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Thursday, June 25, 2009

The Music Instinct: Science and Song



Last evening I watched a new PBS documentary produced by WNET in NY titled The Music Instinct: Science and Song. It was directed by Elena Mannes and produced by Margaret Smilow.

The 2-hour program attempted to explore a very wide spectrum of cutting-edge research projects now underway in neuroscience. Brain scientists, experimental psychologists, cultural anthropologists, and interdisciplinary academics from all corners of the earth are searching the same answer. They're on a quest to quantify and explain why humans appear to be universally hard-wired for the capacity of music. Music has historically been considered an evolutionarily-useless instinct, a fluke of nature, and of little practical value for survival of the species.

The program, designed primarily for mass-entertainment, meshed experts from two worlds together: Musicians and Scientists. It throws a wide net, and covers a tremendous amount of territory. Intended as a broad initial survey, the documentary does not attempt to delve deeply into any one type of music or scientific speciality, but circles the globe in rhapsodic form looking for relevant clues.

The troupe of musicians included jazz vocalist Bobby McFerrin (co-host), cellist Yo-Yo Ma, English singer Jarvis Cocker, deaf percussionist Evelyn Glennie, conductor-pianist Daniel Barenboim, new music composer-violinist Daniel Bernard Romain., and an ethnologically diverse cast of singers, dancers, and court jesters. We were even transported to observe as a fly on the wall a high-fidelity listening test conducted on remote Cameroonian tribesmen. The test was devised to learn if they experience a poorly played stereo-typed version of Western classical piano music as we do: happy, sad, or frightening (as if music only had three dimensions).

The scientists were represented by the other co-host, Daniel Levitin ("This Is Your Brain on Music"). He was joined and supported by Dr. Oliver Sacks ("Musicophilia"), David Rothenberg, ornithologist Ofer Tchernichovski, Stephen Mithen, music therapists who treat premature babies, and a cast of experts with fMRI machines. EEGs, in utero microphones, and cool looking Macbooks.


What were some of the significant, but tentative "conclusions" and ground breaking theories drawn from this hi-tech state-of-the-art inter-disciplinary televised investigation?

Here is my Top-Ten list:


1) Lullabies share characteristics around the world.

2) Minor chords are perceived as "sad."

3) Major chords are perceived as "happy."

4) Babies prefer consonant music to dissonant.

5) Syncopation is a form of surprise.

6) Humans are not unique: Cockatoos can grove to the rhythm of the Backstreet Boys. Humpback whales and birds sing songs (although they haven't made it to American Idol, yet).

7) Certain intervals, such as the octave, perfect fifth, and thirds, appear to be universal, and the physical vibrations of the overtone series provide the basis for this psychological preference.

8) Vibrations are everywhere in the universe, and recently a black hole was determined to be sounding in B-flat, 37 octaves below what humans can hear. (I'm not sure what this has to do with anything other than it makes for good TV and gives the computer graphics department something to work on).

9) Music has been observed to fire synapses and increase blood flows in many areas of the brain: some primitive, some uniquely human.

10) Elgar sounds English. Debussy sounds French.



This is hardly groundbreaking news. I think most of us already knew this intuitively. I'm even a little concerned that some academics could misread this embryonic empirical evidence, and jump to broad conclusions about the value of music in our current culture. For example, does it give them justification to proclaim dissonance a "bad" thing. I hope not, otherwise I'll be out of business pronto, or banned by the experts (although this may have already happened).

The 64 thousand dollar question is, why have humans evolved with music hard-wired into their grey matter?

On the scientific side, Harvard's Steven Pinker was a lone dissenting voice in the TV program. He argues with healthy skepticism that music is a co-opted adaptation -meaning that music is an unintended by-product of a primary evolutionary trait: that of language. Once humans acquired language, they learned how to utilize the infrastructure of their neural network to create music purely for the fun of it. Pinker refers to music as “Auditory Cheesecake." It's yummy, but not essential to our evolution. It does not help us to survive (unless you happen to be a professional working musician). It's a point of view that I tend to agree with. There is just not a lot of evidence to the contrary, even with all of the recent research now underway.

From the chorus of experts on the music side of the aisle, an ethno-musicologist from Harvard warned against making too many assumptions about the universality of music. Perhaps the octave is a universal, but that's about all. I tend to agree with this perspective too.

I continue to keep an open mind on this subject. Believe it or not, I've puzzled over this probing question for at least 30 years. Why is it that music, which is so ubiquitous in world culture, has so little practical value or functionality? It makes no evolutionary sense. For example, is the latest mega-pop icon, by virtue of his or her acclaimed singing and dancing skills, uniquely positioned in evolution? I think it's cheesecake.

Science still has a long way to go before it can make substantive claims about music. They are just scratching at the surface of a very complex and rich art form. Musical expression and the rich body of ideas and emotions that have come to be associated with it will not be easily analysed or catalogued. It's not impossible, but we are at a very early state in their research and investigation.

It was mentioned in the program that the "science of mind" has become the "science of minds." Humans, like ants, form a large and complex social network. Music could be the one of the glues that hold this network together, although that theory too remains to be proven. We have long assumed that music has societal binding capabilities. This is not news, and at some level if there is a clear chemical or neurological basis to explain it, that's not going to be much of a surprise to musicians who practice everyday the black art of their chosen trade.

It was also postulated that music has been around from the beginning. It is perhaps as old as language, although we may never be able to answer which came first: language or music. However, given the great span of human evolution throughout time, it is quite possible that music and the brain co-evolved over the ages to become the messy, but culturally important cheesecake that it is today.

Link:

http://www.pbs.org/wnet/musicinstinct/blog/interview-with-daniel-levitin/part-one/18/


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