Music and human caring about all living things: thinking further about Paul Winter

I have spent much time during the past few months thinking and writing about musical expression among animal species. This follows several decades when my focus was on the sonic expression of one specific species, human beings. I think of this seeming change as less a shift than as a broadened focus. If there’s one thing that religious life has taught me, it is that we humans are not at the center of everything. Thus, human music becomes not only a multicultural collection of myriad human song, but forms of sonic expression among many sonically expressive and no doubt musically diverse species.

We may never know if sonically expressive species have lived in our planet’s ancient past. Yet as we discover an increasing number of planets in other solar systems that hold the potential to host living species, it is only time until some emerge whose life forms are sonically expressive. This era may become known, if human history continues to be recorded, as – alternately – a time when humans destroyed the life-sustaining potential of our own planet and thus the sonic expression of the species that it hosts.

Of course, we needn’t look far to encounter intelligence and sonic expression among non-human life forms; they already surround us. Someday, if days remain possible at all, it may seem shocking that humans are, or were, so self-referential as to not notice, right before our noses, and ears, the abundance of forms and expressions of intelligence different from our own.

Beginning in the late 1960s, scientists have come to recognize that many animals, even some insects, perceive their world in intricate ways that transcend instinct, communicating, and expressing themselves sonically, visually, and with physical movement. Just as fields within the Humanities now acknowledge that human expression is culturally based, so too are we beginning to recognize the multiplicity of animal expression.

Even more fundamental is the acknowledgement, sadly not universally agreed, that humans cannot serve as a standard against which all perception or expression can be judged. This requires a shift away from anthropomorphism. This seems obvious and simple, but this evolution of thought has been slow and grudging. Animal behavior continues to fascinate us when we can assess it in relationship to human abilities and concerns. This human default methodology simply points to the limits of our ability to comprehend non-human forms of perception. It is a hubristic fault that endangers the entire planetary enterprise.

The aspiration to understand animals takes many forms. For religious people, it is connected to a hope to better comprehend the nature of divinity as a creative force. From this perspective, we hope to gain knowledge of our place within a created cosmos by gaining a broader comprehension of the “mind” of its creator. Science could ideally find common cause with this religious perspective because new discoveries should enhance, not diminish, our capacity to experience wonder. Unfortunately, a competing, currently more dominant and intently anthropomorphic perspective is recklessly indifferent to wonder, interested largely in the domination of other species. Methodologies, be they religious (texts assigning humans to exploit the land) or scientific (technologies to extract resources from fragile environments) are applied to legitimate the killing of animals, directly as commodities and indirectly by destroying natural habitats. Most endangered species and environments don’t face potential extinction due to a natural course of events. While religion and science “could” meet for life-giving reasons,  they are instead each exploited for distinctly economically opportunistic purposes.

It may be that animal perception will always remain unknowable to humans. We can observe other species, recognizing how distinct their structures of mind and body are from our own. Maybe we can identify historically distant shared ancestral systems and potentialities that have taken diverse or parallel courses. Every species has developed in its own manner in response to specie-specific contexts and needs. Who knows what interest animals may even have in understanding us, beyond for their primary need to protect themselves from humans. Maybe other species experience wonder; if so, they could remind us of a similar potential we hold within ourselves and upon which our future depends.

Recent articles (Elizabeth Kolbert in The New Yorker, and Thomas Gilovitch in The New York Times)* point to the powerful role that confirmation bias leads people to resist changing their opinions. Creators and performers of art, music, theater, and dance know that the Arts are one of the few means we have of reaching people in the face of group think. This is because the Arts can uniquely impact on human emotions. People can be sonically moved to engage with the cause of endangered species when they feel emotionally moved by music. However, there is an inherent problem in achieving this directly, simply through exposure to the expressiveness of other species. Beyond the referential recognition that a sound reminds them of their own human expression, or maybe of a pet, it is difficult to move people beyond an unsustainable “how cute” stage. It is easily possible to recognize the beauty of a songbird’s expression but few listen in a sustained manner and even fewer translate that appreciation into a commitment to policy in the face of inconvenience or economic cost. Few people venture to remote environments to listen to songbirds, and even fewer ride in boats equipped with hydrophones that enable close listening to the voices of whales. It might be that unless animal voices are accompanied by electronic beats or guided meditations, few will listen even to recordings.

Translating admiring listening into compassion and caring for those life forms requires something more. This “something” is a shift within human perceptions about animal voices, towards a recognition of the  parallels that exist between non-human expression and that of human beings.

Human beings have for centuries been embroiled in debate about what is music, what is “Art,” what is artistic… and conversely, what is not. It has long been my contention that such debate is little more than an attempt to establish cultural norms. Such discussion becomes heightened when the question of animal expression is added to the mix. “My culture’s norms should define what is music” becomes “how can one speak of animals making (the lofty thing designated) Art?” None of these discussions interest me. The question I prefer to ask is how can we adjust our understanding of our own musical capacities and interests, considering the sonic expression of a broader range of species? What term can be crafted to expand conceptions of “human music” to the expanse of music of many species? How can our understanding of music reflect our membership within the many species of our planet (if not beyond)?

This task requires a tremendous conceptual leap, despite mounting evidence to support the idea; confirmation bias inhibits such a shift (“everyone knows that people make music; animals, except for my own pet, lack capacity beyond making meaningful, organized sounds”). But an appeal to the intellect is not the only means of conveying what may be termed the musical nature of (at very least some) non-human species.

A more effective appeal is a call to the emotions. There are many strategies, but here I will mention but one, an enterprise at which Paul Winter has excelled. Winter listens closely to animal sonic expression, identifies attributes that can be produced by human instruments, treats motifs as expandable melodic phrases that can be set to humanly-engaging harmonies, and intertwines the resulting musical expressions of human and animal. Human beings can recognize animal motifs as musical as well as beautiful. As a result, humans can feel empathy for the animals whose voices are the musical source.

One of Winter’s most significant contributions is his ability to craft a bridge of empathy that connects human emotion with a mindful acknowledgement of other living beings.*** Humans are wired to enjoy music because it feels good to us**. Paul Winter playfully subverts this capacity, shifting it from our hubristic interests towards common cause with other life forms on our shared planet.

As I discussed in my previous blog posting, I am in the midst of writing a book on these themes. Stay tuned!


*Thomas Gilovich, “The Trap of Confirmation Bias,” The New York Times, December 22, 2015; Elizabeth Kolbert, “Why Facts Don’t Change Our Minds: New discoveries about the human mind show the limitations of reason,” The New Yorker, February 27, 2017,  ttps://

**A topic for a future blog: is it true that humans alone engage in sonic expression for enjoyment, while other beings do so strictly for reasons of individual or group survival?

*** Particularly ones that have no apparent need for or interest in us.

~ by bobgluck on December 20, 2017.

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