Music Generates Feelings That Are Only Weakly Bound To The Music

7 November, 2019
Music generates feelings that alter our perception of other things. In effect this is a failure of perceptual binding.


Music generates feelings, but the perception of these feelings is only weakly bound to the music.

Here I use the word "bound" in the same sense as "bind" in the "binding problem".

The binding problem is the problem of explaining how the brain binds together different perceptions relating to one thing, when those perceptions are represented by activity in different parts of the brain.

For example:

Given this perceptual scenario, we can ask:

If the brain failed to bind perceptions, then a scenario like the following might happen:

This does not correspond to anything in our normal experience, implying that our brains are pretty good at doing the required binding.

However, something like this does happen with music.

For example, suppose:

The sad music generates a sad feeling, and this sad feeling comes from the music, and we know that it comes from the music.

Nevertheless, the sadness of the music will make the story seem sadder than it would be if there was no music.

So in this case, the sadness of the music has "leaked" away from the music, and transferred itself to something else, ie the story.

The conclusion is that the human brain's ability to bind perceptions together does not apply to music, and the brain is not able to prevent the feelings generated by the music from being transferred to other perceptions.

Transferability of Music-Generated Feelings

The feelings generated by music are weakly bound, and can be transferred to other perceptions by the music listener, but there are constraints on which target perceptions those feelings can be tranferred to.

In particular:

Preventing Manipulation and Psychotic Delusion

It is quite possible that music has evolved as a mechanism of generating feelings that can be transferred to other things. (It may also be that music originally evolved to serve some different purpose, and that original purpose has become obsolete, and what we see now is a secondary purpose of music as a vestigial trait.)

If music-generated feelings could be transferred to perceptions of reality, then music would be a means by which people could easily manipulate the perceptions of other people. It would also be a means by which a person could manipulate their own perceptions of reality, leading to a state of delusion, which in the worse case would be psychotic.

This risk of manipulation and psychotic delusion is mitigated by two of the constraints listed above:

A further constraint, in earlier times, when everyone didn't have a mobile phone with access to unlimited music streaming, is that music required considerable effort and organisation to produce. Without advanced technology, it is very hard for a lone individual to perform music to the same level of quality that a group can achieve. So it would be very hard to be listening to strong music all the time, and the effects of any manipulation or self-inflicted delusion would instantly fade as soon as the music stopped.