The Mystery of Music

22 July 2016

Our topic this week is the Mystery of Music.    Music is an amazing thing.   It can move us to its groove and or make us cringe.   it can lift us up or bring us down.  But exactly how does music work its magic on the mind?  What separates good music from bad?  And why do different people react so differently to the very same music?  Those are just some of the questions we address on this week’s episode. 

A first thought is that it’s all just a matter of taste and thus totally subjective!  You like Beethoven, but his music leaves me cold.  I like that Beatles, but you can take them or leave them.  What more is there to say?

In fact, there’s a lot more to say.  A person is missing something if she is not not uplifted by Beethoven’s triumphal Ode to Joy, if  she’s not haunted by his Moonlight Sonata.   And as for the Beatles, who could hear “Yesterday” and not feel an intense sense of longing?

In saying this, I don’t mean to be appointing myself  the arbiter of all musical taste.  Heck, I don’t pretend to be the arbiter of anything at all, actually.  But do consider this.   Suppose I put  my hand right in front of your eyes.   And suppose you were to insist that there or that you see a foot rather than a hand.  That would be a sure sign that there was something wrong with your eyes and that it was time to get them checked.     And it’s the same, I admit, with musical perception.  Musical perception is no more or less subjective than visual perception.  Sure, visual perception is partly subjective.  But it’s also responsive to what’s out there in the world.  Same with musical perception.  It’s partly subjective too.  But it is also responsive to what’s objectively out there in the music.  That’s why I say that if you don’t hear the longing in “Yesterday,” you’ve got flawed musical perception.

Now some may worry that my analogy is flawed in that it conflates two distinct things -- perception and taste.   Just because our tastes differ, you could say,  it doesn’t follow that our perceptions do.   Music is just sound.   We perceive sound with the sense of hearing.  if you and I hear the same musical sounds, we perceive the same musical reality.  But mere perception doesn’t determine taste.  That is,  we might hear the exact same sound,  that is, the exact same musical reality – a C sharp, say – but if you happen to like that sound and I don't it doesn’t follow that one of us has misperceived something in the sound. It’s just that C sharp appeals to you but doesn’t appeal to me.   That’s all there is to it.  Perception is one thing.  Taste is something entirely different.   Or so it may seem.

But I don’t think it’s as easy to untangle perception and taste as this line of reasoning  seems to suppose.   Think about beer.   I love beer – especially a soft and creamy stout or a fruity Belgian ale.  But I used to absolutely hate the stuff.   During most of my college years,  when I first started drinking beer,   I would chug the first few so that the taste of the rest wouldn't bother me so much.   So what changed in me?   Part of it was that I started drinking better beer and not just cheap rock gut.   But I also became, I think,  a better beer drinker.    As I a novice, largely unrefined beer drinker, I couldn’t tell a pilsner from an amber.   But as I drank more and gained more experience, my palette became more refined.   I  gradually became attuned to the subtle differences among beers and learned to take pleasure in them.   So it’s not just that I drink better beer these days, it’s also that I’ve become better at drinking beer.   And I think one can do the same thing with music.

Of course, just because I am better at discriminating one beer from another than I used to be.  But it doesn’t necessarily follow that I’m going to like this or that beer better, just because I can tell them apart.  But I do think that my more refined makes me a better judge of true beer quality.   For example, I would definitely trust the old, more experienced me to discriminate good beer from bad more than I would trust the young and inexperienced me.   That’s because whether we are talking beer or music,  aesthetic taste is a skill, a skill that can be honed.   And if you want to hone our own listening and thinking skills tune in to our show and join the conversation. 

Photo by Spencer Imbrock on Unsplash

Comments (7)

Gary M Washburn's picture

Gary M Washburn

Saturday, July 23, 2016 -- 5:00 PM

Schoenberg breaks the matter

Schoenberg breaks the matter down to rhythm, tone, and something he called "color". "Color" being the human part. And yet, what he produced was more like machne music than ever.
A more philosophically interesting opposition is between lyric and beat. Which, semantics or syntax, subject or predicate, antecedent or extension, premise or conclusion, the equation or its reduction, takes precedence? Is music poetry or dirge? Is it driven by the meaning and humanity of the sense expressed? Or by the syncopation of time? If human, music is the expression of a breach in the pace of time. If tempo or beat, humanity is the slave of time.

Guest's picture


Thursday, July 28, 2016 -- 5:00 PM

The good service means they

The capacity to see and appreciate music is an inherent human attribute, said Dr. Mark Tramo, a neurobiologist at Harvard Medical School. While numerous creatures use perplexing sounds to remember each other, draw in mates and flag threat, people have built up the wealthiest musical collections of any species.

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Friday, July 29, 2016 -- 5:00 PM

I have always loved music,

I have always loved music, and, once-upon-a-time, played for my breakfast, lunch and supper, etc. But, playing music as a profession left a lot to be desired. Anyway, I still enjoy listening to most musical genres and will entertain changes in style and content, as long as the music remains. For example, I have been noticing big differences in today's country music (it used to be called country and western, but that characterization is now pretty well extinct, near as I can tell). Country music now sounds more like pop music, or perhaps better: rock and roll, with a twang. It is no longer all about cheaters, drunks and other social misfits, but, when such themes are portrayed, the music is often bright and cheery,even when it is certain that "we are never, ever getting back together". It's bubble-gummy, but, it's cute. Evolution, I guess... Apparently, this new-wave country is making its' writers and performers wealthy. Good for them.
I do not get rap and hip hop. Not musical to me. Lots of yelling and hot air; degradation of women and the rule of law; lots of glorification of violence; in short: a promotion of anarchy and the primacy of doing whatever one pleases, at any cost, including getting shot for one's trouble. I have also noticed that artists(?) of this genre frequently die for their trouble. So, I don't get all of that but suppose it must be an outgrowth of the hopelessness of our turbulent times. I grew up in turbulent times. Everyone has, but there are different ways of reacting to that.
I prefer classical music and jazz these days. What did the man say?: life is ninety percent what happens to you and ten percent how you react to that. Some such formula. As has always been the case, music can be a force for good or for evil. Some things remain the same, with or without turbulent times and their seeming hopelessness. A good beer doesn't hurt. Much.

Jacob's picture


Thursday, August 4, 2016 -- 5:00 PM

I always love musing, It

I always love musing, It helps me to pass my time, for refreshment, to reduce pain and some others. I listen music when I feel sorrow or when I am unhappy. I also listen music I am happy and excited. Various types of emotion, various kinds of music and various kinds of lyrics. In a short sentence music is a great part of our life.
Anyway your website is full of informative. If you think you need articles then just ask rush essay and give topics. They will write for you.

apek's picture


Tuesday, September 27, 2016 -- 5:00 PM

The greatest mistakes of any

The greatest mistakes of any polity in history is to support a candidate on the assumption he does not mean what he says. There is a scene in the Star Trek Movie, The Journey Home, in which Spock and Kirk are riding a bus across 1970's San Francisco. Across from them on the bus is a "skinhead" playing a "boom-box" so loudly they cannot carry on a discussion. The song, "And I hate you, and I berate you, and I hate you too!" When asked to turn down the noise the "skinhead " (actually, he's wearing a Mohawk) turns it up instead, at which Spock reaches over and applies the Vulcan nerve pinch. Silence ensued, and the other riders applauded. But I rather think the Trump phenomenon divides America between those who are with that punk and the rest of us with those other riders who applauded the respite from him. We'll see in November. Very useful post and i really like your work! thanks a lot or sharing! Android APK Download apkdom Love fun advises ideas lovematchfun join now. Pokemon Go Gym Battle Simulator, Evolution Calculator, IV calculator CP, Pokemon Go Map Locations pokevolver The Best Prank Apps, jokes and shocking Games for Android. prankyapps electric screen. Free Android APK download softlot. Top Best advices, howto, movies, games, top10, reviews topbestis. Gift Ideas and advices giftspilot gifts for her and kids. Cheers! Android app games APK downloader Download Fake GPS Pro Apk. best safe APK downloader free download server Get Pokemon GO APK apk file.

Newstetter's picture


Sunday, March 24, 2019 -- 8:38 PM

Have to say that I was a bit

Have to say that I was a bit disappointed by this discussion. First of all, the guest was really not a music expert, but an historian who wrote a book about James Bond theme songs. Adrian Daub is — according to his bio— a "Professor of Comparative Literature German Studies at Stanford University" ... I don't see any music expertise among his credentials. ( )

Also, there was no mention of the actual physical nature of music. Music isn't just an idea, it's a physical phenomenon resulting from organized vibrations ... organized tonally and rhythmically. These vibrations follow a pattern which is not at all arbitrary, but which follow harmonic patterns which come directly from nature. We, as living organisms resonate with the harmonic structures of music throughout our bodies, not just in our ears or our imaginations. How can you have a real conversation about our understanding of music ... the "meaning" of music if you don't include the physics of music and the physical connection we have to it ... even on a fundamental level ... Yes, you did have a bit about Stravinsky's Rite of Spring as an example of "dissonance" which confounds our expectations, but this is a hackneyed example which does not hold up under scrutiny, nor does the bit about predictability being satisfying. None of these segments of the show really touched on the nature of music on a basic level ... just one mention of the harmonic series and how all musical forms across the world and throughout time are based on this naturally occurring tonal phenomenon would have been better than all the befuddled discussion of which songs your panelists listen to at breakfast.

For a program based on "Philosophy" I would think you might have at least mentioned the role Pythagoras played in defining the musical intervals which are used in most of the music we are familiar with. Instead, the conversation centered on a few pop songs and vague commentary about what each panelist did or didn't feel good about or otherwise unscholarly mumbling from the hosts comparing music to beer.

There's only so much you can cover in an hour, but at least you could start with some rudimentary understanding of what music is in the first place on a primal level. Humans have been making music since pre-history. the hosts of the show seemed almost proud of their ignorance of the subject.

I'd say this topic should be revisited, this time with a guest who actually has a real music background who can address the essential nature of music beyond pop culture references.

QuinnKramer's picture


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