Music as a superadaptation

A review of Steven Pinker’s hypothesis of the superstimulus

Auditory cheesecake. It has become a highly controversial term in musicology, and one almost every musicologist has come to hate. With this term, Steven Pinker has shook the very foundations of musicology, writing music off as mere pleasure. But isn’t there some truth in this notion? And shouldn’t musicologists take Pinker more seriously? Many musicologists have criticized his hypothesis, coming up with all kinds of alternatives to prove Pinker wrong. These criticisms have often proven to be poorly founded. So, what is this controversial theory?

In Steven Pinker’s book How the Mind Works (1997), he devotes ten pages to music. In these ten pages, he is able to completely turn musicology on its back and leave it there as a submissive dog, waiting for Pinker to leave it alone to get back on its feet, only to growl and bark until it is completely exhausted.

Pinker begins his essay with stating that music is an enigma. He criticizes musicologists, saying that they do not explain the origins of music, but merely pass the enigma along. He also points out a confusion in musicology: a confusion between adaptation in the technical sense of biology, namely a trait that, compared to alternatives, it enhanced the rate of reproduction of our ancestors, and an adaptation in the everyday use of the term: healthy, valuable, makes life worth living, life-enhancing. While it may be life-enhancing, it is not an adaptation in the biological sense of the word.

His hypothesis is that of music as a byproduct of other adaptations, stimulating all of these different abilities, resulting in a “superstimulus”. Pinker states that music is a byproduct of the following adaptations:

I. Language

Pinker states that “music borrows some of its mental machinery from language, in particular from prosody, the contours of sound that span many syllables.”In an interview with Richard Dawkins, he uses the term “speech-analyzing systems”. This encompasses sensitivity to intonation contour, metrical structure of strong and weak beats and hierarchical grouping of phrases within phrases.

II. Auditory scene analysis

The ear receives a wide variety of frequencies, which the brain then has to process by segregating the streams of sound that come from different sources. The ability to do this, is called auditory scene analysis. In Pinker’s view, this is also one of the adaptations that has music as a byproduct. Music “exaggerates the experience of being in an environment that contains strong, clear, analyzable signals”.

III. Emotional calls

The ability to whimper, whine, cry, weep, moan, growl, laugh and other calls is also of importance to the origins of music. These calls all have acoustic signatures. Pinker speculates that “perhaps melodies evoke strong emotions because their skeletons resemble digitized templates of our species’ emotional calls.”

IV. Habitat selection

We do not only pay attention to features of the visual world that signal safe, unsafe or changing habitat, but might also pay attention to the auditory world. This ability is also an adaptation, and may have music as a byproduct.

V. Motor control

The ability to keep a steady beat, optimizing our energy-efficiency while doing certain tasks. This ability is a very important adaptation for music, as it adds rhythm to the melodies.

(VI. Something else)

(“Something that explains how the whole is more than the sum of the parts. […] Perhaps a resonance in the brain between neurons firing in synchrony with a sound wave and a natural oscillation in the emotion circuits?”)

To summarize, Pinker says that music does not have a functional explanation. Music stimulates all of these five different abilities. Pinker calls this stimulation a superstimulus, because it stimulates five abilities at once. It packs all of these abilities into one, creating one very pleasuring stimulus. Mere pleasure, and nothing more.

Pinker’s hypothesis raised many questions and inspired a lot of musicologists to attack his hypothesis. Here, an attempt to do the same will be made. Not by trying to invalidate it, but by trying to take his hypothesis one step further.

In short, Pinker says that music is a superstimulus: stimulating the speech-analyzing systems, habitat selection, motor control, auditory scene analysis and recognition and reproduction of emotional calls. He then writes music off as mere pleasure (auditory cheesecake). But isn’t this conclusion made too fast? This amazing ability exists, that stimulates all of these important adaptations. Why would Pinker write this off as mere pleasure? He does not answer the most important question that follows his statement: why is superstimulating these adaptations pleasurable? Actually, it is not pleasure in the sense of aesthetics. Music combines all of these different adaptations into a singular ability that stimulates them all. It is pleasurable, because it actually ‘trains’ all of these abilities. It makes you more aware of harmony and melody, timbres, rhythms, tempo and grouping. These skills can then be transposed to the original abilities. As training all of these adaptations would have been (and maybe still is) positive for reproduction, music can be seen as not a superstimulus, but a ‘superadaptation’. A superadaptation with beautiful side-effects.

Jurre Thuijs


Reference: Pinker, Steven. (1997) How the mind works. London, England: Penguin books, 528-538

Reacties

  1. See http://musiccognition.blogspot.nl/2011/02/is-music-supernormal-stimulus.html for the original footage !

    Personnaly, I think that ‘Pinker was probably right when he wrote: “I suspect music is auditory cheesecake, an exquisite confection crafted to tickle the sensitive spots of . . . our mental faculties.” Or, to express his idea less graphically: music affects our brains at specific places, thereby stimulating the production of unique substances that have a pleasurable effect on our mood. Rather than a by-product of evolution, it is a characteristic that survived natural selection in order to stimulate and develop our mental faculties. Musicality is an exaptative feature that surfaced by chance without having been specifically selected. Once it existed, however, it was further perfected through natural (or sexual) selection and passed on as such to future generations. Pinker’s idea may actually be a very fruitful hypothesis whose significance has wrongfully gone unacknowledged because of all the criticism it elicited. After all, the purely evolutionary explanations for the origins of music mentioned earlier largely overlook the experience of music we all share: the pleasure we derive from it, not only from the acrobatics of making it but also from the act of listening to it.’ (Honing, 2011)

  2. Imagine a subtly-toned lullaby. Then imagine the invariant speech of ‘Computer’ in the original Star Trek TV series.

    That voice of ‘Computer’ is alarmingly anti-conclusive with every phrase, evoking in the normal human hearer the sense that the ‘character’ of ‘Computer’ has no awareness of the simplest dynamic parts of the real world, or, ‘at best’, is all-but-unresponsive or un-adaptive to them.

    The energy directly required to produce mono-tonic speech may well be less than that for normal, ‘musical’ speech. But, living humans are not a matter primarily of absolute, indifferent stasis, nor, even, of a defensive rationalistic self-isolation—and only a feebly ‘Vulcan’ rationalist could think they ought to be.

    Even before the human infant learns the individual word units of her mother tongue, which generally is even before she learns their meaning, she hears and often enjoys her language’s sounds as such. The man or woman who enjoys music therein returns to a primordial sense of sound.

    So, music is a liberator from an irrational admiration of the ‘rational’. This ‘rational’, includes, among many other things, the habits of quite ignorant over-analysis, micro-management, and translation-and-academic methods of learning a new language.

    Music, that most omnipresent of solids, is a prime referent to our experience of ourselves and of the world. This is because, in so far as sound is motion, music is sound made in mind of itself. And, in so far as we living creatures each are a case of ‘motion that coheres’, music is sound made in mind of each of us, of each other, and of our world.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bQ-XdmNFvps (Fantasia para un gentilhombre (1); J. Rodrigo)

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Omx9w4081MM (School of Rock: Battle of the Bands- Teacher’s Pet; Jack Black)

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UUqHXxrXs9w (As I Sleep; Richard Elliot)

  3. I mostly disagree with Pinker on this.

    Imagine a subtly-toned lullaby. Then imagine the invariant speech of ‘Computer’ in the original Star Trek TV series.

    That voice of ‘Computer’ is alarmingly anti-conclusive with every phrase, evoking in the normal human hearer the sense that the ‘character’ of ‘Computer’ has no awareness of the simplest dynamic parts of the real world, or, ‘at best’, is all-but-unresponsive or un-adaptive to them.

    The energy directly required to produce mono-tonic speech may well be less than that for normal, ‘musical’ speech. But, living humans are not a matter primarily of absolute, indifferent stasis, nor, even, of a defensive rationalistic self-isolation—and only a feebly ‘Vulcan’ rationalist could think they ought to be.

    Even before the human infant learns the individual word units of her mother tongue, which generally is even before she learns their meaning, she hears and often enjoys her language’s sounds as such. The man or woman who enjoys music therein returns to a primordial sense of sound.

    So, music is a liberator from an irrational admiration of the ‘rational’. This ‘rational’, includes, among many other things, the habits of quite ignorant over-analysis, micro-management, and translation-and-academic methods of learning a new language.

    Music, that most omnipresent of solids, is a prime referent to our experience of ourselves and of the world. This is because, in so far as sound is motion, music is sound made in mind of itself. And, in so far as we living creatures each are a case of ‘motion that coheres’, music is sound made in mind of each of us, of each other, and of our world.