Sep 6, 2006

Where does music come from? [LINK]

Interesting article, asking why music evolved in the first place. Was it part of a mating ritual, as is true for songbirds? Then why are men and women both good at it? Or, if it helped mothers soothe their children, why would the kids find that sound soothing to begin with? I think I'm with Pinker in his skepticism about the various theories floating around, but I wouldn't so casually dismiss music as a "useless byproduct of language."

I recall hearing about a man with a severe brain injury that rendered him completely unable to speak in the conventional sense, but still able to convey language by singing, sounding rather like an operatic recitative. Apparently language and music are controlled by two different parts of the brain. Why would that be, if one is a recent, superficial outgrowth of another?

Why is there poetry, for that matter? That's a certain kind of musicality applied to language, but to no obvious adaptive purpose other than letting guys like Homer transmit a huge amount of information. Think of what would have happened had preliterate epic poets been unable to rely on rhythm to get their point across. There would have been no constrained, systematized way to transmit the information from one generation to the next, and the information would have been lost, to our disadvantage.

I wonder. It seems both music and poetry represent an effort to discern and form patterns out of chaos, which may relate to why music is often associated with mathematics, at least by neurologists. On a very basic level, a mosquito is able to distinguish my rapidly approaching hand from other patterns of movement. I've also heard that bees do a little dance to tell other bees where to find food, a sort of shorthand language used to represent a far more complex reality. Human societies engage in dance both to anticipate and reenact group hunts, and to signal a willingness to mate. In the latter case especially, there has to be some stylized way to separate that signal from the surrounding noise.

My guess is that music, poetry, and dance developed along with our ability to transmit stories, which forms the basis of history and making predictions about the future. That we derive satisfaction from them may reinforce our evolutionary advantage in pattern recognition. Think of how mathematicians derive joy not just from solving real-world problems, but simply from inhabiting that world. More prosaically, if sex were no fun, we'd go extinct.

Anyway, I'm not sure what I'm getting at is any less of a tautology than what Pinker dismisses. Still, it sure is fun to think about.

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