It’s my pleasure to pass on a terrific piece, written for S21, by Daniel Levitin.  In addition to teaching at McGill University and being a real mensch, Levitin is the best-selling author of “This is Your Brain on Music,” which I personally recommend to all.  Below,  he gives us a look at his new book “The World in Six Songs:  How the Musical Brain Created Human Nature.”   — David Salvage

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It is unlikely that either language or music were invented by a single innovator or at a single place and time; rather, they were shaped by a large number of refinements, contributed to by legions of developers over many millenia and throughout all parts of the world. And they were no doubt crafted upon structures and abilities that we already had, structures we inherited genetically from proto-humans and our non-human animal ancestors.  It’s true that human language is qualitatively different from any animal language, specifically in that it is generative (we can combine elements to create an unlimited number of utterances) and self-referential (we can use language to talk about language).  The evolution of a single brain mechanism – probably located in the pre-frontal cortex – created a common mode of thought that underlies both the development of language and of art. I describe this in my new book The World in Six Songs: How the Musical Brain Created Human Nature.

One of the things that humans are good at and animals are not is encoding relations.  We can easily learn the idea of something being bigger than another.  If I ask even a five-year old to select the larger of three blocks in front of her, she will do this effortlessly.  If I then bring in a new block that is twice the size of the one she just selected, she can shift her thinking, and choose that when I reask the question.  A five-year old understands this. No dog can do this, and only some primates.  This understanding of relations turns out to be fundamental for music appreciation; it is a cornerstone of all human musical systems.  It permits us to recognize Happy Birthday as the same song regardless of what key it is sung in.  It is also the basis of composition in nearly every musical style we know of.  Take the opening to Beethoven’s Fifth.  We hear three notes of the same pitch and duration, followed by a longer note at a lower pitch.  Beethoven takes this pattern and moves it lower in the scale, so that the next four notes follow the same contour and rhythm.  Our ability to recognize that this pattern is essentially the same, even though none of the notes are the same, is relational processing. 

These modes of processing and the brain mechanisms that gave rise to them were necessary for the development of language, music, poetry, art and even science.  Music may have played an important role in allowing us to communicate before there was language, and in forming a mental exercise that was fundamental to being able to manipulate objects in the real world.  The available evidence is that music has been with our species from the very beginning, shaping social bonds, social systems, cooperative work projects, and the transmission of knowledge.  Our current love of music is deeply rooted in evolutionary biology – our brain responds favorably to music because those of our ancestors who had musical brains found themselves at a distinct survival advantage.

3 Responses to “Special: Daniel Levitin for S21”
  1. mclaren says:

    With respect, you make a number of sweeping statements which contradict the peer-reviewed scientific literature. Moreover, the invocation of currently fashionable evolutionary psychology mechanisms provies inadequate as a credible explanation for music, inasmuch as it fails Popper’s test of falsifiability.

    For example, you claim:
    One of the things that humans are good at and animals are not is encoding relations.

    This statement is provably false and is contradicted by observed reality. Elephants are well known to be capable of basic arithmetic. Crows have been shown to exhibit causal reasoning superior to that of chimpanzees. Dolphins are easily able to distinguish objects which differ in global features from among three alternatives which nonetheless share several local features with the sample. In fact, so many exhibit the abilities you claim they cannot that both humans and animals are lumped together in describing their congitive processing of quantitiative relations in The Handbook of Mathematical Cognition, 2005:

    “…Both newborns and animals seem to be able to mobilize two different systems for the processing of quantities. One of these is precise and is limited by its absolute set size…the other is extensible to very large quantitites, operates on continuous dimensions, and yields an appropriate evaluation in accordance with Weber’s law.” Handbook of Mathemati8cal Cognition, ed. Jamie I.D. Campbell, Psychology Press, 2005, pg. 5.

    You go on to claim:
    The evolution of a single brain mechanism – probably located in the pre-frontal cortex – created a common mode of thought that underlies both the development of language and of art.

    As you know, Brodmann’s Area 19, the so-called visual theater of the brain, is also shared by the auditory cortex, giving rise to the intuitive sense of pitch height. However, Broadmann’s Area 19 is quite different from Broca’s Region, which proves uniquely crucial for language. And while, as you know, listening experiments have shown that the left brain hemisphere is primarily responsible for perceiving chord progressions with the same brain mechanisms which are known to process linguistic syntax, an entirely different part of the brain processes melodic contour — namely, the right brain hemisphere, which performs primarily holistic emotional non-analysiticla non-syntactic processing.

    Brodmann’s Area 19 is altogether different from Broca’s Region. The left brain hemisphere is entirely different from the right brain hemisphere. These areas contain different brain structures, and perform wholly different functions. Once again, your claim “The evolution of a single brain mechanism – probably located in the pre-frontal cortex – created a common mode of thought that underlies both the development of language and of art” contradicts the available peer-reviewed scientific literature.

    In fact, as numerous EEG studies have shown all the way back in the 1970s, non-musicians typically process music using the right brain hemisphere and do so emotionally and holistically, while musicians process music using the left brain hemisphere and do so analytically.

    The evidence is of course overwhelming:

    Bever, T. G. and Chiarello, R. J. (1974): Cerebral dominance in musicians and nonmusicians. Science 185, 537-539.

    Hirshkowitz, M. et al. (1978): EEG alpha asymmetry in musicians and non-musicians: A study of hemispheric specialization. Neuropsychologia 16, 125-128.

    Peretz, I. and Babaï, M. (1992): The role of contour and intervals in the recognition of melody parts: Evidence from cerebral asymmetries in musicians. In: Neuropsychologia. 30, 277-292.

    Messerli, P. et al. (1995): Hemispheric dominance for melody recognition in musicians and non-musicians. Neuropsychologia 33, 395-405.

    Vollmer-Haase, J. et al. (1998): Hemispheric dominance in the processing of J. S. Bach fugues: a transcranial Doppler sonography (TDC) study with musicians. Neuropsychologia 38, 857-867.

    Evidence for clear and irreconcilable differences in auditory processing twixt left and right brain hemisphere has been adduced by Zatorre, et al., in:
    Zatorre, R. et al. (2002): Structure and function of auditory cortex: music and speech. Trends in Cognitive Sciences 6, 37-46.
    We examine the evidence that speech and musical sounds exploit different acoustic cues: speech is highly dependent on rapidly changing broadband sounds, whereas tonal patterns tend to be slower, although small and precise changes in frequency are important. We argue that the auditory cortices in the two hemispheres are relatively specialized, such that temporal resolution is better in left auditory cortical areas and spectral resolution is better in right auditory cortical areas. We propose that cortical asymmetries might have developed as a general solution to the need to optimize processing of the acoustic environment in both temporal and frequency domains. [op. cit.]

    Once again, your claim that “The evolution of a single brain mechanism – probably located in the pre-frontal cortex – created a common mode of thought that underlies both the development of language and of art” systematically contradicts the peer-reviewed scientific literature. Cognitive processing of language and cognitive process of music is quite different, as are the brain structures involving in the cognitive processing of language as opposed to music.

    Lastly, your invocation of evolutionary biology in the service of unsupported idle speculation about music proves unsatisfactory, however fashionable it might current be this week. When you claim “Music may have played an important role in allowing us to communicate before there was language,” can you provide us with a putative scientific experiment to disconfirm your hypothesis? No? If not, then your claim is idle speculation, no different from the vacuous assertion that “ancient astronauts may have built the pyramids” or “bigfoot may roam the woods of the pacific northwest.”

    Your apparently baseless and unsubstantiated claim that “Our current love of music is deeply rooted in evolutionary biology – our brain responds favorably to music because those of our ancestors who had musical brains found themselves at a distinct survival advantage” is directly contradicted by Harvard professor of structural inguistics Stephen Pinker, who asserts: “”We enjoy strawberry cheesecake, but not because we evolved a taste for it. We evolved circuits that gave us trickles of enjoyment from the sweet taste of ripe fruit, the creamy mouth feel of fats and oils from nuts and meat, and the coolness of fresh water. Cheesecake packs a sensual wallop unlike anything in the natural world because it is a brew of megadoses of agreeable stimuli which we concocted for the express purpose of pressing our pleasure buttons. (..) I suspect that music is auditory cheesecake, an exquisite confection crafted to tickle the sensitive spots of at least six of our mental faculties.” [Pinker, Stephen, How the Mind Works, Penguin Books, 1997, pp. 525 & 534]

    The problem remains that neither you nor Pinker can provide hard experimental scientific evidence to disconfirm your claims about the alleged importance or lack thereof of evolutionary biology to the development of music, for the obvious reason that evolutionary biology explanations are just-so stories. They provide appealing and enticing pseudo-explanations for the development of cognitive faculties, which unfortunately cannot be disconfirmed by experiment.
    Indeed, the fatal weakness of evolutionary biology “explanations” for cognitive faculties is that whatever faculties our brains exhibit, it is always possible with sufficient ingenuity to confect a evolutionary biology post hoc justification for them.

    Fanciful evolutionary explanations that have little connection to facts are called “just-so” stories after the collection of stories by Rudyard Kipling. I just found a website with all of the the just so stories [Just So Stories]. It’s worth reading a few to get some idea of what we’re talking about when we say that the “explanations” of evolutionary psychology, for example, are no better than just-so stories.

    UltraDarwinists are predisposed to coming up with adaptation stories. While many such stories may be plausible, and even accurate, the problem is that one can tell such a story that has a ring of truth, yet it does not intersect with truth. Adaptation stories are incredibly easy to invent after the fact, making it very easy to misuse them in an ad hoc sense.

    A perfect illustration of this is found in the growing field of evolutionary psychology, where various human traits and behaviors are explained with adaptation stories. This whole approach received a devastating critique from evolutionary biologist, Jerry Coyne. [1] Coyne takes on the particular thesis of Randy Thornhill and Craig Palmer (T&P), who argue that rape is actually a Darwinian adaptation.

    The problem is that some biologists are still telling ‘just so’ stories about living organisms, and it needs to stop. (..) Biologists, I am sure, are aware of this. I do not mean to paint them as dogmatic, for they are not. It is precisely because they are not dogmatic that a new evolutionary synthesis is taking place. The problem of evolutionary psychology (and other programs in evolutionary biology) is not just their ‘adaptionist’ fallacy. Stephen Pinker has made a good case, in his defense, that he is no ‘adaptionist’. Anthropology studies are plenty empirical enough. The problem is we are using an outdated evolutionary paradigm. A ‘just so’ story is a weak hypothesis, not a functional explanation.

    In view of these numerous contradictions with the peer-reviewed scientific literature, it’s easy to deduce that your book will win multiple awards and receive wide acclaim. Remember: you can always solve such problems by censoring comments like mine, in good Sequenza 21 tradition.

  2. Steve Layton says:

    Just as important to me is that this is not just exact relational processing, but mainly relative relational processing. Not only does it let us recognize things like the displaced Beethoven motif, it lets us work with the whole spectrum from completey exact to completely different, and so introduce ambiguity — things that seem similar but feel different, or that seem different but feel similar, but that never quite answer the question of which they are. And related, we also seem to thrive on playing with larger relations between groups of similar-to-opposing elements.

  3. Daniel — This is cool stuff, and I’m looking forward to reading the book. The evolutionary basis for music is something that I’m very interested in. The idea that the ability to encode relations is a necessary condition for music as we know it makes a lot of sense. Do you know if people who suffer from amusica experience any difficulties in encoding any other kinds of relationships? Or is amusica not a failure of the relationship encoding but of something else, like the mechanism for processing pitch or something lile that?