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William Benzon: Beethoven’s Anvil:
music in mind and culture
(Basic Books: 2001)


“I like to think of this book as an exercise in speculative engineering. Engineering is about design and construction: How does the nervous system design and construct music? The book is speculative because it has to be. There is no other way to approach questions where our need and interest exceed our current evidence. The purpose of speculation is to clarify thought. If speculation itself is clear and well-founded, it will achieve its end even if it is wrong.”
(Benzon, p.xiii)

After a long period of relative neglect - and occasional insight - well-summarized in the volume edited by Nils Wallin, The Origins of Music, broad-scale scientific work on that question was revitalized by William Benzon, in this fascinating book which is essential reading for anyone interested in the neurobiology of music & collective action, and the evolution of human sociality, ritual & music. To be sure, as Benzon himself admits, his account of the latter in particular is (necessarily) speculative - since we simply don’t (and probably can’t) find the evidence we would need in order to fully support such an account in scientific terms. Yet, we should not then simply dismiss such accounts as pure speculation. Because, drawing upon Merlin Donald’s increasingly well-supported concept of “mimetic culture” re early hominids (homo ergaster/erectus, in particular), Benzon has provided us with what is, to my mind, at least, the first seriously detailed & genuinely plausible scenario for the crucial mid-stage in the hominid social/cognitive evolution toward language, albeit one that will require modification and expansion as we learn more.

And, that scenario - intriguingly enough - is centred upon collective music-making...an area traditionally slighted in musicology - obsessed as it has been by written composition & the “genius” of composers. What we should be attempting to explain, however, is the unequalled efficacy of music (compared to the other arts) in its emotional effects, the ease of collective improvisation once musicians get attuned with one another, and the existence of music as a cultural universal...all of which, in concert, strongly suggest that music is old - and, almost certainly, much, much older than the efflorescence of the visual arts associated with the rise of modern homo sapiens...


“All human cultures have music, but few have had [formal] musical performances. For most of humankind’s existence, we have lived in relatively small bands where everyone knew everyone else. Only in the last ten thousand years or so have any of us lived in large-scale societies containing settlements so large that we had to interact with strangers on a daily basis. The formal performance is not the basic human experience of music, and recorded and televised music has been available only in the past century. Rather, our experience is of music among friends, or at least people whom we know and must deal with when the music is over.... [Moreover,] the distinguished historian William H. McNeill has recently argued in his book Keeping Together in Time that coordinated rhythmical activity is fundamental to life in society. By dancing together to music, by marching together in military drill, we bond with one another and become a group. In McNeill’s view human society would not be possible without such activity. Music and dance are not mere luxuries consuming resources; they are every bit as fundamental as hunting or child rearing, for example, but fundamental in a different way.”
(Benzon, pp.4-6)

And...in my opinion, we slight the ideas of someone like William McNeill only at the expense of our understandings. As undoubtedly the most distinguished - and innovative - macrohistorian of our age, whose Rise of the West is still, after over forty years, a stunningly modern work which betrays no real ethnocentrism (and a genuinely complex grasp of historical causation), his most recent solo effort was this book cited by Benzon - a truly novel investigation of collective rhythmical activity which, sadly, has been mostly ignored by his fellow historians. To Benzon’s lasting credit, he has taken up McNeill’s challenge - on the levels of neurobiology and hominid evolution - and, finally provided us with an explanation for such affects...because, and make no mistake, his speculations are solidly grounded in the very best science of today. Moreover, and to his credit, he is genuinely alive to the full impact of music - as might be expected of an improvising musician...


“Music allows us, for the duration, to radically reconceive and reconstruct our relationship with the world. If we are to understand how this is possible, we must consider how that relationship is constructed in the first place. Later on I will argue that the self at the center of this relationship is a construct largely driven by the demands of language, and that it is the linguistic nature of this self that allows it to be put aside by and for music.... To understand [this], however, we must go back to basics. The types of experiences we [need to examine] are secondary in the modern Western intellectual tradition. To be sure, such experiences are discussed, but not with the passion, precision, and prestige granted to discussions of reason, of language and science, of justice and cognition. While this intellectual tradition has many roots, it is both conventional and convenient to think of it as beginning with the seventeenth-century philosopher and mathematician René Descartes.... [But] what interests me is not how we come to know the world, but how we cooperate with one another, how we are implicated in one another’s lives. If we are to understand music, this must be our starting point.... [And,] where Cartesians start with the lone individual, we think about two or more individuals interacting with one another. Where they are interested in reason and cognition, we think about emotion and expression. Where they are puzzled by perception, we are fascinated by action. Gather these themes together - a group of people acting together to express emotion - and we have Beethoven’s anvil, the workshop in which human culture was first forged, and which continues to sustain us as we evolve into the future. Musicking is the central activity in that workshop.”
(Benzon, pp.13-19)

Now, to the brains involved... The revolution in the neurosciences over the last decade (and more) has, at least to those who’ve paid attention, radically revised our understandings in a wide variety of areas. And Benzon has very substantially aided us here, by drawing together the evidence from a wide variety of studies which bear on human collective action in rhythm, in order to propose a range of hypotheses that I find enormously compelling. One of the most neglected areas in traditional musicology - along with timbre - rhythm has been seen, I’d argue, as something that is simply too basic to need explanation. Yet, the fact that our primate relatives simply can not function in this way, as Merlin Donald so astutely pointed out, should in fact signal to us that it is therefore very likely to be part of an early (and possibly key) shift in hominid evolution, whilst its very ubiquity in human behaviour handily also makes it a prime target for neurobiological investigation...and the results, quite frankly, make for startling reading to anyone too wedded to individualist assumptions:


“For over three decades, William Condon and his colleagues have been studying the rhythmic structure of human speech communication.... They have discovered two kinds of synchrony: self-synchrony and interactional synchrony.... In both...the hierarchical structure [of speech] is reflected in the synchronized movements. Larger gestures, perhaps of the whole arm, will track phrases while smaller gestures, such as finger movements, will track words or phonemes. Furthermore, infants exhibit near-adult competence at interactional synchrony within twenty minutes of birth. [And,] since the human auditory system becomes active three or four months before birth, we may become entrained to speech patterns in utero.... That is to say, tightly synchronized interaction with others constitutes part of the maturational environment of the cerebral cortex.... [Moreover, since] our closest primate relatives can neither synchronize with one another nor hold a steady beat...here we have a simple, largely overlooked behavior that humans exhibit easily and routinely from birth and that seems utterly beyond our human relatives.”
(Benzon, pp.25-8)

“The nervous system has evolved so that the more primitive structures can activate the newer structures, but not vice versa. Newer structures do send impulses to the older ones, but those impulses seem largely inhibitory - they can turn the older ones off but cannot turn them on. The older structures, however, have a strong determining influence on the newer ones. This distinction will be important in our study of music, for music provides an indirect way for the phylogenetically newer structures to regulate the activity of the older ones.”
(Benzon, pp.31-2)

“Given this background, we are now ready to consider an idea proposed by Nils Wallin...that there is a ‘morphodynamic isomorphism between the tonal flow of music and its neurophysiological substrates.’ The crucial idea lies in the forbidding words ‘morphodynamic isomorphism.’ The sound pattern of a musical performance has a form; pitches follow one another in a certain pattern, they are higher or lower, softer or louder, and so forth as the piece unfolds. That pattern of change is the morphodynamics of the music. We can also speak of the morphodynamics of what happens in the nervous system of either a performer playing music or someone listening to it. Wallin is saying that these two patterns...have the same form. Musical flow equals neural flow.... Wallin’s idea implies that when two people are making music together, and really listening to what each is doing, they are sharing in the same pattern of neural activity. If a third is listening to them, then three folks are partaking of the same pattern. If the whole village is listening and dancing, then the whole village is enacting a single pattern of musical activity, even though they are physically distinct individuals with distinct nervous systems. What makes this sonic communion possible is that all these physically distinct nervous systems are cut from the same mould, and all are attuned to the same pattern of sound.”
(Benzon, pp.42-3)

“Coupled nervous systems in some sense function as a single system. If we insist on thinking of musical sounds as signals, we must think of them as signals internal to the social group...rather than as signals passed between Cartesian individuals.... Cartesian individuals do not make music.”
(Benzon, p.25)

Now, the work that Benzon cites here is mainstream - albeit, mainstream within subdisciplines mainly marginal in areas such as linguistics and neurobiology. But, by putting them together, he has built an extremely powerful case for a novel set of arguments  re human collective action...and, particularly, relating to such action when mediated by sound. Not only that, but he also then - thoughtfully - turns the argument back upon human social interaction in toto...thus tapping into the long research tradition re such questions in the human sciences as a whole. I’d’ve liked him to have availed himself of Mikhail Bakhtin’s work here - now, most unfairly, tarred w/the postmodernist brush - but we can’t have everything. Anyway, the result is most illuminating:


“Taking a role in a performing group clearly is analogous to playing a role in social interaction. Yet...while social roles place constraints on behavior - dictating such things as posture, mode of address, conversational turn taking, and permissible actions - these roles clearly do not constrain ordinary social groups as severely as does musicking. This severe constraint, the distilling of social life to its simplest forms and moves, is what makes music special. But it is the general analogy between musicking roles and ordinary social roles that relates the style and structure of a society’s music to that society’s overall style and structure - matters we will examine further. The general ebb and flow of social life between mundane existence and highly ritualized music making constitutes the unique social life of Homo Sapiens.”
(Benzon, p.64)

But Benzon’s central concern, at least in the first half of the book, it to knit together the actual felt experience of collective music making with the emerging neurobiological story. And, I’d have to say that his picture certainly makes a hell of a lot of sense to me...speaking here as an improvising musician who works in a group...

“The mind is like the weather. The same environment can have very different kinds of weather. And while we find it natural to talk of weather systems as configurations of geography, temperature, humidity, air pressure, and so on, no overall mechanism regulates the weather. The weather is the result of many processes operating on different temporal and spacial scales.... [And, as well,] as a practical matter, many microscopically different states of mind [and weather] are macroscopically the same.... [However,] in such self-organized dynamical systems, small microscale fluctuations under the right conditions can become amplified into new macroscale states.... A musical improvisation that was headed in one direction can change direction completely because one note came out differently than the player had expected. The example is real enough - all skilled and experienced improvisers know the phenomenon, some even cultivate it - though we do not actually know whether this is an example of self-organizing dynamics. It is certainly a promising candidate. So too are...altered states of consciousness.... The willed aspect of singing [for example] is organized in the cerebral cortex and involves a cascade of neural structures at the core of the telencephalon and elsewhere. That is to say, the internal dynamics of certain regions in the cortex have a strong determining effect on the dynamics of subcortical structures.... We have no reason to believe, however...that any neural structure regulates the interaction between the willed and unwilled aspects of...musical performance.... Somehow, when coupled to sounds patterned in certain ways - patterned to fit the brain’s rhythms like a key fits its lock - the brain can coordinate patterns of activation that are otherwise uncoordinated, if not actually in conflict.”
(Benzon, pp.72-5)

“Each individual consciousness may be an island of Cartesian subjectivity, but in the close coupling of musicking, those subjectivities are intimately and delicately conditioned and regulated by one another. Perhaps such rituals play a role in helping to establish and maintain the subjective continuity of the neural self. By entering into a wide variety of emotional states (with their various neurochemical substrates) in a socially controlled situation, individuals in a community ritual create an equal access zone in mental space, where each can experience and contemplate extremes of joy and anger, tenderness and hate, and know that all these feelings have a place in their shared world.”
(Benzon, p.82)

“Music routinely has a level of structure and intention that standard music theory completely misses with its talk of rhythm, harmony, melody, and so forth.... [Because,] beyond the phenomena studied in current music theory, music includes virtual social interaction.... The human auditory system evolved to segregate the soundscape into separate auditory streams, each of which is presumed to reflect the activities of a single causal agent somewhere in the world.... When this system is presented with music, it operates in the same way, identifying streams and treating them as signs of actions by various agents.... In listening to music, I submit we are running our Central Social Circuitry in virtual mode. It handles inputs in the standard way, but those inputs don’t come from their normal external source, the social signals of other humans. Instead they are derived from music; that music may well mimic the expressive gestures of human interaction, but it is nonetheless something quite different. The feelings, forces and virtual agents in music are not people, and in responding to them one is not engaging in social interaction.... Rather, the performers give us the intentional and emotional residue of actions and desires as they are embodied in musical sound.”
(Benzon, pp.110-12)

“The neural story I am proposing looks like this: as Clynes and others have argued, music is organized into two streams. One stream carries the underlying pulse of musical performance, is mediated by structures for locomotion, and is extremely precise. It is the source of the precision that Clynes, Shaw, and others have measured in musical performances, both real and mental. These structures are both subcortical - for example, the cerebellum and the basal ganglia - and cortical. The phrase or gesture stream is organized by limbic structures centered on the hippocampus. These structures evolved to control navigation through the environment and are closely linked to neocortical regions that subserve accurate recognition and identification of objects, events, and so on. When used for music, the navigation system is linked to the various cortical regions supporting the recognition and manipulation of musical sound - regions for recognizing intervals, melodic contours, harmonic relations, and tone quality. These regions implement the musical ‘space’ through which the phrase stream navigates.”
(Benzon, pp.140-1)

Thus, when we speak of “soundscapes”, for example, we are probably not merely using metaphors. And, furthermore, Benzon certainly doesn’t shy away from the most extreme aspect of musical experience...the loss of self that musicians, dancers, and listeners frequently encounter when flow takes over. For, to be honest, any fully adequate approach of music must approach these, or risk failing to deal with the most powerful experiences music provides...


“What does it mean to say that you cease to think? It means, I believe, that inner speech ceases to play a role in directing your activities.... We have little recollection of events early in life, before language is firmly established. This suggests that language is an important means of organizing and accessing the neural self, of recalling earlier states in one’s trajectory.... Thus it is perhaps not so strange that an altered sense of one’s own body parallels the cessation of inner speech. Think of the system for inner speech being coupled with the integrated body sense as a system we could call the Self System. An alteration in one component might affect the other as well. It is as though the mere existence of inner speech serves to anchor one’s sense of intentionality in one’s body. When that speech ceases, the anchor is gone and one floats free outside one’s body.”
(Benzon, pp.151-5)

“I wish to argue that music Altered States of Consciousness reflect right-hemisphere dominance. Where language underlies social interaction involving left-hemisphere functions, music sustains social interaction favoring the right hemisphere. But...whatever role the right hemisphere plays in the various subprocesses of musical perception and production, I suggest that it is responsible for the highest level of musical regulation. That highest level of regulation concerns the coordination of emotional processes with musical form and structure. It is the right hemisphere that regulates the concord between subcortical essentic forms and cortical rhythm, harmony, and melody, and between the social mechanisms of the limbic system and the perceptual and cognitive mechanisms of the cortex. It is the right hemisphere that guarantees that music’s sensuous surface satisfies both the heart’s desires and the mind’s need for order. In emphasizing the sensuous surface of music I mean to indicate that the sound itself is important, not just whatever that sound might seem to indicate.... Music stands in contrast to ordinary speech, where the sound is secondary, [and] meaning lies in the concepts and percepts conjured up by the language.... Musical sound drives both the subcortical emotion systems and the cortical conceptual systems. It regulates the brain in unified action beyond the self.”
(Benzon, pp.158-60)

“I would speculate that the neural mode for music making is like that for dreaming, in that aminergic processes are at a very low level, much below ordinary waking consciousness. But while the dreamer is motionless and dead to the world, the music maker is not; her input-output gating is quite different from the dreamer...[for musicians] do have external inputs and outputs. But these tend to be closely structured and strictly subordinate to the requirements of musicking...[while] the external world is assimilated to the inner rhythms of a collective dream, a dream being enacted in that public space where we share our inner environment with others. Music thus becomes a means of communal play, of communal dreaming. It is a group activity in which the interactions between individuals are as precisely timed and orchestrated as those within a single brain. The individuals are physically separate but temporally integrated. It is one music, one dance.”
(Benzon, pp.162-4)

Benzon’s achievement, here - in his synthesis of musical experience w/the cutting edge of neuroscience - is, to my mind, unparalleled in the contemporary humanities...and, a standing reproach to the rest of aesthetics to get its act together! To be sure, I still feel that a similar treatment of the area of timbre is undoubtedly possible (drawing on not only contemporary neuroscience, but also Von Helmholz's startling equation of meaningful timbres w/human faces, and Eugene Morton's work re the commonalities of timbre in animal social signalling, for a start) - and would have further enriched his analysis - but, such carping is simply ungrateful in the face of such an achievement. All musicians & dancers - and all ardent listeners - would do well to read this book, as it goes a long way to explaining just how, and why, we have the experiences we do in our musical lives.

But, Benzon doesn’t stop there. As I noted at the beginning of this review, he also delivers us a key modification - and expansion of - Merlin Donald’s important “mimetic culture” hypothesis re hominid evolution. And, in the care devoted to biologically-plausible mechanisms, we can see exactly why this is more than mere “speculation”...


“Vocal mimicry, as an adaptive skill that requires voluntary control over the vocal apparatus, seems to be a logical precursor to music and language. I find this proposal attractive for three reasons:

1. It is mimetic. It doesn’t require protohumans to invent something out of nothing. It  requires only that they figure out how to imitate sounds they hear animals making. That is quite enough for a first step in a long evolutionary journey.

2. It does not require semanticity. The utterances do not have to consist of words that refer to arbitrary objects and events through some process of categorization.

3. Such mimicry is a natural starting point for more extensive mimicry. If you are going to imitate an animal’s cry, why not imitate its movement and behavior as well? This could lead to ritual and dance....

This musicking then is a variety of what Merlin Donald has called mimesis, as opposed to mere imitation.... Yet realistic animal calls, no matter how useful, are not music. They lack the regular and sustained oscillations that are characteristic of music, and that allow for the mutual entrainment of musicians and dancers performing together. Vocal mimicry developed our ancestors’ voluntary control of the vocal apparatus. We need to augment that vocal control with rhythm, and with group interaction, to have music....As we have seen, human behavior and physiology are replete with rhythm.... The trick is to introduce rhythm into sound, to deliberately and voluntarily synchronize with one’s fellows and then to abstract rhythmicity from the various movements that embody rhythm.... Learning to imitate the movements of an animal requires that you focus on the animal’s rhythms, and differentiate them from your own. That would foreground the rhythm and make it independent of the particular muscles and joints that execute the movement. Beyond this, we should consider the rhythms involved in creating and using the stone tools that our ancestors have had for over 2 million years.... The net effect of practising and mastering these new modes of rhythm might well be a generalized capacity for rhythmic control that is independent of any particular behavior.... [Moreover,] recall that all of this mimetic activity is controlled by the neocortex. That makes it quite different from the system of innate calls, which is limbically mediated. Thus our protohumans were intentionally traipsing about with their nervous systems coupled together in collective dynamics. That was new, and it engendered new patterns of neurodynamics. It is these new neurodynamics that, under the influence of rhythm, underwent a self-organized change in dynamics, a Gestalt switch if you will, that would later give birth to the human mind and to human culture.”
(Benzon, pp.174-8)

“Given the nature of navigation by dead reckoning - that it requires accurate estimates of elapsed time - and the temporal precision of musical performance, it makes sense that one would use song to measure one’s path in a desert with few discernible features. [And,] given our further speculation that music’s narrative stream is regulated by the brain’s navigation equipment, this Aboriginal Song-as-Map seems like a natural development. Yet we should be wary of getting wrapped up in the practicality of it all. For that hardly explains the mythology.... We are in the world that Val Geist hypothesized, in which...imagining the wilderness through the persona of an animal, one assimilates that wilderness to the categories and needs of human culture.”
(Benzon, pp.197-8)

“Human cultures are not miscellaneous collections of artefacts and practices. In a way that is often difficult to explicate...culture is not a thin veneer glued atop layers of biology. Rather, it is the spicy liquor that binds disparate meats, grains, and vegetables into a flavorful stew. I suggest that cultures encode their master patterns much as a hologram encodes images....[with] the pattern of a culture distributed throughout all the artefacts and practices of the people who live in that culture. Each piece and aspect reflects the pattern of the whole.... And the ritual process has the effect of tuning the brains of all the participants to the same rhythms and symbols. It is thus at the core of the process of distributing a culture’s pattern in the brains of people in a society.”
(Benzon, p.215-16)

William Benzon’s Beethoven’s Anvil is that surpassingly rare thing, an empirically-based work that allows us to deepen - rather than argues to dismiss - some of the least “rational” (yet most meaningful) of our experiences. As such, it sets a new standard for the scientific discussion of aesthetics, then successfully ties this achievement into an enriched account of human evolution. Moreover, in combination with Steven Mithen’s more recent, and complementary, treatment of music and language in The Singing Neanderthals (also building on Merlin Donald’s pioneering work) it offers us a truly biologically plausible route - via music, as Darwin hypothesized - to language, and modern humanity. Cognitive evolution, sociology, linguistics, aesthetics - and our self-understandings - will never be quite the same again...


“Until the twentieth century, you couldn’t hear music unless you heard live performers. Some cultures musicked more than others, but everyone sang and danced regularly.... [But] how long can we continue to live on the cultural energy bequeathed us by traditions of active musicking that have become severely attenuated. Are the Western nations living out the consequences of an unholy alliance between Romantic veneration of artistic genius and recording technology? In proper measure, this technology makes a wide variety of music available to each of us, while an appreciation of innovation encourages innovation. But the abject veneration of genius devalues the musical capabilities of the rest of us, and encourages us to substitute recordings for our own music.... If we wish to hear marvellous new music twenty years from now, we must prepare the way by making our own music now. That music isn’t the responsibility of future geniuses. It is ours.”
(Benzon, pp.280-1)


John Henry Calvinist