Music and Communication by Terence McLaughlin



The introduction insists that we must know why music ever began before we can discover its meaning, perhaps on the principle that a good book proceeds from genesis to revelations. This one certainly embodies a great faith, i.e. “the firm belief that music expresses human experience”. This belief is justified as follows. Music is transformed in the brain into an electrochemical code of signals, identical for all sense-data. Thus if the wires were somehow crossed, vinegar on the tongue would produce a loud noise in the head. (We can imagine the victim's bemused reaction – “I knew my taste was sound, but this is ridiculous”.) Now suppose there is a data­processing stage (as there must be, p.53) where the incoming signals are identified by comparison and classification. Then “the pattern from the ear still remains ‘hearing’, but the fact that it can be identified with a similar pattern from the eye is not lost on the master pattern-analyser; every time we hear that pattern from the ear we shall be reminded, automatically, of the sight which produces a similar pattern”. This synaesthesia, some aspects of which are well known (e.g. associations between key and colour), enriches musical meaning with dimly­ apprehended hints of all other experience, motor or sensory, intellectual or instinctual, past or present. This “fusing of many events, many memories, many of the paradigms of existence” explains the pleasure and the value we find in music; QED.

   All this is no doubt what Baudelaire had in mind (in all senses) when he wrote “O métamorphose mystique/De tous mes sens fondus en un!”. The present theory, like that Fleur du Mal (LXI), grows from a physical root to a mystical bloom, from nerve-owner to Nirvana. The grey matter of fact approach seems scientific; but it may cloud the judgment. At first sight the argument appears to run thus. Brain-codes and music-patterns are (somehow) isomorphic, so music may (somehow) be related to human experience in general. But as we have seen the book began with that latter belief firmly in mind. So the argument will sit more Comfortably the other way round. If music (some­how) expresses human experience, then manifestly the elements of musical structure must (somehow) be converted by the brain into a wider extra-musical significance. Almost all the book's 100 pages are employed on this projected conversion, very constructively. But it seems a pity that major premises should be so deserted. Suppose music doesn't express human experience; what then?

   Whichever way the train of thought is made to run, it gets uncoupled at the same crucial points, leaving the ideas in separate compartments which (in so far as they are inclined to move at all) risk being delayed if not derailed by the obscure workings of all those levels and crossings in the mind. Worse, the brain-signals themselves are against us. As evidence they are about as much use as a code in the head. We still can't break the one without damaging the other. Meanwhile all we can say about an unspecified code of universal application is that it can by definition mean anything. If the theory is true of music, then it will prima faciebe true of any other art, or any non-art, or any circumstance whatever. However, it seems unreasonable to complain that a theory is too true to be any good. It's not Mr McLaughlin's fault that in the present state of knowledge his thesis must, as he says, remain a hypothesis in many respects. This rings even truer to me when transposed a tone or two down; the hypothesis remains a conjecture in most respects. The attempt to pitch it higher risks overthrowing it, by giving rise to irrelevance and repetition. The meat of the argument, sensibly sliced thin so as to serve everyone, is eked out with warm helpings of sustaining extracts from e.g. Cooke, Lipps and Lee, Langer, Koestler etc, with no suggestion that such fare has (rightly or wrongly) been condemned by such authorities as Reid, Sparshott, Nagel, Medawar etc, respectively. I think we might have been offered a choice.

   Again, these mild reproaches arise only because Mr McLaughlin has presented his theory in book form at this stage and at a non-specialist level. Given that decision, this work is a positive achieve­ment; it is no doubt the best that can be done, and it is clearly valid and significant as far as it goes. It deserves to be taken further, and its author is well qualified to do so himself in due course. He knows how hypotheses are tested, and what constitutes evidence; he has already indicated some useful lines of further experimentation. He has a lively and discerning mind, an eclectic yet discriminating musicianship, a clear and easy prose style. His book is never without interest, and it is a real pleasure to read and review. It may be no more than a first step in the dark; but it could well prove decisive in the light of further discoveries. And the step is already a powerful one, in the right direction. It should at least stamp out that low-level controversy about what (if anything) music means.  Ex hypothesi, dispute under this head merely shows how (or in some cases whether) our brains work. From now on, it's chacun son son.          


The Musical Times, Mar. 1971 (p. 239) © the estate of eric sams