In the twenty-fourth chapter of The Science of Discworld II, we learn about the science behind music and art. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to read Discworld.
I’ve had a decent amount of Roundworld sections of this book that I’ve loved, but SPOILER ALERT: no one is surprised that the one on the science of art was the one is probably going to be the one I liked the most. There’s so much here I flat-out did not know at all. I was told the same lie-to-children about how vision and hearing worked, and I think I was taught otherwise at some point? But as this book and the previous one have noted plenty of times, these lies-to-children make compelling stories, and thus, they are often much easier to remember.
But I’m fascinated by the notion of taste, something the chapter dances around but doesn’t quite detail. Which I get why! It’s an entirely subjective notion, and I’m not sure if you could explain much of it with science. But I was curious about my own journey with music. I was lucky enough to always be raised with it. My parents had this super old record player that was built into a massive set of speakers, and the entire apparatus looked like a long, short cabinet. These pieces of furniture were super, super popular in the 50s and 60s, as I recall, and I highly doubt that they’re produced regularly anymore. But this particular stereo sounded incredible, and it was loud. So, on weekends, my parents would play their vinyl records on it. Most of it was 50s and 60s soul, Motown, doo woop… the stuff that was deemed “Oldies” when I was growing up. (I listened to an Oldies station recently in a cab, and they played Tears For Fears, and I nearly passed out from shock. I AM NOT THAT OLD, GOOD GOD.) So, I wonder if that’s where one element of my taste comes from. As an infant and a toddler, I was surround by pop, R&B, and soul music. I loved vocal melodies, particularly if those vocals were harmonized in multiple parts. Seriously, the Four Tops were probably my favorite group from that period. Or maybe the Supremes. Both? YES, BOTH. (I recently watched Bad Times at the El Royale, which has a killer soundtrack and was pretty damn good, too. It has lots of The Four Tops in it.)
So, lots of harmonies and pop song structures before I could actually speak. Okay, I could believe that that’s why I am drawn to a lot of the artists I enjoy. But where does a taste for aggressive music come from? I was a kid before I heard of punk rock and metal, but by late 1991 and early 1992, it because my EVERYTHING. Why that? Why those rhythms? Why do I enjoy dissonance as much as I do? There’s a ton of music I listen to that would be considered unlistenable by other people. Why does it make me happy and pleased? How does that actually develop???
I love distorted guitars and loud basses. Fast rhythms. Polyrhythms. I love the sound of a muted downstroke on a guitar; the faster, the better. (No wonder I completely latched onto thrash metal at an early age.) I can listen to vocalists who scream and shriek and growl and it’s honestly deeply soothing to me. Which seems incomprehensible to probably the majority of people on the planet! And I get it, to some extent, but I still love it. So, is that because of the messages sent to my brain by my auditory nerve? Or is it because of the other theory put forth by Cohen and Stewart: that my brain’s motor activity finds the combination of sound and movement appealing. Maybe I just like speed and heaviness and dissonance more than most people, and there’s just no real sense or reasoning behind it. But to complicate matters further, there’s this part:
As a child’s hearing develops, its brain fine-tunes its sense to respond to those sounds that have cultural value. This is why different cultures have different musical scales.
Being adopted and having been in foster care for a brief period of time, exactly whose culture might I be responding to? My parents certainly didn’t listen to sludge metal or hardcore or riot grrrl music, soooooo… where did that com from? Do I need to know these things? Not really. I just find it super interesting, you know? Because I certainly agree with the power of art to change, and I know that on a personal level. That’s what I experienced, and it was exposure to art—through books, music, movies, and television—that greatly influenced who I came to be. And analyzing that is far easier and meaningful for me than trying to discover some root scientific reason for why I like the music that I like.
That being said, if you know of any studies or books on this topic, I would read the HELL out of them.
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