific methods to music in favour of what he terms 'mythopoeic explanation' because:

It is by virtue of being internal to a culture that mythopoeic explanation is the opposite of scientific explanation...[because] one of the defining aims of a scientific explanation is to achieve a generality and a validity that transcends the bounds of any given culture.

These precursors of musical capacity are caracterisable as undirected play, as the exercise of spatio-temporal movement sequences that are not directed towards overt ends, as the repetition and variation of sets of sounds and movements associable with, but not directly interpretable as, acts and signs of communication and intentionality.

Music, I would suggest, can be held to have subserved a direct adaptive function in human evolution.

Ian Cross, AI and music perception in AISB Quarterly 1999

But theories that account for our experience of pieces that are not tonal (such as those of Schoenberg Boulez or Reich) are thin on the ground (though there are a few exceptions, such Lerdahl (1989)).

[Of a musical performance from the Bolivian campesinos of Northern Potosi, who live in the high Andes and whose culture seems to retain many of the characteristics of pre-Hispanic - Inca - ways of interpreting and experiencing the world:]
...the longer duration of the second note, produced on an upstroke, being a result of delaying the fall of the hand for the third note. The inequality in the pattern was a direct consequence of the action embedded in the music, was a consequence of the embodied nature of the music.

...if these sorts of factors - linguistic, cultural factors: motoric, embodied factors - condition the way that music happens in another culture it is not unreasonable to suggest that these types of factors play a major role in the music of our culture that is largely ignored in both theory in AI and experiment within cognitive science - and it seems feasible that by looking at what actually happens in music of our and other cultures, by addressing issues of culture and embodiment - and of emotion, a fast-growing area of research in cognitive science - that coginitive science and AI can advance our understanding of mind in general. Music bears the unique and specific stamp of the culture from which it originates as well as the imprint of the actions required for its materialisation, and affords a powerful means of tracking the dynamics of the interaction of mind, behaviour and culture.

Richard Dawkins Unweaving the Rainbow, Allen Lane, 1998:

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

Keats may not have intended it literally, but the idea of nightingale song working as a drug is not totally far-fetched. Consider what it is doing in nature, and what natural selection has shaped it to do. Male nightingales need to influence the behaviour of female nightingales, and of other males. Some ornithologists have thought of song as conveying information: 'I am a male of the species Luscinia megarhynchos, in breeding condition, with a territory, hormonally primed to mate and build a nest.' Yes, the song does contain that information, in the sense that a female who acts on the assumption that it is true could benefit thereby. But another way to look at it has always seemed to me more vivid. The song is not informing the female but manipulating her. It is not so much changing what the female knows as directly changing the internal physiological state of her brain. It is acting like a drug.

There is experimental evidence from measuring the hormone levels of female doves and canaries, as well as their behaviour, that the sexual state of females is directly influenced by the vocalisations of males, the effects being integrated over a period of days. The sounds from a male canary flood through the female's ears into her brain where they have an effect that is indistinguishable from one that an experimenter can procure with a hypodermic syringe. The male's 'drug' enters the female through the portals of her ears rather than through a hypodermic, but this difference does not seem particularly telling.

The idea that birdsong is an auditory drug gains plausibility when you look at how it develops during the individual's lifetime. Typically, a young male songbird teaches himself to sing by practising: matching up fragments of trial song against a 'template' in his brain, a pre-programmed notion of what the song of his species 'ought' to sound like. In some species, such as the American song sparrow, the template is built in, programmed by the genes. In other species, such as the white crowned sparrow or the European chaffinch, it is derived from a 'recording' of another male's song, made early in the young male's life from listening to an adult. Wherever the template comes from, the young male teaches himself how to sing in such a way as to match it.

That, at least, is one way to talk about what happens when a young bird perfects his song. But think of it another way. The song is ultimately designed to have a strong effect on the nervous system of another member of the species, either a prospective mate or a possible territorial rival who needs to be warned off. But the young bird himself is a member of his own species. His brain is a typical brain from that species. A sound that is effective in arousing his own emotions is likely to be as effective in arousing a female of the same species. Instead of speaking of the young male trying to shape his practice song to 'match' a built-in 'template', we could think of him as practising on himself as a typical member of his species, trying out fragments of song to see whether they excite his own passions, that is, experimenting with his own drug on himself.

And, to complete the circuit, perhaps it is not too surprising that nightingale song should have acted like a drug on the nervous system of John Keats. He was not a nightingale, but he was a vertebrate, and most drugs that work on humans have a comparable effect upon other vertebrates. Manmade drugs are the products of comparatively crude trial-and-error testing by chemists in the laboratory. Natural selection has had thousands of generations in which to fine-tune its drug technology.

Richard Dawkins Unweaving the Rainbow, p79-81, ibid

John Blacking, Music, Culture and Experience, University of Chicago, 1995

We may say that ordinary daily experience takes place in a world of actual time. Stravinsky expressed this concisely: "Music is given to us with the sole purpose of establishing an order in things, including, and particularly, the coordination between man and time" (Stravinsky 1936, 83). Similarly, for the Venda it is rhythm which distinguishes song from speech, so that patterns of words that are recited to a regular meter are called "songs" (Blacking 1967b, 16f.).

Both Stravinsky and the Venda insist that music involves people, and it is a moot point whether sounds ordered and produced by a computer are music. The regular beats of an engine or a pump may sound like the beats of a drum, but no Venda would regard them as music or expect to be emotionally stirred, because they are not produced by human beings.


Among the Venda, the feelings which even the same music arouses vary greatly from one individual to another according to their knowledge of, and interest and participation in, the social activities which the music accompanies. The music of initiation affects people according to their age and status in society. Rulers, in particular, seem to be interested more in the social than the musical aspects of the music of the domba initiation school. On one occasion, the "musical director" of a school and I were enjoying an exhilarating and technically flawless performance of domba by eighty-eight dancers; but the chief of the district was not greatly impressed and said that it would sound better in two months' time. His appreciation of the music was conditioned by the knowledge that at least fifty more novices would join the school during that period: for him, a greater volume of sound would mean more prestige and a larger income from the novices' fee. Furthermore, as I have described elsewhere (1964b, 38) in the case of the Venda national dance (tshikona), the volume of sound indicates the amount of support a ruler enjoys so that comparison of the music of two political rivals can lead to a peaceful solution of a dispute.


Richard Hoadley, April 2000