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I hope this isn't off topic. My apologies if it is. I have many friends who claim that listening to music is an intellectual experience for them, especially when it comes to western classical and Indian classical music. I would like someone to explain to me what this means. I do listen to lots of pop, rap, rock and some western and Indian Classical. For me music is simply an emotional experience. The stuff just feels great, it's really enjoyable and is just the balm my soul needs from time to time. Listening to Ode to Joy lifts me in a way that nothing else does.. but the experience is not an intellectual one. I am a mathematician and a research economist by training and my day job as a researcher is essentially what I would call intellectual work. To me music provides no intellectual insight into math, economics, finance, econometrics nor does music provide any understanding of the human condition like say reading Conrad or Orwell does. For me music makes me feel a whole range of emotions...I can appreciate the skill of the artist, much like I can appreciate the skill of an athlete or the skill of a master Chef like Gordon Ramsay but music does not open any of life's mysteries for me like reading History, Psychology, Economics, Physics or Novels does for me or doing research in Finance and Economics does for me.

So on what level is music an intellectual experience?

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See my answer to this question for a book review about Musical Philosophy. –  luser droog Feb 27 '13 at 6:57
    
This is completely subjective, which is why you and your friends can have entirely different opinions -- we do expect questions to have some objective basis (see the FAQ). –  Matthew Read Feb 28 '13 at 16:42
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closed as not constructive by Wheat Williams, Dr Mayhem, Matthew Read Feb 28 '13 at 16:41

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3 Answers

There's plenty of intellectual interest in music!

Pattern recognition in general; that's just a start.

Hearing multiple lines as when listening to a fugue. The lines begin as exact copies of each other, transposed (the entire line is consistently higher or lower), and starting at different times. Then to create a harmonious whole, modifications must be made here and there. Keeping track of the interplay of voices is very interesting. Bach was working very much like an architect when he made his organ fugues.

Narrative. Classical-period sonatas and symphonies introduce the listener to two or more brief themes which then are developed -- they go on a journey which takes intellectual effort to follow, similarly to how we keep track of characters and plot when we read a novel or watch a movie. Romantic-period music includes many pieces about specific subjects (called "programmatic music"), for example Berlioz' Symphonie Fantastique which tells the story of a young poet's love affair and nightmarish dreams.

Easter eggs. Those wonderful surprises that composers put in their pieces that aren't necessary to understand the piece, but are really fun once you notice them. In the slow section of Rachmaninoff's Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini, the melody is the same as the melody in the beginning, but it's been put in a major key and turned upside down.

Social or political statements. The last movement of Shostakovich's 5th Symphony can be heard either as a triumphant march celebrating national power, or as a parody of a march or as a forced march, mocking national power.

Mathematically constructed music. 12-tone is the most famous way of constructing music based on mathematical principles. There are others. My favorite mathematically constructed piece is Fratres by Arvo Part. Here is a description of the math involved: http://www.linusakesson.net/music/fratres/index.php

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Music is largely the art of pattern in sound. A "note" from a string or wind instrument is a made up of overtones that lie at approximately integer multiples of one frequency. Consonant chords like a major chord contain notes with base frequencies approximately at small-integer ratios (A major chord's notes lie relative to each other at approximately 4:5:6 proportion). The major scale can be constructed with three major chords each a fifth apart from the last. Rhythms and progressions with time lengths that are small multiples of some unit are nice. Larger time-spans of pieces often alternate between sections (usually with variations to each, though). The style of the piece, time it was presented, and its composer all imply relations to other works. A good work plays with these aspects and forms patterns between them.

I'm often "discovering" or admiring patterns like these when listening to music. Hard to say if the most primitive patterns require intelligence to observe, but keeping track of their interplay and larger-scale constructions seem to require "intellectual experience". Being able to understand and more fully appreciate any music requires experience with similar music (or listening to it multiple times). It takes time and memory. Our brains sort and organize our perceptions of music so that we can hear all those patterns. That might not be philosophical or something you talk or write about, but I would definitely call it intellectual.

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Thanks for replying. Your description has a flavor of what number theory is like in some sense. It's the queen of pure mathematics, people don't do it for the sake of some real world application/truth, there are delightful intricate patterns and structures that emerge that form the aesthetic of this sort of work. ... I see.. thx –  Amatya Feb 26 '13 at 2:40
    
pattern in sound and in TIME, don't ya think? –  Stephen Hazel Feb 26 '13 at 4:07
    
Yeah, definitely in time. But there are no sounds outside of time, and music is specifically about sound. Unless you mean something more like musica universalis. Which is awesome. –  oliTUTilo Feb 26 '13 at 17:22
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Your friends' claim is a pompous one. Feeling intellectual while listening to music is again another emotional artifact.

It's not known how brain associates sounds to ideas, memories or feelings. Also it's not even known how brain handles thoughts, ideas, or simply thinking itself. Therefore, claiming to know what music does to oneself is as nonsensical as saying some music is better than the other. If Justin Bieber moves you it's just the way it is.

You might prefer complicated odd-time signatures, atonal adventures, or orchestral composition complexities but that doesn't mean that it's the music that excites your brain to look for the patterns.

It is you that look for the patterns and if the ones you find in pop, rap are not fulfilling your curiosity, then you tend to start calling names. Easy, pop, commercial, brainnumbing etc. If you like what you hear then suddenly it becomes an intellectual feast.

So solving SuDoKu and listening to complicated music is essentially the same and stems from personal curiosity. If you like challenges you might listen to the master Allan Holdsworth, but it is no accident why all yoga and related ambient stuff (sorry for my technical tone here heh) have no well-distinguished patterns. Because, in that context, during meditation or whatnot, you should be dealing with other kinds of thoughts so it shouldn't distract. Should we call those people and that kind of music less intelligent? Of course not. It's a special kind of elitism in disguise which is very well-known and it's just stupid. Some might say Stravinsky is nonsense some would adore, the problem is when they start to claim the other side of the argument is stupid. Who cares?

Usually during the teenager period, we tend to have this I Knew That Band Before They Were Popular attitude but slowly it should (hopefully) decay as we mature. (I had this when I was in high-school for Dream Theater, when Awake was released, those were the days, heh!). I don't know if I could point to the similarity of both arguments. Knowing a band before others is as idiotic as calling some music only the smart people can appreciate.

Listen more music but less opinions about music. :)

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While I sympathize with your stance, I think this is an unnecessarily pessimistic view towards the word "intellectual". It has meaning beyond its status as a trophy. I'd say that great music is far too complicated for any one person to fully comprehend by herself, and talking about these intricacies is a great way to broaden her understanding. Plus, it's just nice to talk about things you love, intellectual or not. –  oliTUTilo Feb 26 '13 at 17:44
    
@oliTUTilo I don't think it's pessimistic at all. I'm as excited as you might mean in your comment to talk about music. But that shouldn't lead to unrealistic conclusions. I think your stance is not inline with OPs view about intellect (not implying any wrongness though). In my opinion whether the excitation of intellect via music is due to music or music is leading us to an intellectual thinking about solutions to other problems asked here. But I'm afraid I don't quite understand what you are disagreeing with. –  percusse Feb 26 '13 at 17:55
    
The one statement I can't agree with is that we should make "less opinions about music". Why should music be so constrained? I think your post gives a valid perspective, but it seems too narrow to justify that conclusion. Our interpretations and questions and statements about music can be beautiful and worthy of attention. Critics like Rosen and Tovey have shed a lot of light on music. Also, "feeling intellectual while listening to music" may sometimes be "another emotional artifact", but that statement might detract from the discussion of what actually are intellectual aspects of music. –  oliTUTilo Feb 26 '13 at 18:21
    
@oliTUTilo Ah, I think I got your point vaguely. But please don't take the last sentence as the punchline of the post :) It's kind of a tongue-in-cheek shortcut for don't take opinions of others too seriously, to justify the beauty of some musical piece. So that's not summarizing the post. –  percusse Feb 26 '13 at 18:33
    
Regarding the critics, I tend to disagree when I read about that kind of nitpicking analysis (if you allow me to use without the underestimating tone). For example, Bernstein's lectures on music is, with all my respect, quite nonsense judging from his use of linguistic notions. So yes I agree with the joy and mental exercise of the reviews but they should be taken a little lightly. Here is the link of 1 out of 6 episodes youtube.com/watch?v=U3HLqCHO08s –  percusse Feb 26 '13 at 18:36
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