“Happiness isn’t happiness without a violin-playing goat” said Julia Roberts in Notting Hill and I was struck by a strange realisation about art, music and science!
A painter can make a random doodle or a poet can summon violin-playing goats and convince us that it is meaningful art, but no musician can strike couple of random notes and tell us that it is music.
Music stands alone amongst the arts, because we recognise it instinctively. Neuroscientists tell us that music is something that we are born with. So, from nature’s perspective music seems to have an existential importance for us.
The problem is, there is no music in its pristine form anywhere in nature, at least within perceptible range, so there is no real survival benefit in sensing such patterns in auditory spectrum.
It is also easy to see that music is also not an extrapolation of other pattern sensing. The very fact that we have evolved a separate visual cortex indicates that there is no sharing of templates between musical and visual patterns.
So, when recognising harmonic patterns is not giving us any survival edge, why do we have such a strong sense of music hardwired within us?
One way to solve this riddle is to look for places where we can encounter musical harmonic structures, and the one domain that has music in its real abundance is mathematics that drives the physical world.
Rule-abiding structures appear when we crunch the data of any aspect of reality. Though it is impossible to perceive them directly, when reduced to mathematical relationships, reality seem to be driven by equations that indicate presence of rhythm and melodies deeply embedded in the structure of the universe.
So, even though we can’t hear natural harmonies, they do exist at a level that is beyond our senses. And our affinity for music may have predisposed our brains to grasp them when we discovered them.
There is a great possibility that we have not evolved music, but music has evolved us. While using approximation to reduce audio processing, our auditory perception may have stumbled upon the concept of music.
There is no doubt that a neural network is bound to love the idea of music as it helps it to predict the next note without spending too much energy in processing; so, once “discovered”, music has become darling of our brain.
The most beautiful aspect of music is; we can make our own music even if reality doesn’t offer it. So, it can be used for self-gratification by brain. This must have encouraged humans to make more music and explore building harmonic structures for brain to feed on and enjoy. It is this process that may have snowballed into development of our intellect to work on complex harmonic structures.
Armed with this ability, our brains are maths-ready; so, when we started crunching data from nature, it must have been natural for our brain to subject this data to a pre-existing ability, and viola! the patterns started fitting and we had science!
Though this may give music its due credit, there is also a possible downside. It is also likely that we have force-fitted reality to the template of music that we had, while music may not have the complete ability to describe reality. But, as we have now attached sense of aesthetics to music, we are also gullible to look for similar qualities in our mathematical description of nature.
Let us pray that the universe has a matching harmonics to the music, or we have ability to create new music as and when we need it.