Musical Emotion Exists In An Alternative Reality

4 May, 2024
Musical Emotion is powerful, but at the same time it is not real.
I consider the possibility that unreality is the fundamental feature of musical emotion.

The Reality and Unreality of Musical Emotion

Music appears to express various kinds of emotion.

Music seems to make us feel those emotions.

But there is something about musical emotion that isn't real.

When we listen to sad music, we can experience the emotion of sadness, yet it doesn't actually make us sad.

Sometimes music makes us feel like we are in another world, or in an alternative reality.

I would like to offer a simple hypothesis:

Musical emotion exists in an alternative reality.

Potentially this hypothesis explains quite a lot of things about music:

* Even when something exists in both real reality and in an alternative reality, musical emotion can only refer to the version of that thing in the alternative reality.

A Possible History of the Location of Musical Emotion

There was a time when musical emotion existed in the real world – when music wasn't actually music, ie when music was the thing that came before music, which we could call protomusic.

Protomusic was a language of communicating emotions about things in the real world. In the very beginning it was used to communicate emotions about the situation happening in the real world right here and now – it had to, because the words needed to refer to things outside of the here-and-now didn't exist yet.

Words originally developed as an enhancement to the protomusic, providing additional information about the reason for the emotions that protomusic expressed.

Over time the word-based component of the language became more sophisticated and complex.

Eventually the word-based language outgrew the protomusical language that gave birth to it. The word-based language developed capabilities and structures that were not compatible with the structure and flow of protomusic.

So the protomusical language became obsolete, and only the word-based language survived.

But, somehow, the protomusic pivoted and developed a new function, as music.

The Pivot

As part of this pivot, music lost the ability to refer to emotions in the real world, and instead became able only to refer to emotions in alternative realities.

The original function of protomusic was to communicate.

As music, it lost this function of communication, and it developed a new function, which was to motivate thinking about alternative realities.

But why do people need motivation to think about alternative realities?

The main benefit of thinking about alternative realities is that if you don't think about alternative realities then you will end up stuck forever in your current reality. Thinking about alternative realities translates into thinking about ways that you could radically change your situation for the better.

As it happens, in modern large complex societies, people don't need so much motivation to think about alternative realities.

They can still benefit from thinking about alternate realities, but the requirement for motivation to do so is reduced.

In particular, the need to motivate the invention of alternative realities is much reduced, and the reason for this is that modern societies are very large and you don't need to be inventing alternative realities because other people are already inventing them, or have already invented them.

The large size of modern societies, and the exchange of information between people, means that there is less need for any individual person to invent alternative realities on their own.

Each person can still get the benefit of thinking about alternative realities, but the extra work of inventing those alternative realities has already been done for them.

What this tells us about music, in its modern form, is that if the function of music was to motivate the invention and exploration of alternative realities, this function is now obsolete, or at least partly obsolete.

A Short History of the Obsolescence of Music's New Function

Until how recently was this function of music still relevant?

As far as we can tell, larger human societies that we would call "civilisation" did not exist until 12,000 years ago at the very earliest. But so-called anatomically modern humans have existed from 200,000 years ago.

So that is almost 200,000 years that our human ancestors have lived in small-scale societies where the intellectual benefits of living in a large society never existed, and where the results of certain types of thinking were only available to you if you made the effort to do that thinking for yourself.

So it is quite possible that for all of that 200,000 years, or for a large part of that time, humans have been making music, and that music has been motivating them to think about alternative realities outside of the mundane realities of their everyday lives.

(We don't really know when our ancestors started creating and listening to something that we would identify as music – the earliest hard evidence comes from prehistoric flutes that are about 42,000 years old. So music might have been something that started 200,000 years ago, or even more, or it might have only started 42,000 years ago.)

And it is only in the last 12,000 years or thereabouts, with the rise of modern civilisation and large societies, that people still make music, but its motivational function no longer matters so much.

It is quite possible that evolution has already decided that if the motivational function is no longer important, then the motivation itself can start fading away, and it already has faded somewhat, and what most of us experience when we listen to music is only a ghost of what it used to be.

It is possible that what maladaptive daydreamers in the modern world experience when they listen to music may actually be what most people used to experience in response to music, 12,000 or more years ago, before the rise of civilisation and the start of the evolutionary fade.

In other words, what we now regard as dysfunctional, when music strongly motivates a person to daydream, may once have been normal. (Also modern day maladaptive daydreamers have the advantage of music technology with recorded music players and headphones that allow them to listen to high quality music for hours on end, whereas, in less technological hunter-gatherer societies, you would only have been able to listen to music at certain times, ie when it was time for everyone in the tribe to make music, and when there weren't other more important things that had to be done instead.)