July 30th 2016

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY Success of sex-change surgery a propaganda lie

CANBERRA OBSERVED Add two to cabinet as a conservative estimate

GENDER WARS Safe Schools provokes personal pronoun furore

ELECTION ROUNDUP Captain Titanic shuffles deck chairs

EDITORIAL Why court rules against Beijing on South China Sea

VICTORIA Turnbull must move to douse CFA dispute

ENVIRONMENT Wind, solar push up SA electricity prices


AUSTRALIAN HISTORY Dr John Burton - public servant and Soviet agent

U.S. HISTORY AND POLITICS Is Trump long-awaited successor to Huey Long?

MUSIC A medium whose meaning is hidden from words

CINEMA No man on the mean roads of the Outback: Goldstone

BOOK REVIEW A significant first novel

BOOK REVIEW A certain rottenness in the state of Victoria


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medium whose meaning is hidden from words

by David James

News Weekly, July 30, 2016

Analyses of brain functions that purport to be insights into human thinking are usually as unenlightening as they are deceptive. It should be obvious to anyone that the brain is not the same as the mind. The matter of the brain is not self-aware; minds are self-conscious.


It’s hard to believe today that AI

had such humble beginnings.

This does not stop a seemingly inexorable materialism, however. One only has to watch how readily the word “brain” is used when the word “mind” is meant to see how impoverished our understanding of human thinking has become.


It is the same with artificial intelligence, an idea to which only the deeply unintelligent could fully subscribe. It may be possible for machines to perform acts of computation that greatly exceed what is humanly possible, but no machine can be self-aware, or, for that matter, animate. If one includes in “intelligence” the awareness of one’s own (hopefully intelligent) thoughts, then artificial intelligence is impossible.

Yet all is not entirely lost. Sometimes brain analysis can be enlightening, as has proven to be the case in some recent analysis of the neuroscience of music. One of the great mysteries with the art form is how it can seem to “mean” a very great deal, yet it does not say anything.

Take Beethoven’s Eroica symphony. Formally, it is “about” the ambitions of Napoleon Bonaparte, to whom it was dedicated. Yet it says nothing specific about the soldier, or about his politics or his military activities. There is a general sense of towering passion and grandeur, but that could apply to many things.

To use a term coined by poet T.S. Eliot, music has no “objective correlative”; it mostly does not refer to anything specific and, when it does, such as imitating the sound of birds or of a running brook, the effect tends to be trite. Music can create great emotions, but it does not refer to the world in a precise way.

I can recall seeing a performance of a rather bleak piece of music at a jazz festival. The composer introduced it as having been inspired by his experience of a grand mal, a serious seizure. Armed with that knowledge, it was possible to imagine how the subsequent piece evoked this disturbing experience.

Yet if the piece had been played to the audience without their knowing what had inspired it, and the audience was then asked what it was “about”, I dare say no one would have guessed it was about a seizure. Music does not refer to the world in the way that other art forms can.

This feature of music is well known and has been interrogated by many philosophers. But some recent brain research does shed some new light on what is happening.

According to an article in The Huffington Post, “Brain processes music much like spoken language, new study shows”, researchers at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Medicine in Baltimore tracked the brain activity of two jazz musicians as they played pieces from memory and then engaged in back-and-forth improvisation, “creating something akin to a spontaneous musical conversation”.

The researchers found that the areas of the brain associated with syntax (the order of words) were intensely active when the musicians were improvising. They also found that during the improvised exchanges the parts of the brain that interpret the meaning of language, semantics, were completely deactivated.

This is highly suggestive of what is happening when music creates a powerful effect. We can know when a person is agitated by listening to the sound of their voice, the progression of sounds – that is, the syntax – even if they are speaking in a language we do not understand. In the same way, we can derive powerful emotions from the progression of sounds in music.

What we do not get with music, however, is semantics: direct references to things in the world. Music is wordless.

Whether music is, because of this, a superior or an inferior art form is a moot point. The philosopher Hegel thought it was the greatest art form; yet in some eras musicians were not even considered artists. My favourite quote is that “music is for saying the things that God cannot”.

What is certain, however, is that great music possesses an otherworldliness that it is almost impossible for other art forms to reach. It is at once wordless and able to speak beyond words.

Philosopher Roger Scruton put it nicely: “Music is a wonderful example of something that’s in this world but not of this world. Great works of music speak to us from another realm even though they speak to us in ordinary physical sounds.”

David James is a Melbourne journalist and musician.

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