Puzzle about listening to a tune

Nigel asked:

This is a puzzle about the way human memory works. If I’m listening to a tune, how is it that I can hear it as a tune without replaying it over and over in my head every second? How does memory keep alive the sequence of notes and the time gaps in between?

Answer by Jürgen Lawrenz

The answer to this is fairly simple. The same as you can remember the toothache you had yesterday, the strong coffee you drank, or the lines of a poem you memorised, so the sensory stimulation of that experience is imprinted on your memory and available for recall. There is nothing mysterious about it: All these events push a pathway through the ensemble of neurons which are responsible for their evaluation. Remembering is to re-run that pathway, using a specific trigger.

Sometimes your memory may fail; which may be the case when the trigger for the association of one tune is identical to another and confounded, so that a different tune pops into your head. In part, it depends on how much reinforcement you applied to the tune, or else how powerfully you were affected by it.

The more intriguing issue, however, is your emotional involvement. In the living environment, the physical as well as sensory impact is usually strong and unfiltered — you are having an aesthetic experience. The recall of your toothache, coffee or tune, however, is emotionally quite weak. This is because the qualitative features (‘qualia’) can be remembered, but not ‘played’. You are not having an aesthetic experience; and your emotion belongs to the present, not the past when the occurrence actually transpired. It is why we can reliably (for some time) compare the taste of yesterday’s coffee, but not experience it. Also why we go repeatedly to concerts to hear the same tunes sung by different artists. It is why (finally), attending a concert, listening to a recording, or remembering one or the other, are four qualitatively different kinds of experiences. That’s where the real mystery lies!


Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

The question is basically the same, whether we are talking about listening to a tune, or watching a football match (English or American). Remembering a sequence of events (musical notes, or movements on a football field) is more than just the ability to recall any particular event. You have to ‘hear’ the notes or ‘see’ the movements as part of a single extended sequence, with each event in the sequence gaining its ‘meaning’ from the whole.

This is a question Husserl considered in The Phenomenology of Internal Time-Consciousness. Here’s a short extract from the Stanford Encyclopedia article on Edumund Husserl:

“Finally, we should note that on Husserl’s view there is a further important dimension to perceptual experience, in that it displays a phenomenological deep- or micro-structure constituted by time-consciousness (Husserliana, vol. X, XXXIII; also see Miller 1984). This merely seemingly unconscious structure is essentially indexical in character and consists, at a given time, of both retentions, i.e., acts of immediate memory of what has been perceived ‘just a moment ago’, original impressions, i.e., acts of awareness of what is perceived ‘right now’, and protentions, i.e., immediate anticipations of what will be perceived ‘in a moment’. It is by such momentary structures of retentions, original impressions and protentions that moments of time are continuously constituted (and reconstituted) as past, present and future, respectively, so that it looks to the experiencing subject as if time were permanently flowing off.”


To me, this does not do much more than label the problem. But the thing to note is that the question about listening to a tune is wrongly posed, in that it seems to imply that there is a special problem in this case, whereas in fact human memory is fundamentally temporal (in its ‘micro-structure’) and thus different from the way that a tape recorder or computer ‘remembers’.


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