Friday, April 29, 2016

Is music a sound?

It seems that music is a sound, and sound is constituted by vibrations of a surrounding medium, i.e., typically air. But you can listen to a musical piece through a bone conduction headset. In that case, you're not listening to vibrations of a surrounding medium. Moreover, we could suppose that the performer is producing electronic music live, which is directly piped to the audience's bone conduction headsets without any speakers anywhere, so it's never in the air (except accidentally). Assuming that the bone conduction headsets produce the same experienced quality as listening to the music the normal way, it seems that the audience wouldn't be losing out on anything musically relevant. Yet, if music is a kind of sound, and sound is vibrations of a surrounding medium, then we have a paradox:

  1. There is no music there.
  2. But the audience isn't missing out on anything musically relevant.
  3. So, music need not be musically relevant!

Perhaps, though, music doesn't require vibrations of a surrounding medium. The vibrations of bones might be sufficient to qualify as music. I am not sure, however, whether in the concert that I have imagined the audience counts as hearing vibrations of their bones. Yes, their bones vibrate, but the content of the experience isn't the vibration of bones. Rather, it sounds like sound coming from outside them, so the content is external sound, but in my story that's absent, replaced by a mere illusion of sound.

In any case, we can modify the story. Suppose the piece is performed electronically, and never generates the relevant vibrations. Instead, it is directly piped to the performer's and audience's brains' auditory centers. It seems that musically nothing is lost, even though now there is definitely no sound at all.

The conclusion that music needn't be musically relevant is absurd. So we have to deny the claim that music is a sound. What is it then? A sequence of experiences? Then there is no music when the performer and audience are deaf. Maybe that's a bullet we should bite?

Maybe music--both the music composed by a composer and the music performed by a performer (who may be in part or whole a composer, as in cases of improvisation)--should be seen as an abstract sound type. The composer and performer discover music but don't create it. In order to grasp an abstract sound type, it is not needed that one hear an instance of it, but only that one have an experience as of hearing an instance of it. The performer, thus, causes the audience to have experiences as of hearing instances of it. Those experiences are neither sound nor music. We can then, by extension, call an instance of the abstract sound type--i.e., a concrete sound--"music". But music in this sense is not musically relevant except as a vehicle for music in the Platonic sense.

(In case it's relevant, I should note that I'm largely tone deaf, and I do not speak from experience.)

(One can mount another argument against the thesis that music is a sound on the basis of Cage's 4'33". But if 4'33" is music, we could still say it normally involves sound, in that one could have a more nuanced theory on which sound isn't the vibrations, but a token pattern of vibrations. And no-vibrations counts a pattern of vibrations.)


Michael Gonzalez said...

I don't know if music is the relevant problem here. I don't think ANY sound is a sound, in the sense you define it. If a tree falls in the forest, and no one hears it, it doesn't make a sound. It vibrates air, but sound is a situation in which skilled users of ears INTERACT with certain sorts of vibrations in a particular way.

Martin C said...

Maybe an hylemorphic approach could be useful. Sound could be seen as an accidental form which can be transmitted by different mediums and that can be received by a sentient being through its potencies. Music would an artifact of accidental nature, its matter being sound and its form being the arrangement of such sounds.

IanS said...

Did the late (and deaf) Beethoven “hear” the music he was composing? And suppose, as is likely, that he mentally composed some pieces but did not write them down. In what sense did they exist? Were they really music?

Suppose (as I think is possible) that a musician looks at an unfamiliar score, and in some sense “hears” the music. What is happening?

From a different angle, is there anything specifically musical about this? It seems close to Descartes’ brain in a vat.

Alexander R Pruss said...


I think the inquiry is not so much about music as about the arts in general.

The brain in a vat hypothesis lets one get all the way to the final conclusion quickly. If we're brains in vats, then we don't hear or see. But we can still enjoy music and the "visual" arts. So, music and the "visual" arts do not require sounds or sights!

We all already knew this in regard to prose literature, I suppose. Prose doesn't require a particular sensory modality: you can read either visually or in Braille, listen to it, or recite it in your mind, and it is equally good from a literary point of view (except for accidental features, such as that many people can't read Braille. The point is a little less obvious for metric or rhyming poetry, but still basically applies.

I am not completely sure about the culinary arts, however. While the brain in a vat can have the same apparent experience of eating as we do, it seems that she misses out on something culinarily important. Maybe, though, while she misses out on something culinarily important, she doesn't miss out on anything aesthetically important? Maybe the thing about the culinary arts is that they aren't pure arts, just as architecture isn't a pure art.

Michael Gonzalez said...

Pruss: You are right that the brain-in-the-vat would be missing something in the culinary experience, but I don't see why other experiences should be any different. As Merleau-Ponty would say: "Seeing is palpating with the eyes". Consciousness is a matter of dynamic engagement with the world.

Alexander R Pruss said...

I definitely think that the brain in a vat misses out something in auditory experience. But not in musical experience as such. So musical experience isn't just a subspecies of auditory experience.

Michael Gonzalez said...

Have you ever tried to reimagine music you've heard in the past? What you get is a vague shadow at best, in my experience. Likewise for visual memory. And smells, tastes, and tactile experiences are all completely opaque to me (no pun intended) when I try to recall them without external prompting.

Alexander R Pruss said...

Agreed. But direct neural stimulation would presumably sound as good as the best live music.

Michael Gonzalez said...

I think that presumes an incorrect theory of consciousness. Even experimental data have been against the idea that that could ever work (which is why brain-in-vat scenarios are probably entirely misguided).

Alexander R Pruss said...

Cochlear implants currently are, indeed, far inferior to normal hearing with respect to music. But what empirical reason is there to think this is more than a merely technical problem. There has been some technical improvement, too:

I find it very hard to believe that if the exact same electrical stimulation as results from normal hearing were imposed on the cochlear nerve, things would sound any different.

Michael Gonzalez said...

But, you see, I don't think hearing is a matter of imposing electrical stimulation on nerves. That's why we're on very different pages as far as this sort of thing goes.

The cochlear implant enables us to engage in hearing, which is a skilled activity. Paul Bach-y-Rita enabled blind people to engage in the skilled activity of seeing (albeit rather poorly) with an apparatus in front of their eyes that translated changing light intensities into vibrational intensities on a patch adhered to the person's inner thigh or lower back. It's not about electrical stimulation or which parts of the brain are activated; it's about skillful coping.

This is a very big topic, and I'm probably the least qualified person in the world to go into it. Suffice it to say that even the way the questions are framed reveals a presumed worldview which may very well be wrong. Whether it's a soul or a brain (or a combo of the two), the idea that consciousness is a matter of sense data getting translated/interpreted/represented somewhere inside us is (I think) a huge mistake. I think Merleau-Ponty (following up on Heidegger) had the right view, and that it has been repeatedly borne out by experimental anomalies (see Alva Noe's "Out of Our Heads").

Alexander R Pruss said...

I bet that if we set up sufficiently high quality speakers in a room and blindfolded you, you couldn't tell whether there is a musician playing music or a recording. Do we agree thus far?

Michael Gonzalez said...


Alexander R Pruss said...

Then let's move step by step:
1. Speakers
2. Earbuds
3. Direct mechanical stimulation of eardrum
4. Direct mechanical stimulation of cochlear hair cells
5. Direct electrical stimulation of cochlear nerve

Blindfolded, if the quality of 1 is high enough, you can't tell the difference between 1 and a live musician in the room.
At which point do you think it would be possible to start telling the difference?

Michael Gonzalez said...

Probably at step 3; though almost certainly before step 5. The issue is that, in steps 1 and 2, there is still a dynamic skilled interaction of a body with a world. There is ambience to contrast the sound with (what Heidegger would call "solicitations" of our attention in the surroundings). There is the innate knowledge that, if I were to turn my head differently the sound would change (and minute confirmations of that innate understanding as I do move and adjust). This skillful interaction with the world, in line with innate understanding of how adjustments will change the experience, is (in the only theories of consciousness that seem to me to hold any explanatory value at all) the very heart of conscious perception. It's the reason the world shows up for us, instead of us being like Chalmers' p-zombies.

Michael Gonzalez said...

I may have mentioned this before, but there was an experiment done with ferrets, where they essentially rewired them so that their ears stimulated their visual cortex and their eyes stimulated their auditory cortex. And yet, they could see and hear just fine. The key is the kind of engagement and exploration of the world; not which part of the brain is stimulated.

Alexander R Pruss said...

I bet the ferrets had an adjustment time.
I'm not claiming someone who was a brain in a vat all their life would have the same experiences as we. Only that someone who had the normal skilled proficiency with sound would have the same experience if on one occasion you replaced the real sound with electrical stimulation.