Music: The Third Reality

14 June, 2015
Music is the third reality. The second reality is spoken language, but mostly when we are very young and learning our first language. The first reality is everything else: ie all the things that we perceive in the world which aren't language or music.

The Special Connection to Spoken Language: The "Second Reality"

When we are very young, we form a special connection with spoken language.

Our infant brains contain a Language Prototype, which attempts to distinguish spoken language from everything else – it's like a best estimate for which stimuli in the world belong to the language that we must learn.

As a result of this special connection, the infant brain treats the primary language as a "second reality", one which must be understood on its own terms, without any particular reference to the logic and causality of the "first reality", ie all those things in the real world that aren't language.

(Arguably language does relate to the real world, because it is spoken by real people and those people are speaking about real things, because language utterances have meaning. However, in the first instance, a language exists as a set of possible utterances, independently of any meaning attached to those utterances, and it is that set of possible utterances that is defined by a set of rules which are somewhat arbitrary, and not much like the types of rules that apply to other aspects of reality, and which must simply be learned from empirical observation of the actual utterances derived from that language.)

Why are we not subjectively aware of this special connection to spoken language? It is widely observed that adults do not learn a new language as easily as infants. Even older children do not find it so easy. It is likely that this "special connection" simply fades away as the person gets older, once it has done the all-important job of helping the infant to learn its first language.

The Special Connection to Music

The human brain also forms a special connection to Music.

Music has many similarities to and analogies with spoken language. This strongly suggests that the special connection to music is an altered or mutated copy of the special connection to spoken language. Unlike the connection to spoken language, the connection to music does not fade with time.

How Music is Like Spoken Language

Music is like spoken language in many ways:

How Music is Not Like Spoken Language

Despite all these similarities, music is also different from spoken language in many ways:

Music does have an emotional effect, however this does not really constitute "communication" in the same sense as language communication, and if anything, it is more comparable to the effect of a mind-altering drug, in that music alters the "state of mind" of the listener, and particular music may induce or intensify particular types of emotional feelings.

Music: Connection and "Syntax"

We feel "connected" to music when we listen to it, yet music itself apparently has no meaning or purpose.

Music is in some ways like a language, in that it seems to follow syntactical "rules" about what is musical or not musical. But if it's a language, it's a dis-embodied language that simply exists, not attached to any specific meanings.

Special Connection Implies Disconnection

When the infant forms a special "connection" to the second reality of the primary language, the infant is necessarily somewhat disconnecting from the first "normal" reality. There are two main reasons for this: firstly, the human brain can only "connect" consciously to one thing at a time, and secondly, all the knowledge about the rules and structures of the "first reality" is not particularly relevant to learning the rules and structures of the second reality of the primary language (so it makes sense to "disconnect" those irrelevant rules).

With music, the same thing will happen – connection to music implies disconnection from "normal" reality.

But in the case of music, the music itself is meaningless, so the connection to music serves no purpose.

This leads to the hypothesis that the real purpose of music is the resulting disconnection from "normal" reality.

Disconnection, and How Music Affects Emotions

In a round-about way, this "disconnection" hypothesis accounts for the one intrinsic "meaning" that music seems to have, ie its "emotional" meaning.

The critical observation is that music has the strongest emotional effect when it acts on emotions arising from imagined scenarios.

This is a phenomenon which I think many of us observe in ourselves, perhaps without realising its significance – also we keep it private because emotional feelings in imagined scenarios are the sort of thing we tend to keep private.

There are two major publicly-known manifestations of the action of music on emotions from imagined scenarios:

  1. Music is very consistently used in cinema to enhance emotional reactions.
  2. Many maladaptive daydreamers (ie people self-reportedly "addicted" to daydreaming) find that music either triggers their daydreams, or their addiction is stronger when music accompanies their daydreaming.

We can explain this effect on imagined emotions as follows:

The Evolutionary Rationale

I have attempted to construct a plausible account of how the human brain has evolved its response to music as a mutated copy of part of the language learning instinct, and how the basic reason for our "connection" to music is that it results in a temporary "disconnection" from our normal sense of reality, in a way that allows us to "feel" emotions from imaginary scenarios.

But what value does this provide? Why has it evolved? Why has it been selected for? How does it increase long-term reproductive success?

Imaginary scenarios, are, almost by definition, not real. So any emotional feelings we have arising from those scenarios would seem to be irrelevant to anything that matters.

However, we can be wrong about what we know to be real, or possible, and what actual is real or can be made to be real.

Sometimes we have to know exactly how much we want something, before we are motivated to make the effort and the sacrifices required to achieve that something.

And if imagined scenarios were completely irrelevant to real life, there would be little point in imagining them. Yet humans do typically spend a lot of time imagining and day-dreaming. Some of that imagining is about realistic possibilities, and some of it is about things that are not realistic, or at least they seem not very realistic.

I think that music somehow lives in the fuzzy boundary between imagined possibilities that are mundane and realistic, and other imagined possibilities that are not so realistic. By default, we should not get excited about things that we can imagine but which by our own estimation are unlikely to happen. Yet, we have the option, if we so choose, and if we make the effort to put ourselves into the required state of mind, to temporarily feel how it would feel if those unlikely possibilities actually came to pass.

That, I think, is what music is for.