Sunday, December 2, 2012

Music is a Prostitute?!

 Brown, Steven (2009) From Mode to Emotion in Musical Communication. Steven Brown: Music and the Brain. [podcast] March 27, 2009.
Link: [Accessed: December 1st, 2012].

Music is a Prostitute?!

This podcast is an interview with Professor Steven Brown, director of the NeuroArts Lab at McMaster University, where he looks at music in a general context of the arts and human expressive behavior. He uses brain imaging and cogno-psychology to look at the connection between music and dance, language, ceremonies, etc. The interview touches on a few different ideas involved in Brown’s work at McMaster, including the subject of his subsequent presentation at the Library of Congress.

The first idea that Brown touches on is the concept that music and dance are essentially the same thing. He argues that in cultures across the globe dancers should automatically be considered musicians, since in many cases these dancers are percussionists as well. Rhythm and dance are historically deeply connected, but when you consider that many religious or celebratory ceremonies involve percussion instruments, often being attached directly onto the dancers body, it can be argued that these dances are songs in themselves.

As far as music and language is concerned Brown is focused on the more specific comparison of speech and song, stating that the meaning systems are the same. Though they may have difference inputs, sentences vs. melodies as an example, their outputs use a common vocal system and their externalization is similar. Speech and song are both based in variations on rhythm and pitches – he says they are variations on the same theme.

Moving next to the topic of music eliciting emotions, the interviewer dives right into the classic example of major vs. minor tonalities and the opposing emotions they are associated with. Brown explains that although there are minute differences within the acoustical properties of the two tonalities, a large change occurs in the emotional interpretation. In non-Western cultures there are many examples of scales being associated with specific emotions. Brown uses the classical Indian ragas as an example; there are different scales used for different times of day, celebrations, even seasons – all with varied emotional connotations. Brown explains that there is not much research into why there is an emotional difference between major and minor tonalities, but that it may be due to the slight dissonance of the minor third interval – it conveys roughness. However, this is not yet understood neurologically.

Brown’s main point, which he would later be exploring in his Library of Congress lecture, is that “music is a prostitute.” Music does what we want it to do. It is used in every culture as a device for persuasion and manipulation. Brown is quick to mention that this idea isn’t necessarily a negative concept. He argues that music is used to enhance non-musical things, from religious rituals to consumerism. We attach meaning onto music; music does not inherently have meaning. Brown argues that we need to look at music from an anthropological point of view – that it is about the group, societies and cultures as a whole – not as an individual’s outlet.


I really enjoyed Steven Brown’s ideas and research, and especially appreciated his candid and straight-to-the-point approach towards his work. I was obviously quite intrigued by his “music is a prostitute” philosophy, and when I sat back and thought about it I realized I agree on many levels, especially when it concerns consumerism. Many musicians make a living from creating music with specific goals and for specific purposes. Music is undoubtedly integral to marketing and branding in North American society. However, just like the interviewer, I immediately listed off reasons why I would argue against Brown. As a composer myself and as a musician who often performs the original work of others, I would never even attempt to analyze the meaning of their music in this manner. There is an abundance of music that was written as an emotional outlet for the composer, as means of personal expression. In Brown’s defense, he did note that the music in which we would go to a concert hall to hear/watch, like classical or jazz, is the music most divorced from this idea of music as manipulator – not all music can be considered a “prostitute.” This aligns nicely with Brown’s remarks about music for the group, the culture. Not the individual. Brown is talking about music with a social function.

I am also very interested in the debate concerning music and meaning. Can it be said absolutely that any meaning associated with music is man made? I agree that we put meaning to music in the sense that it can be composed to convey a certain emotion or to elicit specific associations. Yet when we develop meanings for certain songs or musicians ourselves, including looking at the concept of music-evoked autobiographical memories, is it one in the same? Yes, humans still attach these meanings themselves, but because they aren’t in response to the techniques employed and intentions of the writer is this still a case of purposeful enhancement?

Links to Brown:


Lynn said...

I would have to say that in a lot of ways I'm in complete agreement with Brown. I would have to say I am probably one that falls more into the "humans give music meaning, music has no inherent meaning" camp simply because I can't think of a single example where the meaning music "has" was the result of anything that was not something personal or socially constructed. I just finished listening to the Charlie Brown Christmas CD (Don't judge!) which has great meaning to me because it featured so greatly in my childhood, but that doesn't mean that the music HAS meaning, I just gave it meaning. Even composers are using their own sense of musical social constructs to create musical meaning personal to them.

Then again, I can't say that there isn't the tiniest part of me that doesn't want to disagree with myself on an artistic basis. :)

Suzanne said...

The title of this podcast certainly used shock value to grab the audience's attention. When I initially read Brown's point about music being a "prosititute" I was highly skeptical, but upon further thought, it seems like a valid point. Music can serve a myriad of purposes, from propaganda to self expression. It can motivate individuals, moving them to buy a certain product, run that extra mile, or support a specific cause. It can also express certain views or help an individual express their own emotions.
I do have some reservations about Brown's idea that music and dance are essentially the same thing. They certainly do share many forms and tools, but there are points at which they diverge. Not all music is associated with dance or even motivates dance. I wonder if the brain responds differently to music associated with dance than to music that is meant to relax. Not all dance is associated with music either. Contact improvisation, which doesn't necessarily involve a steady rhythm or music comes to mind. Yet, it is a legitimate dance form.
I do, however, see the deep connections between music and language. The "music" in our speech (ie. prosody) communicates not only the emotional subtext, but in some cases even the meaning of words that phonemes alone cannot.