Are humans hard-wired to be musical?
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A little ditty, Part I
If you don't subscribe to evolutionary theory, you may want to stick your fingers in your ears and sing yourself a little song as we progress through today's Morning File. But it would a great irony if you sang your way through it, because today's entry in fact deals with song -- why it came about, and what evolutionary purpose might have been served as our species preserved music over the millennia.
A growing number of neuroscientists and psychologists are starting to ask exactly that question. "Researchers at the Montreal Neurological Institute, for example, have scanned musicians' brains and found that the 'chills' that they feel when they hear stirring passages of music result from activity in the same parts of the brain stimulated by food and sex," writes The Boston Globe's Drake Bennett. "As evidence mounts that we're somehow hard-wired to be musical, some thinkers are turning their attention to the next logical question: How did that come to be?"
A little ditty, Part II
. How, indeed? Daniel Levitin -- whose book, "This Is Your Brain on Music," was recently published -- says this: "To ask a question about a basic, omnipresent human ability is to implicitly ask questions about evolution." Music, he says via The Globe, is universal, common across cultures, and has been part of human life for a very long time: "Archeologists have found musical instruments dating from 34,000 BC, and some believe that a 50,000-year-old hollowed-out bear bone from a Neanderthal campsite is an early flute, [which suggests music] may indeed be an innate human tendency. And yet it's unclear what purpose it serves."
Perhaps music was akin to the peacock's plumes, or the songbird's song; a way for males to attract females. (As evidence, we offer ugly rock stars and their incomprehensibly attractive groupies.) Perhaps, the book theorizes, music's roots are in a mother's desire to comfort a child, laying the groundwork for today's lullabies, and did you ever notice how sing-songy mothers get when they're talking to their infants, even if they're not actually singing? Another theory says that there's no purpose to it all; but lucky for music, it happens to tickle the same feel-good part of the brain that was already receptive to sex and chocolate.
A little ditty, Part III
Or maybe it's the sense of community that's fostered by a song well sung. Think of your high school alma mater. Think of "The Star-Spangled Banner." Think of Army enlistees as they jog and chant at the same time. Think of a Pink Floyd concert (what you can remember of it, anyway). The Globe's Drake Bennett: "The model is neither love song nor lullaby; but anthem ... Communal music-making does two things. By demanding coordination and basic harmony, it works as a sort of rehearsal for the teamwork required for more high-stakes endeavors like hunting and communal defense. And the mere act of singing and moving in time together helps forge a sense of group identity." Or maybe it's none of the above, says Steven Pinker, evolutionary author and researcher. Music may well be hard-wired, but it could just as easily be an inadvertent byproduct of the human species' speaking abilities, and the sophisticated languages that arose from those abilities.
Music: a good investment
The guitar hasn't changed in 50 years. Wood, six strings, frets, and that's about it. So why are guitars selling in greater numbers than ever in the U.K., to the tune of more than $200 million in sales in 2005? David Gilmour of Pink Floyd, via the U.K.'s Telegraph, has a theory: "It's a fantastically expressive instrument ... It is a band all in one that you can pick up and carry, which you can't do with a piano. And you can't bend notes on a piano."
Is that it? Or is it that guitars are outperforming the New York Stock Exchange? "Vintage fretted instruments have proven to be excellent investments," says guitar collector George Gruhn. "They often outperform the stock market and they are unique among investments and collectibles because you can play them while they are growing in value." Ten years ago, a 1959 Gibson Les Paul Standard electric guitar with sunburst finish would have cost a buyer $56,000. Today, according to Mr. Gruhn, you might fetch more than $150,000 for the same guitar.
Music on the brain
Bad news, ladies: You can't make your future baby smarter by playing Mozart CDs and forcing your unborn fetus to listen. First, you're assuming that baby is awake and attentive, when it fact it's probably napping in there. Second, the brain doesn't work that way. It is true, says the Artist Formerly Known as Knight-Ridder Newspapers, that music stimulates the brain (music flexes both the right and left sides of the brain, though generally not the frontal lobe, where conscious thought takes place). But it's false that exposure to classical music at an early age, or pre-birth, leads to a higher IQ long-term.
Here's how it works (or doesn't work): "In 1993, experimenters claimed that listening to a Mozart sonata would make your IQ increase by eight points. Subsequent work proved that such listening would sharpen a subject's spatial-temporal relationships momentarily. After a while, the subject would go back to being just as smart as before." Or as dumb as before, depending on whether the child had been fathered by Kevin Federline.
First Published September 18, 2006 12:00 am