The Music Instinct

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

In 1933, fifty-eight-year-old composer Maurice Ravel suffered a stroke while swimming. The ordeal left him with aphasia, which robbed his ability to comprehend or express linguistic symbols. Because music composition, like language, utilizes a written system of signs, aphasia also silenced his creative output. Although Ravel retained musical mentation—the capacity to think musically—he was no longer able to translate musical thoughts into sounds. He could recognize tunes, identify errors in performance, and select a score by patterns represented on the page. But his analytical deciphering disappeared: note naming, sight-reading, dictation.

Contrast this with a more recent story of a sixth grader who was forced to give up sports after sustaining a concussion. The boy’s dream of becoming a professional athlete was dashed, but he suddenly discovered a new talent for music. He displayed little aptitude for music prior to the injury, and was even below average when it came to simple functions like matching pitches and predicting phrases. Now a high school student, he plays over a dozen instruments, including guitar, piano, accordion, harmonica and bagpipes—all by ear. It is possible that this talent was dormant before circumstances led to its discovery. But it may also be the result of the brain’s rewiring and overcompensating for capabilities lost in the trauma.

Losing or gaining musical genius in the aftermath of a head injury is exceedingly rare. However, these extreme cases do point to the innateness of music in humanity. Ravel, a once expert and meticulous musician, could still conceive of and enjoy music, though he could no longer create or perform it. The student athlete, once indifferent toward music, became musically hyper-expressive. Latent in both was a musical sense that exists in virtually everyone. An underlying musicality was preserved in Ravel, who was reduced to a passive receiver, and magnified in the boy, who was transformed into an active creator.

It is rarely acknowledged that the absence of musical skill or training does not correspond to a lack of musical capacity. Just as one need not be a writer to appreciate a well-written book, one need not be gifted or educated in the musical arts to be moved by a well-executed piece. Likewise, the musically inclined and disinclined benefit from music in essentially identical ways, the difference being one of degree rather than kind. Whatever our talents or limitations—and whether our musical adeptness increases, decreases or stays stagnant over time—we remain musical creatures.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

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2 thoughts on “The Music Instinct

  1. Mark W.

    Jonathan,

    Thanks for this entry.

    I was wondering if you had any thoughts on this quote by Steven Pinker:

    “As far as biological cause and effect are concerned, music is useless. It shows no signs of design for attaining a goal such as long life, grandchildren, or accurate perception and prediction of the world.

    Compared with language, vision, social reasoning, and physical know-how, music could vanish from our species and the rest of our lifestyle would be virtually unchanged. Music appears to be a pure pleasure technology, a cocktail of recreational drugs that we ingest through the ear to stimulate a mass of pleasure circuits at once”

    ——

    Thanks.

    Mark

    Reply

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