I have a theory about how and why we make music.
Epistemic status: Wild-ass speculation, part of Saurya’s house of science.
If you spend enough time in southeast Asia, you’ll encounter two things: durian fruit and tau sar piah. I will almost certainly write a longer piece one day about durian itself since I think it’s fascinating, but for now, I’ll summarize: durian tastes like a combination of mango, avocado and onion. Tau sar piah is a pastry dessert filled with green beans, sugar and fried onion. Onion. In a dessert? Trust me, it makes a lot more sense if your palate also thinks of durian as a dessert. I love it.
The lyre bird is a fascinating animal. It can mimic almost any sound found in real life, and it remixes them to produce unique mating calls to impress other lyre birds. Here you can hear one mimicking a chainsaw and a photograph shutter. Nature shows us that not only is everything a remix, but everything was a remix in nature first.
Noam Chomsky gained popularity for his notion of the universal grammar - that young human beings (“children”) pick up language incredibly fast because our minds have an innate metagrammar that understands how to construct grammars.
I think the human auditory cortex, in order to make sense of the vast amount of information that gets thrown at it, mimics and remixes incoming signals into larger structures as part of long-term storage. Predictive processing is somewhat sympathetic to this idea as well - all of our processing is in fact simulation of input signal…and we’re looking to make efficient ways to take in those signals.
Music, I would argue is to sound, what tau sar piah is to durian - a consistent, human remixing of what nature offers so we can appreciate the natural version’s chaotic diversity a bit differently. I think music is a grammar for the crazy wild sounds we hear every day - and my ‘proof’ is how music tends to reflect the sound effect-scape of our every day lives. The music of peoples living in the Andes mountains sounds remarkably like that of the birds and environment around them. I think we, at some level are lyre birds - remixing all the different sounds in our heads - with a ruleset for how to do so handed to us by our society. A system of music is a grammar for how to talk about the natural auditory variety of the world. Perhaps the rise of dubstep all around the world is driven similarly by the digital tones that are ubiquitous.
Marx being the original The Simpsons who did everything first would say something like “Industrial methods have come to define social relationships and music as a cultural token is defined by the same methods of production.” But I think this misses the neural aspect of it - we need music. We always will. We need ways to play with visual art and recode our inputs.
My little theory itself consists of three elements I tried to remix and recode together. How does it sound?