Tag Archives: Charles Darwin

In Birds as in Humans?

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

David Rothenberg concludes Why Birds Sing with an answer to the question implied in the book’s title: “For the same reason we sing—because we can. Because we love to inhabit the pure realms of sounds.” This notion is reminiscent of Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson’s application of funktionslust—“pleasure taken in doing what one does best”—to impressive animal displays. In both cases, the pleasure is not merely frivolous or “for itself,” but an evolutionary adaptation that increases the likelihood of survival. As with theories of musical development in early humans—from Darwin’s sexually selected mating songs to Joseph Jordania’s “battle trance,” in which repetitious beats prepared our prehistoric ancestors for the hunt—there appears to be a mechanistic basis for sonic aesthetics.

One of the refreshing aspects of Rothenberg’s work on bird song (as well as whale song and bug rhythm) is his apparent embrace of the pejorative “anthropomorphizer.” A musician and philosopher, he compares structural and functional aspects of human and avian songs, and freely speculates about links between them. He is no stranger to criticism from the scientific community: “Scientists who say they are investigating what actually occurs in nature caution that musicians and poets tend to hear what they want to hear, to extract some human meaning out of the world’s alien inscrutability. Musicians remain enthralled by what seems unassailably beautiful about the sounds of birds, whether akin to noise music or dulcet melodies.”

Is there common ground between the two camps? Can we, as primatologist Frans de Waal advocates, avoid “gratuitous anthropomorphism” without conducting “linguistic castrations”? More to the point, can bird song reveal anything about our own songs?

Research on bird mimics offers intriguing possibilities. A brief report by The Cornell Lab of Ornithology summarizes several explanations for this behavior. In northern mockingbirds, which can learn upwards of 200 songs, mimicry is likely a sign of fitness. Females seem to prefer males who sing more songs, and adding tunes to the repertoire—from other birds and environmental sounds—can give a mating advantage. Similarly, male marsh warblers pick up songs from wintering grounds in Africa and bring them back to Europe—presumably to impress potential mates. Human virtuosi and sophisticates have similar allure.

Other birds use mimicry to fit in. Indigobirds, for example, are brood parasites that lay eggs in the nests of other species. Chicks learn the begging calls of the host to blend in and get fed. The female thick-billed euphonia uses alarm calls of other species to solicit help in defending her nest from predators. Assimilating songs of the “in-crowd” and using sounds of the “other” to gain their sympathy—these, too, have human analogues.

Occasionally, bird mimicry can also go awry. There are numerous cases of birds learning the wrong songs, such as a vesper sparrow singing songs of the Bewick’s wren and a common yellowthroat singing a chestnut-sided warbler song. These hapless mimics often go unpaired. For humans, engrossment in “uncool” music has a comparable effect.

Hard-nosed scientists caution against drawing parallels between humans and animals—especially distant relatives like birds. Without doubt, there are significant limits to such comparisons. At the same time, the distance provides room for reflection. The immediacy and ubiquity of music in human life—not to mention its labeling as “entertainment”—can obstruct our awareness of its functional basis. The scientific approach to bird song encourages us to ponder like traits in our own music cultures.

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

Musical Dialects

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Charles Darwin received a package in 1858 from Herbert Spencer, a philosopher and evolutionary theorist whose reputation rivaled that of Darwin himself. Spencer’s gift was a collection of essays on wide-ranging topics, including “The Origin and Function of Music.” Darwin wrote Spencer a letter of gratitude, noting, “Your article on Music has also interested me much, for I had often thought on the subject and had come to nearly the same conclusion with you, though unable to support the notion in any detail.” The idea proposed was that music developed from the rhythm and pitch contours of emotional speech.

As the years went by, Darwin remained “unable to support” this intuitive hypothesis, and eventually flipped the scenario. Rather than putting speech before music, he proposed that biological urges gave rise to musical sounds, which then developed into speech. Specifically, he situated music’s origins in courtship displays, when our ancestors, like “animals of all kinds [were] excited not only by love, but by the strong passions of jealousy, rivalry, and triumph.” The cries that sprang forth, presumably akin to animal mating calls, were the precursors of language. Darwin’s theory had the benefit of rooting music (and subsequently language) in an adaptive process: “[I]t appears probable that the progenitors of man, either the males or females or both sexes, before acquiring the power of expressing their mutual love in articulate language, endeavored to charm each other with musical notes and rhythm.”

The issue is far from conclusively decided. Contemporary theorists are split between Spencerians, who view music as an outgrowth of language, and Darwinians, who view language as a byproduct of music. This chicken-or-the-egg debate is likely to remain unsettled, in part because of the absence of the proverbial time machine, and in part because music and language are so inextricably intertwined.

However music and language came about, it is clear that they mirror one another. Both Spencer and Darwin based their theories on evidence of musical characteristics in expressive speech. Similarly, those who study global musics often find the syntactic and tonal patterns of regional dialects reflected in the phrasings, cadences, inflections, and intonations of regional songs. Indeed, distinct language forms help explain the variability of timbre, modal, and structural preferences from place to place. The folk melodies of Algeria and Zambia may not have much in common, but each is tied to speech patterns used in those countries.

A good illustration of the speech-song convergence is Steve Reich’s three-movement piece, Different Trains (1988). The melodic content of each movement derives from interviews recorded in the United States and Europe. Looped spoken phrases, drawn from recollections about the years leading up to, during, and immediately after the Second World War, are paralleled and developed by a string quartet—an effect that simultaneously highlights and enhances the musicality of the spoken words.

Yet, none of this tells us which came first in the history of our species. Music and language have existed side by side for eons. Musical norms have affected speech organization, just as speech organization has affected musical norms. In the end, the question of evolutionary sequence is less important than the very indispensability and interdependence of music and language.

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

Feeling Voices

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

The emotional pull of music is its first, strongest and most universal effect. It is the primary reason for music’s inclusion in a staggering assortment of human activities, and the common denominator for listeners of all levels of education and expertise. If music were divested of its emotional attraction, it would soon fall out of usage. Yet, as widely attested as this observation is, it remains unclear precisely how emotions are musically aroused.

There has been no shortage of proposed explanations. From the moment people began thinking about music, the connection between emotion and sound has been a foremost area of interest. Some older ideas have survived the rigors of modern research and continue to hold sway. One such theory was introduced in the writings of Charles Darwin.

In The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals (1872), Darwin wrote, “when the voice is used under any strong emotion, it tends to assume, through the principle of association, a musical character.” Vocalization patterns change depending on the vocalizer’s emotional state. Gloominess is matched by slow and hesitant speech in the lower register. Cheerfulness is partnered with loud and rapid speech in the higher range. Anxiety has its counterpart in uneven spurts of trembling speech. We intuitively recognize underlying moods from the rhythms, timbres and contours present in the expression of these and other states.

Sometime in the distant and unrecorded past, these qualities migrated into the musical vocabulary. Gloomy music mimics the lethargic pace of a downhearted voice. Cheerful music replicates the bright tempo of excited elocution. Anxious music mimics the disjointed phrases of a troubled tongue. The sounds remind us of how we communicate during these states. We detect and respond to vocal patterns in the musical presentation.

Compelling though this analysis may be, it is not uncontested. Some detractors, like philosopher Stephen Davies, argue that music’s expressiveness is tied to its replication of physical gestures rather than an essential link to vocal tendencies. Others, like psychologist Vladimir Konečni, contend that music does not directly induce emotions, and that the apparent connection requires more conditioning than Darwin’s theory would suggest.

But empirical evidence has mounted since Darwin’s day. Researchers have conducted controlled experiments that demonstrate the resemblance between vocal tendencies and musical expression. The titles of several research papers indicate the growing attention: “Voice and Emotion” (1991); “Expression of Emotion in Voice and Music” (1995); “Communication of Emotions in Vocal Expression and Musical Performance” (2003); “Emotional Expression in Voice and Music” (2003).

The vocalization theory also resonates on an intuitive level. Once we are made aware of Darwin’s statement, it is hard to ignore the presence of vocal patterns in music evocative of various emotions. We realize how basic the connection is.

By itself, the proposition does not definitively or comprehensively solve the puzzle of why music stimulates emotional responses. It cannot account for all instances or why some musical selections are felt more strongly than others. But it is a valuable aid to our understanding.

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

Romantic Reverberations

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Charles Darwin included this intriguing hypothesis in The Descent of Man (1871): “[I]t appears probable that the progenitors of man, either the males or females or both sexes, before acquiring the power of expressing their mutual love in articulate language, endeavored to charm each other with musical notes and rhythm.” With this observation, Darwin grouped human beings with other animals whose songs apparently evolved as sexually selected courtship displays. Countless creatures, from spiders and crustaceans to seals and birds, innately distinguish musical mating calls from other noises. For Darwin, a trait so pervasive could not be accidental: “unless the females were able to appreciate such sounds and were excited or charmed by them, the persevering efforts of the males and the complex structures often possessed by them alone would be useless; and this it is impossible to believe.” Without the function of attracting mates, the instinct for music would not have arisen or persisted.

Of course, the forms and uses of music expanded as human cultures and capacities grew in complexity. Unlike most of the animals Darwin studied, human-made music has branched out far beyond mating. Still, it is hard to ignore the enormous quantity of love songs our species has produced. In most societies, songs of romance and sexual longing comprise the largest percentage of musical output. Roughly forty to fifty percent of popular songs recorded in the United States address the topic of romantic love. Like Darwin, many contemporary evolutionary biologists conclude that our unquenchable attraction to love songs—both saccharine-sweet and sorrowful—is a carry-over from the primal epoch when our musical ears perked up at the alluring sounds of potential mates.

Given the apparent sexual origins of music production in all animal species, including our own, it is not surprising that the oldest song scientists have discovered is a song of romance. In February of 2012, British scientists announced that they had reconstructed the simple mating call of a Jurassic-era cricket. Their study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, detailed how they derived the sound from the cricket’s pristinely fossilized 72-centemeter wings. The song, which was performed 165 million year ago, was the insect’s way of attracting mates in a nighttime forest busy with waterfalls, streams, rustling leaves and scavenging dinosaurs. According to the study’s co-author Daniel Robert, an expert in the biomechanics of singing and hearing in insects, this type of tuneful chirping “advertises the presence, location and quality of the singer, a message that females choose to respond to—or not. Using a single tone, the male’s call carries further and better, and therefore is likely to serenade more females.”

Our ears are tuned to music in much the same way. We hear the melodious ice-cream truck over the roaring engines of a congested street. We notice the piped-in recording over the chatter and clanking dishes of a crowded restaurant. Even when music is incessantly played at a super market or shopping mall, a melodic line or rhythmic hook often catches our ear, inducing us to hum or tap our fingers. Like the calls of the prehistoric cricket and the modern-day songbird, human music pierces through the clamor and din of everyday life.

From an evolutionary perspective, our inborn ability to pick out these sounds stems from the distant days when our ancestors sang songs of courtship. In those long-ago times, hearing love songs through the clutter of nature helped ensure the perpetuation of our species. Though this function was minimized as our intellectual and emotional capacities progressed and diversified—and though we might be ashamed to admit it—we remain instinctively attracted to songs of love.

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