Tag Archives: Evolution

Electronic Music and the Separation from Nature

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

In the 1960s, German-American composer Gershon Kingsley shifted his energies to electronic music. He was among the first to experiment with the Moog synthesizer (invented by Bob Moog in 1963), recording two albums with fellow electro-musician Jean-Jacques Perrey (The In Sound from Way Out! 1966 and Kaleidoscopic Variations, 1967) and a solo album, Music to Moog By (1969), featuring the synthpop classic “Popcorn.” Kingsley was drawn to electronic music for two reasons: it promised seemingly infinite sound options, and it gave composers complete creative control. He told Harry Reasoner in a 1970 CBS interview: “Instead of going through the process of first conceiving the idea, then orchestrating it, then having it played on an instrument, now a musical work can be created entirely in the studio environment….[A] composer can now function the same way as a painter or a sculptor.”

Electronic music in those early days was gruelingly hands-on. The Moog comprised a keyboard and a set of speakers connected to a refrigerator-size consul cluttered with dials, knobs, meters, and patch cords. A pressed key sent an electronic signal to the console, which “synthesized” a particular sound. The instrument was monophonic—only one note could be played at a time—meaning that chords, counterpoint, and harmony were achieved through overlaying multiple tracks. It was a tedious, highly skilled, and labor-intensive undertaking.

As technologies advanced, electronic music became further and further removed from the manual interaction of player and instrument. Music was now programmable, automated, and easily rearranged. The performance was unhindered by the limits of human breath, endurance, or dexterity. The sonic palette was endless and undefined, and tonal possibilities—note bending, durations, microtones, pitch range—far exceeded the capacity of organic instruments (those classified in the original Hornbostel–Sachs system as idiophones, membranophones, chordophones, and aerophones). These properties combined to disassociate electronic music from the natural world.

The aesthetic appeal of music divorced from a naturalistic backdrop has parallel in the “imaginative geography” of cities, where clear borders separate ordered human civilization from the untamed wild. Cities exert human dominion: the permission of certain forms of nature to exist in certain places within a human-centered environment. As Colin Jerolmack, author of the paper “How Pigeons Became Rats: The Cultural-Spatial Logic of Problem Animals,” says: “We cut out little squares in the concrete, and that’s where the trees belong. We don’t like it when grass and weeds begin to grow through cracks in the sidewalks, because that’s nature breaking out of those boundaries that we want to keep it in.”

Implicitly or explicitly, a principle of “perfecting” motivates bifurcated cityscapes and nature-eschewing electronic sounds. In the conventional scheme of human progress, there is a movement away from uncontrolled habitats to manicured environs. At first, sounds emanating from animals and the atmosphere were a major source of musical inspiration. Human beings mimicked the noises of insects, the pattering of rain, the calls of birds, and other non-human sounds. Over time, human music developed its own logic, techniques, conventions, and instruments, and became a self-imitative art form. The resulting styles and sonorities increase our distance from music’s evolutionary origins.

An early critic of this separation was French Benedictine monk Antoine Augustin Calmet. In a 1723 treatise, Dissertations sur la poésie et la musique des Anciens en général et des Hébreux en particulier, he called out the “false notion that the world develops toward greater and greater perfection and that our century is much more enlightened and cultured than previous centuries.” As if predicting developments that would lead to electronic music, Calmet wrote: “Many believe that the simplicity of ancient music was an imperfection. I think, on the contrary, that it contributed to its perfection. The more one approaches nature, the more one approaches the beautiful and the perfect.”

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

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.

Whence Came the Musical Bow?

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

A note of caution should be added to any discussion of musical origins. Musical history predates recorded history. Practice comes long before theory. Current forms mask a gradual evolutionary process. Using the present to reconstruct the past is as tempting as it unreliable. As ethnomusicologist Klaus Wachsmann related, “Perhaps the most important lesson to be learned from ethnological studies is that argument based on plausibility can be dangerous.”

Wachsmann’s warning came in a 1962 article, “The Earliest Musical Instruments.” A pioneer in the study of African music, he learned firsthand the fallibility of “practical” assumptions. These include hunches concerning the musical bow, one of the oldest known instruments. “What for instance could be more plausible than that the shooting bow and the manipulation of its string led to discoveries in the sphere of harmony?” British archaeologist Henry Balfour proposed such a timeline in his 1899 treatise, The Natural History of the Musical Bow: the shooting bow was emancipated from hunting and warfare to become a musical instrument, in the process accumulating modifications.

A hunter happening upon a bow’s musical qualities is not the only possibility, nor is it the most likely. Musicologist Curt Sachs, writing twenty years before Wachsmann, declared the idea “plausible but wrong, like many plausible explanations” (The History of Musical Instruments, 1940). According to Sachs, the false assumption hinged on two biases: the practical (hunting) always precedes the aesthetic (music), and similar forms necessarily point to a shared source. He asserted that the oldest musical bows were ten-feet long, and therefore useless for shooting. Other early designs were idiochordic, with the bow and string cut from the same piece of cane and still attached at either end—an equally ineffective hunting tool. Moreover, to make a clearly audible sound, the bow needs a resonator, usually a hollowed-out gourd or the player’s mouth. This effect does not come about naturally by simply shooting an arrow.

The musical bow’s cultural meanings are similarly mixed. A cave painting at Trois Frères, dating to about 13,000 B.C.E., apparently shows a bison-man playing a hunting bow, and Plutarch described Scythians playing music on their hunting bows. Yet, Wachsmann considered the cave painting too ambiguous to be conclusive, and cautioned that a hunter plucking his bow tells us nothing about which came first. Complicating the matter, Sachs noted several customs unrelated to war or the hunt: “among many tribes only women play [the bow]; in Rhodesia it is the instrument played at girls’ initiations; and the Washambala in eastern Africa believe that a man cannot get a wife if a string of the musical bow breaks while he is making it.”

Absent a time machine, it is impossible to know for certain if the musical bow derived from the hunting bow, the hunting bow came from the musical bow, or the two emerged independently. When an instrument’s lifespan extends so far into the unrecorded past, it is perhaps unwise to disregard any plausible theory. Nonetheless, there is enough evidence to refute a simple, mono-directional development from hunting to music. Resemblances between the modern-day weapon and instrument could reflect later interactions, rather than a conjoined evolution. After all, just because we can set up pots and pans in a drum set configuration does not mean the cookware gave rise to percussion instruments, or vice versa.

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

The Useful and the Useless

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Among the many definitions of beauty is the one most operative in our everyday lives: the pleasing or attractive features of something or someone. This is beauty in the intuitive or experiential sense; we know it when we sense it. Aesthetic snap-judgments of this sort and the disagreements they ignite recall the cliché, “There’s no accounting for taste,” and its Latin predecessor, de gustibus non est disputandum (“In matters of taste, there can be no disputes”). This does not mean that taste is thoroughly or hopelessly subjective. Anthropologists and evolutionary biologists have uncovered basic universal principles of art. For example, philosopher Denis Dutton observed that we find beauty in things done especially well, while anthropologist Ellen Dissanayake contends that “decorating” was a crucial way our ancestors marked off practices essential to physical and cultural survival, such as hunting, peacemaking, and rites of passage. Yet, once we move beyond the baseline acceptance of the existence of beauty and its importance in human life, opinions take over and vary widely.

Historically, aesthetics has been a difficult subject to intellectualize. George Santayana observed in The Sense of Beauty (1896) that, as a philosophical subject, beauty has “suffered much from the prejudice against the subjective.” This is mitigated in part by the inclusion of art history and critical theory under the philosophical umbrella. Yet, such efforts highlight rather than bypass the fundamental obstacle of personal taste: in order for beauty to be taken seriously, it must be removed from the proverbial beholder’s eye and placed in some externalized rubric. Santayana summed it up: “so strong is the popular sense of the unworthiness and insignificance of things purely emotional, that those who have taken moral problems to heart and felt their dignity have often been led into attempts to discover some external right and beauty of which our moral and aesthetic feelings should be perceptions or discoveries, just as our intellectual activity is, in men’s opinion, a perception or discovery of external fact.” In other words, if beauty (and morality) cannot find footing in objective truth, they are forever doomed to triviality.

The dismissal of emotions runs counter to the biological-anthropological theories alluded to above. Whereas philosophers tend to view beauty as an end and art “for its own sake,” evolutionary theorists investigate the basis for art’s emergence and persistence as a cross-cultural phenomenon. For them, what constitutes the beautiful from one person or group to the next is less important than its functionality. Beauty and utility are not at odds, but are instead inextricably linked.

In a way, our aesthetic judgments harmonize the philosophical and biological-anthropological sides of this debate. On the one hand, we over-rely on the moral-philosophical categories of “good” and “bad” when describing art, giving the impression of absolute or empirical standards, whether or not they actually exist. On the other hand, these designations stem from a functionalist response: “good” means useful; “bad” means “useless” (or “less useful”). A painting or musical composition might be beautiful according to academic standards, but fail to move us on a personal level. We can intellectually appreciate its creativity and execution without being emotionally attracted to it. Likewise, something of lesser technical quality can be strikingly beautiful if it serves a purpose. As Baruch Spinoza put it in his Ethics (1677): “By good I mean that which we certainly know to be useful to us.”

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

Symmetric Sounds

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

According to science writer Philip Ball, roughly ninety-four percent of music lasting more than a few seconds contains verbatim repeats. This is true of music-cultures scattered throughout the globe. Indeed, despite the astonishing variety of expressive sounds culturally defined as music, repetition appears to be a unifying characteristic. On the micro scale, repetition derives from alternating longer and shorter note values, sometimes with pauses in between. If extended, these temporally balanced blocks merge into macro patterns: ostinati, verse-chorus form, sonata form (exposition, development, recapitulation), thirty-two bar form (AABA), and so on. Repeated rhythms and melodic/harmonic lines are also heard in through-composed works, flowing ecclesiastical chants, and patchwork songs, such as “Fingertips” by They Might Be Giants, comprising twenty-one short songs of five to twenty seconds apiece.

On the small and large scale, repetition yields symmetry: a sense of pleasing proportions. Symmetry is a fundamental aspect of beauty. Biologically, left-to-right symmetry in the face and/or body is a generalized indicator of physiological and psychological health. Thus, the most symmetrical people are considered the most beautiful (eye-of-the beholder arguments notwithstanding). Likewise, we are attracted to well-proportioned patterns of nature—flora, fauna, and geological—and repelled by their opposite.

To a significant extent, art is indebted to the mathematical symmetry present in nature. Nature-imitative patterns are woven into pottery, poetry, architecture, and musical repetition. Contrastingly, modernist movements that intentionally frustrate our pattern-seeking brains tend to provoke negative responses. (In the works of Pierre Boulez, for instance, references to other music are expunged as far as possible.)

However, over-redundancy has its own problems. Occasional deviations can be welcome and gratifying surprises, so long as the pattern is quickly retrieved. In music, agreeable breaks are typically achieved through truncation (subtraction of metrical units), prolongation (addition of metrical units), or elision (overlapping of two symmetrical units). It can also result accidentally. For example, during a performance of Juan Tizol’s “Perdido” at Carnegie Hall on January 19, 1974, Charles Mingus and his band of all-stars (George Adams, Hamiet Bluiett, Jon Faddis, John Handy, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Charles McPherson, Don Pullen, and Dannie Richmond) botched the AABA form under Bluiett’s baritone sax solo. The musicians played three A sections in a row in one chorus, and just one A section in the next. In Montréal, these gaffes are known as a “three-headed monster” and a “one-eyed beauty,” respectively. The “three-headed monster” emerges again in the last chorus of Pullen’s piano solo. These errors, hardly unusual during jam sessions, rarely spoil the music. They are (usually) amusing anomalies, which temporarily rupture, but never dismantle, the predictable pattern.

The attraction of symmetry in music is self-evident. All human cultures have music, virtually all of that music contains repetition, repetition creates symmetry, and all cultures consider music aesthetically rewarding. Moreover, music that discards symmetry is often called “ugly,” with some challenging its very musical-ness.

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.

Five Notes

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Cultural evolution greatly outpaces biological evolution. The excruciatingly slow pace of natural selection is eclipsed by the rapid and localized intellectual, behavioral, and technological transformations that take place within human societies. Moreover, whereas the mutations and adaptations of genetic evolution typically lead in a single direction, cultural changes can be linear, cyclical, conservative, progressive, or all of these at once. Such variety is a result of human-directedness. Unlike the non-sentient forces of nature, which spawn diversity through gradual descent with modification, cultural advancements and retrenchments are conscious choices, and thus prone to splinter off in multiple directions.

In this sense, the use of the term “evolution” in discussions of culture, while commonplace, is somewhat misleading. Rather than progressing unidirectionally, human culture is the fickle and multidimensional product of a capricious species. This is obvious when examining music. If musical styles were placed on an evolutionary continuum organized from simple to complex, actual timelines would be demolished. Minimalism would predate Romanticism, blues would precede madrigals, and the Beatles would come before Bach. The absurdity is exacerbated when world musics are thrown into the mix.

Beneath the false premise that fewer notes indicates an earlier period is a bias regarding what constitutes complexity. Just as each style has its own history, each style is complex in its own way. Where harmonic density is lacking, rhythms may be more intricate. Where counterpoint is highly cultivated, modal choices may be limited. Where orchestration is refined, emotional content may be restricted. More often than not, these scenarios are the product of preferences: the relative absence or abundance of a musical element is dictated by taste, not chronology.

A good example is the Chinese predilection for the pentatonic (a five-note non-semitone scale). Chinese musicians are aware of “bigger and better” scales, but five is a sacred and symbolic number. The five notes of the scale—gong, shang, jue, zhi, and yu (usually equated with do, re, mi, sol, and la)—correspond with a variety of other fives. Among these are the cardinal directions (center, west, east, south, north), elements (wood, fire, earth, metal, water), colors (yellow, white, blue, red, black), tastes (sweet, pungent, sour, bitter, salty), and political structure (king, minister, people, national affairs, natural world). Far from being a “primitive” stage in musical development, the Chinese pentatonic is a conscious conservation of socio-historical meaning.

What’s more, while the pentatonic may exclude notes present in the Western heptatonic (not to mention chromatic and microtonal scales), it is similarly capable of generating endless melodies. This point is made in The Art of War, which observes that the five colors combine to “produce more hues than can ever be seen,” the five tastes “yield more flavors than can ever be tasted,” and the five notes “give rise to more melodies than can ever be heard.” Indeed, the value ascribed to discovering new combinations has ensured the preservation of the scale, despite many cultural changes that could have swept it away. This, in itself, goes against any hypothetical theory of musical evolution.

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

Speech as Byproduct

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Human beings like to celebrate the uniqueness of our species. Of all the terrestrial creatures, we are the ones who have built civilizations, developed science and technology, invented philosophy and sport, produced art and medicine. Exactly how we attained the presumed mantle of superiority is not as clear. The usual list of explanations leads us to similarities with other animals, rather than to exclusively human traits.

For instance, our “big brains” have roughly the same brain-to-body mass ratio as mice, and are outsized by dolphins and some small birds. Tool use is present among various animals, including primates, elephants, ants, wasps, certain birds and some octopi. We share an opposable thumb with koalas, opossums, several primates, certain frogs, and a few dinosaurs. We are not the only animals to walk on two legs—just look at any bird. Even the gene largely responsible for language (FOXP2) is found in other species, like chimpanzees and songbirds, albeit in different variants.

It could be that what makes us human is not one of these traits, but all of them in combination. For example, the anatomical emergence of the opposable thumb facilitated tool culture, and large brains enabled the development of seemingly endless devices, including written language. Indeed, many scientists contend that language advancement—built from the convergence of other human characteristics—is what makes us unique.

Dr. Charles Limb recently challenged this conventional view. Limb, an otolaryngological surgeon and saxophonist, was intrigued by musical conversations that take place between improvising jazz players. Using an MRI machine, he and a team of researchers mapped the “jazz brain.” First, they instructed a musician to play a memorized piece of music. Next, they asked him to improvise with another musician, who played in another room. Their findings show that collaborative improvisation stimulates robust activity in brain areas traditionally linked with spoken language. Moreover, it appears that the uninhibitedness and spontaneity of improvisation is closer to a dream state than to self-conscious conversation.

As a mode of communication, music is more complex and intuitive than the comparatively straightforward systems of verbal and written language. For jazz improvisers, the back-and-forth is both plainly understood and impossible to put into words. The fact that the brain can process this acoustic information, which is far more complicated than speech, suggests that musical capacity—not language—is the distinctive human-identifying trait.

To be sure, “musicality” is also present in songbirds, whales and a handful of other animals. But the complexity of music perception in humans is so advanced that modern science cannot fully comprehend it. Limb says it best: “If the brain evolved for the purpose of speech, it’s odd that it evolved to a capacity way beyond speech. So a brain that evolved to handle musical communication—there has to be a relationship between the two. I have reason to suspect that the auditory brain may have been designed to hear music and speech is a happy byproduct.”

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

Song to Speech

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

The acquisition of language in human infants usually begins with song. Mothers and other caregivers address infants in a singsong version of the native tongue, known variously as infant-directed speech, musical speech, and motherese. Pitch contours are exaggerated, phrasings are overemphasized, and stress patterns are overstated. Sounds are repeated, vocal pitch is high, vowels are exaggerated, tones range widely, and tempo is relaxed. More than the vocabulary itself, these extra-linguistic qualities set the foundation for language development.

The central ingredients of infant-directed speech, pitch and rhythmic structure, are also the essential elements of song. It is thus no coincidence that the singing of lullabies and playsongs is also a human universal. Such songs are a natural outgrowth or twin sibling of motherese, and, like musical-speech, their impact is more emotive than linguistic. Long before the child understands the meaning of words, she detects and imitates these vocal patterns of expression. Singing comes before speech.

These observations are familiar to anyone with child-rearing experience. They are about as revelatory as a step-by-step description of diaper changing. However, new research suggests that the connection between song and speech development runs deeper than previously intuited.

A massive study involving over a hundred international researchers, nine supercomputers, and the genomes of forty-eight species of birds recently culminated in the publication of twenty-eight articles. Among the findings are genetic signatures in the brains of songbirds that correspond to the genetics of human speech.

Humans and songbirds undergo a similar progression from “baby talk” to complex vocalizations, and both learn vocal content from their elders. This is something shared with only a few other species (“vocal learners,” like dolphins, sea lions, bats, and elephants), and makes us unique among the primates (the grunts of old and young chimps sound basically identical). What the new research shows is that humans and songbirds share fifty-five genes in the vocal-learning regions of the brain. Thus, even as the ability to vocalize developed independently in these species, it has similar molecular underpinnings.

Scientists hope to use this data to better understand and treat human speech disorders. (People cannot be subjected to the same experiments as birds.) There are also implications in the realm of music. Ethnomusicologists often claim that music is as important to humans as speech—a view drawn from the cross-cultural use of musical sounds in asserting individual and collective identity, conveying and retaining information, expressing and receiving emotional signals, and a host of other functions. “We need music to be human” is the discipline’s unofficial slogan. The fact that a child is first exposed to musical speech and first takes to musical babbling supports the notion of music as a human fundamental. New discoveries connecting bird songs and human speech could bolster that position. On a genetic level, it seems, singing and speaking are essentially variants of the same thing.

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

Solitary Listening

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Music consumption has become increasingly individualized since the tail end of the nineteenth century. The commercialization of the gramophone in the late 1800s made it possible to experience music alone and without the aid of musicians. Solitary listening expanded with the arrival of radio in the 1920s, and went mobile when the car radio debuted a decade later. By the 1970s music could be played from portable boom boxes, and by the 1980s cassette players could be worn on the waist and heard through headphones. When the iPod came out in 2001, music as an isolated experience took another giant leap.

As accustomed as we are to these technological advances, they represent a dramatic shift in human history. What originated as a social practice with social functions has progressively become a private affair. Evolutionary theories of music point to human relations. Music either arose to facilitate group bonding, advertise to potential mates, communicate information, provide comfort, or some combination of the above. Until very recently, music remained a live, communal activity involving performers and audiences. In societies with access to recorded sound, this is no longer a requirement.

Even so, evolutionary roots are not easily discarded. While the physical presence of multiple actors may not be needed, secluded listening can be likened to a simulated group experience. Those impulses that gave rise to music in the prehistoric past are still present in the unaccompanied context of an individual with headphones.

Person-to-person connections exist even in the most isolated listening modalities. Hearing a band, orchestra or a solo performer through ear buds or a car stereo retains the essence of a group context. Although removed from the action, the listener—by virtue of listening—is part of a collective happening: the auditor is connecting with music produced by someone other than oneself. The obvious difference is that the interaction is one way. Unlike live performances, where musicians interface with audience members in a shared space, there is a distance of time and place between a listener and a recording, which is by definition an archive of sounds that have already occurred.

To be sure, something is lost in the transition from the live venue to solitary after-the-event listening. But our evolved appetite for music is still fed (though perhaps in a more limited way). Listeners can still bond with the musicians they hear, still become sexually stimulated, still receive information, still find comfort. In a strict sense, music’s interpersonal foundation is absent. But in a simulated sense, it has never gone away.

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