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“Do You Hear What I Hear?” Christmas Music is All in Your Mind

Is music a matter of matter and energy alone, or is there something more to the story?

What better time than the Christmas season to explore immaterial realities of the human mind? A perfect example to consider is Christmas music. It’s everywhere during the holiday season. But what exactly is music?

Described in purely physical terms, music is what humans sometimes perceive from the vibrations of air. Individual pieces of music are described less in physical terms and more in subjective terms using words that reflect how humans experience music in their minds. Eight key elements of music fall mostly into the category of qualia, i.e., experiences that occur in the hearers’ minds only: Dynamics, Form, Harmony, Melody, Rhythm, Texture, Timbre and Tonality.

Do you know the Christmas song “We Three Kings” when you hear it? Written in 1857, the song has been arranged and performed countless times by amateurs and professionals alike, and remains a holiday favorite. 

A Christmas song like “We Three Kings” could be described as vibrations of air that can be measured and quantified in international units of physics. But you wouldn’t recognize the song by its physical description, and the physical description certainly wouldn’t make you smile or hum along. 

“We Three Kings:” Physical or Immaterial?

Intellectuals are still claiming that everything we know and experience can be described completely in terms of matter and energy. They claim there is no reality beyond material reality. Remarkably, Christmas songs help disprove that claim.

You can run mind experiments with a song like “We Three Kings” to personally observe some of the immaterial realities involved. You need only an internet-connected computer system with a decent speaker and about 10 minutes.

We can tell the difference between a material and immaterial thing by asking the question: Can you describe the thing using dimensions derived from the International System of Units(“SI”), such as size, temperature, mass, charge, energy, motion, etc.? 

Watch pure physics in action as billiard balls are moving on the smooth felt table, bouncing off the sides with precise angles and transferring momentum to one another by collision. The effects of inertia, velocity, spin, and friction can be witnessed and measured as well. Everything but the minutest subatomic variations in the billiard table and balls can be described using mathematics, and computer software can simulate the physical activities on a billiards table near perfectly.  

Now try the following mental experiment of listening to the 2009 version of “We Three Kings” recorded by the group Straight No Chaser. Click to play the video for about 8 seconds and then pause it. 

The Brainiac Question

Question 1

Did you recognize anything about the short 8-second clip? If so, select any answers that seem correct from this list (suggested answers at the end of this article):

a. The music was instrumental, no human voices.
b. The music was human voices.
c. The music is similar to the theme from the Batman TV show.
d. The music is similar to the theme from Mission, Impossible.

Beware: Question 1 is a trick question. 

First, of course, Question 1 is asking you to hear audio information and analyze it based upon music information already stored in your mind. The Question asks you to identify the likely source of the music (instruments and/or voices), and you do that by matching patterns of music you’ve understood in the past. The Question also asks you to possibly recognize the musical notes in their sequence and rhythmic delivery as similar to other songs. That requires your mind to access potentially millions of sound patterns, connect them with stored identity information, try to pattern match, and deliver an answer.

Music recognition is pretty amazing when you think about what is required. Question 1 called upon some hefty data processing power to get answers. Notably, artificial intelligence (AI) systems can be programmed to answer Question 1. Applications such as Shazam can access databases where music has been previously recorded and abstracted so that the pattern matches between a heard song and other songs occur fairly rapidly. Whether by humans or human-programmed AI, music analysis at this level requires storing, accessing, and working with information. As Prof. Werner Gitt explained in detail in Without Excuse (2011), information is not describable using SI units of physics. 

The air vibrations caused by music are not music. The information content of the vibrations, recognized by the intelligent mind, is music. We recognize and enjoy music because of how our minds process the information. As information can be both created and destroyed, it does not fall into the categories of mass and energy governed by the First Law of Thermodynamics. Music – information – is an immaterial reality.

The Trick In Plain Sight

So – where was the trick in Question 1? The fact that you understood the question and took action. Jay W. Richards summarized this point in “A Short Argument Against the Materialist Account of the Mind” (2018).

I asked you to click play on a YouTube video. You did that. I asked you to receive audible air vibrations (music) for a few seconds, and you did. I asked you to analyze the music clip for some of its qualities and to identify a related song stored in your mind. You did that, too.

How do we describe what happened in this communication and response event? When we are limited to understanding reality as purely material, we think in terms of mass and energy. When we discuss events, we always describe them as a sequence of cause-effect moments. 

On the billiards table, for example, we see the cue stick impart force to the stationary white cue ball and send it moving in a direction at a certain speed. Each billiard ball has a known mass. The cue ball might collide with the red 3 ball, transferring some of its momentum (mass x energy) and spin to the ball, and both balls continue at different speeds in different directions. Friction slows the balls over time, and they might collide with other balls or the side cushions. Every moment has an observable and measurable cause and effect. Billiards events follow clear physical rules and can be mathematically simulated and predicted. Cause-effect-cause-effect, from starting resting state to ending resting state, it’s all physics and math.

But what was the physical cause-effect sequence when I asked you Question 1? Here are the major steps:

  • I conceived the intention to initiate the sequence.
  • I formed the message to send in my mind.
  • I encoded the message using a code you would understand.
  • I transmitted the encoded message using a physical medium.
  • You received the message, decoded it and understood it.
  • You formed the intention to carry out the request.
  • You carried out the request using your body and your mind.

If reality were entirely material, if everything we experience is physics and chemistry, then the cause-effect sequence for each step should be describable using SI units. Assemble every brilliant neuroscientist, physicist, chemist, and psychologist in one room – they will not be able to describe the cause-effect sequence of SI unit events that occurred to even conceive my intention or mentally form the message to send. My thoughts were not material, they were immaterial.

The same group of really smart people cannot describe how my mind stores and deploys a code system, i.e., a defined symbolic code with the encoder and decoder devices. Code systems do not occur spontaneously, they are always the product of minds that understand symbolic representations of ideas and envision a future in which the encoded information will be decoded and used. Where and how physical brains maintain code systems is unknown. Yet my mind needed a code system to formulate and transmit a message to you.

The smart people can describe the mechanics of how encoded information is sent via a medium, e.g., sound waves, electronic impulses, radio waves, etc. But they cannot show the purely material steps going from the received encoded message to the formation of the idea in your mind to honor my request to listen to the YouTube. The cause-effect of communications starts and ends with immaterial factors. 

Questions for the Music Buffs

Question 2

Listen to the clip from 0:08 to 0:23. Listen especially for the bass line. Can you hear it apart from the rest of the music? Is that a human voice or an instrument?

To answer Question 2, you listened for certain parts of the complex wave form of the music. Think again about the cause-effect sequence: What caused you to shift your conscious focus from the overall song to select out the lower rhythmic notes? You followed the bass notes intentionally. In addition to all of the sound recognition and music knowledge your mind deployed, your mind also shifted focus to what was deemed “important” because Question 2 was asked. 

Now consider: What SI units of physics describe how air vibrations became audible sounds, then the recognition of music, and then to cause you to change your conscious focus upon an element of the information contained within the music?

The SI units of physical descriptions do not carry any concept of “importance” or “focus.” To look for something “important” and “focus” upon aspects of the audible sounds and their information requires pursuing an immaterial quest. That is a function of mind, not matter and energy alone.

Question 3

Now, let’s have some fun. 

Listen to the clip from 0:30 – 1:30. Do you hear the time signature change from 5/4 to 6/8? Now consider: How do you discern that fact? 

I typically tap my foot starting at what seems to be the dominant first beat of the rhythm block and count until the dominant first beat repeats. That means I focus on rhythm, not specifically upon other musical elements like melody or harmony that are present. I’ve shifted focus, and I’m engaging in pattern matching with previous musical knowledge. If you wanted AI to perform this function, you’d have to write particularly specialized software to shift focus and match patterns previously described and stored. Software is information processing not describable as SI units of physics.

Question 4

Lastly, listen to the clip from 1:30 to 2:12. Do you notice any changes:

a. Did the style of music change? If so, at what time stamp?
b. Did the time signature of the music change? If so, what was the change?
c. The vocals went from solo to choral.
d. The vocals went from choral to solo.

Maybe you hear the time signature change (or maybe you just “feel” it), with new kinds of harmonies and a new genre? The rhythm shifts from 6/8 time to 4/4 time but with the distinctive reggae syncopation. The lead vocal moves from silky smooth to the jazzier-bluesier sound of Caribbean music. Can any of these observations be described solely using SI units of physics? No way – they are immaterial thoughts, feelings, and experiences of minds. 

I hope you enjoy the Christmas season and its wide varieties of music, realizing that every song embodies immaterial creations of intelligent minds.

Answers to Question 1: (b) & (d) are true.

Richard Stevens

Fellow, Walter Bradley Center on Natural and Artificial Intelligence
Richard W. Stevens is a lawyer, author, and a Fellow of Discovery Institute's Walter Bradley Center on Natural and Artificial Intelligence. He has written extensively on how code and software systems evidence intelligent design in biological systems. He holds a J.D. with high honors from the University of San Diego Law School and a computer science degree from UC San Diego. Richard has practiced civil and administrative law litigation in California and Washington D.C., taught legal research and writing at George Washington University and George Mason University law schools, and now specializes in writing dispositive motion and appellate briefs. He has authored or co-authored four books, and has written numerous articles and spoken on subjects including legal writing, economics, the Bill of Rights and Christian apologetics. His fifth book, Investigation Defense, is forthcoming.

“Do You Hear What I Hear?” Christmas Music is All in Your Mind