Why do we like music? Our culture immerses us in it for hours each day, and everyone knows how it touches our emotions, but few think of how music touches other kinds of thought. It is astonishing how little curiosity we have about so pervasive an "environmental" influence. What might we discover if we were to study musical thinking?
Have we the tools for such work? Years ago, when science still feared meaning, the new field of research called 'Artificial Intelligence' started to supply new ideas about "representation of knowledge" that I'll use here. Are such ideas too alien for anything so subjective and irrational, aesthetic, and emotional as music? Not at all. I think the problems are the same and those distinctions wrongly drawn: only the surface of reason is rational. I don't mean that understanding emotion is easy, only that understanding reason is probably harder. Our culture has a universal myth in which we see emotion as more complex and obscure than intellect. Indeed, emotion might be "deeper" in some sense of prior evolution, but this need not make it harder to understand; in fact, I think today we actually know much more about emotion than about reason.
Certainly we know a bit about the obvious processes of reason–the ways we organize and represent ideas we get. But whence come those ideas that so conveniently fill these envelopes of order? A poverty of language shows how little this concerns us: we "get" ideas; they "come" to us; we are 're-minded of" them. I think this shows that ideas come from processes obscured from us and with which our surface thoughts are almost uninvolved. Instead, we are entranced with our emotions, which are so easily observed in others and ourselves. Perhaps the myth persists because emotions, by their nature, draw attention, while the processes of reason (much more intricate and delicate) must be private and work best alone.
The old distinctions among emotion, reason, and aesthetics are like the earth, air, and fire of an ancient alchemy. We will need much better concepts than these for a working psychic chemistry.
Much of what we now know of the mind emerged in this century from other subjects once considered just as personal and inaccessible but which were explored, for example, by Freud in his work on adults' dreams and jokes, and by Piaget in his work on children's thought and play. Why did such work have to wait for modern times? Before that, children seemed too childish and humor much too humorous for science to take them seriously.
Why do we like music? We all are reluctant, with regard to music and art, to examine our sources of pleasure or strength. In part we fear success itself– we fear that understanding might spoil enjoyment. Rightly so: art often loses power when its psychological roots are exposed. No matter; when this happens we will go on, as always, to seek more robust illusions!
I feel that music theory has gotten stuck by trying too long to find universals. Of course, we would like to study Mozart's music the way scientists analyze the spectrum of a distant star. Indeed, we find some almost universal practices in every musical era. But we must view these with suspicion, for they might show no more than what composers then felt should be universal. If so, the search for truth in art becomes a travesty in which each era's practice only parodies its predecessor's prejudice. Imagine formulating "laws" for television screenplays, taking them for natural phenomenon uninfluenced by custom or constraint of commerce.
The trouble with the search for universal laws of thought is that both memory and thinking interact and grow together. We do not just learn about things, we learn ways to think about things; then we can learn to think about thinking itself. Before long, our ways of thinking become so complicated that we cannot expect to understand their details in terms of their surface operation, but we might understand the principles that guide their growth. In much of this article I will speculate about how listening to music engages the previously acquired personal knowledge of the listener.
It has become taboo for music theorists to ask why we like what we like: our seekers have forgotten what they are searching for. To be sure, we can't account for tastes, in general, because people have various preferences. But this means only that we have to find the causes of this diversity of tastes, and this in turn means we must see that music theory is not only about music, but about how people process it. To understand any art, we must look below its surface into the psychological details of its creation and absorption.
If explaining minds seems harder than explaining songs, we should remember that sometimes enlarging problems makes them simpler! The theory of the roots of equations seemed hard for centuries within its little world of real numbers, but it suddenly seemed simple once Gauss exposed the larger world of so-called complex numbers. Similarly, music should make more sense once seen through listeners' minds.