Preliminary thoughts on an approach to the relationship of music, the human mind and the Universe, using the notion of objects as dynamic regimes.

We are surrounded in the physical world by “regimes” – by organized processes, by transitions of processes from one mode of organization to another and by successions of such transitions, which themselves constitute modes or process-regimes of a higher order. The same for our own mental processes.

Listening to well-composed music evokes a succession of dynamic regimes in the brain, each of which – and each transition between successive regimes – we experience in our mind as a “something” having a certain subjective quality. A process of successive transitions, such as occur in modulation for example, is itself experienced as a kind of regime, “a mode of development”. Essential are points of ambiguity (bifurcation, in the language of physics) at which transitions occur between modes of development. Modes or processes of development are connected with subjective expectations that are key to drama in music. Via polyphony we can create interactions of modes of development, evoking higher-order dynamic regimes in the mind of the listener, and so forth.

An essential quality of music and the classical musical language, is that they can evoke a virtually unlimited richness of such regimes of development in the brain, and the corresponding subjective experience of them in the mind, using only a handful of musical tones. Musical tones, in turn, embody the simplest species of dynamic physical objects in the Universe: those which, like planetary orbits or the wave functions of microphysical objects, are associated with cyclical processes of quasi-constant frequency. The intervals between tones, or rather the corresponding processes evoked in the brain/mind, are in a sense paradygmatic cases for the generation of new dynamical objects through interaction.

Here I see a possible pathway to remedy a limitation in the otherwise extremely fruitful musical theories of Heinrich Schenker, Zuckerkandl and others, typified by Schenker’s expression “Tonwille” – “tone intentions”. The problem, in my view, is a lack of primary focus on the actual processes in the minds of composers, musicians and listeners, where musical development is really happening. Instead, processes are treated as if they would be occurring among the notes.

The reader may already have picked up my hint, that the notion of dynamic object might open up a more productive approach to the famous mind-brain problem, than has been available until now. Here we would look for a correspondence between a subjective experience in the mind – the experience of a “musical idea”, for example – and invariant characteristics of some quasi-stable dynamic regime of interaction in the physico-chemical processes of living brain tissue. Here the general concept of dynamic process-regime can help to avoid the fallacies of commonplace, simplistic analogies between the brain and the functioning of digital computing systems.

The approach we have in mind is not entirely new. Already in 1870 for example, the brilliant physiologist and philosopher Ewald Hering gave a lecture “On Memory as a General Function of Organized Matter” in which he stated that “psychology is an indispensible tool for physiology”: by virtue of a one-to-one functional relationship between mental processes and physiological processes in the brain, the psychology of mental processes gives a direct “window” onto the corresponding dynamic physical regimes. (For more on this see my German-language article “Mehr Geist in die Hirnforschung” – “More Mind in Brain Research”)

To the extent those regimes in the brain might be thought of as (in some sense) representative of dynamic physical process-regimes in the Universe generally, we get a potential “window” on the whole physical Universe. What could be better, to investigate the dynamics of human mental processes, than to examine musical composition and the profound effects of great music on the minds of listeners?