Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Do Republicans and Democrats Hear Music Differently?

by Christopher Reynolds

How do you hear this?  Fragment of Beethoven's manuscript for String Quartet in F Major, Op. 135

Some years ago I wrote an article that dealt in part with the possibility that people with opposing political views appreciated late Beethoven for very different reasons. My chief witness from the political right was David Gelernter, a writer and computer scientist at Yale University. His book, Drawing Life: Surviving the Unabomber (1997), credited Beethoven’s late quartets with helping him to recover from the explosive package he had received in the mail. I contrasted his views with Jean-Luc Godard’s use of the late quartets in two of his films and with philosopher and New Left theorist, Herbert Marcuse:
From the political Left, Beethoven is either an apt expression of chaos or of beauty recognized in the real world; from the Right, he is a means out of chaos into order. Thus David Gelernter claims the late quartets for coolness, for the agent that brings order to a chaotic world, for a beauty that is beautiful precisely because it transcends the real world. This view contrasts starkly with Godard’s vision, which finds in ops 131, 132, and 135 suitable vehicles for his surreal tale of terrorist robbery and love, for desperation, for the unraveling of a desired outcome that is nevertheless paradoxically the fulfillment of a destiny. The beauty Godard sees derives in part from his ability to find in Beethoven an expression of real-world events. Marcuse similarly finds beauty in the music of late Beethoven because it “expresses reality and joy in reality.” [1]
My sample was much too small for anything but a suggestive argument, and I would never deny that there are many listeners on the left who value the orderly structured aspects of Mozart or Beethoven, and many on the right who can appreciate Beethoven for his messiness. Still others like Milan Kundera, as I noted, occupy a middle ground, in his case one that consciously resists ideological approaches.

Yet in recent years the possibility of a connection between political views and musical taste seems a little less far-fetched in light of an active avenue of research among neuroscientists and political scientists, one occasionally discussed in the popular press: the increasing body of evidence that there are links between political views, a range of psychological and behavioral preferences, and the physiology of brains. Researchers have found significant physiological differences in brain structure and functioning of liberals and conservatives. In studies like Predisposed: Liberals, Conservatives, and the Biology of Political Differences (2013) by J. R. Hibbing, K. B. Smith, and J. R. Alford, and in numerous scholarly articles, social scientists and neuroscientists have demonstrated, among other things, the greater likelihood of conservatives than liberals to react out of fear or, more generally, in response to negative stimuli, and also their greater concern for order.
A look inside the brain.
In a subsequent article, Hibbing, Smith, and Alford report that “a rapidly growing body of empirical evidence documents a multitude of ways in which liberals and conservatives differ from each other in purviews of life with little direct connection to politics, from tastes in art to desire for closure and from disgust sensitivity to the tendency to pursue new information.”[2] Political preferences correlate with life choices and an “astonishing variety” of personality traits and psychological characteristics. As an example they cite a study showing that “life spaces” of conservatives “tend to have more cleaning supplies and organizing elements, including calendars, postage stamps, and laundry baskets, and, consistent with their penchant for new experiences, liberals tend to have more art supplies, travel materials, and greater varieties of books and music.”[3] Where conservatives prize “security and conformity,” liberals value “self-expression and stimulation.” With regard to artistic tastes conservatives generally favor familiar works, predictability, and “simplicity and realism,” liberals, in contrast, prefer novelty, and “complexity and abstractions.” Of the two groups, conservatives “have stronger implicit attachments to tradition, stability, long-held values, conformity, and order.”

Studies that involve neuroimaging indicate that these psychological differences are also physiological. Liberals and conservatives access different regions of the brain in response to common stimuli. Hibbing, Smith, and Alford cite research involving individuals in different cultures and countries and find that “conservatives tend to be more psychologically and physiologically sensitive to environmental stimuli generally but in particular to stimuli that are negatively valenced, whether threatening or merely unexpected and unstructured. The consistency of these patterns across diverse research designs with diverse samples in different countries is difficult to miss.”


That late Beethoven string quartets have long appealed to people regardless of their political beliefs is self-evident. But the possibility that we prize them for different reasons is not. Similarly, that our amygdala (where we process threats and produce fear) and our left posterior insula (where we monitor feelings) influence our politics and other aspects of our behavior is increasingly recognized. But these neurological pathways may be two-way streets. As Chris Moody, reporting a conversation with political neuroscientist Darren Schreiber, put it: “the current research suggests not only that having a particular brain influences your political views, but also that having a particular political view influences and changes your brain. The causal arrow seems likely to run in both directions.”[4] The ability of trauma to influence political thought is born out in research conducted shortly before and shortly after 9/11 which indicated that liberals and conservatives alike reported more conservative views after the attacks on the World Trade Center.[5]

This last argument I find particularly interesting, because if one brief though particularly intense tragedy can shift outlooks regardless of political orientation, then what of much longer lasting, deadlier events in the past? Can some shifts in artistic styles be understood as conservative responses to cultural trauma? Although much has been written about the advent of neo-classicism in response to World War I, no one has made the case for trauma moving art in a conservative direction better than Millard Meiss in his Painting in Florence and Siena after the Black Death (1951), a thesis itself formulated in the aftermath of world cataclysm. Meiss argued that in the third quarter of the 14th century, artistic styles expressed the more penitential and mystical views of the religious institutions who patronized them, that artists became more conservative, reaching back to the flattened form of 13th- and early 14th-century art, rejecting the humanistic and more natural styles of Giotto and others in favor of more linear constructions. Artists “suppressed qualities of the art of Giotto and Ambrogio that were both naturalistic and ‘antique.’ And although they felt unable wholly to resist the power and magnetism of these forms, they opposed to them qualities of a very different kind, expressive of a more intense piety, a mystical rapture, or simply a firmer adherence to the doctrine and institutional authority of the Church” (165). Where earlier art historians had seen artistic decline, Miess recognized a deliberate turning back in the aftermath of incomprehensible mass death.

Applying the various personality traits that are now current in brain research about liberals and conservatives, we can then recognize the “back to Bach” inspiration of Schoenberg’s post-WWI development of twelve-tone composition not only as musically conservative (as he himself proclaimed), but also as psychologically unsurprising in its conservatism. The embrace of artistic order only intensified in the decade after WWII, not just in the musically radical efforts of Pierre Boulez, Milton Babbitt and other young composers, but also in the more moderate conversions to serialism of the older generation, Stravinsky and Copland among them. If Babbitt and Boulez (the latter politically left) can be portrayed as artistic conservatives, responding to extreme destruction by finding beauty in extreme order, does that make Cage and Stockhausen, finding beauty in real world sounds, liberal? More broadly, if art and music created in the years and decades after these cataclysms can be understood to demonstrate stylistic traits that we might term conservative, are such traits evident after other wars or disasters?

In raising the possibility that our political views affect our aesthetic outlooks, both personally and culturally, I’m struck by two contradictory thoughts: binary oppositions are overly simplistic, and the opposition of liberal and conservative politics strikes me as a binary that has seldom been as problematic as it is today. On the other hand, the psychological traits noted in the studies I’ve cited mesh neatly with my reading fifteen years ago of politically opposed understandings of Beethoven. And so I wonder.


Christopher Reynolds, immediate past president of the American Musicological Society, is Professor of Music at the University of California, Davis. His most recent postings to Musicology Now include “What Do all these Beatles Covers Tell us?"




[1] Christopher Reynolds, “From Berlioz’s Fugitive to Godard’s Terrorist: Artistic Responses to Beethoven’s Late Quartets,” Beethoven Forum, 8 (2000): 147-63.
[2] J. R. Hibbing, K. B. Smith, and J. R. Alford, “Differences in Negativity Bias Underlie Variations in Political Ideology,” Behavioral and Brain Sciences 37 (2014): 297-307.
[3] Dana R. Carney, John T. Jost, Samuel D. Gosling and Jeff Potter, “The Secret Lives of Liberals and Conservatives: Personality Profiles, Interaction Styles, and the Things They Leave Behind,” Political Psychology 29, no. 6 (2008): 807-40.
[4] Chris Mooney, “The Surprising Brain Differences Between Republicans and Democrats,” Mother Jones (2013): http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2013/02/brain-difference-democrats-republicans
[5] Paul R. Nail and Ian Mcgregor, “Conservative Shift Among Liberals and Conservatives Following 9/11/01,” Social Justice Research 22, no. 2 (2009): 231-240.

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