Is there an opposite of music, an opposite to musicality?

Recently, I mentioned that I’d been trying to study music, musicality by looking at its opposite. I mentioned, too, that this was not a simple thing, since there isn’t really an opposite to music or musicality. One might think of silence, but that is an important part of music. I ended up going down the music-as-discipline/music-as-social-etiquette route and reached noise. Of course, not only can music be noisy but noise can be music and it has a history, as my colleague Paul Hegarty has demonstrated, and thus what is noisy or unmusical in that way changes according to time or place. Furthermore, Michael Chion has questioned the utility of the concept of noise—well, bruit—altogether.*

Quite by coincidence, on Jan. 28, I came across a talk by Henkjan Honing, the University of Amsterdam’s Professor of Music Cognition, at TEDx Amsterdam on listening to music.** Honing argues that “we all share a predisposition for the perception and appreciation of music.” Certain elements of musicality (absolute pitch and a sense of rhythm) are common to various species—birds as well as mammals—while there appear to be two elements that are fundamental to human musicality: relative pitch and beat induction. Unlike birds, humans can recognize a melody played started at two different pitches as the same tune. Put another way, humans can analyze the intervals between notes separately from the absolute pitch at which they first hear the melody. Birds hear those as different tunes. Beat induction is to do with the ability to pick up a regular pulse from music, to synchronize with an established pulse, and it may not be unique to humans. Very few people lack these skills; one research team has found a person who cannot consciously recognize a pulse although his brain does, while, as Honing mentions in his talk, some 4% of humans have amusia (that is, do not recognize relative pitch).

So, it appears that today our society does recognize an opposite to musicality, and moreover we are using the current dominant knowledge tool (that is, science) to explore this phenomenon. Each way of knowing defines musicality in ways that are intelligible to that method, so the dimensions of unmusicality/musicality that music cognition experts study (such as perception of pitch and rhythm) are those that they can measure in particular ways. Geneticists might build on this work, but they would look in different places for different markers. It is also significant that Honing is attempting to define some of these elements as pre-cultural and thus show where humans and animals differ—to show the boundaries of the human and demonstrate that humans are unique. Whether newborn babies’ beat induction really is pre-cultural seems to me to be debatable since, as Honing says, they start to hear three months before birth. Is it possible that, while recognition of tonality (and presumably of alternate systems of organizing pitch) comes later, rhythmic enculturation starts before birth? If researchers had played the babies rhythmic patterns from a radically different culture to which they had not yet been exposed, would they have obtained the same results?

So, I now find myself once again wondering if sixteenth-century Italians recognized unmusicality and where would I look to find it? As far as I know, music teachers’ notes on their students have not survived. I’m scanning contemporaneous music theory treatises too. But the most respected knowledge domain at the time was religion and that was also used to show where the boundaries of the human lie, to argue that humans differ from animals in particular ways. Will there be anything about unmusicality in sixteenth-century Italian religious texts, I wonder? It’s definitely past due time to take Andrew Dell’Antonio‘s tweeted advice and look at writings by Catholic Reformists.


* Michael Chion, “Pour en finir avec la notion du bruit,” Analyse musicale (2007), translated by James A. Steintrager as “Let’s Have Done with the Notion of Noise,” differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies, Vol. 22, Nos. 2-3 (2010), 240-248.

** The talk is also posted at Creative Flux and on Honing’s own blog, Music Matters, the latter with some useful references.

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  1. Pingback: (musical) time and machine musicianship (part 0) – io 0.0.1 beta++

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