Musical Malpractice

To the Proceedings of the Royal Society of Biological Sciences:

B. D. Charlton’s article, “Menstrual cycle phase alters women’s sexual preferences for composers of more complex music” (Proc R Soc B 2014), claims to provide “empirical support for the sexual selection hypothesis of music evolution by showing that women have sexual preferences during peak conception times for men [sic] that [sic] are able to create more complex music” (1). This bold claim is entirely invalidated, though, by an lack of musical competence.  Indeed, the notated examples provided in the article are arguably not music.  To be clear, I would count  John Cage’s “silent” 4’33 as music, alongside Earle Brown’s drawings, John Zorn’s games, and any number of controversial avant-garde experiments.  The problem with Charlton’s examples is that they call upon materials that carry musical implication without engaging with those implications—in fact, without any apparent understanding that there are such implications to be embraced.  These fragments are notes without a language, betraying no indication of having been authored by a sentient musical consciousness of any sort. Hearing these examples and choosing amongst them, for the subjects, must have been akin to being presented with an optometrist’s examination chart and being asked to choose which row they preferred: the one at the top with the single, strapping, big “E”? Or the one on the bottom with the dozen or so coy mini-characters.  What Charlton calls “complexity”—he correctly identifies syncopation as a possible facet, but that is not enough—is merely a presence of more unrelated items, as if five arms were more attractive than two.

The first, simplest, example is built from two chords: G in second inversion and F in first inversion, both doubled in the right and left hands of the GarageBand Grand Piano.  These chords are repeated, then rhythmically augmented, and then the augmentation is repeated.  Next, the left hand plays the G chord again, while the right hand enters a half beat later and introduces a syncopated scalar motive.  A reduction:

Royal Image 1

Overall, we hear that alternation from G6/4 to F6 eight times, and each iteration of each chord is inverted.  There is no root position chord, as would be expected when these harmonies are invoked; there is no rationale for the inversions; no syntactical relationship between the scalar figure and the block chords; and no formal sensibility whatsoever.  The material is built of sound without content; it signifies nothing.  Imagine placing a number of three-letter words side to side without any attention to sense or structure; this “music” is something like that.

The ensuing examples are said to be increasingly complex.  However, the material still fails to exploit any sort of musical syntax, offering instead a string of successive but unrelated stimuli.  It’s not until the third example that we hear a root position harmony,—one of the crucial signifiers to be expected when composing with such triads as these—and there are two in a row, going right from A major to F major, still doubled in both hands, moving downward in the same direction.


This sort of “parallel everything” would be grounds for failure for any first-year music theory student; indeed, it’s the sort of transgression that got Debussy kicked out of the Paris Conservatoire, but he knew how to shape the sounds in the service of musical expression, so that their difference from the norm engendered meaning.  His parallelisms derived from musical sensibility, not ignorance.  He was conversant in a norm, which enabled him to transgress against it.

The fourth and ostensibly most complex example has harmonies that rub up against one another, as a sixteenth-note A chord sounds in the right hand before the left hand catches up.  (There is also the not-unheard-of but apparently unmotivated root movement of a tritone and a sudden embrace of quartal harmony.)


Continuing on then, to examine the complexity of this fourth example:


Following upon the by-now familiar, syncopated G6/4, D6/4, G, and A, we suddenly hear a truly complex sonority.  However, I imagine it was intended to be a D major triad and the F’s sharp was applied to the A by mistake.  Whereas the earlier harmonies were basic ingredients used in incongruous ways, here we have a chord that is itself illogical.  (Were this the intended sonority, it would best be notated as a B-flat Major triad.  There is no apparent reason to spell this chord enharmonically, with an A-sharp.)

A beginning composition student who submitted any of these examples, even as a first draft, would receive heavy critique and little encouragement to continue composition.

Charlton’s article raises many other questions, some of which may be resolved by those who work, unlike me, in the intersection of science and art.  He explains that the musical examples were created in GarageBand and were provided in MIDI format.  As common as MIDI is, it is questionable whether the stimulation from a computer generated sound—especially given the vacuity of the material and the lack of nuance (dynamics, articulations, etc.) evidenced by the notation—is sufficient to complete such an experiment.  The listening situation appears to bear little relationship to any situation in which a listener would be turned on my masculine musical prowess: listening to four MIDI-generated fragments, lacking communicative import, one after another, with the composer and performer nowhere in sight?  I was not able to find any identification of the composer; do I take this to mean that the author of the article authored the music as well?  A composer whose method of rendering music complex is to insert more attacks of insensible sounds?

The irresponsibility of a publication such as Charlton’s is significant and has spread beyond a small audience of hermetic academics.  The article was covered, with approbation, in The Atlantic, and some of my folk-music colleagues, who have not enjoyed the sort of training and research support I have, took the second-hand claims in the Atlantic at face value.  I would love to be as enlivened as they have been by Charlton’s publication, but I know better.  It’s an instance of musical malpractice.

Barbara A. White
Professor of Music
Princeton University