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?

Author Steven Pinker disagrees, calling music merely “auditory cheesecake” and saying it is a byproduct of language, and has no evolutionary function. A confection that has no other function than to provide pleasure. Merely aesthetic. Music didn’t evolve along with humans and other traits; it came about later, accidentally, because we evolved language (like reading did).

I beg to disagree. The very fact that every culture, every nation, has music. It pervades religion, popular culture. If it were merely cultural, then we would have no response to music in another language, or from another culture or even time, yet clearly that isn’t true.

Our emotional responses to music run a huge gamut of emotions, but seldom does it not generate a response. Research has shown that in our brains, music and social interaction are closely linked. And that music traces back to at least the Neanderthals, suggests it serves a need, not simply a pleasure.

And playing music has its own benefits that look like they have evolutionary benefits: better motor skills, better memory, better coordination, better teamwork, better social skills. Perhaps that’s why music precedes hunting in some non-technological societies.

NPR did a series of podcasts on why music moves us. Psychology Today has run several articles on why and how music affects us. Among the results of research is that music and human movement are also closely associated. Countering Pinker, the researchers found similarities between movements to American music and those of an isolated Cambodian tribe that cannot be solely coincidental:

For the movement patterns, researchers found that, for every emotion except “angry,” the music and movement patterns created by the Kreung villagers were closer to the matching American patterns than to any other emotional patterns. Looking at the music patterns, they found that three of the Kreung patterns – for happy, sad, and scared – were closer to U.S. patterns than to any other emotional patterns. When the movement and music patterns did not match up, they were similar on many parameters.

Another example is opera. While I cannot understand the words of most operas, I can be moved by the musical sentiments. It’s hard not to be moved, even to tears, by hearing Un bel di vedremo aria from Madame Butterfly, or Nessun dorma, even though the words remain mysterious. Why do Gregorian chants continue to reach deep into our inner being even though the words are in a dead language? Why are didgeridoo and shakuhachi music – radically different sounds  – so popular for meditation (and what happens when they play together)?

Then I think of those odd pop songs (or at least oddly sentimental) – Whiter Shade of Pale and Macarthur Park come to mind – that have lyrics that are odd, even meaningless, yet still generate an emotional response from the sound of the music and the way they are sung. They somehow manage to move us despite the words.

Then there are those melds of cultures in which music from different lands are mixed together to create a gestalt, like the Dam Mast Qalander remix. or the jazz-sitar fusion of Ashwin Batish. They still generate emotional responses.

In his book, The Holy or the Broken, Alan Light writes about how a single song – Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah – became an anthem for pop, folk and religious singers and ended up being recorded thousands of times by a hugely diverse group of musicians. Yet when it was first released – in 1984 – it went unnoticed. It didn’t gain traction until it was covered by Jeff Buckley a decade later. Listening to the vast range of interpretations and versions that almost seen contradictory, it still remains moving.

How, I wonder, can a single piece of music move so many people and inspire so many different people? Music must be hardwired in our genes (as Dean Hamer suggested faith must also be). And research in 2014 suggests that it is:

The gene AVPR1A on chromosome 12q has also been implicated in music perception, music memory, and music listening, whereas SLC6A4 on chromosome 17q has been associated with music memory and choir participation.




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