The "World" Hypothesis

15 January, 2020
There are things that happen in the world, and then there are changes that happen to the world itself. Dreams are all about responding to hypothetical things that could happen in the world, and music is more about responding to hypothetical changes to the world.
I propose that every item of music is perceived as a separate world, and this explains how it is that music can give rise to strong feelings of "world change".

What is the "World"?

In this article, the "world" is not Planet Earth, or any other planet.

Sometimes, in a song, someone might say something like "My world has changed".

That is the kind of world that this article about – the personal "world" of an individual person.

To emphasize the specific meaning I am giving to the word "world", I will use quotes throughout.

The Personal "World"

The "world" is the situation and environment that a person lives in, and it is of a semi-permanent nature.

It consists of things like:

The "World" as a Set of Rules

A more abstract way to describe the nature of a personal "world" is that it consists of a set of rules about the person's situation and environment:

The Fundamental Dichotomy

In as much as the "world" exists as a thing, it exists inside the brain and mind of the person in question.

Everything that a person observes can be categorised according to whether or not it fits into the current "world":

  1. Things that can exist and things that can happen according to the rules of the "world"
  2. Things which, if they exist or happen, imply that the "world" is different in some way from the person's current understanding of what the "world" is, or was.

When a change occurs to the "world", this can be for one of various reasons, for example:

Music and Dreams

In my previous article, A Unified Theory of Music and Dreaming, I observed that music and dreams are similar in that they both involve emotional responses to situations and events that are not real, but, at the same time, they are different from each other in various ways.

Some of these differences can be restated in terms of the "world" concept, in particular:

We can explain why this dichotomy between dreams and music has evolved, as follows:

How does Music Achieve Its Effect?

So far I have explained why something like music has evolved to have the effect that it has on our emotions when imagining situations involving "world change".

But how does music achieve this effect?

And why does music have all the specific features that it has, like notes and scales and rhythm and harmony?

In as much as music is like anything else that exists, it appears to be a stylized discretized form of human speech, or at least of the melodic and rhythmic aspects of speech.

A plausible hypothesis is that music somehow causes an interaction between the mechanisms involved in the perception of speech rhythm and melody, and the mechanisms involved in the perception of "world change".

One observation that can be made about music is that some of the basic rules of music can be specified in terms of things that don't occur:

Additionally, both melody and rhythm perception are invariant under pitch translation and time scaling respectively (which may have something to do with what is going on).

When considering spoken language, the identifications of the "world" and the things happening within the "world" seem straightforward:

In the case of music, we might consider that music as a whole is the "world", and musical items are things that happen within the "world".

However, there is no single set of rules that apply to all items of music, and each item of music has its own set of rules that define it.

Also, subjectively, any strong item of music feels like it is one definite thing with its own strong unique subjective quality.

These observations lead me to the following hypothesis:

If we want to take this one step further, and explain what it is about music that causes such an intense feeling of "world change", we can suppose that:

In other words, the characteristics of music cause each musical item to be perceived extra strongly as a distinct "world", and it is this strong perception that creates the strong feelings of "world change" that music gives us. These feelings, for some reason (possibly related to the above-mentioned invariances), are loosely bound to the music, and they can be rebound to something else that the music listener is thinking about.

My Previous "Super-Stimulus" Theory

Elsewhere on this website you may have found reference to my book "What is Music? Solving a Scientific Mystery" which I wrote to describe my theory of music as a super-stimulus for some aspect of speech perception.

That theory, which I have large abandoned, is a different theory from the one that I am proposing here, and it was a theory about a different kind of super-stimulus (ie a super-stimulus for speech perception, not a super-stimulus for "world" perception).