A gray matter of taste: Sound perception, music cognition, and Baumgarten's aesthetics

Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part C: Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences 43 (3):594-601 (2012)
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Music is an ancient and ubiquitous form of human expression. One important component for which music is sought after is its aesthetic value, whose appreciation has typically been associated with largely learned, culturally determined factors, such as education, exposure, and social pressure. However, neuroscientific evidence shows that the aesthetic response to music is often associated with automatic, physically- and biologically-grounded events, such as shivers, chills, increased heart rate, and motor synchronization, suggesting the existence of an underlying biological platform upon which contextual factors may act. Drawing on philosophical notions and neuroscientific evidence, I argue that, although there is no denying that social and cultural context play a substantial role in shaping the aesthetic response to music, these act upon largely universal, biological mechanisms involved with neural processing. I propose that the simultaneous presence of culturally-influenced and biologically-determined contributions to the aesthetic response to music epitomizes Baumgarten’s equation of sensory perception with taste. Taking the argument one step further, I suggest that the heavily embodied aesthetic response to music bridges the cleavage between the two discrepant meanings—the one referring to sensory perception, the other referring to judgments of taste—traditionally attributed to the word “aesthetics” in the sciences and the humanities



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