Challenging my prejudices, in life and in music

I try hard to be open-minded. I think I succeed at that reasonably well, but I still regularly get surprised at the discovery of a prejudice I didn’t know I had.

I don’t know whether it’s possible to rid one’s self of all prejudice – I suspect it’s not. If so, the best I can aim for is to be on the alert for prejudices, try to rid myself of them when I discover them, and try to always remember that any opinion I have – regardless of how carefully thought out it may seem – may be inextricably tied up with some prejudice I don’t yet realise I have.

The Wikipedia article on Cognitive Biases has a very long list of them. With so many opportunities to go wrong, it’s hard to imagine one can escape all of them.

There’s a popular phrase ‘It’s good to have an open mind, but not so open that your brain falls out‘. I don’t like that phrase at all. It is most commonly used by bigots in an attempt to defend their bigotry while at the same time appearing rational. Nobody’s brain has ever fallen out from being open-minded, either literally or metaphorically. However, the rankest nonsense phrases often have a grain of truth of them, and there is a grain of truth even in that one. It is that, in order to achieve anything with our thoughts, we need a framework within which they can operate, and that framework will be made of rules and suppositions that are accepted without evidence. I agree that we need such a framework, but what is crucial is that we acknowledge the existence of the framework, that it has no supporting evidence, and that we hence have no basis on which to claim it is better than any other framework. That doesn’t mean we should refuse to act on conclusions drawn within our framework. But it does mean that (in my opinion, which was derived within my mental framework!) it is a good idea to regularly examine and challenge our framework, and consider alternatives. Sometimes that may lead to a radical change in worldview, which opens up whole new vistas.

It may lead to a Christian becoming a Buddhist, or vice versa. It may lead to a Socialist becoming a Libertarian, or vice versa. It may even (heaven forfend!) lead to personnel exchanges between Platonism and Existentialism. I may have my own preferences about which of those and other sets of ideas most people aligned themselves with but, regardless of the outcome of any migrations of beliefs, I see it as good that people regularly examine their beliefs, so that belief migration becomes a commonplace possibility. If we know what our prejudices are, we have the power to change them. But we cannot change a prejudice we don’t even know we have.

Here are two of my prejudices. The first is that it is preferable for there to be less suffering in the world. I know it’s a prejudice. I know I can’t prove it. But I’m going to hang onto it, for now at least.

The second prejudice is that if I have observed two phenomena to occur in close conjunction many, many times then, in the absence of strong reasons to the contrary, I should expect them to continue to occur in conjunction in future. Every self-supporting person on Earth has this prejudice. But nobody even realised it was a prejudice until David Hume pointed it out in the eighteenth century – his famous ‘Problem of Induction’. If you don’t believe me, think of how you use language. You speak English to somebody – say it’s Bertha, expecting them to understand it, because they have understood English when you spoke it to them in the past. But why should the fact that Bertha has always understood spoken English in the past indicate anything at all about whether she will understand it in the future? You might object that you know that Bertha learnt English as a child, so you know she knows English. But then you are relying on the association between the events ‘X has learned English‘ and ‘X understands English‘, which has been reliably observed in the past, but why should that tell us anything about whether it will be observed in the future? Whatever objection is raised, I (or rather David Hume) can find an answer to it. But I’m still going to hang on to this prejudice.

Prejudice in Music

I had been thinking over this in the context of musical styles. It’s hard to think of any other human activity, the study of whose history is so riddled with the use of the word ‘shocking‘. The most casual observer probably knows about how Rap was considered shocking when it emerged in the eighties, ditto Punk in the seventies, how Rock n Roll was considered shocking when it emerged in the fifties, and how Jazz was considered shocking in the early twentieth century.

But the history of people being shocked by music goes back much farther than that. The history of classical music in particular is regularly punctuated by shocks when some innovator broke hallowed rules. Working back in time we have Schoenberg, Stravinsky, Debussy, Wagner, Beethoven, Haydn and Monteverdi as major disruptors of established musical conventions.

The following story from a radio music presenter made a big impression on me. They told of how they had been working in the archives of a classical music operation, listening to, classifying and cataloguing recordings. After having been doing this for a few weeks they walked past a studio in where music was playing over the loudspeaker. Appalled at the terrible, disorganised racket they were hearing, they asked somebody what the noise was. It was JS Bach! [For the non-classical music buff, JS Bach was a genius who lived from 1685 to 1750, in the ‘Baroque’ period, and is as revered a part of the musical establishment as it is possible to be] The reason it sounded so terrible and formless was that the music the presenter had been listening to non-stop for the last few weeks was all pre-Baroque, and hence operated within a framework of rules and norms that Bach’s music ‘broke’. If they had heard it a few weeks earlier they would have likely thought ‘how lovely!‘ or maybe even ‘that’s a bit old-fashioned!

I want to pick on Schoenberg, because on the face of it he might seem to go as far as one can go in breaking rules. The Austrian composer Arnold Schoenberg rebelled against the tyranny of tunes having to be in a musical key, like G major or A minor. Although only classical pieces tend to state their key, with names like ‘String Quartet in E flat Major‘, nearly all pieces have one. Perhaps the most famous song of all, Lennon and McCartney’s ‘Yesterday‘, could have been called ‘Sad song in F major‘. Key changes do occur within a piece, but they have a big effect, because we become attached to the key in which the tune is set. That’s why key changes are often used towards the end of a song to build up the levels of excitement and energy towards a final climax.

Schoenberg’s project was to refuse to use any key at all, not even for one phrase at a time. To do that he invented his ‘Twelve-tone system’ in which he set a rule that every one of the twelve notes in a chromatic scale must be used exactly once within each short section of the piece (called a ‘tone row’). By giving every one of the twelve possible notes equal status, he prevented any note gaining prominence as the ‘Tonic’, the home note of a key. Unlike another famous Austrian, Schoenberg was very anti-racist: he wanted the black piano keys to get as much opportunity as the white piano keys in his pieces (note that’s a different use of the word ‘key’).

Here, from YouTube, is a Schoenberg piano piece using his twelve-tone system, for you to enjoy.

As I was musing over whether Schoenberg had achieved the ultimate in open-mindedness, I suddenly realised a hidden prejudice. Sure, he had proclaimed equality between all twelve notes. But a note is defined by a frequency – vibrations per second. So the number of possible notes is infinite, not only twelve per octave. Between any two different notes there are an infinite number of frequencies between them. In Western music, which is descended from Ancient Greek music, the smallest interval between two notes is a semitone, which means the ratio of the two frequencies is 21/12 or about 1.06.

In classical Indian music, the twelve Western notes are used, plus ten others, called ‘nadas’, giving twenty-two altogether, so that the average gap between adjacent permissible notes is just over a quarter-tone. A piece containing nadas sounds to a Western ear, which is not trained to understand those extra notes, like it is being performed on an out-of-tune instrument.

Here is a scale that goes up an octave in twenty-four quarter-tone steps (not exactly the same as an Indian scale, but closer to that than to a Western scale), then walks back down again. What does it sound like to you?

Quarter-tone scale.

For comparison, here is the same thing using just the twelve notes in the Western scale.

Chromatic scale (semitones)

Try to sing or hum along to first the Chromatic scale, and then the quarter tone scale. I’m a reasonably accurate singer and can do the first, but can’t even get started on the second.

But even writing music that includes nadas or quarter tones still involves a prejudice against the in-between notes. It’s just a smaller prejudice than Westerners like me have. I expect a piece involving eighth-tone intervals would sound just as weird to an Indian as one using quarter-tones does to us.

If we want to write music that is free from all prejudice, we need to go beyond Schoenberg, beyond Indian music, beyond even eighth tones, and write music in which each note can be any frequency at all, without limiting the choice to notes that are certain multiples and ratios of others.

I wrote a piece of such music. To be precise, I programmed a computer to randomly generate a series of frequencies and note-lengths and produce notes using those. I then produced another version of it, in which each note was rounded to the nearest semitone, so that only the twelve notes in the Western scale were used.

Can you tell which is which? They are both weird. Both break most of the rules we are used to. But one is a bit weirder, a bit more free, than the other.


Sound File Freda

Sound File Bob

Click here to find out which one is which.

The above is a long way from JS Bach, but is it free from any form of musical prejudice (aka structure)? No. For a start I have constrained the notes to be within the audible frequency range, even though it is entirely conceivable that notes that we cannot consciously hear may still have an effect on our body and thereby alter the sensory experience. I have also constrained the notes to not be very short or very long, in order not to frighten or bore the listener. The volume is also constant, rather than varying between notes, or even within notes. The shape of each sound wave is a perfect sine curve, whereas the wave shape could be allowed to change between and within notes too. That would not change the ‘tune’ but it would change the texture (‘timbre’ in musician-speak). I expect there are other prejudices in there that I have not yet realised.

I like most of my prejudices. I prefer Bach to Schoenberg most days of the week. But it’s good to challenge oneself every now and again with a bit of Schoenberg (or its equivalent), and then to occasionally challenge the Schoenberg with something even more radical.

Andrew Kirk

Bondi Junction, July 2017