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Music and the Evolution of Culture
Why does music affect us? Why does this ability to enjoy sounds appear in evolution? Aristotle was the first to ask this question: “Why does music, being just sounds, remind us of the states of our souls?” If music helps in performing cognitive functions, this would be a perfect explanation for its origin and evolution. But no such cognitive function could have been found since Aristotle. Kant connected the beautiful to knowledge, but could not find any use for music. Darwin thought that his theory of evolution can explain everything within living world with one exception. He could not understand why ability for music evolved; he thought that music was a greatest mystery that future scientists would have to explain. But no explanation has been forthcoming. Distinguished musicologists and evolutionary psychologists participated in Nature’s review in 2008; they concluded that music remained a mystery.
At this time I wrote a book on working of the mind. I understood why previous attempts at artificial intelligence failed. I developed a new mathematical theory, which could explain working of perception and cognition, the role of emotions and instincts, functions of aesthetic emotions, the nature of the beautiful, consciousness, symbols, emotionality of languages and cultures, the role of aesthetic emotions in cultural evolution, interaction of cognition and language. Yet, I could not explain the origin and evolution of music, and its role in working of the mind. I thought that music must be such a fundamental part of the mind that without it the theory could not be complete.
A friend of mine, Jury Dimitrin, a famous Russian poet-librettist, author of the first Russian rock opera, suggested to me to pay attention to emotions. This suggestion was crucial. After several years of thinking I understood the cognitive functions of music by combining emotionality of cognition with interaction of cognition and language. The function of music was to help us overcome the contradictions of knowledge. These contradictions are emotionally unpleasant, and usually we discard them; if new knowledge contradicts previous knowledge, which usually happens to some extent, it is discarded without us even becoming aware of this contradiction. This discarding of contradictions is known as cognitive dissonance, it is recognized as one of the great discoveries of the 20th century. But it was not recognized that the discarding of knowledge must ultimately lead to the end of cultural evolution. Every new word, every new piece of knowledge would be subconsciously discarded before it was comprehended. Evolution of culture required a psychological mechanism for overcoming cognitive dissonance. And this mechanism is music. Music turns out to be responsible for the entire evolution of culture.
This explains why we cannot live without music, why we enjoy sad music, which cannot even be listened to without tears. Most popular songs help in overcoming cognitive dissonances of unrequited love, betrayed friendship. We live in a sea of cognitive dissonances, which helps explain a mysterious Biblical phrase: in much wisdom is much grief. Does wisdom cause grief? No, grief is not in wisdom, but in contradictions caused by knowledge. My book discusses which cognitive dissonances are overcome by the music of Bach, for example.
The book’s content expands to a fascinating story of the joint evolution of culture and music from King David to the 21st century. It addresses the mysterious contradictions of contemporary culture: what is the psychological space of John Cage 4’33” – of silence. What is beauty? The book demonstrates that emotions of the beautiful are not related to sexual feelings or forms of art objects. Emotions of the beautiful are related to the meaning of life. These controversial conclusions and more follow from the new theory of aesthetics, they are also proven experimentally. Possibly, a new theory of psychology will have to be developed based on this book.
About the Author
Dr. Leonid Perlovsky is President of LP Information Technology, former Technical Advisor and Principal Research Scientist at the AF Research Lab, Visiting Scholar at Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, at Harvard Medical School’s Athinoula Martinos Brain Imaging Center, Visiting Professor at Northeastern University Engineering and Psychology Departments, Professor at Peter the Great St. Petersburg Polytechnic University.
Dr. Perlovsky has created a new area of cognitive mathematics, which has led to revolutionary capabilities in modeling the mind. He served as Chief Scientist at Nichols Research, professor at Novosibirsk University and New York University; as a principal in commercial startups developing tools for understanding text, biotechnology, and financial predictions. His company predicted 9/11 market crash a week before the event and supported the SEC investigation. He is invited as a keynote plenary speaker and tutorial lecturer worldwide, including to some of the most prestigious venues, such as the Nobel Forum at Stockholm Karolinska Institutet; he has published more than 500 papers including 140 referred journals, 20 book chapters, and 8 books with Oxford, Springer, Frontiers, and Elsevier. Dr. Perlovsky also serves on the boards of several academic societies. He founded and serves as Editor-in-Chief for “Physics of Life Reviews,” an Elsevier journal with the IF=9.5, ranked #3 in the world. He has received prestigious awards including the INNS Gabor Award, and the John McLucas Award, the highest US Air Force Award for basic research. His most recent discovery explains the origin and evolution of music, solving millennial mystery.
If you found this article interesting, you may want to have a look at the author’s recently published book Music, Passion, and Cognitive Function. The book examines contemporary cognitive theories of music, why they cannot explain music’s power over us, as well as the origin and evolution of music. A new cognitive theory is described, a theory of musical origin based on the fundamental role of music in cognition: music unifies the inner world split by language, and enables the accumulation of knowledge and cultural evolution.
We are pleased to offer a complimentary chapter from ScienceDirect called, “Music and Culture: Parallel Evolution” below:
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