The December 30, 2006
Ringing in the New Year
The Almanack makes a bid to be current: The New York Times for tomorrow, Dec
31, 2006, includes an article on Daniel Levitin and his research into the
significance of music to the human brain.
Of course, one of the questions is whether music had some role in ensuring the
survival of its adepts. Absent evidence of some practical value, a skill as
expensive to develop as music is usually eliminated by evolution. The only
viable hypothesis offered is that musical ability is a turn-on, witness the sex
lives of modern-day rock-stars. If musical people were inherently more
attractive to the opposite sex, it would enhance reproductive potential.
The Almanack is tempted to weigh in with a much more straightforward and less
Music is a human expression of a universal phenomenon. Sounds come from an
infinite variety of sources, only a few of them human, so we're immersed in
animate and inanimate sequences and chords all our lives. We can assume that
inanimate sources imply no symbolic meaning when producing a sound, but the
cause of the sound, and the sound itself, can have powerful effects we see and
feel. We can observe the correlation of intensity, pitch, harmony and
dissonance to the effects of sounds, and the causes of sounds. Blowing wind,
splashing water, earthquakes, avalanches all contribute to the meaning sounds
have for us. An attempt to re-create, simulate or represent natural inanimate
sounds is symbolic in the way that a naive drawing represents a view of the
Natural animate sounds introduce a symbolic meaning, deliberately implied by the
animal creating the sound. A frog attracting a mate or a tiger marking its
territory might be acting on instinct if you like, but it is broadcasting real
information, in a symbolic form. Sometimes they even use the symbols to lie,
behavior that is part of a complex survival competition. Birds do it, bees do
it, . . . From this we learn, and accumulate the meanings of more sounds.
Making 'music', in the sense of creating sounds that have meaning, stimulate
emotions, cause people and things to move, is not something humans needed to
develop, it's in our genes. Being the complex, symbol-making creatures we are,
we make the sounds more complicated than any other animal, but the only thing
that makes our sounds qualitatively different from a bird's is that we add many
layers of abstraction to the symbolism.
Interpreting the sounds of music, and adding symbolic layers of meaning, is
simply adding humanness to a normal animal function.
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