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Unknowable truth

  1. Oct 21, 2004 #1
    "Unknowable truth"

    Over the past two or so years, I have experienced something that I cannot explain: the power of music.

    Most of us know that all music is just pulses of pressure in the air. But why does it have as much power over the thoughts and emotions of humans? How can these simple pressure systems move masses people to tears?

    Upon asking my proffessor these questions, he told me that I was asking a question that is unknowable, but that in persuing so, I am unveiling true knowledge. To be honest, I do not understand his words.

    As a musician this power of music is just a power I respect, as I would 12 M HCl in a laboratory; but as a scientist, it is something I do not understand. Does anyone have an answer to my "unknowable question?"
  2. jcsd
  3. Oct 21, 2004 #2


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    This is really more of a psychology question, but there is a substantial philosophical question underlying it which I believe may be the cause of your confusion.

    The short answer to your question is just that patterns of waves of air pressure that we call music stimulate the brain in such a way as to entail the kinds of brain activities that are responsible for generating mental phenomena such as novel thoughts, subtle or powerful emotions, etc. The long answer is more complicated, but in principle can be answered given the proper empirical data about how the brain processes auditory data, what kinds of brain activity are associated with what kinds of thoughts and emotions, how the processing of certain kinds of auditory input functionally entails the kind of brain activity that is associated with certain kinds of thoughts and emotions, etc.

    Now, it is a further substantial question to ask how or why it is that brain activity leads to/is associated with consciously experienced thoughts, emotions, and so on in the first place, and this question does indeed have a particular kind of mysterious and seemingly unanswerable air about it (and indeed is still hotly debated by philosophers, who call this 'the hard problem of consciousness'). In this sense, the answer to your question might be considered unknowable or mysterious, but no more so than the question of why I consciously experience this color when light with a 600nm wavelength strikes my retina, or why I am conscious at all, and so on.

    But if we take the existence of consciousness and its correlation with brain activity for granted, there doesn't seem to be anything mysterious or unknowable about the further question of why music has the effect on us that it does. Starting from this point, the proper story about how the brain functions will do the job quite adequately, and empirical techniques can in principle tell us enough about how the brain functions to give us this story.
    Last edited: Oct 21, 2004
  4. Oct 21, 2004 #3


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    It seems to me that the question "Why is it that X?" can broadly be interpreted as asking either "How is it that X?" or "For what purpose is it that X?"

    Odie_Stein asked in his post, "But why does it have as much power over the thoughts and emotions of humans? How can these simple pressure systems move masses people to tears?" I thus interpeted his question to be asking about how it is that music can move people the way it does.

    The question of "For what purpose does music have this effect on humans?" is a trickier one, as it's easy to misconstrue meanings of the word 'purpose.' Typically science answers questions like "For what purpose does organism X have feature Y?" by saying that feature Y serves such and such function to help organism X reproduce or survive, and thus feature Y evolved in X by natural selection. In thise sense, a feature's 'purpose' is just a property it has that will tend to lead to its own reproduction, and is not to be confused with the kind of intent-driven purpose that we talk about when we say something like "The purpose of cars is to transport people."

    So we could answer the question "For what purpose does music have its characteristic effect on humans?" via an evolutionary biology approach, if we assume the first meaning of the word 'purpose.' It may be that music's effects somehow were beneficial to the survival or reproduction of our ancestors, or they may be just side-effects of other evolutionary adaptations.
  5. Oct 23, 2004 #4
    well my special music experience came when i took an escstasy pill. don't get me wrong i'm not encouraging anyone to try it. lemme just say that thru it's chemical processes listening to music is literally like having sex with music. so organism x and feature y join in an unparalleled experience that makes you understand yourself and music much more than thru scientific method. you don't have to take a pill, just listen to the music and listen to yourself. such things you just know.

    what purpose does it have? We have different types of music that are compatibile with different types of feelings, so i guess music is tuning up our feelings or something similar.
  6. Oct 23, 2004 #5
    For philosophic investigation, I reccomend you do some research into Aesthetics.

    Most Aestheticians would agree that music is physiological, that it is the sound of emotion. That one's mind, upon hearing music, immediately measures that emotion and compares it to one's own emotional state. If you are happy, you want your music to be happy.

    All other forms of art have come to be understood esthetically; music is a special case...and it isn't "unkowable." I encourage you to look into Esthetics.
  7. Oct 23, 2004 #6
    YES rainer thank you you've put my thoughts into appropriate words
  8. Oct 23, 2004 #7
    I thank everyone who posted, your words have helped me understand more than I had before. and I will look into Aesthetics
  9. Oct 23, 2004 #8
    just to put a small irregularly shaped spanner in the works:

    nothing is absolutely knowable in a broad context. yes, most music is certainly emotive, but only generally a 'subjective' emotion. ie. there is no music that everybody gets the same emotion or feeling from.

    also, would being put into a meditative state of trance be called an emotion? because i know much music that has its purpose as this. in fact, as a musician myself, i work with my fellow bandmates to attempt to manifest an 'experience' rather than an accepted emotive quality. and as such, we hope to leave the listeners in strange states that they often have never felt before: unknown feelings which they can ponder over and learn from.

    it is something about a group or an individual using their knowledge of the instrument (tool, technology, etc.) being played, combined with the groups collective mood/mindset (consciousness?), projecting upon the listeners (crouds) consciousness and giving them something to think/feel/sense that will hopefully make them move psychologically or physically!

    but yes, aesthetics may hint you in the right direction. :wink:
  10. Oct 24, 2004 #9
    yes i agree with you...when i listen to certain types of music or perhaps certain song i can imagine and envisage, though blurry, something like....experience, yes....or unknown feeling...or de ja vu....
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