The Four Step Model Of Speech Processing

2 November, 2020
Steps: 1. What does the speech mean? 2. What is the emotional significance of that meaning? 3. How true is the meaning? 4. If probably not true, reduce the intensity of the emotion. With music, stop after Step 2.

The Four Step Model

Given that a speaker has spoken some words directed at the listener, the listener processes that speech as follows:

  1. Determine the meaning of what was said.
  2. Determine the emotional significance of the meaning of what was said.
  3. Evaluate the truth value of what was said. That is, form an opinion about how true it is, or how likely it is to be true.
  4. If the meaning probably isn't true, reduce the intensity of emotion accordingly.

This can be shown in the following dataflow diagram:

(The diagram makes it clear that the model is not strictly sequential, as steps 2 and 3 do not depend on each other.)

The Four Step Model, With Music

If the spoken words are embedded in music, then the music results in the following altered version of the Four Step Model:

  1. Determine the meaning of what was said.
  2. Determine the emotional significance of the meaning of what was said.
  3. THE END.

In other words, the effect of music is to stop Step 3 from happening, and as a result, Step 4 does not happen, as shown in the following variation of the first diagram:

The consequence of this suppression is that music leaves the listener's brain in a state where:

Hypothetical Meanings, in General

Hypothetical meanings can be derived from sources other than the content of speech, and music acts similarly on the processing of those meanings.

That is, without music:

And, with music:

Two major examples of such non-speech-derived hypothetical meaning, which can be affected by listening to music, are:

  1. Video and film content, either narrative film accompanied by a musical score, or, a music video created as an accompaniment to a musical item.
  2. The music listener's own private thoughts.

The Adaptiveness of Music's Suppression of Truth Evaluation

The Four Step Model accounts for the subjective experience of music, and how it interacts with our thoughts and emotions.

But why should music exist at all, and why should it have such an effect?

We can plausibly account for music as an adaptation, if we suppose that music is a superstimulus for the perception of non-spontaneity in conversational speech.

The adaptive rationale for suppression of truth evaluation follows from the following logic:

In normal speech, even when a speaker is being consciously less spontaneous, this will not generally result in a complete suppression of truth evaluation.

However, music, is a superstimulus. And if the intensity of the superstimulus is strong enough, then the resulting suppression will be an almost complete suppression, and this suppression will only cease when the music stops.

The Adaptiveness of Music

This theory of music as a superstimulus suggests that music is not itself adaptive.

However, music has existed in some form for a long time, at least 42,000 years, and possibly much longer.

If music really served no useful function in itself, we might expect that the human species would have evolved some kind of resistance to what is in effect a false stimulus.

But this hasn't happened – music continues to exist, and it continues to have a strong effect on most people, and people continue to devote considerable time and effort to the making and consumption of music.

This suggests that music does serve some intrinsic purpose.

I concluded above that music causes a state of mind in which:

If music is somehow adaptive, it must be because there is some adaptive advantage in being able to enter into such a state of mind, that is, to experience fully emotions which are attached to purely hypothetical meanings.

Human beings are certainly creatures of imagination, probably much more so than any other animal.

So it is not unreasonable to suppose that the function of human imagination might be improved when it includes the ability to fully experience emotions of imaginary situations, and this is the purpose that music serves.

(It might also be important for this ability to be constrained by the requirement that music exist as a physical accompaniment to the altered state of mind. Requiring the existence of music as an external trigger has the consequence that a person cannot just enter into such a state at will, and also that the person will always be consciously aware that the altered state is the result of the occurrence of music at the time.)

The Social Aspects of Music

There are social aspects to music: people get together to listen to music, and people get together to make music. Also, in the absence of modern technology, we can observe that the easiest way to get a high quality musical experience is to have a large group of people singing together, partly because individual errors and deviations get averaged out in a group, and partly because the "chorus" effect is intrinsically musical.

This might lead us to suppose that music has a social function.

However, human beings are social animals, and many human activities have social aspects, even when the primary function of those activities is to benefit the individual, and that primary function is not at all social.

For example, people eat together, and people can get together to prepare and cook food. But it is not the purpose of cooking and eating to help humans socialize – the purpose of cooking is to make edible food, and the purpose of food is provide nutritional value to each individual person who eats the food.

According to the hypothesis that I have stated about music in this article, the function of music, if there is one, relates to the private mental state of the individual music listener, and this proposed function does not have any social aspect.

However, the mental state motivated by listening to music involves the experience of emotions associated with hypothetical meanings, and this implies that listening to music encourages a state of mind that is somewhat disconnected from immediate reality.

There is therefore a safety issue – if I'm listening to music, and enjoying it, I'm possibly less aware of my immediate reality, and if I'm by myself, I'm more vulnerable to being attacked by some hostile individual.

In the modern world, for most people, most of the time, in most places, personal safety is not a constant worry. However, in times in the not so distant past, one's personal safety was not so guaranteed, and, if one was inclined to sometimes to enter a mental state disconnected from immediate reality, it would have been best to do what while in the company of a large group of other people, who, if not actually friendly, were at least not hostile.

So those musical preferences that result in the social aspects of music might be adaptive, not because it is the purpose of music to encourage socialization, but because the socialisation helps ensure the physical safety of the individual music listener.

Music: Positive or Negative?

We normally think of music as something that has a positive effect on the intensity of the listener's emotional experience.

However, the hypothesis presented here suggests something different: music actually acts as a double negative. That is, music acts negatively by suppressing a certain component of information processing in the brain. That processing component normally acts negatively to reduce the intensity of experienced emotion associated with hypothetical meanings, and the consequence of the double negation is therefore that music positively increases the intensity of those emotional experiences.