The Identity And Qualia Of Music

11 August, 2019
Strong musical items have strong qualia, which correspond to strongly perceived identities. This can be explained, if we assume that music used to be a form of language where the units of meaning were whole melodies.

Hypothesis: The Qualia and Identities of Musical Items

The whole being more important than the parts: Faces

Faces are one thing where we are very consciously aware of the identity of the face's owner, and where we are much less consciously aware of all the details of the face that contribute to our perception of that identity.

The contrast between our conscious awareness of the whole, and that of the parts, shows itself when we attempt to draw a face. I can try and draw a face of someone I know, but the drawing won't look anything like the person I'm trying to draw. This will be because I've drawn the details wrong. But looking at the details, I have no idea which ones are wrong, or how to fix them.

However, faces are slightly different to music in this regard. A musical item has a strong identity, if and only if it is a strong piece of music. Only some musical items have strong identities. Whereas with faces, we need to reliably identify every face of every person that we regularly encounter, and there is no option for a face to have a "weak" identity.

The Purpose of Musical Identity

Music is something that we don't even know what it is, apart from our subjective experience of it.

There appears to be no a priori reason why musical items need to have strong identities.

Music has no obvious function. It's hard to explain why it should exist at all, and it's harder to explain why the identity of musical items should matter at all.

However, maybe the function of music is to supply identity.

In other words, musical items have identities, because the purpose of musical items is to have identities. Music is a kind of "identity-as-a-service".

For this explanation to make any sense at all, we have to assume that there is something else to which those identities can be attached, that is, musical items are to be used as labels.

What Music Used to Be vs What it is now

The idea of music supplying identities, to be attached to something, seems promising. But it doesn't really go anywhere, once we consider how much music is ever used as a "labelling" service in our daily lives. Some items of music serve as obvious labels, such as "Happy Birthday", and "Here Comes The Bride". But only a very small number of musical items are ever used in this fashion. (Also, even those two examples are very ceremonial, in the sense that they don't really provide any new information, because we already know, before we hear them, that we are at a birthday party, or a wedding.)

To make the hypothesis of "identity-as-a-service" work, we need to further suppose that music used to be something different from what it is now.

In other words:

Within this scenario, some currently observed features might be features that were part of the original function of music.

In particular, we could assume that musical items have strong identities, because the original function of music required musical items to have strong identities.

To say that musical items provide strong identities is the same thing as saying that musical items can be used as labels, or symbols, where those symbols can be assigned specific meanings.

In other words, music was a form of language.

As soon as we consider this possibility, we can compare this hypothetical music-based language with modern spoken language.

And we can immediately understand why music-based language was replaced by something better – it was replaced by modern spoken language, because, for various reasons, modern spoken language is vastly superior to what the music-based language would have been.

In fact there are two main reasons why modern spoken language would be vastly superior to such a hypothetical music-based language:

  1. The unit of meaning in the music-based language was the melody. The unit of meaning in spoken language is the word (or sometimes just the part of a word). Words are much shorter than melodies.
  2. Words can be freely combined, according to syntactical rules, to construct more complex meanings from the corresponding units of meaning. Whereas, with music, there does not exist any general means to compose items into larger items. In particular, perceiving one strong tune occupies all of the brain areas dedicated to perceiving music. If one tune is performed, and a second tune is then performed, the perception of the identity of the second tune only occurs after all brain state relating to the perception of the first tune has been completely replaced by state relating to the perception of the second tune. So the brain has little opportunity to process both identities and combine them into some more complex meaning. Whereas, with words, there is no difficulty at all in hearing one word, and then hearing another word, and still having the first word in the listener's short-term memory.

Although a hypothetical music-based language would have been vastly inferior to modern word-based spoken language, it would still have been superior to a communication system containing a genetically pre-determined finite set of symbols attached to a corresponding genetically pre-determined finite set of meanings.

Thus we can potentially divide the history of human and pre-human communication systems into:

  1. Language consisting of a fixed finite set of symbols with pre-determined meanings.
  2. Music-based language, where the symbols are tunes, and where new tunes can be created and assigned new meanings.
  3. Word-based language, where the symbols are words, and new words can be invented and assigned new meanings, and where syntax-based composition can be used to combine the meanings of words into the more complex meanings of phrases and sentences.