Professor Pinker and Professor Wheatley both fall into the fallacy of reductionism–believing that what is most true about a subject is also the most sparely material and uninteresting fact that can be trotted out about it (though Wheatley is perhaps a little less guilty). You could just as easily say that Van Gogh’s paintings are “visual cheesecake”, if you wanted to suggest that all art is just another way of popping off a few prime neurons (which, come to think of it, Pinker basically does say, in How the Mind Works). Music for the hard-scientist Pinker is comprised of vibrations in the air, which stimulate the machinery of our inner ear in a pleasant fashion, which consequently stimulates the neurons in our brain pleasantly (as you can probably tell, I’m not sure about the mechanics of this physiological game of Mousetrap–I mean, the board-game–but its fine details would be unnecessary, and probably at cross-purposes anyway.) For the soft-scientist Wheatley, our social bonds are strengthened by the shared experience of hearing music — which is obviously true enough, and I’m not sure why we need a social-psychologist to say it, when anyone at Woodstock would’ve noted the same thing. This too fails to remark on what the individual experience of listening to music actually is. The physical mechanics that attend it have been well described by the industrious neuron-fanciers, but I fail to see how knowing which cluster of neurons in my brain music affects, can enhance my actual aesthetic appreciation of music, at all–though I know many would assert that it somehow does.
As a needed antidote to the wisdom dispensed by these contemporary sages, I would recommend turning to the literary and philosophical traditions, which offer more accurate descriptions of what listening to music actually is (and I won’t qualify that or cede any ground by saying “what listening to music actually is like“, because these aren’t fanciful extrapolations from the experience, but direct insights, observation and not simile). Pinker’s whole error rests in assuming that his description of the neurological billiard ball games played in the brain somehow reduce or fully explain the actual experience they describe. If you think music is teaching you something about the flow of human emotions or about “longing for the far shore” or anything remotely inspiring, it’s not — it’s just a game played by particles that happens to leave you feeling pretty O.K. But there’s no reason to accept that the particle-based level of reality fully explains the experiential level — although they definitely correlate, there is a gap between the sights, sounds, tastes, scents, and tactile realities experienced at the human, everyday level, and the colorless, scentless, taste-less world of the mathematical patterns that govern atomic and molecular motion. We have no idea how our actual experience of a color is created out of atoms that are colorless–and the same goes for sound-waves. We don’t really know why a sound-wave can be heard as an actual sound, so to speak. The Tufts philosopher and noted skeptic, Daniel Dennett, doesn’t think that it’s even profitable to ask these questions — mainly because he can’t answer them. But since color and sound and the rest comprise everything that we actually do experience, as opposed to the mathematical models we create, I think it’s worthwhile to talk about them — I mean, considering that they comprise the world we deal with at every moment of our lives.
In “The Dry Salvages”, T.S. Eliot said that people could experience a pure present, unburdened by time, when listening to “music heard so deeply / That it is not heard at all, but you are the music / While the music lasts.” I don’t know what Pinker would say about this — maybe he would concede that it was a interesting “poetic” flight of fancy, but state again that it’s not a description of hard fact. (There’s the risk of being a tad unfair to Pinker–but the analytically and not aesthetically minded, in my experience, always dismiss good literary observations for being “poetic”, without explaining why being poetry disqualifies something from intellectual or philosophical consideration.) Given that this is from a poem, it is undoubtedly “poetic”, but to deny its interpretation of music a fair hearing is simply to confess that one doesn’t feel like wrestling with philosophy. Eliot, a student of Buddhism (and a Christian at the same time), suggests that the subject-object distinction — the sense of the self as a hearer, and of music as that which is heard — is illusory, and can, when one pays very close attention, dissolve, leaving only Reality itself, which is not perceived or heard by a separate subject or conceived of as a separate object, but is simply “that which is naturally so”. Merging with music provides a hint of what Eliot calls “the intersection of the timeless moment with time”, the state in which the temporal division between the self and the not-self disappears, leaving an eternal unity that was always present, though not noticed, because not looked for. This is not Eliot’s view of music alone — the literary tradition (books are also, incidentally, a mere neuron-stimulation device in Pinker’s view) is rife with references to music transcending refined hedonism, to become a tool for training the mind to unite with the flow of time. This idea is central in writers like Proust and Beckett, Wallace Stevens, G. Bernard Shaw, and plenty of others. And the philosophical tradition has the same reverence for the musical experience: Nietzsche saw it as the perfect vehicle for transport into Dionysian ecstasy (he once said “Life without music would be a mistake”) and Arthur Schopenhauer, under the same Eastern influences as Eliot, paid one of the ultimate tributes to music. He said that we live in a world driven by misguided needs, urges, and desires, and indulging these was, in his view– following that of the Buddha–the surest path to generate suffering. In addition to practicing meditation and contemplation, music could also become a way of getting beyond desire — to simply be aware of the endless flow of the will, represented by music’s continual fluctuations, while yet existing in a state of detachment from it, beholding it. According to Schopenhauer, one should not get lost in the emotions evoked by music, but simply contemplate and follow it, attaining a state of tranquility — one more temporary than that attained through meditation and renunciation, but still valuable.
I’m not saying the reader needs to accept these specific descriptions of the transcendental nature of musical experience (although I, of course, do). I’m just denying that Steven Pinker’s way of explaining musical and artistic experiences by saying that neuron clusters fire when A, B, or C occurs, and Wheatley’s way of explaining them by appealing to social-realities, are enormously inadequate — although, obviously, at the purely scientific or mathematical or sociological level, they’re relatively accurate. We can’t afford to hand over a substantial portion of our own perceived reality, just because we can’t explain it wholly through the movements of particles and waves — we have to actually experience it by experiencing it, not by getting at it through second and third-degree explanations. I’m not suggesting that we should stop doing neuroscience or anything utterly mad like that — far from it, since the benefits we can accrue from neuroscience are massive. I’m saying we should stop trying to use pop-neuroscience and pop-evolutionary-psychology as a way of reducing a very large experiential world into a very small mathematical and mechanical one. I’m sure that any person attempting to live, work, love, deal with suffering, and all of that classic stuff, will find that the great poets and philosophers have a lot more to tell him or her than many rather over-published semi-scientific authorities, who dominate a great deal of the non-fiction marketplace in the Western World. I think that music, at its finest, can draw us out of our ego-consciousness and into an awareness of a greater experience, flowing within and outside of the self. But pop-neuroscience only leads us into entertaining simplistic ideas about what listening to music looks like in a mathematical model, rather than actually letting us listen to it — it tries to elevate the ego’s claims over the demands of actual lived experience. Going too far down this road, one is liable to end up like William Blake’s caricature of Isaac Newton — sitting at the bottom of ocean, placing a compass on a scroll riddled with diagrams, while staring between his feet.