Monday, February 27, 2012

Musical perception and the nature of consciousness

To: Reiner L.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Musical perception and the nature of consciousness
Date: 12 March 2007 10:30

Dear Reiner,

Thank you for your email of 5 March, with your second essay for the Associate program on musical perception.

This is not exactly what I expected. Where I thought you were heading is in the direction of a non-reductive understanding of the way the language of music works, both in composition and also in performance; in other words, what a composer grasps and a listener appreciates when he creates a musical composition, and what a performer grasps and a listener appreciates when the performer interprets a musical composition.

The question of ontological dualism doesn't seem to have anything to do with this, and in fact you barely hint at the metaphysical issue. I don't know what Chalmers thinks he means by a 'science of consciousness' but I suspect that he is simply taking a stand on the non-reducibility of psychological explanation. It is not necessary to be an ontological dualist in order to take this stand.

The starting point is that there is more to accounting for experience than everyday folk psychology. Human beings have developed elaborate and subtle methods of aesthetic criticism both in music and the visual arts. The fascinating question is, how far this can be developed into a science.

I do not feel the least bit of embarrassment in talking of 'science' here.

Clearly, from your account, the error made by investigators looking for 'science' is to assume, wrongly, that scientific explanation is essentially reductivist. However, if this was literally true, then there would be no such thing as a science of biology to give just one example.

I don't want to rule out that there might be interesting connections between a science of music and human biology, or even logic and mathematics. No science is completely separate from other sciences. But saying that is not making any claim about reducibility.

Let's start with something I find comparatively easy. I don't recall hearing a recording by Clara Haskill, but don't feel the least difficulty in accepting that to someone who appreciates music the badly recorded performance gives far greater pleasure than a lesser pianist recorded to perfection. You need to know what to listen to.

A Jew's Harp - a device with a metal spring that you place in your mouth and pluck - makes an ugly 'twang, twang' to those who fail to hear the beautiful, faint harmonics which carry the tune. Human beings respond to music at different levels, the greater the knowledge the greater the appreciation. A bad recording is like a dirty window - you can still see through it, and in fact so long as you are concentrating on what you see you are hardly aware that the perception is clouded and obscured.

It seems to me that applying Jackson's 'Fred' example to the phenomenon of perfect pitch is asking the wrong question. Ask yourself how you recognize the face of a friend. Or even, in the case of identical twins, how someone who knows them well is able to tell the twins apart even though there is no identifiable feature that one can point to that indicates which twin is which.

There are two kinds of answer to the question, 'How did you recognize X?' The first answer is, 'I recognized X by identifying that X had the feature Y.' The second answer is, 'I just did,' or, 'I just recognized it straight off.' We are tempted to add something to the second answer because we can't get over the idea that explanations come to an end. (This is familiar territory to readers of the later Wittgenstein - see the opening pages of 'The Blue Book'.) So, for example, in this deluded state we tell ourselves the story that we have an example of X in our minds and when we see an object which we recognize as X, what happens is that we compare the object with the mental sample. But this explanation threatens a vicious regress. How do you recognize your mental sample of X? If you were able to 'just know' that the mental sample was a sample of X, why can't you 'just know' that the object you are looking at is an example of X?

It is true that we do sometimes go through the motions of calling up a picture or experience in our minds before making a judgement. The error consists in thinking that this is something that must always happen, even if we are not aware of it happening.

Similarly, someone with absolute pitch simply recognizes that the note played is a perfect middle C, or that it is slightly above, or slightly below. End of story. Asking, 'What kind of experience is that?' is asking the wrong question. It might have been the case (or maybe is) that someone, somewhere is able to tell perfect pitch because the experience of the note is accompanied by a 'marker' - a fanfare of trumpets or the sound of applause. A film maker attempting to convey this ability might even use such a device to convey to the audience the mystery of the skill. But that does not mean that every successful recognition of perfect pitch has some mystery extra component which the subject themself is unaware of.

So, I remain unconvinced that this example is the key to a non-reductive approach to understanding music. There could not be a bigger difference between the ability to recognize perfect pitch and the ability to recognize the difference between a great or mediocre performance. In the former case, you either can or you can't. In the latter case, there is a lot to SAY. Not necessarily in highly technical language, but rather in terms of pointing to various aspects of the performance, raising questions about the ideas that the performer has in seeking to interpret the composition, or his/her skill in applying those ideas to the performance itself.

The fascinating question, for me, is whether, e.g. musical criticism as it is today is more or less as refined as it could be, or whether there will ever be a musical Newton who creates a new science of musical understanding, as a result of which music criticism is never be the same. What do you think?

All the best,

Geoffrey