Musical Harmony: A Missing Dimension of Democratic Citizenship?

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Polyphonic Minds: Music of the Hemispheres. Peter Pesic. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2017.


If you’ve watched a Super Bowl halftime show lately, you may have noticed the proliferation of artist collaborations, in which the performers can’t really seem to get going until at least two more ostensibly unrelated artists mysteriously appear on stage.  But this isn’t just happening at Super Bowls.  Seven of the top ten songs on Billboard’s 2018 charts were collaborations featuring multiple voices: Bruno Mars, Cardi B, Drake, 21 Savage, or seemingly all of them at once.  This apparent appetite for multiple voices has led even the Backstreet Boys to reunite for a tour (God help us).  But this trend isn’t actually new.  Pop music has a long history of boy bands using multiple voices at once: from the swanky ’90s R&B of Boyz II Men all the way back to the rich Doo-wop harmonies of the Beach Boys.

Today, even the vocal sound of your favorite non-collaborative solo artist is likely to be composed of two simultaneous recordings layered on top of one another.  (Nobody’s voice actually sounds that full outside the studio).  Producers know that listeners like to hear simultaneous harmonies at once.  There’s a biological reason for this.  Simultaneous singing actually stimulates release of the hormone oxytocin – sometimes called the “trust” or “bonding” hormone.

Some readers may be aware of the technical term for simultaneous voices: “polyphony”.  But as Peter Pesic explains in Polyphonic Minds, most of the harmony voices that we hear today are not truly independent voices; they are actually oriented around the melody of the lead voice.  This produces only homophony – a halfway point between the monophony of a single voice and true polyphony.  True polyphony refers to a much more nuanced technique employed paradigmatically by Bach and company: multiple simultaneous melody lines that nonetheless compose a greater unified whole.  (The Backstreet Boys may be back, but they are definitely not Bach.)

Pesic suggests to us that polyphony is not merely a musical concept.  Polyphony also helps us to understand a challenging philosophical conundrum: the problem of the many and the one.  We often describe a part of an organism – say, the vocal cords – as a complete entity of its own, distinct from ears or hands or hearts.  Yet we still maintain that there is a body – to say nothing of a person – functioning as a unity: as more than simply a collection of those different (and in themselves complete) parts.  How can a body simultaneously be one and many?  This conundrum then extends to democratic politics, which asks the same question of the body politic.  How can we protect the irreducible dignity of each individual, while yet directing each toward the purposes of a nation that – with apologies to Milton Friedman – is more than simply the sum of its parts?  Pesic suggests that polyphony might help to point the way.

Pesic is Director of the Science Institute and Musician-in-Residence at the interdisciplinary St. John’s College, which is famous for eschewing not only grades and lecture courses, but even disciplinary specialization.  Pesic puts this integrated background to good use as he smoothly relates polyphony to an impressive range of human subjects: neuroscience, psychology, theology, sociology, and computer science.  As he does so, Pesic shows that our instinctive understanding of polyphony as melding the many and the one can help us to better probe many riddles in our understanding of brains, minds, persons, and societies.  Pesic leads the reader through a symphony of surprising insights and unexpected analogies, as he conducts the many elements of his opus into one harmonious and mutually enriching multi-sensory experience, complete with sound samples.

Pesic begins by briefly sketching the ways that, contrary to popular opinion, polyphony has roots in a great variety of non-Western traditional cultures.  But it is not until Plato that polyphony becomes associated with a concept of unity amid diversity: specifically, that of harmony.  To that point, the word “harmony” – literally defined in Greek as “a joint between a ship’s planks” – had only been used to describe the way that a single melody note connects to the following note.  But when Plato concludes his Republic with the Myth of Er, he describes the multiple simultaneous voices of the sirens as “harmonious.”  These voices produce divine music that rewards the virtuous soul, but they also seem to reflect the way that the virtue of justice allows the three parts of the soul to work with – rather than against – each other.

Nonetheless, while Plato amplifies the concept of polyphony in the hereafter, he also censors such music in the here and now.  Why this paradox?  Pesic notes that “polyphony cultivates the interplay of diverse voices.”  Perhaps the many equal voices are incompatible with the ideal rule of the one philosopher king (24-26).  Aristotle, by contrast, is less censorious than Plato about earthly music, endorsing its capacity for emotional catharsis.  Perhaps this reflects Aristotle’s endorsement of a mixed regime, in which many voices simultaneously rule.  If this connection is speculative in Aristotle, it is explicit in the republican Cicero.  The Roman orator states that “as this perfect [musical] agreement and harmony is produced by the proportionate blending of unlike tones, so also is a civitas made harmonious by . . . blending together . . . the upper, middle, and lower classes.”  He concludes, “What the musicians call harmony in song is concord in a civitas” (26).

Early Christianity rejected the policy of Aristotle and Cicero.  Like Plato, Christian leaders saw in polyphony the potential for sensual overindulgence, and sought (sometimes unsuccessfully) to quash its use in worship.  But one of those leaders, Augustine, did so while yet – again like Plato – using the very language of polyphony to describe the transcendent.  In his case, the question was not about the character of the hereafter but the character of Christ.  How could Christ have two natures, simultaneously human and divine?  To answer this paradox, Augustine builds on Plato’s love of mathematical order and Pythagoras’ discovery of musical physics.  He recounts that an instrument’s musical pitch is audible as a sound wave oscillating from the instrument to the ear.  When the instrument simultaneously produces a second pitch that oscillates at precisely twice the mathematical rate of the first, it produces a second note a perfect octave above the first (such as a high C above a middle C).  The two waves are heard as two different pitches, but yet the same note.  This analogy helps to explain how Christ can be “one person with two natures”, and the 451 Council of Chalcedon would enshrine this formulation as orthodoxy.  Pesic observes how apt it is for Augustine to use a musical analogy for the Word made flesh, because “the physicality of the sound represents the Incarnation” (37-38).

Despite early Christian hesitancy around polyphony, by the ninth century polyphony gained wider acceptance in the church, and sacred harmonies came to be written down in the Enchiriadis text – the oldest such surviving manuscript.  This innovation in practice accompanied a further innovation in theology.  John Scotus Eriugena appropriated Augustine’s idea of harmony as enabling the Divine Christ to become man, and effectively reversed it: harmony could be a metaphor for how humankind could be taken into the Divine life in theosis.  Eriugena, however, did so by using the Greek concept of hypostasis, which ultimately led him to espouse a quasi-pantheistic concept of union with God.  This overemphasis on the “one” led him to view the union as a “blending” (concentus) of the individual and God (60), perhaps like a fruit smoothie aims for a single consistent texture of berries and orange juice.  When Aquinas later approached this process of theosis, he would preserve the integrity of the “many” by instead suggesting a “mixing” (succentus) of the individual and God (61).  One might perhaps imagine a sangria in which berries become wine-saturated without losing their form.

Every choirmaster works hard to help the many parts of the ensemble to “blend”, so it should not surprise us that Dominican Aquinas cautioned against the use of polyphony in church music.  Like Augustine, he drew on Plato’s concept of polyphony as an exclusively celestial concept – an angelic sound that humankind ought to long for in the hereafter but not to attempt in this finite world.  But he provided a new justification for limiting sacred music to monophony.  He reasoned that the human mind can know only one thing at a time.  Hence, the attempt to process multiple things at once (such as multiple notes) must thus produce discordant cacophony (47).  Yet Pesic notes ironically that Aquinas himself seemed to transcend this limitation of the human mind.  The “angelic doctor” was capable of dictating three or four different subjects to his scribes at one time (61).

While most of us are incapable of such feats, we nonetheless face a similar manifestation of the “one” and “many” conundrum that Aquinas identified.  How can our single mind carry on an internal dialogue – one that presumes more than one internal voice inside our heads?  This question is important to Pesic’s study, including his later high-level discussion of modern neurobiology.  Fortunately for the reader, Pesic’s study of J. S. Bach provides a helpful image.  Pesic notes that Bach is born into a new world of counterpoint: a mixing of individually distinct melodies, none of which simply takes its bearings from a principal melody.  Nonetheless, a skillful composer can make these different melodies harmonious by following mathematical ordering principles, which ensure that the many voices will produce a unified musical vision.  As composers began to employ these principles, they came to gain public renown not simply as artists but also as scientists (150).

Bach took this new science and developed it further by adding remarkable new forms of counterpoint: additional voices that sing the melody higher, or twice as fast, or twice as slow, or even inverted.  While Bach follows the tight mathematical demands of his new and more highly developed science of counterpoint, Pesic argues that Bach nonetheless succeeds in giving each voice “a sense of total freedom and ease”; each voice is “expressive and unconstrained” (173-74).  In other words, Bach seamlessly combines the science of the singular rules with the art of the many individual voices.  But Bach then goes even further.  When writing melodies for an individual instrument, his melodies seem to jump back and forth between multiple voices in succession, as if to imply that several voices are all simultaneously present in the one instrument’s single voice.  This brilliant breakthrough births “the seemingly paradoxical possibility of polyphony within a single voice” (174).  We now see a physical manifestation of the mind’s “internal dialogue” – one that ultimately resolves as a “peaceful unfolding of argument.” (177)  In Pesic’s telling, Bach has succeeded in inventing “a kind of virtual mind.” (179)

Later non-musical thinkers would use this concept of polyphony to explore unity amid diversity in a variety of fields.  For instance, take literature.  Mikhail Bakhtin describes Dostoevsky as a polyphonic writer, one in whom “a single authorial consciousness [nonetheless] speaks through several equal characters.” (241)  Tolstoy, by comparison, is monophonic, using a singular authorial voice.  Or take social theory.  Max Weber argues in his unfinished Rational and Social Foundations of Music that the science of counterpoint “exchanges the magic of inspiration or unaccountable virtuosity for rational procedures.”  This helps Weber to illustrate his distinction between charismatic/traditional and rational-legal authority, and also to meditate on what is gained and lost in this “scientific” disenchantment of music through “the progress of instrumental technique” (238).  Or take psychology.  Sigmund Freud describes the complexity of sophisticated polyphony to illustrate the discord that can take place within the human psyche.  In turn, music then provides a language for diagnosing schizophrenia or ADHD, the latter of which is often self-described as “three different radio stations playing simultaneously” (257).

These latter psychological explorations lead Pesic to his final two chapters, where he examines how contemporary researchers in neurobiology employ polyphonicity as a model to better understand the brain.  He details the current expert consensus that “the brain has no single ‘command center’” akin to a single voice, but rather that it “operates through the flexible interaction of many neural circuits,” more akin to polyphony (245).  Such circuits facilitate the complex back-and-forth interweaving of dissonance and consonance as they interact to enable brain function.  This interplay of circuits might suggest that, as in any compelling narrative, some dissonance is necessary if consonance is to be meaningful – which might raise further Weberian questions about the potentially disenchanting effect of counterpoint and its mathematically orderly techniques.

What is more, Pesic further notes that neurons “also calculate the relative interaction with other neurons, and learn and grow from that.”  He suggests that this “Hebbian learning” calls to mind not pre-written counterpoint but the real-time interactions between members of a jazz combo (246-47).  In this model, knowledge (and learning) seem to be inherently relational, akin to the way that jazz musicians operate within a basic structure but “compose” extemporaneously by reference to what each other is playing.  Later, Pesic suggests that an even better metaphor might be free jazz, which lacks even the basic structure of pre-arranged chord charts.  Of course, free jazz is often as opaque to the listener as is a discussion of neurobiology, so this allusion may not be widely helpful in clearing things up.  But that may be fine; Pesic concludes that the image of polyphony is not simply meant to help popularize experts’ understanding of the brain.  More profoundly, it can actually to help experts come to understand the brain in the first place, because “there are few, if any, other things in common experience to which the brain’s operation can be fairly compared” (257-58).

Throughout his work, Pesic presents to the reader a great catalogue of allusions to polyphony throughout history.  Among Pesic’s pregnant observations is Cicero’s endorsement of polyphony as a republican practice, one relevant to contemporary democracy.  While today we frequently hear a harmony or two in pop music, we seldom hear the many-voiced true polyphony of choirs.  The last bastion of choirs is probably in sacred music – and often not even in high-church traditions, but in rather low-church Baptist congregations.  And the occasional Mennonite congregation still sings hymns in spontaneous four-part harmony even without choral leadership.  One cannot help but note that both Baptists and Mennonites employ a non-episcopal church polity.  A theological Tocquevillian might suggest that their eschewal of clerical hierarchy ennobles their congregants’ sense of musical responsibility (and consequent ability).

Yet such polyphonically-capable congregations are increasingly scarce today, as even these aforementioned churches have increasingly ceded musical leadership to praise bands on high stages with bright lights and shiny faces.  Their worship leaders often express their vocal talents while singing complicated and difficult melodies keyed high beyond the vocal reach of most churchgoers.  The congregants (audience?) often find themselves singing along less and less to these Nashville worship songs, despite having listening to them more and more on their phones throughout the week.  And the irreligious rarely join to sing out loud with anyone else at all, except perhaps in the democratic folk culture.  Music has increasingly become a mediated experience of passivity and of individuality, as we consume ever more expertly produced music through our own headphones.  Should we be surprised, then, at the prevalence of expensive political spin doctors who put a glossy shine on their clients’ moments of misspoken honesty?  Or that our democratic legislatures are increasingly overwhelmed by imperial chief executives, whose sharply manicured personas beam forth from fireside chat to TV debate to Facebook Live?  Should we be surprised at the decrease in voter participation, the degeneration of civil discourse, or the decline of Tocqueville’s intermediary institutions and Burke’s “little platoons”?  Cicero noted the similarity between harmony and republican virtue in the dying days of the Roman Republic, but perhaps the connection between musical harmonizing and healthy citizenship is more than simply analogical.

Indeed, where Pesic identifies the concept of polyphony as helping us to understand the brain, perhaps the practice of polyphony can help our minds to understand and even bond with the minds (and hearts) of our fellow citizens.  But one can hardly critique Pesic for not identifying yet one more political implication of polyphony, when his book has already linked polyphony so well to so many other areas of human inquiry.  Pesic himself closes by acknowledging that the story is ongoing and incomplete; the song remains unfinished.  But like Chopin’s unfinished Fantaisie-Impromptu, a polyphonic piece that uses highly distinct left-hand and right-hand rhythms to produce a remarkable unity, Pesic’s composition is a delight all the same.             

Jeremy Geddert

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Jeremy Geddert is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Assumption College in Massachusetts. He is author of Hugo Grotius and the Modern Theology of Freedom (Routledge, 2018).