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The Absolute Sound
Issue 221   March 2012
Our Musical Minds
Editorial By Robert Harley


TAS Issue 221 March 2012  Why are human beings so drawn to music? What is it about a combination of sounds that exerts such a powerful influence over us individually and culturally? Why do ears and brains evolved to detect survival sounds comprehend the large-scale structure of a symphony, and then find meaning and beauty in that structure?

These questions, which I've thought about for years, were brought to the surface by a recent experience. I came across an LP in my collection that I hadn't listened to for three decades. I looked at the album front and back and remembered the instrumentation and style, but couldn't recall any of the melodies or solos. I sat down and listened to the entire LP once through. And then something extraordinary happened. Later that day, and in the two weeks since listening to the album again, I could "hear" the entire record in my head, virtually note for note. It was not just a rough outline of the melodies that I remembered; I had nearly total recall of every aspect of the music, including drum fills, bass licks, and phrasing in the solos, as though the intervening 30 years were instantly erased. Hearing the album again unlocked a memory that my brain had stored nearly an entire adult lifetime ago.

Think about how much "data" 45 minutes of music represents, and how much other important information you can recall about your life 30 years ago. Why would my mind allocate the significant resources required to store music for so long and in such intricate detail?

I don't claim for myself extraordinary powers of musical memory anyone could have had the same experience. What's extraordinary is that an everyday, run-of-the-mill human brain was capable of such a feat. Even more astonishing than the fact that my brain could hold on tightly to those combinations of sounds and recall them so vividly 30 years later is that it would. From an evolutionary perspective, every physical or intellectual function exacts a price in "overhead" for maintaining that function in terms of calorie intake and other biological needs. Any capability that doesn't directly contribute to the organism's survival quickly disappears from the gene pool. Moreover, that brain capacity could be used for other purposes that would more directly aid survival. For example, we're highly attuned to discriminating small differences in faces, understanding expressions on those faces, and remembering faces. The survival benefit is obvious. But what is it about music that is so important that the brain has developed such a sophisticated capacity for understanding and remembering it?

The answer must be that we are hardwired at a fundamental level to respond to music because understanding music confers a survival advantage. At its heart, music is communication, and communication is vital to any species that relies on social organization. Structured music arose only about 40,000 years ago, but communication by sound is ancient and is prevalent among many species. The 43,100-year-old Divje Babe flute, made from a cave-bear femur, features the precise hole-spacing that corresponds perfectly to a contemporary diatonic flute. This remarkable artifact not only suggests that our ancestors created and played musical instruments at least 43,000 years ago, but that they had by then worked out the diatonic scale and had developed the expertise to translate the diatonic scale to precise hole-spacing in a hollowed-out bone. Despite the rigors of daily Neanderthal life, our ancestors found time to create music. Moreover, that the diatonic scale has been with us since the dawn of music suggests the basis for responding to certain musical intervals has been common to all humans for eons.

The idea that music is basic to human existence is a central theme shared by three fascinating books: Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain by Oliver Sacks, Music, The Brain, And Ecstasy: How Music Captures Our Imagination by Robert Jourdain, and This is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession by Daniel Levitin. All three authors explore the neurological basis for music, and in Sack's case, he recounts extraordinary case histories of patients whose neurological disorders affected how they processed music. Jourdain approaches the topic more from a musicologist's perspective, and Levitin takes us through the latest research involving brain-imaging techniques that shed light on how the brain reacts to music.

As illuminating as these books are, we are still a long way from really understanding why we are such a musically oriented species. Until neuroscientists and evolutionary biologists can figure it all out, we'll just have to regard our musical minds with wonder.





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