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Why Your Opinion About Music Can Be Wrong
In 1975, rock legend Lou Reed released an album entitled Metal Machine Music. The album consists of no songs, no lyrics and is entirely devoid of melody and rhythm. Instead, it is composed of guitar feedback played at different speeds for over an hour. The result is a stampede of auditory gibberish that Rolling Stone described as “the tubular groaning of a galactic refrigerator.” In the original liner notes Reed admitted that the album was fatuous - he never listened to it all the way through.
By all accounts, Metal Machine Music, consisting of unpredictable screeches and distorted reverberations, is bad music. Yet people are reluctant to say that a song is “good” or “bad” because “good” and “bad” are, they believe, social constructs. Music judgments are merely subjective reflections of a culture; we are free to express how music affects us but we have no grounds to judge music in any objective sense.
They have a point, of course. Taste in any domain of art is related to its cultural milieu, where what’s considered “good” or “beautiful” is in flux. The most dramatic example of this might be the transition from romanticism, realism, and other European art movements of the 18th and 19th centuries (where beauty was central to art) to modernism in the 20th century, where painters, writers, poets and musicians rebelled by crafting art that deliberately didn’t appeal to the senses: paintings without form, stories without plot, poems without verse and rhyme, music without tonality. Arnold Schoenberg captured this attitude when he said that, “those who compose because they want to please others, and have audience in mind, are not real artists… they are more or less skillful entertainers who would renounce composing if they did not find listeners.”
Cognitive science, to the contrary, shows that the brain, though malleable, anchors artistic taste. Just like all taste buds reject and welcome certain food, certain aesthetics stimuli are, despite culture, inherently pleasant and unpleasant. Artistic taste varies, but the brain contains several innate predispositions implemented by natural selection that ground what we consider aesthetically pleasing. Try as we might, we’ll never enjoy art as long as it does not appeal, at least partially, to what the senses naturally appreciate.
But can someone’s music opinion be “wrong?” To answer this that question I turn to the cognitive science of music, where the most thorough account of music from the psychological perspective is Sweet Anticipation, a 2008 book published by musicologist David Huron that builds on the ideas of Leonard Meyer. Huron argues that despite surface complexities, music is, at its core, the fulfillment or alteration of expectations. Just think about the seconds before your favorite chorus, lyric or guitar riff. Immediately before the sounds enter your ears, the brain, tipped of by a cascading of familiar notes, signals that auditory pleasure is imminent and prepares a “limbic cocktail” of pleasurable neural chemicals. When the sounds enter your ear the brain rewards itself for an accurate prediction; the first person experience is usually intrinsically pleasing. For some this is Pete Townshend hitting the F chord in Baba O’Riley to break the flurry of synth notes; for others it’s Ringo’s drum fill that leads into guitar solos in the Beatles’ “The End.”
Because the brain habituates to repeated sounds it rewards discovering something new. This is why a good composer outfits repeated lyrics, harmonies or melodies with variations and surprises. To paraphrase Daniel Levitin, we take pleasure in matching mental beats with a real-in-the-world beats but, at the same time, the brain takes delight when a skillful musician violates an expectation in an arousing way. One hallmark of good music, therefore, is a balance between familiarity and novelty; it builds and fulfills expectations while incorporating surprises. The details of Huron’s theory are summarized by his ITPRA model, which states the pleasure any music elicits is grounded in five distinct emotional responses: Imagination, Tension, Prediction, Reaction, and Appraisal. The pleasure of music – the surprise, the tension, the comfort, the “chills,” the resolution – is simply the musician “[tapping] into these primordial functions to produce a wealth of compelling emotional experiences.”
The takeaway from Huron’s research is that the psychological processes music engages are grounded in evolved cognitive mechanisms. It follows that despite the fact that listeners enjoy a wide variety of genres and musicians, all music engages the same general cognitive processes. Thus, there are certain arrangements of sounds no brain will enjoy and every brain will enjoy. Music that changes key every beat, fluctuates tempo from 5 bpm to 500 bpm, and alters from ppp to fff will be universally rejected because it ignores what the brain naturally appreciates. Conversely, music that balances predictability with surprise, while maintaining relative consistency with regard to tempo, key, rhythm, melody, tonality, harmony and other elements of music, is pleasurable for the brain. These are facts about human psychology grounded in empirical research.
Can someone’s music taste be “wrong?” In his last piece of philosophical writing, “Of the Standards of Taste,” David Hume clarifies that a sentiment is how people feel when they perceive art and it is neither right nor wrong because “it has a reference to nothing beyond itself.” To that end, subjective preferences in music are real and they cannot be “right,” “wrong,” “good” or “bad”. But someone can be wrong about what sounds the brain finds intrinsically pleasurable. By analogy, someone who thinks Reed’s Metal Machine Music is good is wrong about how music elicits pleasure in the brain in the same way that someone who believes feces is good is wrong about what food elicits gustatory pleasure.* Proclaiming that “I like song x” is uncontroverted. But saying “song x is good” is shifting from a subjective preference to a claim about how the brain processes music and what elements of music it finds inherently pleasing. It’s possible to be wrong about in this regard, and research from Huron, Levitin and others provides the evidence.
*Clarification: Feces are, objectively speaking, bad for human nutrition. You may sincerely enjoy eating feces, but claiming that they are good for human nutrition is an incorrect statement. It's possible that feces elicits gustatory pleasure for some people, just like it is possible that Metal Machine Music elicits auditory pleasure for some people. However, that does not mean A) feces are good for human nutrition and B) Metal Machine Music is pleasurable for the auditory system. We know that A and B are true because we have enough knowledge of human nutrition and the brain to provide evidence.
Image via Shuttershock/Niara
 A commenter on YouTube put it even better: “Sounds like leprechauns being decapitated with a chainsaw.”
 My more musically inclined friends tell me that since the recording is synth produced, the tuning is actually slightly higher than F major but not quite to F#. It's about 33% higher than a normal tuned F on a piano.
Inventions with revolutionary potential made by a mysterious aerospace engineer for the U.S. Navy come to light.
- U.S. Navy holds patents for enigmatic inventions by aerospace engineer Dr. Salvatore Pais.
- Pais came up with technology that can "engineer" reality, devising an ultrafast craft, a fusion reactor, and more.
- While mostly theoretical at this point, the inventions could transform energy, space, and military sectors.
The U.S. Navy controls patents for some futuristic and outlandish technologies, some of which, dubbed "the UFO patents," came to life recently. Of particular note are inventions by the somewhat mysterious Dr. Salvatore Cezar Pais, whose tech claims to be able to "engineer reality." His slate of highly-ambitious, borderline sci-fi designs meant for use by the U.S. government range from gravitational wave generators and compact fusion reactors to next-gen hybrid aerospace-underwater crafts with revolutionary propulsion systems, and beyond.
Of course, the existence of patents does not mean these technologies have actually been created, but there is evidence that some demonstrations of operability have been successfully carried out. As investigated and reported by The War Zone, a possible reason why some of the patents may have been taken on by the Navy is that the Chinese military may also be developing similar advanced gadgets.
Among Dr. Pais's patents are designs, approved in 2018, for an aerospace-underwater craft of incredible speed and maneuverability. This cone-shaped vehicle can potentially fly just as well anywhere it may be, whether air, water or space, without leaving any heat signatures. It can achieve this by creating a quantum vacuum around itself with a very dense polarized energy field. This vacuum would allow it to repel any molecule the craft comes in contact with, no matter the medium. Manipulating "quantum field fluctuations in the local vacuum energy state," would help reduce the craft's inertia. The polarized vacuum would dramatically decrease any elemental resistance and lead to "extreme speeds," claims the paper.
Not only that, if the vacuum-creating technology can be engineered, we'd also be able to "engineer the fabric of our reality at the most fundamental level," states the patent. This would lead to major advancements in aerospace propulsion and generating power. Not to mention other reality-changing outcomes that come to mind.
Among Pais's other patents are inventions that stem from similar thinking, outlining pieces of technology necessary to make his creations come to fruition. His paper presented in 2019, titled "Room Temperature Superconducting System for Use on a Hybrid Aerospace Undersea Craft," proposes a system that can achieve superconductivity at room temperatures. This would become "a highly disruptive technology, capable of a total paradigm change in Science and Technology," conveys Pais.
High frequency gravitational wave generator.
Credit: Dr. Salvatore Pais
Another invention devised by Pais is an electromagnetic field generator that could generate "an impenetrable defensive shield to sea and land as well as space-based military and civilian assets." This shield could protect from threats like anti-ship ballistic missiles, cruise missiles that evade radar, coronal mass ejections, military satellites, and even asteroids.
Dr. Pais's ideas center around the phenomenon he dubbed "The Pais Effect". He referred to it in his writings as the "controlled motion of electrically charged matter (from solid to plasma) via accelerated spin and/or accelerated vibration under rapid (yet smooth) acceleration-deceleration-acceleration transients." In less jargon-heavy terms, Pais claims to have figured out how to spin electromagnetic fields in order to contain a fusion reaction – an accomplishment that would lead to a tremendous change in power consumption and an abundance of energy.
According to his bio in a recently published paper on a new Plasma Compression Fusion Device, which could transform energy production, Dr. Pais is a mechanical and aerospace engineer working at the Naval Air Warfare Center Aircraft Division (NAWCAD), which is headquartered in Patuxent River, Maryland. Holding a Ph.D. from Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, Pais was a NASA Research Fellow and worked with Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems. His current Department of Defense work involves his "advanced knowledge of theory, analysis, and modern experimental and computational methods in aerodynamics, along with an understanding of air-vehicle and missile design, especially in the domain of hypersonic power plant and vehicle design." He also has expert knowledge of electrooptics, emerging quantum technologies (laser power generation in particular), high-energy electromagnetic field generation, and the "breakthrough field of room temperature superconductivity, as related to advanced field propulsion."
Suffice it to say, with such a list of research credentials that would make Nikola Tesla proud, Dr. Pais seems well-positioned to carry out groundbreaking work.
A craft using an inertial mass reduction device.
Credit: Salvatore Pais
The patents won't necessarily lead to these technologies ever seeing the light of day. The research has its share of detractors and nonbelievers among other scientists, who think the amount of energy required for the fields described by Pais and his ideas on electromagnetic propulsions are well beyond the scope of current tech and are nearly impossible. Yet investigators at The War Zone found comments from Navy officials that indicate the inventions are being looked at seriously enough, and some tests are taking place.
If you'd like to read through Pais's patents yourself, check them out here.
Laser Augmented Turbojet Propulsion System
Credit: Dr. Salvatore Pais
How imagining the worst case scenario can help calm anxiety.
- Stoicism is the philosophy that nothing about the world is good or bad in itself, and that we have control over both our judgments and our reactions to things.
- It is hardest to control our reactions to the things that come unexpectedly.
- By meditating every day on the "worst case scenario," we can take the sting out of the worst that life can throw our way.
Are you a worrier? Do you imagine nightmare scenarios and then get worked up and anxious about them? Does your mind get caught in a horrible spiral of catastrophizing over even the smallest of things? Worrying, particularly imagining the worst case scenario, seems to be a natural part of being human and comes easily to a lot of us. It's awful, perhaps even dangerous, when we do it.
But, there might just be an ancient wisdom that can help. It involves reframing this attitude for the better, and it comes from Stoicism. It's called "premeditation," and it could be the most useful trick we can learn.
Broadly speaking, Stoicism is the philosophy of choosing your judgments. Stoics believe that there is nothing about the universe that can be called good or bad, valuable or valueless, in itself. It's we who add these values to things. As Shakespeare's Hamlet says, "There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so." Our minds color the things we encounter as being "good" or "bad," and given that we control our minds, we therefore have control over all of our negative feelings.
Put another way, Stoicism maintains that there's a gap between our experience of an event and our judgment of it. For instance, if someone calls you a smelly goat, you have an opportunity, however small and hard it might be, to pause and ask yourself, "How will I judge this?" What's more, you can even ask, "How will I respond?" We have power over which thoughts we entertain and the final say on our actions. Today, Stoicism has influenced and finds modern expression in the hugely effective "cognitive behavioral therapy."
Helping you practice StoicismCredit: Robyn Beck via Getty Images
One of the principal fathers of ancient Stoicism was the Roman statesmen, Seneca, who argued that the unexpected and unforeseen blows of life are the hardest to take control over. The shock of a misfortune can strip away the power we have to choose our reaction. For instance, being burglarized feels so horrible because we had felt so safe at home. A stomach ache, out of the blue, is harder than a stitch thirty minutes into a run. A sudden bang makes us jump, but a firework makes us smile. Fell swoops hurt more than known hardships.
What could possibly go wrong?
So, how can we resolve this? Seneca suggests a Stoic technique called "premeditatio malorum" or "premeditation." At the start of every day, we ought to take time to indulge our anxious and catastrophizing mind. We should "rehearse in the mind: exile, torture, war, shipwreck." We should meditate on the worst things that could happen: your partner will leave you, your boss will fire you, your house will burn down. Maybe, even, you'll die.
This might sound depressing, but the important thing is that we do not stop there.
Stoicism has influenced and finds modern expression in the hugely effective "cognitive behavioral therapy."
The Stoic also rehearses how they will react to these things as they come up. For instance, another Stoic (and Roman Emperor) Marcus Aurelius asks us to imagine all the mean, rude, selfish, and boorish people we'll come across today. Then, in our heads, we script how we'll respond when we meet them. We can shrug off their meanness, smile at their rudeness, and refuse to be "implicated in what is degrading." Thus prepared, we take control again of our reactions and behavior.
The Stoics cast themselves into the darkest and most desperate of conditions but then realize that they can and will endure. With premeditation, the Stoic is prepared and has the mental vigor necessary to take the blow on the chin and say, "Yep, l can deal with this."
Catastrophizing as a method of mental inoculation
Seneca wrote: "In times of peace, the soldier carries out maneuvers." This is also true of premeditation, which acts as the war room or training ground. The agonizing cut of the unexpected is blunted by preparedness. We can prepare the mind for whatever trials may come, in just the same way we can prepare the body for some endurance activity. The world can throw nothing as bad as that which our minds have already imagined.
Stoicism teaches us to embrace our worrying mind but to embrace it as a kind of inoculation. With a frown over breakfast, try to spend five minutes of your day deliberately catastrophizing. Get your anti-anxiety battle plan ready and then face the world.
A study on charity finds that reminding people how nice it feels to give yields better results than appealing to altruism.
- A study finds asking for donations by appealing to the donor's self-interest may result in more money than appealing to their better nature.
- Those who received an appeal to self-interest were both more likely to give and gave more than those in the control group.
- The effect was most pronounced for those who hadn't given before.
Even the best charities with the longest records of doing great fundraising work have to spend some time making sure that the next donation checks will keep coming in. One way to do this is by showing potential donors all the good things the charity did over the previous year. But there may be a better way.
A new study by researchers in the United States and Australia suggests that appealing to the benefits people will receive themselves after a donation nudges them to donate more money than appealing to the greater good.
How to get people to give away free money
The postcards that were sent to different study subjects. The one on the left highlighted benefits to the self, while the one on the right highlighted benefits to others.List et al. / Nature Human Behaviour
The study, published in Nature Human Behaviour, utilized the Pick.Click.Give program in Alaska. This program allows Alaska residents who qualify for dividends from the Alaska Permanent Fund, a yearly payment ranging from $800 to $2000 in recent years, to donate a portion of it to various in-state non-profit organizations.
The researchers randomly assigned households to either a control group or to receive a postcard in the mail encouraging them to donate a portion of their dividend to charity. That postcard could come in one of two forms, either highlighting the benefits to others or the benefits to themselves.
Those who got the postcard touting self-benefits were 6.6 percent more likely to give than those in the control group and gave 23 percent more on average. Those getting the benefits-to-others postcard were slightly more likely to give than those receiving no postcard, but their donations were no larger.
Additionally, the researchers were able to break the subject list down into a "warm list" of those who had given at least once before in the last two years and a "cold list" of those who had not. Those on the warm list, who were already giving, saw only minor increases in their likelihood to donate after getting a postcard in the mail compared to those on the cold list.
Additionally, the researchers found that warm-list subjects who received the self-interest postcard gave 11 percent more than warm-list subjects in the control group. Amazingly, among cold-list subjects, those who received a self-interest postcard gave 39 percent more.
These are substantial improvements. At the end of the study, the authors point out, "If we had sent the benefits to self message to all households in the state, aggregate contributions would have increased by nearly US$600,000."
To put this into perspective, in 2017 the total donations to the program were roughly $2,700,000.
Is altruism dead?
Are all actions inherently self-interested? Thankfully, no. The study focuses entirely on effective ways to increase charitable donations above levels that currently exist. It doesn't deny that some people are giving out of pure altruism, but rather that an appeal based on self-interest is effective. Plenty of people were giving before this study took place who didn't need a postcard as encouragement. It is also possible that some people donated part of their dividend check to a charity that does not work with Pick.Click.Give and were uncounted here.
It is also important to note that Pick.Click.Give does not provide services but instead gives money to a wide variety of organizations that do. Those organizations operate in fields from animal rescue to job training to public broadcasting. The authors note that it is possible that a more specific appeal to the benefits others will receive from a donation might prove more effective than the generic and all-inclusive "Make Alaska Better For Everyone" appeal that they used.
In an ideal world, charity is its own reward. In ours, it might help to remind somebody how warm and fuzzy they'll feel after donating to your cause.
The 'Monkeydactyl' was a flying reptile that evolved highly specialized adaptations in the Mesozoic Era.