Is Music Appreciation Innate?

Judith Levy, Ed.: I’ve noticed that a degree of musical sensitivity appears to be innate — every kid I’ve asked (and I’ve asked quite a few over the years) has identified a major third as “happy” and a minor third as “sad” — but it seems folly to conclude that music appreciation is universally teachable. There must be variants in receptivity, as Nabokov appears to demonstrate. It seems reasonable to infer a relationship between music and language, and Nabokov’s receptiveness to language was so exceptionally keen that he “saw” letters of the alphabet in very particular colors (“the alder-leaff, the unripe apple ofp, the pistachiot”). But no colors attached themselves to musical notes for him: they were all just noise.

Ricochetti, do any of you know the science of this? Can music appreciation be learned?  · · 4 hours ago

I do not know the science, but I am a father, and I can testify that the ability to distinguish music from noise and to appreciate the difference is innate. When our first-born first made her appearance, my wife was in law school, and I did a great deal of childcare. Our infant elder daughter was fussy, and I soon found that one way in which I could break the crying spell was to sing to her. Except when she was in great distress, if I launched into, say, Shenandoah, she would stop the howling, listen for a moment or two, and then reward me with a celestial smile. Enjoyment — and that is the right word, for she evidenced joy –was something that she was capable of, almost from birth.

In those days, I regularly taught an introductory course in ancient history, in which I had the students read selections from Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey. In that connection, I would read to them in class a brief passage from Plato’s Ion in which the rhapsode Ion is made to explain his art — reciting Homer — and to chart the magnetic effect of that recitation on audiences, who would be literally caught up in the moment of performance. I would then read to them a brief excerpt from the overture to Claude Levi-Strauss’s The Cooked and the Raw, in which the French anthropologist compares the analysis of myth to the analysis of a musical score. Levi-Strauss’s point was that musical compositions and stories have this in common: they use time in order to suspend time. When we are caught up in a story or in listening to music, when we are mesmerized (as we sometimes say), for us time stops. The story or musical composition unfolds through time, but the structural unity that we apprehend — at least at a subconscious level — is timeless. The story or composition is diachronic and synchronic at the same time, and our apprehension of its structural unity gives us pleasure. In the best of circumstances, we emerge from watching a movie or attending a concert, refreshed, full of joy, almost dancing on air — not having noticed the passage of time. Think of the manner in which listening to an engaging book on tape while driving a car can dramatically (so to speak) shorten the trip.

In the lecture, I would regularly argue that it is its structural unity that distinguishes a story, such as The Iliad, from “one damned thing after another” and that this same structural unity distinguishes music from noise. My main point, however, was that our capacity to apprehend order and structure is natural, not learned, and that it is pre-verbal. On the particular occasion that I have in mind, I picked up my daughter’s bassinet, put it on a table next to my lectern, sang to her, and drew the attention of my students to the fact that she broke into a grin as I launched into Shenandoah. The lullaby is proof positive that musical enjoyment is innate.

I should perhaps add that some infants are less responsive. My younger daughter did not grace my efforts in this particular with evident delight. Her older sister now on occasion, at the ripe old age of thirteen, serves as the cantor at mass. My younger daughter, now nine, can hardly carry a tune.

And I should add that one can build on and refine the natural human capacity for apprehending the structural unity that distinguishes music from noise  (and, for that matter, the structural unity that makes a story a story) — which is one of the chief functions of a genuinely liberal (which is to say, “liberating”) education. Where, however, there is no innate enjoyment, I suspect that there may be no way to enhance appreciation. Pity poor Nabokov.

  1. tabula rasa

    Dr. Rahe:  You’ve articulated the difference between a great book (or poem) [structural unity] and the forgettable ["one damned thing after another"].

    Will you sing Shenandoah on a podcast?

  2. Paul A. Rahe
    C
    tabula rasa: Dr. Rahe:  You’ve articulated the difference between a great book (or poem) [structural unity] and the forgettable ["one damned thing after another"].

    Will you sing Shenandoah on a podcast? · 10 minutes ago

    If nominated, I will run; if elected, I will serve.

  3. Mollie Hemingway
    C

    I have a similar story, except the opposite. My husband was horrified to learn that Justin Bieber and Ke$ha calmed down our youngest. He forbade listening to their music even if it quieted her down.

    Thankfully her musical taste has improved with age.

  4. tabula rasa
    Paul A. Rahe

    tabula rasa: Dr. Rahe:  You’ve articulated the difference between a great book (or poem) [structural unity] and the forgettable ["one damned thing after another"].

    Will you sing Shenandoah on a podcast? · 10 minutes ago

    If nominated, I will run; if elected, I will serve. · 24 minutes ago

    Did you ever hum a little Schoenberg or John Cage to her? [Is it actually hummable?]  That would have kept her unhappy all night.

  5. Pseudodionysius

    When we are caught up in a story or in listening to music, when we are mesmerized (as we sometimes say), for us time stops.

    If you watch a movie you are experiencing aesthetic emotion and it can be used to achieve the opposite effect. In a 2.5 hour movie, most screenwriters have to get the inciting incident on screen within 20 minutes of the start or you lose the audience.

    (Watch Collateral with Tom Cruise, directed by Michael Mann. Inciting incident hits like clockwork — and the car roof — at 19:26)

    By the end of the movie you’ve only been sitting for 2.5 hours but feel as if you’ve experienced a much longer span of time onscreen.

  6. Pseudodionysius

    Footnote for Paul Rahe:

    Josef Pieper discusses this in The Divine Madness: Plato’s argument against Secular Humanism where he compares the Sybil and the experience of being beside oneself with an almost identical insight in — of all places — Aquinas.

  7. Grendel

    My first reaction is that Liberals love order.  Then I thought But only the obvious on-paper, by-the-book order of Fascist prescription.  They cannot “hear” the spontaneous order of many free people acting and reacting to each other in rational action.  This is probably related to the well-known Liberal lack of a sense of humor.

  8. Merina Smith

    Singing calmed all of our children.  The ultimate, however, was my husband singing Skater’s Waltz while waltzing around the room with them.  If this didn’t work, something was really, really wrong. 

    I second the call for Shenandoah on a podcast.  Elected–must serve. 

  9. Pseudodionysius

    My first reaction is that Liberals love order.

    Liberals love coercive uniformity and a brutalist architectural vision of man that results in their favorite end game: eugenics, abortion, Stalinesque veneration of human leaders and the evisceration of anything classical in architecture, music or art, not order which is — if anything – monarchical and aristocratic in conception, a point that CS Lewis emphasized underlies societal excellence of gifted artists, poets and statesman.

    Aristotle wrote that laughter and metaphysics are related because they imply the ability to see relations. In Utopia, all relations are mediated by the State, so no one laughs, no one has to laugh, and no one will laugh, except when the State tells you to laugh: and you will laugh, or else. 

  10. Paul A. Rahe
    C
    TheRoyalFamily: And then there’s this. · 39 minutes ago

    Yes, the study discussed here inspired Judith’s blogpost. If you look at the details, the study does not establish what it claims to establish: that musical appreciation is entirely a matter of nurture.

  11. Paul A. Rahe
    C
    tabula rasa

    Paul A. Rahe

    tabula rasa: Dr. Rahe:  You’ve articulated the difference between a great book (or poem) [structural unity] and the forgettable ["one damned thing after another"].

    Will you sing Shenandoah on a podcast? · 10 minutes ago

    If nominated, I will run; if elected, I will serve. · 24 minutes ago

    Did you ever hum a little Schoenberg or John Cage to her? [Is it actually hummable?]  That would have kept her unhappy all night. · 27 minutes ago

    Schoenberg I avoided (although he wrote a piece or two that is almost lyrical). John Cage’s presumption is that there is no difference between music and noise. So I avoided him.

  12. RushBabe49

    Music is definitely pre-verbal.  I am the only musician in my entire family. Music gets to you on an emotional level-see what playing martial music does.  Yep, it makes you want to march.  They say that the first musical “instrument” was probably some kind of flute-people discovered that when they found a tubular reed, blowing through it made a pleasant noise.  I wonder, though, if the first instrument might have been a drum-banging on something probably came before blowing through something.

    One of my favorite sounds is running water.  I firmly believe that running water was nature’s original music.  When we went on our first cruise (to Alaska), I loved just sitting on deck watching and listening to the water go by.

  13. Paul A. Rahe
    C
    RushBabe49:

    One of my favorite sounds is running water.  I firmly believe that running water was nature’s original music.  When we went on our first cruise (to Alaska), I loved just sitting on deck watching and listening to the water go by. · 19 minutes ago

    I have been to Alaska many times — but never by way of a cruise. Some day, some day.

  14. RushBabe49

    Dr. Rahe, that cruise we went on was sponsored by KTTH Radio, home of David Boze (Proud Hillsdale graduate).  Michael Medved and his family came along, too, and we had a delightful breakfast with Michael’s father.  You should definitely do it.

    Idea:  How about a Hillsdale Cruise to Alaska from Seattle?  It would sure be less expensive than the standard cruise, and more people might go.

  15. Sisyphus

    That’s funny. When I sang for my children they ran away from home. The missus, too.

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