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Wednesday, February 27, 2008

The Importance of Music to Humankind

I can't think of anyone I know who doesn't love and/or express music in some way. I have one roommate who plays guitar and piano, another who sings and dances in stage productions. My dad plays multiple instruments in a church group. My best friend is the lead singer in a popular emo band. Everyone I know can talk passionately about either the music they make or their favorite music of others. People associate certain songs with specific memories and even develop emotional attachments to them. Heck, Guitar Hero, a game involving only rudimentary musical performance is far more popular than anyone imagined.

Clearly, music is a powerful force that drives all of us. Although I think the term "universal language" is misleading (play some modern heavy metal for your grandma to see what I mean), I still think there's wisdom to that statement, pointing out the deep, subtle and compelling influence that music has on our subconscious.

What is music? Why are we even capable of creating and appreciating it? Did music evolve specifically along with our other unique traits, like communication, strong memory and creative thinking? Was it once a necessary part of survival in some direct or indirect way? Or is our extraordinary ability simply an emergent behavior; just a lucky bonus that came along, unplanned, packaged in as a result of our innovative brains?

We can (relatively) easily trace other aspects of human behavior to evolutionary survival and social techniques. For example, we enjoy team sports because their main aspect, rapid coordinated group behavior achieving a goal, is built in to our DNA. Look at football: there's really not a huge difference between a group of players throwing a ball towards a goal and a group of hunters throwing spears at an aurochs. Communication was always important in a hunt, which, unlike most modern hunting for sport, involved a large group of people. This necessity for coordinated articulation initially led to sign language and eventually spoken language.

With such large groups of people living and working together their whole lives, communication had to eventually develop into something more abstract and versatile than simply the expressing of tactics. To develop camaraderie in a large tribe of folks, symbolic thinking and a sense of humor developed, which led to mathematics, visual arts and laughter.

This, and much more, are all things that anthropologists have known for years. But where does music fit in? This is more difficult to find out. Methods for recording music didn't exist until the 1800's, so while we have cave paintings or venus figurines to show us the visual expressiveness of our distant ancestors, we don't have an equivalent for music. We've found some prehistoric instruments, like 30,000-year-old flutes made out bone capable of a five note diatonic scale, but these don't tell much without us resorting to educated guesses. So all we have are theories of a relatively few dedicated musical anthropologists.

Is music unique among humans? Birds make a repeating pattern of notes that we call a "song". Whales will repeat hours-long sequences of clicks and whistles, presumably from memory, that we also label as "songs". Though, really, nobody has any idea what they're doing. Why is that great apes, who share more than 90% of our genetic material, display no musical abilities, while humpback whales might be writing day-long symphonies right under our noses? The questions just never end.

My point is that despite all the music that we have made and enjoyed in the span of recorded history, we still may have only scratched the surface of the full potential of music. It may in fact really be a universal language, and we've all forgotten how to utilize it in that way. Nobody really knows. If we can somehow figure out where music came from and how it emerged, we might all be able to tap into some long dormant part of our brain (which really hasn't changed in 250,000 years) and realize the true potential for music.

So here's my goal: to achieve a deeper understanding of the origins of music and to understand the "point" of it being part of humankind's physiology and identity. I will achieve this by 1) Understanding as much about music itself as possible, through playing, composing, studying and listening, and 2) Researching as much as I can on the subjects of anthropology, musical anthropology, evolutionary theory and biomusicology. You can bet that I'll write about my findings whenever I get to a point of greater understanding. Feel free to send me your own thoughts as well.

Here are some books I plan on reading. Check them out yourself if you're interested:

The Singing Neanderthals by Steven Mithin
Essentials of Physical Anthropology by R Jurmain, L Kilgore and W Trevethan
How Musical Is Man? by John Blacking
The Anthropolgy of Music by A Merriam and V Merriam


Music.Is.Life_Ox said...

This is amazing. I think you're really onto something. I, myself, would like to know how music started. I love it immensely and find it a very fascinating part of life.

I hope you get all you're looking for and I will definitely be checking back to have a gander at your findings.


A. R. Svendsen said...


"Music and the Mind"
Aniruddh D. Patel

Music, Language, and the Brain