Aural pleasure


When science first swept through the academic outposts of Europe like some bespectacled bat out of hell, it brought rampant success for those involved in figuring out how the natural world worked.  But for those dealing with human affairs– the artists, the bureaucrats– science has not been the same unequivocal triumph.  Utopia doesn’t seem amenable to a double-blind clinical trial.  Similarly, we don’t yet have computers capable of spitting out War and Peace.  For those of us raised in the age of science living here and now at the top of history, thinking in a ‘scientific’ way is second nature, so much so that we almost need to pause to remind ourselves that not every problem is scientific. 

Or is it just not yet?  Are politics and art non-scientific problems, or are we only now getting good enough at science to apply it to these areas of our culture?

I’ll leave the politicians to their own concerns and take up with the artists, in particular the musicians.  We are starting to build a bank of scientific knowledge that suggests how we might conceive of music as a scientific problem.  A number of studies have shown that music can trigger dopamine flows in the brain, which are associated with physical sensations of pleasure (known as frisson).  This may suggest a way of empirically measuring just how ‘good’ music is, where ‘good’ is narrowly defined to mean ‘dopamine-friendly’.   More usefully, scientists have also mapped the connection between these pleasurable dopamine flows and the anticipation of climactic moments in music, which can itself yield a dopamine spike.  This not only confirms that music is physically pleasurable, but implies a technique for inducing pleasure too. It would seem that creating anticipation in the listener is central to those quite literally spine-tingling moments of music.

 "It exists in that uneasy realm governed by the ephemeral laws of human custom, which often change before they can be deciphered and written down. "

Using these insights, would it be possible to commission a scientist to create lab-perfected music, irresistible to humans, unbounded in its frisson frequency?  Admittedly, it seems a stretch on the available data.   The importance of making your listener anticipate a musical outcome is already well-known to successful music makers, either intuitively or otherwise.  Indeed, that technique seems to have found its ultimate expression relatively recently in the drop-heavy EDM genre, where tracks are built around heavily sign-posted climactic releases.  If hordes of festival goers the world over are to be believed, there seems little science could add to this. 

We might instead imagine our scientist serving as a sort of testing-stage consultant, measuring a focus group’s dopamine-based response on a song-by-song basis.  But for a musician this seems a rather elaborate way of confessing that you don’t know your own business, and it threatens to miss the point: music is nearly always about so much more than just the music.  To take EDM as an example again, even if science were able to recommend its technique of repeated climax-and-release, there is still no data explaining why EDM must always be combined with fluoro sunnies, and never with shirts.

All of which suggests that music, as a cultural phenomenon, is at the moment too complex to be grown in the lab.  It exists in that uneasy realm governed by the ephemeral laws of human custom, which often change before they can be deciphered and written down. 

Still, the temptation and promise of scientific progress remains.  Perhaps we just haven’t escaped the square yet. But to conceive of music as a problem of dopamine production is to both radically limit and expand what music can be. If in the end this reduces music to so many crippling waves of aural pleasure, then we will have gone so far as to miss the point.  A more complicated measure of pleasure beyond one brute indicator will be required if the complicated phenomenon of music is to be reproduced and scientifically refined.  But that refinement can’t be ruled out.  It’s not impossible that, deep in some fog machine-clouded future, our producers will ditch their glow sticks for electrodes and white lab coats.  Failing that, maybe we’ll at least get a scientific explanation for the fluoro.