Why Do We Make Music?

MusicMusick has Charms to sooth a savage Breast,
To soften Rocks, or bend a knotted Oak.
I’ve read, that things inanimate have mov’d,
And, as with living Souls, have been inform’d,
By Magick Numbers and persuasive Sound.
What then am I? Am I more senseless grown
Than Trees, or Flint? O force of constant Woe!
‘Tis not in Harmony to calm my Griefs.
Anselmo sleeps, and is at Peace; last Night
The silent Tomb receiv’d the good Old King;
He and his Sorrows now are safely lodg’d
Within its cold, but hospitable Bosom.
Why am not I at Peace?

William Congreve (1670 – 1729) in his play, The Mourning Bride (1697).

Why have humans made music from the earliest times of our species? The oldest known bone flute is more than 40,000 years old. But a Neanderthal hyoid bone shows humans could speak 20 millennia before then, and that means they could probably sing, too. Steven Mithen hypothesized just that in his 2004 book, The Singing Neanderthals: The Origins of Music, Language, Mind and Body.

Mithen opens his book with the words, “The propensity to make music is the most mysterious, wonderful, and neglected feature of humankind…” Liisa Ukkola, researcher at the University of Helsinki and Sibelius Academy, said of a recent study on the genetic basis of musical aptitude,

Music is social communication between individuals… music perception and creativity in music are linked to the same phenotypic spectrum of human cognitive social skills, like human bonding and altruism… We have shown for the first time in the molecular level that music perception has an attachment creating impact.

Clearly the urge to make music has been with humans since the beginning. Why, is, of course, open to debate. Wikipedia notes:

Some suggest that the origin of music likely stems from naturally occurring sounds and rhythms. Human music may echo these phenomena using patterns, repetition and tonality. Even today, some cultures have certain instances of their music intending to imitate natural sounds. In some instances, this feature is related to shamanistic beliefs or practice.It may also serve entertainment (game) or practical (luring animals in hunt) functions.

Then it adds, almost as an afterthought:

Music evokes strong emotions and changed states of awareness.

Congreve said it best: Music has charms to sooth a savage breast/To soften rocks, or bend a knotted oak. But emotions are, despite all the study done on them, notoriously difficult to categorize in a way everyone agrees on. Much like music.

I often ponder why music matters, why I feel compelled at times to play, to create, to sing, to listen. Why one song moves me to tears, another to joy, another to dance and yet another to sing along. And why does some music leave me cold and unmoved?

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Why does yogurt aid digestion?

I’ve always wondered why probiotic yogurt was good for you. Yes, it aids digestions, as many clinical studies have shown, but exactly why has never been explained to my satisfaction. Until recently, that is.

According to a story reported in The Scientist last fall, “The bacteria found in some fermented dairy products, such as yogurt, may alter gene expression in human gut microbes…”

Probiotic yogurtOne of the results of the study that surprised me was that eating yogurt did not significantly alter the existing population of your gut microbes. Food microbiologist, David Mills, is quoted saying, “To assume that you could eat a yogurt and numerically challenge what’s in your gut is kind of like dumping a gallon of Kool-Aid in your swimming pool and expecting it to change color.” As someone who swears by the benefits of eating yogurt, especially when on vacation in foreign countries like Mexico, I have always assumed gut populations needed rebuilding when foreign food and water challenged and reduced it. Perhaps not, it seems now. I still believe that one of the reasons we never get sick in Mexico is because we eat yogurt daily. But why?

…probiotic bacteria changed the expression of gut microbe genes encoding key metabolic enzymes, such as those involved in the catabolism of sugars called xylooligosaccharides, which are found in many fruits and vegetables. …[probiotic] organisms are capable of altering the metabolic properties of a human microbial community…

Seems like some recombinant DNA action happening here. Pretty fascinating stuff. A story from Live Science includes this:

Studies have shown that probiotics, such as those found in yogurt, can help with certain intestinal issues, such as irritable bowel syndrome. Recent research suggests that ingesting probiotics may even affect our behavior and could someday treat depression.

Affect behaviour? That’s food for thought… imagine instead of buying yogurt for its flavour, you’d buy it for its mood-altering effects. Replace strawberry and peach with happy and optimistic?

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