Monday, January 5, 2009

Is Music a Drug?

Is Music a Drug? 2005. Philip Dorrell. 5 January 2009 <>

To continue along the lines of my most recent post, I will summarize this blog about the question of whether music might be considered a drug. Both drugs and music act strongly on our emotions and feelings. This is part of his greater project that looks at what music is (What is Music? Solving a Scientific Mystery). First he defines what a drug is and then attempts to fit music into it, proposing a super-stimulus theory of music. He discusses the strength of music as a drug and questions the artificiality of emotions evoked by it as part of his conclusion that 'yes,' music is a drug, 'sort of'.

Dorrell defines a drug as: "A substance, which when consumed by a person, alters the state of mind of that person, as a result of direct action of the substance on the brain or nervous system." He is speaking specifically of mind-altering drugs in the sense that they create 'false' emotions that give a person the sense of feeling better, without actually fulfilling a biological need. He thus goes on not to discuss music as a substance, but to question the reality or falsity of the emotional effects of music. Dorrell defines music as a sort of contrived speech which may lead to the perception of emotion that is not necessarily being experienced by those producing it. He then defines music as an "illusion that is generated and consumed for pleasure." It is a very convincing illusion, because the input is virtually the same as if its emotional source were true. Dorrell places music as a drug in between caffeine and alcohol. Due to complications in comparisons between the effects of various drugs, let alone between music and drugs, his conclusion 'strong music' is equivalent to '1 or 2 standard drinks' is a self-declared 'rough estimate'. In further comparing music to drugs, Dorrell admits that it won't cause the type of ruinous effect on your life as drugs do. However, "excessive consumption of music can cause ill-health". His example is deafness due to overexposure to loud music. He briefly discusses the definition of addiction and concludes that music might be prone to psychological dependence than addiction, in which case people may miss it, but not truly suffer from its absence. Music might even verge on delusion if individuals do not realize they are being deceived. However, it can not single-handedly provoke irrational action as some drugs can. Finally, Dorrell proposes that a scientific understanding of music could result in computer-generated, algorithmic compositions of 'strong music', addiction to which would drive governments to ban computers capable of such processes.

For some reason, this site has a hint of hoakiness to it. His argument is fairly unconvincing, but it is possible that his book contains more substantial data. I do not understand the implications of the falsity of musical emotion. What use is there in calling music a mind-altering drug? The language he uses is often negative, focusing on accusations of contrivance, falsity, and abnormality. It seems to simply threaten a notion that is popular and intimately human, that music is a sincerely emotive and communicative action. I find the suggestion almost absurd that musical instruments are less capable of this emotional communication than the voice is. But, fair enough, performers are acting for a desired emotional effect, not out of their own hearts. His conclusion concerning the strength of music as a drug is also completely ungrounded and not effectively speculative. Dorrell also appears to be unaware that many patterned, computer-generated musics have already been composed. What kind of book can this possibly be?? Is it a joke and I am being fooled? I am not addicted to science.

It just so happens that one of the extra questions that Dorrell says he answers in his book is whether or not there are universal explanations for all aspects of music. He states that there are, rather assertively. This tweaks a nerve, as I just finished my final paper on the biological basis of culture which dealt with some of the social issues surrounding this kind of an assertion. In the end, I would suggest that he look to meanings of music for people in order to better answer this question. There may be cultural clues. He may find that we know what music is more than he suggests.

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