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The Absolute Sound
Issue 225   September 2012
A Mystery Solved?
Editorial By Robert Harley


TAS Issue 225 September 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?"

Those questions were at the heart of my editorial in Issue 221 ("Our Musical Minds") and ones that have perplexed me for most of my adult life. Why do humans of any age, culture, or era find music so compelling? My essay concluded with a lament that we're unlikely to discover the answers to such a deep mystery, at least in the foreseeable future.

Imagine my surprise, then, to discover a startling new book that not only posits a radical explanation of why we have such an affinity for music, but supports that explanation with overwhelming scientific evidence and hard data.

The book is Harnessed: How Language and Music Mimicked Nature and Transformed Ape to Man by Mark Changizi. Changizi, an evolutionary neurobiologist, suggests that man's capacity for language and music wasn't evolved or learned, but rather that language and music imitated the sounds of nature and thus "harnessed" our finely tuned ear/brain systems for another purpose.

Starting with language, Changizi shows how phonemes, the principal elements that make up syllables, have parallels in the sounds created in the everyday world by objects impacting upon one another. Specifically, the three primary phonemes, the plosives (like p, b, d, t, g, and k), fricatives (like s, sh, th, f, v, and z), and sonorants (like a, e, r, y, w, and m) of speech correspond to the sounds made by objects hitting each other ("hits"), sliding against each other ("slides"), and ringing after being struck ("rings"), respectively.

My first reaction was that this theory was far-fetched, but Changizi presents compelling data to support this view. Examining a 1983 study of 197 languages (Phonological Acquisition and Change), Changizi realized that the way phonemes are arranged into syllables reflect the sounds objects make when they contact each other. Just as you'd expect colliding objects to produce a "hit" followed by a "ring" or a "slide" (and less frequently the other way around), plosives are much more likely to be at the beginning of the phoneme and followed by a fricative or sonorant. The exhaustive statistical analysis of phonemes throughout the world's languages and their parallels with natural sounds is quite compelling evidence for the theory.

Building on this foundation, Changizi turns his attention to music for the majority of the book. Music, he says, mimics the sounds of humans moving and interacting with each other. The rhythmic beat's parallel is the sound of footsteps; melody's parallel is the Doppler shift caused when a walking person veers toward or away from us; dynamics' parallel is the changes in proximity of the human mover. We respond to music because we've evolved a finely tuned mechanism for analyzing sounds and creating in our imaginations a picture of what events led to those sounds' creation. Music has been devised by culture to fit our brains, not the other way around.

I found this theory implausible at first, but Changizi convinced me not by persuasive argument but through hard data and the dozens of striking parallels between music and the sounds of humans moving. In an analysis of 10,000 melodies listed in Barlow and Morgenstern's A Dictionary of Musical Themes, as well as a database of 10,000 Finnish folk songs, Changizi (and his graduate students) found that common rhythmic patterns, melodic contours, and tessitura (the melody's pitch range) correspond closely to the sounds created by human movement.

A 42-item table summarizes these parallels. Examples include: "Faster movers have a wide Doppler pitch range; faster tempo music tends to have a wider tessitura." And "people's footstep rates lower prior to stopping (ritardando); the number of beats per second lowers prior to musical endings (ritardando)." And "small Doppler pitch changes are more likely to be downward, and large pitch changes more likely upward; small melodic contour changes are more likely downward, and large changes more likely upward."

Each one of these examples, taken on its own, could be coincidence. But 42 such analogs in aggregate, along with the massive amount of corroborating data, are harder to dismiss.

Harnessed is such a fascinating and important book that I'm afraid I haven't done it justice in this brief synopsis. But I hope that this introduction will whet your appetite for reading it yourself. Not only does Harnessed explain convincingly why we're such a musical species, it also answers the larger question of how modern humans arose from our ape-like ancestors.



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