Monday, October 01, 2001

A Meeting of Musicking Minds

Beethoven’s Anvil: Music in Mind and Culture

By: Ian Cross Ph.D.


Neuroscientist and best-selling author Steven Pinker has opined that “music could vanish from our species and the rest of our lifestyle would be virtually unchanged.” Perhaps, but archaeologists tell us that humans made music 36,000 years ago in Europe (about as soon as they arrived there) in the face of a pitilessly hostile environment. If music is as dispensable as Pinker suggests, why on earth did our forebears bother with it? 

Many readers would answer almost instinctually, from personal experience: Music moves us; music, perhaps more than almost any other form of human endeavor, can induce a sense of communion with our fellows; and music appears to be a medium through which we can transcend the bounds of our mundane humanity. 

So, yes, it may be, as professional and academic musicians are all too aware, that music tends to be first in the line of fire when the managerial revolution (or the school-budget cutbacks) comes. And, yes, as ethnomusicologist Alan Merriam observes, in a society that is complex enough to have specialization, musicians are usually marginal and of low status. But music also has a complexity, and an apparent universality in culture and human behavior, that pose stubborn questions for the cognitive sciences. These challenges are enthusiastically taken up by William Benzon in Beethoven's Anvil: Music in Mind and Culture. 

In this work, Benzon proposes to penetrate music’s mysteries by bringing to bear three fields of inquiry: the principles of neurophysiology; the attributes of creating, performing, or listening to music; and dynamical systems theory—an area of mathematics that characterizes the behavior of complex systems. This is an ambitious enterprise, requiring Benzon to range across neurophysiology, evolutionary theory, the cognitive sciences of music, theories of culture and cultural change, and jazz. It is this last, stemming from Benzon’s own experiences as a musician who is also a cognitive scientist, that grounds the book, exemplifying and illuminating the sometimes difficult concepts with which he deals. 

Beethoven’s Anvil presents a complex and original argument that music must be considered central to any full account of mind and the complexities of culture, and a condensed account runs the risk of misrepresentation. In order to assess its strengths and weaknesses, however, I shall attempt to summarize its principal strands.


Benzon begins by emphasizing that the experience of music is active. He highlights this by adopting Christopher Small’s notion of “musicking,” which Benzon defines as follows: “To music is to take part, in any capacity, in a musical performance, whether by performing, by listening, by rehearsing or practicing or providing material for performance (what is called composing), or by dancing.” 

Benzon offers persuasive anecdotal evidence that music can transform our experience of self and yet remain grounded in our body and its actions. He stresses the interactive nature of music: “Music is a medium through which individual brains are coupled together in shared activity.” He argues that the coupled nervous systems of the participants in a music activity can be thought of as a single system, in terms of functioning, because in interacting these people share specific brain mechanisms for regulating and expressing their experience. As he puts it: “Musicking, by its use of neural structures at all levels in the brain, facilitates interactional coupling.” 

“Music is a medium through which individual brains are coupled together in shared activity.”

Benzon employs some basic premises of dynamical systems theory in order to generalize the notion of the collective unity achieved by individuals engaged in musicking. Thus, he says, “the rhythmic behavior displayed by the coupling between two or more oscillating components of one body has the same dynamics as that displayed by the coupling between oscillating components of two or more bodies.” What Benzon is claiming here is that the principles that coordinate the limbs of a jazz drummer who is using each limb to play a different rhythm are the same as those that coordinate the actions of a group of individual performers, each of whom is playing a different rhythm. Indeed, he goes further, claiming that “the size of the collective neural space of a musicking ensemble approaches that of a typical member of the ensemble.” Here he is proposing that when players are “musicking” together, their reliance on each other must be so complete that collectively they can be thought of as analagous to a single performer. 

If mind is understood as an emergent property of the central nervous system, a view favored in contemporary neuroscience and philosophy, then music may be quite pivotal in our awareness of others. “By attending to one another through musicking,” writes Benzon, “performers attune their nervous systems to one another, restructuring their representation of others. This results in more harmonious interactions within the group.” 

Benzon then turns his attention to the forms that musicking may take as it unfolds in time and explores the implications of these forms for how we experience our own body-state and interpret the body-state of others. The link between our experience of body-state and our experience of emotion then suggests that music incorporates something like a narrative dimension. Here Benzon involves a notion of neuroscientist and classical pianist Manfred Clynes: “sentic forms,” or emotional states. Clynes discovered that when a person experiences emotion, say while listening to music, his nervous system acts in a characteristic way that can be measured through fingertip pressure. He called the pattern of these measurements a sentic form. People from disparate cultures and backgrounds produced similar sentic forms for emotions such as anger and love; and when people listened to great classical music, certain shapes also consistently arose. This consistency in the experience of sentic forms when people listen to music demonstrates the commonality of the shared emotional experience. Yet, because the emotions experienced in music—or indeed from any work of art— are a step removed from the emotions of our regular daily lives, they do not have the same emotional charge; instead, they are part of a “shared affirmation of group life.” One can interpret this to mean that musicking helps shape group experience and identity without the full costs of real-world interaction.

Benzon likens musicking to collective dreaming and suggests the neurophysiological mechanisms for this.

Benzon postulates a two-level basis in the brain for the “neurality” of music. One is found in the brain’s structures for locomotion; he calls this “the groove stream,” corresponding to the experience of a regular, clocklike pulse. The second is based in the limbic structures, particularly the hippocampus; this is the “gesture stream,” within which is played out the drama that elicits the experience of Clynes’ sentic forms. Benzon likens musicking to collective dreaming and suggests the neurophysiological mechanisms for this. 

The last section of Beethoven’s Anvil examines music’s role in human biological and cultural evolution. Benzon suggests that practices of musicking were critical in the emergence of the modern human mind; that the structures of musicking and culture in general can be correlated; and that cultures can be differentiated on the basis of the place that music has in them. He concludes by exploring musicking in present-day America, noting that active music-making appears to be diminishing. He asks: “How long can we continue to live on the cultural energy bequeathed to us by traditions of active musicking that have become severely attenuated?” If musicking is as central to forging and maintaining human mind and culture as Benzon suggests, the answer to this question should concern us all. 


The sections of this book that work best are those that outline the neurophysiological mechanisms and social processes whereby music (or musicking) facilitates the coupling of human behaviors and experiences in time through sound and action. The sections that fail are those that push the explanatory power of those mechanisms and processes too far. Benzon’s exposition of these mechanisms and processes appears appropriate in showing how music is rooted in general characteristics of the human nervous system and the ways in which the nervous systems of individuals interact in a group. The problem is that human societies differ in ways that are difficult to attribute to general characteristics of nervous systems and easier to attribute to the contexts within which the people who have these nervous systems interact. We cannot deduce the nature of the human mind directly from the genetic specifications for the nervous system (insofar as such specifications exist). Human minds develop in an ecology shaped largely by the presence of other humans with whom they interact. 

Benzon recognizes this, but takes it to mean that “we must think of cultural differences as intrinsic, not extrinsic.” He suggests, in effect, that our childhood experiences of interacting with others become inscribed indelibly in our nervous systems. Perhaps so (though the observably rapid pace of cultural change in the contemporary world would argue against it), but the tools that Benzon would use to explain the differences among cultural styles of musicking are simply too general for the task. The broad-brush approach that works so well in sketching the relationships between musicking and human biology leads to gross misrepresentations when applied to details of cultural difference. 

The broad-brush approach that works so well in sketching the relationships between musicking and human biology leads to gross misrepresentations when applied to details of cultural difference.

In his discussion of cultural differences, for example, Benzon’s contrast between African and Western musical styles relies on the notion of a unitary, polyrhythmic African musical style that is contrasted with an allegedly unmetered early medieval plainsong that underlies all European music. In the first place, as music scholar Kofi Agawu has demonstrated, the idea of a pan-African musical style is nonsense; African musics are as diverse as African peoples and African cultures. Second, while plainsong was important in the emergence of European music styles, it was scarcely the sole influence in a Europe almost as diverse, musically speaking, as is Africa today. To describe plainsong as “religious music almost bereft of rhythm” is to describe something that its practitioners would not have recognized. Plainsong’s rhythms may not have been written down, but to conclude from this that they were entirely absent is to mistake the lack of notation, the representation, for the absence of the thing itself.

Similarly, Benzon mistakes categories of western music theory for categories of global musical experience when he proposes that musicking in different cultures can be “ranked.” In Benzon’s scheme, “rank one” cultures are oriented toward rhythm, “rank two” differentiate control of melody from rhythm, and “rank three” differentiate harmony from the other two. He supports this notion of ranks by appealing to findings that suggest that the brain deals differently with rhythm, melody, and harmony. But, to my knowledge, there is virtually nothing in the neurophysiological literature on music that shows functional differentiation in brain responses to rhythm, melody, and harmony by members of non-western cultures. How could there be, since the behaviors and concepts that constitute music in different cultures are often so closely bound to whole body action (often taking forms that westerners might think of as dance rather than music) that they would be very difficult—if not impossible—to address by means of our current neuroscientific research technology, such as EEG, PET, fMRI, or MEG? In other words, Benzon’s reliance on a neurophysiological separability of rhythm, melody, and harmony to underwrite his concept of cultural differentiation is premature, to say the least. 

I am wholly in sympathy with Benzon’s notion that something like musicking played a critical role in the emergence of modern human minds, but his way of dealing with the specifics of human evolution seems freighted with misconceptions. 

The same difficulties undermine his attempts to relate musicking to other activities and processes that may be at work in human evolution. I am wholly in sympathy with Benzon’s notion that something like musicking played a critical role in the emergence of modern human minds, but his way of dealing with the specifics of human evolution seems freighted with misconceptions. To select just one (in an area that has been a focus of my own recent research), he suggests that the rhythmic dimension of music might be traced back to the “rhythms involved in creating and using the stone tools that our ancestors have had for over two million years.” He asserts that “to be performed accurately and efficiently, cutting and chopping must be done to a regular beat; so must the movements one executes in flaking stone blanks into tools.” 

The former, yes; the latter, no. Knapping (the process of creating stone tools) does involve bursts of regular and periodic action, but the nature of these will turn on what type of tool is being made, by what technique, and from what material. In any case, almost two million years of evolution have seen a fair variety of knapping techniques, from those involved in the Oldowan period 1.8 million years ago to the microlithic techniques of the Neolithic period, as recently as 5,000 years ago. Benzon’s unfamiliarity with the archaeology involved here renders much of what he claims speculative at best, and downright wrong at worst. 


Despite these caveats, the first seven chapters of Beethoven’s Anvil fairly bristle with hypotheses, most of which could be tested empirically and deserve further exploration. These chapters alone offer enough excitement to those pursuing research in music cognition to justify the book’s existence. Only in the last four chapters, when he tries to apply his theories to evolution and culture, do Benzon’s methods bump up against their limits. 

Benzon positions himself implicitly (and in a couple of places, explicitly) as outside orthodox cognitive science, and indeed he is; his approach has been little pursued by scientists studying music and cognition. Benzon is effectively redefining music (I am sympathetic, having myself tried to do this) by sketching ways in which the human nervous system can be interpreted using dynamical systems theory, rather than computational metaphors or analogies. This enables him to explore the interactions among human nervous systems and between human nervous systems and the environment. He relies heavily on neurophysiological research seen in the context of a sympathetic and transcultural account of human musical behaviors. This lets him do something that would be difficult, if not impossible, within the more traditional computational approach to cognition, which is to ground in human interaction both human musicality and the neurophysiology that underlies it. After all, music is not a property of an individual human being but of groups of individuals. 

While computational approaches have been used to try to understand collective and specific human behaviors, the most convincing applications have been to collective problem-solving behaviors in tightly constrained environments. Music poses riddles of a different order. It pervades social life and is encountered in a multiplicity of different environments and situations. As Benzon persuasively contends, dynamical systems theory may well offer a more fertile and satisfactory way of thinking about and exploring complex social behaviors such as music than does conventional computationalism. 


This book deserves to be read widely. I hope it will be. Its style is accessible, and its complex ideas are put across fluently. Indeed, if Benzon writes like this, I would like very much to hear him play jazz. For all that, Beethoven’s Anvil is an ambitious enterprise. The identities, uses, and effects of music are manifold—and rather less calculable than either Benzon or I would wish. 

The identities, uses, and effects of music are manifold— and rather less calculable than either Benzon or I would wish.

Take an example from ancient history. In Plutarch’s Life of Pelopidas we read that ancient lawgivers in the Greek city of Thebes, wishing to “soften and tone down the hot-tempered and violent element in the Theban character, beginning from earliest boyhood,” turned to music, paying “great attention to the flute, both in their education and their recreation.” Notwithstanding the best efforts of the lawgivers at music education, the hot-tempered and violent character of the Thebans was undiminished; in 332 B.C., when Greece rose against the Macedonian hegemony, Alexander the Great crushed the revolt by razing to the ground the city that he deemed to pose the greatest threat in arms: Thebes. 

Notwithstanding the best efforts of the lawgivers at music education, the hot-tempered and violent character of the Thebans was undiminished.

The ancient lawgivers were not wrong; music does have powerful effects on human minds, bodies, and lives. These effects, however, are likely to be less specific, more susceptible to cultural variability, and less predictable than Benzon’s fascinating account suggests. 



From Beethoven’s Anvil: Music in Mind and Culture by William Benzon. © 2001 by William Benzon. Reprinted with permission of Basic Books, a member of the Perseus Books Group. All rights reserved. 

In addition to cyclic repetition, music also "tells a story,” to use a phrase many jazz musicians use when talking of a particularly good solo. Music thus involves two interacting streams of activity, a common notion I got from Manfred Clynes, thus: 

TWO STREAMS HYPOTHESIS: Music involves “two simultaneous streams, one stream the repetitive and hierarchical pulse and the other the evolving, emotionally meaningful ‘story’ of the music.” 

Clynes notes that one of the ways musical idioms differ is in the way they develop these two streams. While all musical idioms employ these two streams, some, such as the polyrhythmic musics of West Africa, elaborate the “repetitive” stream. 

Perhaps the most neutral terms for these two streams would be cyclic (repetitive) stream and phrase (evolving) stream, for it is in the evolving stream that musical phrases are elaborated. However, I often prefer to think of the repetitive stream as the groove stream, after Charles Keil’s analysis of musical grooves, and the phrase stream as the gesture stream. The notion of musical gesture is an old one, employed by both Keil and Clynes. 

In thinking about these streams I find it useful to think about history, by which I mean the succession of states in a dynamical system, whether it be the weather in Boise, Idaho, the roll of a dice at a Monte Carlo gaming table, or the succession of states in a nervous system. Each brain has a unique history, which means, as Walter Freeman argues, that each engages the world in a unique way. But when a group of people commit themselves to a musical performance, they are committing themselves to share in one history. By Wallin’s hypothesis (about the likeness between music and neurodynamics), that shared history is the same for each, at least at the level of the dynamics of transition from one state to another. 

It is one thing to talk about successions of states and another to talk about the system’s memory, where memory is understood, in Gerald Edelman’s phrase as “the system’s ability to repeat a performance.” More deeply, Edelman talks of structures “that permit significant correlations between current ongoing dynamic patterns and those imposed by past patterns...What all memory systems have in common is evolution and selection.” Consider the oscillators we talked about above. An oscillator is a simple memory device, one that simply repeats the same succession of states over and over until it runs out of energy or is stopped. The span of such a memory is equal to the period of the oscillator. Given that one of Clynes’ two musical streams is repetitive, we can identify it with an oscillator-type memory system. 

It is clear, however, that oscillators are not adequate vehicles for “evolution and selection.” We need other mechanisms to handle that. I am not particularly concerned right now with what these mechanisms consist of, only that they are needed–for I want to identify Clynes’ other musical stream with this other type of memory, the type involving evolution and selection. 

The function of the groove stream, with its limited time depth, is to suspend history and to create the psychological space in which music happens. The cyclic repetition of a pattern creates the virtual world in which the drama enacted through a succession of the musical gestures takes place.

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