Music Makes Us Human

I've been reading Daniel Levitan's The World in Six Songs: How the Musical Brain Created Human Nature, which makes pretty strong claims for the importance of those tones in time. (Neil McCormick conducted an interesting interview with Levitan in The Telegraph.)

Music, Levitan argues, functioned as a means to store verbal information long before writing was developed, creates social bonds, and serves, like gaudy plumage, as a means of advertising genetic fitness. His thesis reminds me somewhat of one proposed by ethnomusicologist John Blacking, that primitive man could dance before he could walk—just watch a toddler learning to walk and you can see what he meant.

I mostly like Levitan's theory because it puts music in the center of what it means to be human, which is where I think it should belong. Fellow neurologist Stephen Pinker, also a linguist, believes that music is practically a by-product of the computational power required to master language—which is also at the core of being human, but since that theory makes music a sidekick rather than the hero, I'm not as fond of it.

I think my favorite explanation of how we developed our large brains, language, music, and the whole schmear was put forth in a William Calvin's The Throwing Madonna, which, if I recall correctly nearly 20 years later, was that dominate handedness and the ability to calculate the ballistics of thrown objects gave an evolutionary advantage to the large-brained who could throw accurately. Everything else, so to speak, developed from our acquisition of big heads.

By reducing each of these thinkers' thoughts to pitch-meeting length does them an injustice and probably gets crucial points wrong, but each of them set me thinking about the value we people put on music. That was brought home to me when I lived in Peru in the late '70s. In Andean villages, music served two incredibly powerful functions. One was social cohesion—you played an instrument (men) or sang (women) at every ceremonial occasion. The whole question of being "good" didn't enter into the equation; you played and sang because that made you "us" instead of "them." The other role music played was courtship—men played thecharrango because it was they only way they got to dance with girls. If you didn't play, you got no play.

As McCormick suggests in his interview, we have more music around us now than ever, but it is increasingly a passive rather than an active experience. It saddens me that schools have increasingly cut music from their curricula; learning to play in a concert band taught me valuable lessons about cooperation and the value of hard work. (When I went from practicing half an hour a week outside of class to practicing during every study hall, the improvement was remarkable. It didn't make me that good a player, but it certainly made me a better one.)

We audiophiles always insist that we're music lovers and I believe us, but perhaps we should agitate harder to pass that love along. We could start as small as getting rid of a few of those solitary listening experiences and sharing music with friends or your family, or perhaps we could support a local band or music program. It time to put as much humanity into the music as the music has put into us.

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