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.