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Start Eric Clarke: Neuroscience, Anthropology and Sociology to Understand Music
04 September 2014

Eric Clarke: Neuroscience, Anthropology and Sociology to Understand Music

Estimated reading time Time 7 to read

Eric Clarke Interview

Humphrey Bogart knew very well that if Sam continued playing the famous melody As time goes by, he would fall hopelessly into his memory, something that Shakespeare already sensed when he defined music as the “food of love”. And, on the other hand, one of the latest editions of the Golden Globe film Awards featured an orchestra playing the electrifying piece from Jaws so that the winners would finish their speeches and come down from the stage right away. There appears to be little that music cannot do. Eric Clarke (1955) occupies the Heather Chair in Musicology at the University of Oxford, although in his infancy he was tempted to leave the violin for his interest in animals. He is a member of the British Academy of Humanities and Social Sciences in the United Kingdom, of the prestigious Academia Europaea and is the author of several books on music theory and music psychology. In the project Six songs that matter to me, which he launched in the The Guardian newspaper to find patterns in songs that mattered most to their readers, Clarke combined a vinyl of French songs for kids and the Fifth Symphony of Mahler with the German progressive music group Can and Stevie Wonder.

Question. You went to the University of Sussex to study neurobiology but ended up graduating in music. What led you to change?

Answer. During my childhood and adolescence I was deeply fascinated by the life sciences, investigating and collecting animals and that sort of thing, but I also sang in a choir and played the violin, so I had significant practical musical training. When I started college I found that the educational style associated with science was much less attractive than the humanities where there was a more independent way of thinking, of studying. So I decided that I wanted to do a Bachelor of Arts Degree and, as I already had musical skills, I asked for a transfer. At that time I was directing the orchestra of the university, I had an audition and got accepted.

Q. Why do we care so much about music?
A. There has been much speculation about why music is characteristic of all human societies and why it matters to us. One explanation is that it has the ability to unite people in forms of interaction and social bonding that are very important, in the way in which music is made jointly, dancing… In an early period of human evolution, music could have been very important so that people met and did things in a synchronized manner, which would have led them to acquire an intense feeling of oneness. There is also much research about the powerful emotional effects of music and, although I think that there is some risk in overestimating this emotional impact, there is considerable evidence that, for most people, some of the most profound experiences of their lives occur directly in relation to music or in circumstances where music is part of the situation. For example, in romantic relationships, in moments of grief and mourning… think about how we use music at funerals, or to celebrate all kind of events in our individual and social lives.

And, although in the 21st century many people experience music only as listeners, most traditional societies experience music as creators, as participants. Music has a very powerful way of allowing people to do something that is very rewarding, enjoying having the kind of skills and abilities that are associated with musical creation, even as far as physical pleasure.

Q. You also have a doctorate in Psychology. How do you approach the study of music from that perspective?

A. Much of the music psychology work carried out in the greater part of the 20th century was dominated by psychologists rather than by musicologists. Their studies were focused, generally speaking, on understanding the types of fundamental mechanisms involved in musical perception and production. Understandably, they were fascinated by trying to understand how people are able to do something so complicated and sophisticated as creating and listening to music is because a skillful pianist is doing something that has some of the athletic abilities of an Olympic acrobat, some of the cognitive capabilities of a high level chess player and some of the emotional capabilities of a good psychotherapist, in other words, combining a very large amount of significant human capabilities. But more recently, since 1980, a larger number of musicians and musicologists have been interested in bringing a slightly different perspective to the psychology of music, seeking to understand how musical structures are understood, how music can have meaning and, if so, what kind, and what the psychologists think about this…

Q. But there are also various scientific disciplines such as neuroscience, anthropology or sociology that are interested in music…

A. I think that there are considerable advantages in having all these different disciplines approaching music and, of course, there are also some risks. The advantages are that music itself has many different capabilities. It is, on the one hand, a deeply individual, even private matter, if you imagine a person listening in the dark with headphones. But music also participates in musical phenomena around the world, such as the Olympic Games or the Football World Cup opening ceremonies, so it is inevitable that we will need different disciplinary perspectives in order to try to understand its enormous variety of qualities. As well, we need neuroscience to help us understand what could be happening in the brains of people while they’re listening to or playing music. And we certainly also need sociologists and anthropologists to help us understand how music is embedded in human societies and what function it has in them. And no doubt we are going to keep needing the philosophers to help us understand what really is the material of music and how we must understand it in relation to our world. The difficulty of having so many disciplines involved is that at times it is very difficult to find a common language from which to try to reconcile the various points of view.

Q. Just recently you were in the Howthelightgetsin festival with a philosopher, a composer and a representative from Universal Music Group talking about the “mystery of music”. Did you manage to reveal it?

A. This was one of those situations where there was a considerable number of points in common, however, there were also differences. The philosopher, composer and I were emphasizing the exact opposite, in that we do not believe that there is a mystery in relation to music, but that it’s a very complex thing and, as with other complex things, there cannot be an obvious and simple explanation; it is simply somehow an “eternally unsettled” matter. The music industry people wanted to cling to the idea that there is a certain mystery to music, and that is a feeling shared by many people who would otherwise be a little sad. Although we understand that position, we did not want to agree with it in the sense that if one goes on saying that there is some mystery about music, it reinforces the idea that music seems out of reach of people, and music is something that everyone should feel able to do by themselves and not feel that there is a kind of mystery that they are never going to understand and that only special people such as composers and performers really understand. I don’t think that’s a very healthy position.

Q. It also affirms that instead of trying to find a single explanation, it is more interesting to understand its social function, the role played in the lives of people…

A. Again, I think that the idea that music plays an unreachable role, impossible to understand, is rather mystical, something magical. I don’t agree with it. And it’s not that I believe that the function of music is less potent, simply that I don’t think it’s magical or any more magical in the sense that a fantastic meal or fantastic sex with someone can be, which may also have a transformative effect. If we don’t think about sex as something mystical, why do we have to think about music in this way?

Q. Are we a species that is as linguistic as we are musical?

A. The anthropologist Robin Dunbar recently said that there is overwhelming evidence that music existed in human societies long before there was language. I have to ask what that evidence is. There is much written about how music and language may have arisen from the kinds of common sounds that our ancestors made and that could have diverged on the one hand into music, and on the other into language. It seems undeniable that music and language should have a common root, regardless of the fact that they have been drifting away from that root, something that both have done. It is so obvious that it’s hardly worth saying that both have played a very important role in human culture; without language, most of the things that modern humans have achieved would have been very difficult, if not impossible, to achieve.

Q. Do they have similar properties?

A. In some areas language and music have similar properties: both have a structure in time, written and sound forms, both are practiced individually as well as in groups, although the creation of language in groups is much less common than making music… But as I wrote in some of my works, you have to be careful when it comes to transferring properties of language which, of course, has been much more studied by psychologists, linguists and philosophers, to music.

Q. What are these difficulties?

A. Even the basic distinction between the syntax and semantics of language, i.e. between the structure and the meaning, is not so easy to apply to music where it’s not so clear that the individual musical sounds have a meaning in the same way that words like “cat”, “dog” or “freedom” have in language. I think that the attempts that were made in the 1970s and 1980s to find a sort of generative grammar of music similar to the grammar of language haven’t been a very fruitful way of understanding music.

Q. What is the role of new technologies in making and distributing music today?

A. New technologies have made sure that music is within reach of more people in the world than at any other time in human history; they have had a huge cultural benefit. However, again, these changes have also come with their own problems. Some people argue that the enormous availability of recorded music in one way or another, either through the internet or in all the many ways it is available, has made people be less active, less involved in relation to creating music on their own. Many people have become passive recipients of music instead of active beings. Of course, in traditional society and in our own society before the invention of recording, all the music that could be heard either they themselves were doing it or they were hearing it live; you had to go to a concert or play it yourself with your own instrument at home with your family, friends… Somehow, the loss of that individual perspective by listening to and making music is something that we have to recognize. But I am more optimistic than pessimistic and believe that the digital media in music distribution have opened new possibilities for the creation of music. Consider, for example, the enormous amount of strange and wonderful music that is available on YouTube, people doing crazy things in their own bedrooms with computers or with strange instruments, using furniture… This shows the human musical inventiveness to always find new ways of making music, and that is tremendously positive.

Ventana al Conocimiento (Knowledge Window)

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