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.