Biomusicology: Neurophysiological, Neuropsychological and Evolutionary Perspectives on the Origins and Purposes of Music.
So begins Nils Wallin's 582-page tome, Biomusicology. As can be seen from this first sentence, Biomusicology is not for the faint of heart. As a matter of fact, it is probably impenetrable to all but the most dedicated of readers. I must honestly confess that I did not grasp all of it, and in any case, in a review such as this I cannot possibly do justice to the multitude and complexity of ideas that Wallin introduces. However, I believe that the book is so important, at least in terms of its basic attempt to uncover the neural substrates for musical experience, that I will make an effort to highlight what I believe to be its most salient points. Although I do have reservations about Wallin's success in presenting a unified synthesis, I am able to say without qualification that he has proposed a crucial new direction for future research into the fundamental nature of music.
Wallin's work wanders through a vast intellectual territory. He begins with a description of studies on cerebral asymmetry, and proposes that music is primarily a right-hemisphere activity. He then describes how acoustic stimuli as encoded by the lower auditory system are designed to "tune in" to endogenous neural oscillations, thereby laying the groundwork for his idea that music is a "real homologue" to brain processes. A discussion of emotion in the emergence of purposive auditory behavior follows, with emphasis on how the reticular and limbic systems act as modulators of lower-level activity. Wallin then postulates possible mechanisms by which emotion acts as a link to higher level, "semiotic" behavior. Finally, he goes through a case study of what he considers to be a musical retention from paleobiological times, the Swedish herding call known as the kolning, that has its origins in a right-hemisphere, prehominoid form of vocalization with ties to animal communication, At various points along the way, he hypothesizes that music is a "real homologue" to its neural substrates, relying heavily on systems theory to create an epistemology of music as an "open" system, an interaction between biology and culture.
The preface begins with an overview of Wallin's theoretical perspective and most basic tenet, that is, that "music is primarily a matter of biology". He posits that the "central idea of this book is to establish the neurophysiological and evolutionary prerequisites for the origins and the primordial purpose of music, thereby sketching the foundation of a synthetic (unified), bio-socio-cultural field theory of music". He links music cognition to organismal systems, characterizing it as based in "sensomotoric [sic] dynamics with roots in nervous substrates, which are similar in human beings and other higher animals". In a prelude, Wallin sets the stage for the rest of the book with the following "draft definition" of music, reminiscent of Charles Seeger in terms of its all-encompassing scope.
Music is an open system of evolving structures growing into sounding artifacts which not only consume actual time but also generate virtual time; the system and its space-time structures are ultimately conditioned by bio-geocultural parameters of behavior and deportment. Music is basically perceived unilaterally in the right cerebral hemisphere through the auditory system in a bilateral coordination with senso-motoric limbic and associative brain functions (the autonomous [i.e., autonomic] system included) within a framework of multimodal experiences.
In chapter 1, Wallin proposes some potential musical consequences of hemispheric asymmetry, reproducing the idea that music is primarily, although not exclusively, a right-hemisphere phenomenon. (Recently, this idea has come to be considered an oversimplification--see the issue of Psychomusicology 11 (76-78)  devoted to the intersection of neurobiology and music.) His main point is that sounds with slow onset, long duration, and comprised of complex tones are preferentially analyzed by the right hemisphere, while those with a fast onset, linguistic context, and consonant clusters are more readily analyzed by the left hemisphere. Citing scalp electrode recording studies such as electroencephalogram (EEG) and event-related potential (ERP) studies, he proposes that components of the ERP signal (a recording of large-scale brain activity immediately following a stimulus) reflect the interaction of acoustic stimuli with endogenous brain processes. This interaction ultimately requires "echoic memory," a sort of short-term buffer for acoustic information. Wallin hypothesizes that echoic memory functions as a time-sensitive switching mechanism necessary to relay information between the hemispheres, and to allow for an efficient bilateral division of labor. "[T]he ultimate evolutionary reason for this labor division [hemispheric specialization] was the need of [sic] well-defined separate channels for stimuli (endogenous as well as exogenous) requiring a different processing speed".
The most interesting part of the chapter is the suggestion that hemispheric lateralization is partly a matter of culture and experience. Wallin cites Todanubo Tsunoda's by now classic dichotic listening experiments, which show that Japanese subjects process Western music in the right hemisphere but Japanese traditional music in the left, whereas Westerners process both kinds of music in the right hemisphere. Wallin then introduces an explanation as to how music is a "real homologue" for brain processes, one of many such explanations that appear in various forms throughout the work. He suggests that
ERP components reflect neural and mental processes, the dynamic forms of which have survived through evolution, thereby putting their mark on overt events like sound gestures, music, and dance. The ERP morphology might reflect what Rene Thom has called genetic forms. If so, the syntax of music has its roots in the syntax of the cerebral potentials as manifested in the ERP.
Chapter 2 begins with a general discussion of auditory physiology. Wallin then proceeds to cite various studies to propose that ERP waves reflect synchronous activity of populations of neurons as correlated with endogenous oscillatory activity in the lower auditory system. Wallin further suggests that acoustic stimuli may recruit or entrain this endogenous activity:
The period (and duration) of the stimulating . . . complex tone, resolved into its components by the cochlear analysis, is mirrored in neural discharges in the brain stem and midbrain nuclei. The neural discharge frequency is . . . [in the range of endogenous oscillations, and is] well coordinated with the tone frequency.
The importance of all this for music is not entirely clear, but I believe that, in part, he is trying to show how organismal time is reflected in higher order cognitive processes, including musical processes. He emphasizes that
time runs through all organismic activity . . . [and] coordinates, integrates, selects, modulates, and forms, or, "tunes in" the neural operations into higher-order, cognitive aspects of cortical function: memory, learning, volition, emotional experience, etc., i.e. mind-becoming-conscious.
In chapters 3 and 4, Wallin covers the role of emotion, motivation, and attention in music perception, and in my opinion brings up several potentially important implications for a unified theory of "biomusicology." In these chapters, his aim is "to create a factual background for a discussion on whether there are genetic and archaic expressive forms maintained and still active in music and other acoustical expressions".
He begins by describing music as "one of man's most limbic [i.e., emotional] enterprises", with "functional and morphological links with ancient . . . layers of human history . . . [and] the oldest parts of the brain", among them the reticular formation (responsible for attention and therefore the level of consciousness) and the limbic system (responsible for emotion and memory).
Wallin proposes that the "role of the emotions [is to act] as a kind of filter that structures the perception and memorization [sic]". Furthermore, "emotion is an aspect of subjective experience/consciousness/mind-becoming-conscious, and acts through the limbic and reticular-PGO mechanisms as an operational derivator [sic] on the nervous system, a releaser of purposive behavior". In its role as a "releaser of purposive behavior," emotion purportedly accounts for the symbolic nature of music. Exactly how this transpires is not quite clear. Wallin invokes systems theory by way of explanation, suggesting that musical patterns, or
nucleations[,] are the result of fluctuations between deterministic versus indeterministic, stochastic aspects of the tonal structure as interpreted by the nervous system; further that, according to their teleological role within a natural system, they are emotionally loaded.
[I]t would be possible to assume that in actual music . . . the fluctuations between stable (periodic-cyclic) and instable [sic] structural instances, between structure and process, between being and becoming, cause mental nucleations. Such deep-structural chreods may have served during human evolution as a physiologically conditioned base for the appearance of semiotic patterns, carrying a well-defined emotional aura, and being possible to make constant, to decontextualize for further use in a new context.
This "explanation" is certainly intriguing, but one that is merely asserted and not argued. It appears to be an attempt at a neurobiological underpinning for Suzanne Langer's ideas concerning significant form. Unfortunately, Wallin does not ever define what a chreod or nucleation consists of (in musical terms), or how nucleations are transformed into emotionally significant forms, or how emotion becomes a semiotic pattern, and therefore a statement like this one becomes extremely difficult (at least for me) to evaluate.
In his discussion of emotion, Wallin brings a social Darwinist perspective to his argument. He suggests that
different grades of mental vigilance, possible to manifest in a generalized phenomenological way in EEG-ERP-measures as an expression for bio-rhythms interacting within and between different systems, are evoked by reticular-limbic reactions to sound and music, and that such processes in a phylo-genetical [sic] perspective may have executed a synapse-restoring and mnestic function similar to that of sleep, REM dream, and voluntarily evoked changes of consciousness, such as ecstasy. [Furthermore,] this adjusting and readjusting function is active on the level of the individual, and, in addition, on the level of the social group within the rite and other social ceremonies.
I suggest social control through identification, classification, and manipulation of emotions, accomplished in individual and group learning by the articulation of limbic-reticular indices and icons.
And later, again postulating the "real homologue" idea, but this time in combination with the social purpose of music, Wallin states that the "social role given to singing and music is to mediate between social and physiological homeostasis in forms evolving in close morphological correspondence to the spatio-temporal patterns of their underlying nervous circuits". I believe these concepts of emotion to be crucial for Wallin's biocultural model of music, but unfortunately, they are never fully explicated in the text.
In the latter part of chapter 4 and in chapter 5, Wallin introduces a specific musical form, the kolning, or Swedish cattle-herding call, as a case study of how music may have emerged from prehominoid communication. In the kolning, Wallin postulates an isomorphism between auditory perception and vocal production, invoking the same differences in hemispheric lateralization for both processes. He also extends the idea of hemispheric lateralization to musical form, to what he terms "emmelic" (consisting of flexible, unstable elements, such as undefined pitch and meter) and "melic" (consisting of stable elements, such as fixed pitch and rhythm) forms. The similar, although not identical, repetitive phrases of the kolning are an example of a moment in musical evolution where emmelic becomes melic, where "the principle of mere addition [i.e., repetition of a phrase type without the need for a definite order] turns into the principle of significative apposition [certain phrases must follow one another]". He also relates this evolutionary moment to the transformation from a wholly right-hemisphere form of communication to a bilateral one.
The musical form and social purpose of the kolning provide yet another opening for the "real homologue" idea: "The redundancy and apposition of musical grammar . . . is a direct emanation of redundancy and apposition in metabolisms". Furthermore, the "sound gestures of higher vertebrates, as well as music in all forms, and language, can functionally be defined as exteroceptive complements to the hormones and neurotransmitters, which operate as messenger substances within the organism".
As I have intimated along the way, Biomusicology is a somewhat problematic work. Wallin himself is quite aware of the pitfalls of being a pioneer, and has accurately anticipated some of the possible objections to his endeavor; he notes that he may be accused of superficiality, of having an incomplete grasp of several immense scholarly literatures, or of having overly reductionist tendencies. The vastness of his undertaking makes these kinds of faults unavoidable. However, he does seem to have a propensity to quote from outdated literature; for example, he cites Franz Boas for anthropology, Philip Lieberman for linguistics, and Conrad Waddington for systems theory, all of whose subjects have received more variously informed expositions in recent years. As far as reductionism is concerned, I believe his work is predicated on the idea of a nonreductive bio-cultural synthesis, although in practice his "explanations" do seem reductionistic. Wallin does not explicitly answer these charges, but rather explains that he "consciously assumes the risk of local errors in the hope that his approach is globally prosperous". I personally believe, as does Wallin, that the benefits of being a pioneer greatly outweigh the disadvantages of not being completely accurate in all the details. However, the book has some problems above and beyond those outlined above.
Perhaps the fault lies with me, but I would hope that a sympathetic and well-informed ethnomusicologist with a rudimentary background in the psychology of music and neurobiology would be able to follow more of Wallin's points. Who is the intended audience for this book? It has too much unexplained neurobiological information to be intelligible to most musicologists. In fact, I needed to enlist the help of specialists in a variety of fields to make it through several sections. Furthermore, the book reads terribly; it appears to be a word-for-word translation (presumably from Swedish), which undoubtedly accounts for the truly atrocious writing style. To be fair, this is not completely the fault of the author; as a nonnative English speaker he cannot be expected to write in idiomatic English. But it does seem that the book lacked an English-speaking editor, or in any case, an English-speaking editor who understood the manuscript. This, compounded with loose organization, unsynthesized and extraneous detail, and a proliferation of undefined jargon, makes a thorough and comprehensive reading extremely difficult. Interested readers may want to refer to some of Wallin's previously published shorter writings, where several of his key concepts receive a much clearer and more succinct exposition (see, e.g., "Biological Aspects of the Relationship between Music and Language," Diogenes 122 : 1-44; "Geometry, Arithmetic and Musical Creation," in Windows on Creativity and Invention, ed. J. G. Richardson [Mount Airy, Md.: Lomond and UNESCO, 1988], 89-110; "Pitch Perception as Expression for Exogene and Endogene Coordinated Oscillations," World of Music 25, no. 3 : 46-64).
Wallin is ambitious in his attempts to describe musical behavior from the level of neuronal processes to higher level cognitive processes, a theoretical stance with which I am in sympathy (see my "Theories of Meaning and Music Cognition: An Ethnomusicological Approach" World of Music 34, no. 3 : 7-21). However, despite an enormous survey of literature in neurobiology, systems theory, anthropology, and evolutionary biology, Wallin does not succeed in convincingly relating low-level neural processes to higher-level cognitive processes. I do not fault him for the current lack of knowledge on exactly how cognition works; there are admittedly large gray areas in our current understanding of how low-level neuronal systems are related to higher-level cognitive processes. However, he could have formulated clearer hypotheses and could have been more explicit as to where the gaps are. The book might also have benefited from a discussion of the theoretical problems inherent in such an undertaking, in other words, not merely a dismissal of the charge of reductionism, but an effort to contextualize the problem in terms of the state of knowledge in various fields.
However, my most serious objection has to do with the problems of integrating theory across various disciplines to provide a convincing synthesis. Somehow, the book does not seem to be completely thought out; it seems as though we are reading a first draft of a promising yet incomplete work. Arguments are not always developed thoroughly, and much of the detail does not seem pertinent to the points at hand.
Wallin attempts to make the connection between lower and higher levels of music processing by saying that music is a "real homologue" to biological processes, that is, that the structure and dynamics of biological processes are evident in musical processes. The idea of a congruence between inner and outer reality is one that is attractive and intuitively appealing, and I believe, probably accurate. However, in Wallin's book the specific details quoted from Study after study do not explicitly show how music is a "real homologue." How do all the parts of his model add up? How do emotional and attentional brain systems modulate acoustically entrained endogenous oscillations? How does the notion of hemispheric lateralization interact with the above process? How do emotions become a catalogue of semiotic patterns? How does music act to revitalize the individual and promote social cohesion? We only get vague statements such as the following:
The cerebral mechanism operates out of a duality or polarity of homeostatic states of relaxation and strain, thus between trophotropic [calm] and sympaticotropic [excited] states. . . . At the level of overt behavior we found this to correspond to attractors and detractors, respectively, as a main classification of sound gestures. The correspondence is an impressive argument for a basic isomorphy [sic] between recurrent, specific physiological processes and recurrent, specific sound gestures. . . . [T]he polarity between strain-relax and between detractor-attractor is the essential and basic force. . . . [It] is the prerequisite for the genetic forms to be maintained, recreated, and developed.
Perhaps if the relationship between attentional states and sound gestures as "attractors" or "detractors" could be demonstrated, or if a "genetic form" in music could be identified, the correspondence would be an "impressive argument," but as it stands, this correspondence remains in the realm of conjecture.
Wallin realizes that he has not necessarily proved his hypotheses, and lays this out as a task for the future:
[T]he actual problem is how to design a model to prove that musical structures (a tonal flow-becoming-music) belong to the class of natural systems correlated to and positively linked with the living system that is created and identified by an agent charged with a supervening power, a mind-becoming-conscious. At the moment that model is achieved, music history, music as a part of man's role in the universal history, has its fundament [sic].
In sum, Wallin is to be commended for his enormous and pioneering, if not completely successful, effort. We need more work along these lines, and this book moves us one step closer to a truly interdisciplinary understanding of music as a biocultural phenomenon.
ELIZABETH TOLBERT Peabody Conservatory of the Johns Hopkins University
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|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Jun 1, 1994|
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