Songs of ourselves
New research suggests that we like music that sounds just like us
MUSIC IS ONE OF THE human species's relatively few universal abilities.
Without formal training, any individual, from Stone Age tribesman to
suburban teenager, has the ability to recognize music and, in some
fashion, to make it.
Why this should be so is a mystery. After all, music isn't necessary for
getting through the day, and if it aids in reproduction, it does so only
in highly indirect ways. Language, by contrast, is also everywhere --
but for reasons that are more obvious. With language, you and the
members of your tribe can organize a migration across Africa, build reed
boats and cross the seas, and communicate at night even when you can't
see each other. Modern culture, in all its technological extravagance,
springs directly from the human talent for manipulating symbols and
Scientists have always been intrigued by the connection between music
and language. Yet over the years, words and melody have acquired a
vastly different status in the lab and the seminar room. While language
has long been considered essential to unlocking the mechanisms of human
intelligence, music is generally treated as an evolutionary frippery --
mere "auditory cheesecake," as the Harvard cognitive scientist Steven
Pinker puts it.
But thanks to a decade-long wave of neuroscience research, that tune is
changing. A flurry of recent publications suggests that language and
music may equally be able to tell us who we are and where we're from --
not just emotionally, but biologically. In July, the journal Nature
Neuroscience devoted a special issue to the topic. And in an article in
the August 6 issue of the Journal of Neuroscience, David Schwartz,
Catherine Howe, and Dale Purves of Duke University argued that the
sounds of music and the sounds of language are intricately connected.
. . .
To grasp the originality of this idea, it's necessary to realize two
things about how music has traditionally been understood. First,
musicologists have long emphasized that while each culture stamps a
special identity onto its music, music itself has some universal
qualities. For example, in virtually all cultures sound is divided into
some or all of the 12 intervals that make up the chromatic scale -- that
is, the scale represented by the keys on a piano. For centuries,
observers have attributed this preference for certain combinations of
tones to the mathematical properties of sound itself.
Some 2,500 years ago, Pythagoras was the first to note a direct
relationship between the harmoniousness of a tone combination and the
physical dimensions of the object that produced it. For example, a
plucked string will always play an octave lower than a similar string
half its size, and a fifth lower than a similar string two-thirds its
length. This link between simple ratios and harmony has influenced music
theory ever since.
This music-is-math idea is often accompanied by the notion that music,
formally speaking at least, exists apart from the world in which it was
created. Writing recently in The New York Review of Books, pianist and
critic Charles Rosen discussed the long-standing notion that while
painting and sculpture reproduce at least some aspects of the natural
world, and writing describes thoughts and feelings we are all familiar
with, music is entirely abstracted from the world in which we live.
Neither idea is right, according to David Schwartz and colleagues. Human
musical preferences are fundamentally shaped not by elegant algorithms
or ratios but by the messy sounds of real life, and of speech in
particular -- which in turn is shaped by our evolutionary heritage. Says
Schwartz, "The explanation of music, like the explanation of any product
of the mind, must be rooted in biology, not in numbers per se."
Schwartz, Howe, and Purves analyzed a vast selection of speech sounds
from a variety of languages to reveal the underlying patterns common to
all utterances. In order to focus only on the raw sound, they discarded
all theories about speech and meaning and sliced sentences into random
bites. Using a database of over 100,000 brief segments of speech, they
noted which frequency had the greatest emphasis in each sound. The
resulting set of frequencies, they discovered, corresponded closely to
the chromatic scale. In short, the building blocks of music are to be
found in speech.
Far from being abstract, music presents a strange analog to the patterns
created by the sounds of speech. "Music, like the visual arts, is rooted
in our experience of the natural world," says Schwartz. "It emulates our
sound environment in the way that visual arts emulate the visual
environment." In music we hear the echo of our basic sound-making
instrument -- the vocal tract. The explanation for human music is
simpler still than Pythagoras's mathematical equations: We like the
sounds that are familiar to us -- specifically, we like sounds that
remind us of us.
. . .
This brings up some chicken-or-egg evolutionary questions. It may be
that music imitates speech directly, the researchers say, in which case
it would seem that language evolved first. It's also conceivable that
music came first and language is in effect an imitation of song -- that
in everyday speech we hit the musical notes we especially like.
Alternately, it may be that music imitates the general products of the
human sound-making system, which just happens to be mostly speech. "We
can't know this," says Schwartz. "What we do know is that they both come
from the same system, and it is this that shapes our preferences."
. . .
Schwartz's study also casts light on the long-running question of
whether animals understand or appreciate music. Despite the apparent
abundance of "music" in the natural world -- birdsong, whalesong, wolf
howls, synchronized chimpanzee hooting -- previous studies have found
that many laboratory animals don't show a great affinity for the human
variety of music making.
Marc Hauser and Josh McDermott of Harvard argued in the July issue of
Nature Neuroscience that animals don't create or perceive music the way
we do. The fact that laboratory monkeys can show recognition of human
tunes is evidence, they say, of shared general features of the auditory
system, not any specific chimpanzee musical ability. As for birds, those
most musical beasts, they generally recognize their own tunes -- a
narrow repertoire -- but don't generate novel melodies like we do. There
are no avian Mozarts.
But what's been played to the animals, Schwartz notes, is human music.
If animals evolve preferences for sound as we do -- based upon the
soundscape in which they live -- then their "music" would be
fundamentally different from ours. In the same way our scales derive
from human utterances, a cat's idea of a good tune would derive from
yowls and meows. To demonstrate that animals don't appreciate sounds the
way we do, we'd need evidence that they don't respond to "music"
constructed from their own sound environment.
No matter how the connection between language and music is parsed, what
is apparent is that our sense of music, even our love for it, is as
deeply rooted in our biology and in our brains as language is. This is
most obvious with babies, says Sandra Trehub at the University of
Toronto, who also published a paper in the Nature Neuroscience special
For babies, music and speech are on a continuum. Mothers use musical
speech to "regulate infants' emotional states," Trehub says. Regardless
of what language they speak, the voice all mothers use with babies is
the same: "something between speech and song." This kind of
communication "puts the baby in a trance-like state, which may proceed
to sleep or extended periods of rapture."So if the babies of the world
could understand the latest research on language and music, they
probably wouldn't be very surprised. The upshot, says Trehub, is that
music may be even more of a necessity than we realize.
By Christine Kenneally, 11/9/2003http://www.boston.com/news/globe/ideas/articles/2003/11/09/songs_of_ourselves?mode=PF
Christine Kenneally is writing "From Screech to Sonnet," a book about
the evolution of language, for Viking.