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The Music Instinct: Science and Song

By Published: July 9, 2009

As to why we respond to these intervals across the board is a question that Levitin runs over quickly, and still begs an answer. Brian Greene points out a basic law of physics, everything on a molecular level vibrates at its own native frequency, and the stuff of which we are made is no exception. Why we are more suited to consonant frequencies may be a simple matter of biophysics, for example, 440 Hz may simply resonate more closely with our neuronal firing patterns than 415.305 or 466.164 Hz.

That isn't to say that there aren't some significant differences in the cultural rules. Japanese scales are based on a twelve-tone scale, not eight. Many cultures, such as Lebanon's, base their "happier" compositions on a minor scale. In a master class with pianist Dave Brubeck

Dave Brubeck
Dave Brubeck
1920 - 2012
a few years ago, the attendees were reduced to tears when he played eight bars of a Japanese-based riff demonstrating the twelve-tone scale. How did he do that? We're culturally conditioned to respond to the minor key, and particularly to shifts from the major to the minor—it causes those frissons by surprising our cultural expectations as to where we think the music should go.

Levitin mentions the social component but does not expand on it, perhaps he should have. He does note that it has been demonstrated even in modern musicians that different parts of the brain get activated when performing alone or in groups, and with a side comment about the advantages that studying music instills, that the musician's brain is more "muscular" in the areas of the auditory, motor center and the corpus callosom, the band that connects the right and left halves, the intuitive, "big picture" and the analytical halves of the brain together. Flutes made of hollow bird bones and other musical instruments have been discovered in Northern Germany from the Ice Age; music has been an intrinsic part of our societies for at least 12,000-13,000 years.

But what about my musical Alzheimer's patient? She demonstrated that her musical centers still persisted on a very sophisticated level, yet her speech center was already destroyed. Music is processed in many centers, some of them language-based, others not. Interestingly, work is being done with aphasic victims of stroke, showing that they have a much easier time transitioning back to speech by first singing what they wish to say. Oliver Sacks, also mentioned, has studied the pathologies of the brain that either delete or augment musical aptitude with the hope of better discerning how the brain is organized.

A question also covered by Levitin and brought up by Steven Pinker, an evolutionary psychologist in The Language Instinct, is whether music is adaptive. That is, an adaptation that serves survival, such as language, or exaptive, initially serving one function necessary for survival, but now serves another function that is superfluous. Pinker supports the latter theory, maybe he's right and maybe not. Steven Mithen, a musical archeologist from the UK and author of The Singing Neanderthals, proposes that music is adaptive and in a pretty obvious way, to augment sexual attraction. Perhaps we need to ask the average jazz musician if this is still true.

Be that as it may, Levitin asks the current question—is music hard-wired or a cultural construct, and what purpose does it serve? Is there more to why we love music than its use purely for survival purposes, or worse yet, does it have no purpose at all? That it goes way beyond "entertainment value" is obvious from the number of cultural studies conducted so far, and he dutifully concludes that it serves primarily a social function, to bind us together as a group—to give us identity. One generally doesn't need much convincing of this, all one has to do is attend a favorite live music event to see the evidence.

But a further question goes begging—if music has distinct health benefits in individuals, then are we such social creatures that we may need this effect on a regular basis as a group? Barbara Ehrenreich makes a case for group play—including music and dance—in her book, Dancing in the Streets: A Case for Collective Joy. She documents the increase of the diagnosis of depression in Western cultures and speculates, although with some interesting evidence behind her, that we need these group activities to stay emotionally healthy. Are we wired for these pastimes, and without them, are we starving this part of ourselves in the barrage of the information age?

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