Questions About Music

6 May, 2024
A list of questions. About music.

This is a list of questions about music that need answering.

They need to be answered by anyone who claims to have a full scientific understanding of the nature of music.

I do not provide answers here in this article.

Elsewhere in my blog I present various theories and ideas which suggest possible answers to some of these questions.

But this article isn't about providing answers – it's just about the questions.

What they are, and why they matter.

What is music?

This is the fundamental question about music.

It is the very mystery of music – even though music is something that is highly familiar to almost everyone, and we are constantly listening to music, and music is all around us, and some people spend most of their time and money and effort creating music, we don't know what music is.

Why should a thing like music exist at all?

In practice, given that music is a human activity, and human beings are biological organisms, this leads us to the next question.

Does music have a biological function?

In the context of modern evolutionary biology, a biological function is anything that contributes to the long-term reproductive success of the individual.

Sometimes this question is expressed in terms of adaptation, ie is music an adaptation?, or, is music adaptive?

If music has a biological function, what is it?

Various suggestions have been made over time as to what such a function might be.

Unfortunately, so far, none of these suggestions are terribly convincing.

If music does not have a biological function, then how come it exists at all?

It should be observed that people spend considerable time, money and effort listening to music and also creating music.

All this listening and creating has a cost, and if music serves no biological function, then we must ask how it is that the forces of evolution have not made music go away.

If music does not have a biological function, does it relate to some other things that do have biological functions?

In general, if some aspect of a living organism seems not to serve a biological function, then it will be presumed that it relates somehow to aspects of the organism that do have biological functions.

Sometimes there are constraints such that a certain thing which is not adaptive has to exist because it is an unavoidable byproduct of other things which are adaptive. (Although even theories of this type raise questions about why it is that evolution cannot find any way to avoid or work around such constraints.)

Why do some people not enjoy listening to music?

The primary mystery of music is that it is a thing that most people enjoy listening to.

Yet there exists a significant minority of people who don't enjoy listening to music.

If listening to music is for some reason so important, then how can some people get away with not listening to it at all?

Does not wanting to listen to music have biological consequences?

If music does have a biological function, then how does that affect people who don't enjoy listening to music?

And if the enjoyment of music has not nett benefit, why hasn't evolution caused the genes for the non-enjoyment of music to spread more than they have? (Assuming that such genes do exist.)

Is music uniquely human?

Music is a very subjective thing. If someone tells you that a certain sound is musical, the only way to verify such a claim is to listen to the sound yourself and see if it "feels" musical.

We have no direct access to the subjective feelings of non-human animals, so there is no way for us to know whether those animals feel that human music is musical, and we have no way of knowing if there is some other category of sound that feels musical to some species of animal in a manner that is analogous to how humans feel when they listen to human music.

Why does listening to music have an emotional effect on the listener?

How does "musical emotion", ie emotion expressed by music, relate to actual emotions?

What is the relationship between music and spoken language?

One aspect of the relationship between music and spoken language is the similarities:

But there is another aspect to the relationship between speech and music which is:

If you put spoken language into music, what you get is song, which is in fact the most popular form of music that people like listening to, even though it is entirely possible to have music that does not contain any speech.

If you put music into spoken language, well, nobody actually does that. If you did do it, people might think that the conversation had somehow turned into a musical performance, although they would also think it a bit weird.

What is the relationship between music and dance?

Why are musical melodies based on pitch scales?

Why are musical rhythms based on precise regular beats?

Why does repetition occur so much in music?

Why do harmonic intervals occur in music?

Which is more fundamental, melody or rhythm?

Why is music used so consistently as an accompaniment to fictional film and television?

Why is music the major trigger for many maladaptive daydreamers?

Why is music so heavily used in religious scenarios, for example, in churches?

Why does skill and precision matter so much in the performance of music?

Most music listeners, most of the time, strongly prefer to listen to music that has been performed or produced to a very high level of quality.

Being able to perform music well enough that most people want to listen to it is not at all easy. It requires skill, precision and lots of practise.

We can compare this to speech, where, most of the time, "good enough" is good enough.

Most of the speech that we listen to is uttered by very average speakers. We don't choose to listen to the best quality speech by the best quality speakers – mostly we listen to speech spoken by people that we have a relationship with, which might be a long-term relationship, or it might be something very short-term (eg you're in a shop talking with the shop assistant).

Given the first N seconds of a musical item, and assuming a fixed value for the total length of the item, eg T seconds, how constrained is the remaining portion of that item?

In other words, given the first N seconds of a musical item, how many ways are there to continue the item for another T - N seconds, that maintain the musical quality of the item?

(For the case were N = 0, this is the same as asking how many different musical items there are of length T seconds. And if we pick T to be a typical length of a pop song, eg 240 seconds, then that amounts to asking how many different popular songs could possibly exist.)

What is the definition of "music"?

This is almost, but not quite, like the original question of "What is music?"

A definition is something that you put into a dictionary.

If you are compiling a dictionary, for example of your native language, then every word in the language has to appear in the dictionary (especially the most common words), and for every word you have to provide some kind of explanation about what the word means.

The thing about music is that we know that it exists, even though we don't know in any fundamental scientific sense what it is.

But can the problem of knowing what music is be solved by looking the word up in a dictionary?

Ultimately, if no one knows what music really is, then the people compiling dictionaries don't know either.

Ideally the person writing the dictionary definition for "music" might acknowledge our lack of knowledge of the true nature of the thing that the word refers to.

Sometimes people look for "clever" definitions by philosophers or famous musicians, or anyone else deemed qualified to provide such definitions. For example the infamous "organized sound".

Such cleverness may be impressively clever, but unfortunately it is usually not very helpful to anyone trying to find a scientific answer to questions about the nature of music.