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The Human Capacity for Music by PW Farrell

PW Farrell BassistIn the previous article, we discussed the physics of sound, how we perceive pitch and how these factors influence music. The next logical thing to look at is the truly human capacity for performing music. As we discover what facilitates our music making, we may also be reminded of what motivates us to make music in the first place.

Obviously, evolutionary biology is a huge subject; far beyond the scope of both my expertise and this publication. This is not an all encompassing account of the theory of evolution applied to music, but, rather, one possible thread of adaptations which contributed to our capacity for music; an exposé of human traits that directly influenced our capacity for music, and yet, are largely ignored in musical education.

First we are going to look at an evolutionary adaptation that I promise you’ve never considered, and yet arguably sets us apart from the rest of the monkey gang as much as Mariah Carey’s lovely descended larynx.

Let’s consider what makes us different from the rest of the primate family. A short list of ‘highlights’ might look something like this:

  • upright posture
  • bipedal locomotion
  • big, fat and juicy brain
  • descended larynx
  • the dexterous human hand

Baby Face

What many people don’t recognise the significance of, is the neoteny of the human skull (Bannan, 1999). Unlike all other primates, the facial structure of a human being changes very little through life. Yeah, you might get a slightly squarer jaw and you might choose to groom a beard, but in comparison to the dramatic changes for the rest of primate-land, we really are quite kid-like throughout our lives. In addition, we did away with that pesky fur masking our lovely facial expressions, and we have finer motor control over those expressions. Think about what that means: we are the only primate capable of real facial mimicry between adult and child (Bannan, 1999).

The human capacity for communication evolved long before the development of speech, and to this day, one of the critical ways we continue to communicate – or ‘channels of affect communication’ – is facial expression. Could the complexity of human facial mimicry have helped promote neurological adaptions beyond those of other primates? There is little doubt that via the human facial affect channel a new depth of interactivity, and possibly even a new depth of emotional connectivity was being developed. So we could make baby faces: what’s the big deal? It’s a big deal when you consider that music is the sound of mimicry, empathy and expression.

For us as musicians, this is cause for reflection: are we empathetic and expressive as performers? Do we respect and absorb the lessons of our musical elders?

A Tiger… In Africa!?

To conceptualise music, to comprehend pitches and rhythmic figures as real tangibles, requires another truly human capacity. In “Design Features of Language”, Charles Hockett identifies the human knack for communicating subject matter that is displaced from the present moment. This nifty little skill is extremely rare in the animal kingdom. It turns out, that only bees and ants come close. Honeybees can indicate the location of food using movement signals (the ‘Waggle-dance’) and some species of ants summon reinforcements using a combination of olfactory and movement signals.

Consider the immediate ramifications of this skill for ancient man. Without the cerebral processing necessary for abstract comprehension, basic warnings would be impossible. How could you, for example, say (or grunt, or stomp your feet, to indicate) ‘There is a tiger coming! Seriously dude! Quit your solitaire and run!’ Without the capacity for displacement, the best you could do would be ‘Dude, check it out! There’s a tiger eating my leg!’

Now consider this: C to G is a perfect 5th. How did you comprehend that? Did you imagine the harmony as you read those words? Abstract thought is possibly our greatest triumph: it gave us the ability to plan a hunt, prepare for danger, and codify and articulate musical concepts. Further research must be conducted into the cerebral processes involved in displacement and how they compare with those involved in musical performance. It would seem they are one and the same, or at the very least, interrelated. The lesson for us here, is that music represents a great leap forward in cerebral processing. Every time we pick up our instruments, we are both exercising and celebrating this triumph. The art of codifying music, the mnemonics used to internalise and pass on these systems of codification, go back to ancient times. Sure Guido of Arezzo gave us the stave around 1020 AD and much has happened since, but the ability to intellectualise units of pitch as fragments of a musical system can be traced back to those earliest cerebral advances leading to our survival and eventual dominance as a species.


This brings us to an interesting juncture: where does aural signalling end and music begin?

Another of Charles Hockett’s “Design Features of Language” is “Rapid Fading”. What he refers to, is the transitoriness of aural signals; speech dissipates almost immediately – unlike written language and signage. The transitory nature of speech, and the ease with which it is transmitted, makes it a valuable survival tool. So why would we, as a species, take our efficient signalling system and turn it into loud, sustained chanting and/or drum beating, thus nullifying its benefit to us as a survival tool? The answer may lie in Dr Amotz Zahavi’s “Handicap Principle”. The basic premise of his theory is that male animals often display their strength and vitality by exhibiting a handicap lesser-males would not get away with. For example, the bird of paradise sports a beautiful three foot long tail which inhibits its movement and signals its whereabouts to predators. The proposition is that such displays are a signal to others that the male in question is actually extremely fit, strong and ultimately desirable as a mate precisely because it has thrived despite the apparent handicap.

So what does all this nerdy jargon have to do with music? Well think about it: our ancient forefathers (and mothers) used sound as an efficient means of survival; crucial in orchestrating a hunt and indispensable in escape. A click of the tongue could mean ‘Stop, I hear something’. Two clicks might mean ‘Run and hide’. But after the hunt in safer surrounds, sound could be sustained and loud in an act of defiance, bravado and (in Zahavi’s logic) dominance: ‘I am so fit and strong that you can’t catch and kill me, despite me giving away my location with all this chanting and stomping’. It is easy to imagine how this bravado gave way to habit and the birth of musical celebration. It is also a timely reminder that music was never meant to be a distraction but, rather, an integral, important facet of life; as real as the scent of blood on the hunter’s hands as he dropped the spear and began clapping to the pulse of music.

New Dog, Old Tricks

So far we have discussed a possible catalyst for the deep expressiveness and empathy found in musical performance: facial mimicry. We have discussed the human capacity for conceptualising abstract concepts, as exhibited in ‘displacement’, and how without that capacity, codified music would be impossible. We then looked at why we chose to take an efficient means of signalling and turn it into something different. Now we are going to consider the influences that have shaped the aesthetic of human music. Why do we, for instance, enjoy the sound of reverb? Why does Shostakovich’s brass invoke a different response to, for example, Debussy’s flute? Or in electric bass terms: why do we describe Jaco’s tone as sweet, and Robert Trujillo’s tone as harsh?

What is interesting about our reactions to timbre, harmonic qualities and dynamics is that they have their roots in truly ancient, pre-human times.

In their paper “Emotional responses to music: The need to consider underlying mechanisms”, Julslin and Vastfjall write:

“…an emotion is induced by music because one or more fundamental acoustical characteristics of the music are taken by the brain stem to signal a potentially important and urgent event… sounds that are sudden, loud, dissonant, or feature fast temporal patterns induce arousal or feelings of unpleasantness in listeners… The perceptual system is constantly scanning the immediate environment in order to discover potentially important changes or events. Certain sound qualities are indicative of change, such as sudden or extreme sounds, sounds that change very quickly, or sounds that are the result of strong force or large size. Sounds that meet certain criteria (e.g., fast, loud, noisy, very low- or high-frequenced) will therefore produce an increased activation of the central nervous system.”

Current popular theory suggests the brain stem pre-dates human existence by 415 million years. In the 1960s, neuroscientist Paul MacLean famously grouped the brain stem, cerebellum and other structures of the lower brain into what he termed ‘The Reptilian Complex’, after his assertion that these structures first emerged in reptiles. However, further research has found these structures to be common in all vertebrates.

By the time music reaches the auditory cortex, it has already passed through such ancient brain structures as the superior olivary complex, the inferior colliculus, and the thalamus (Kolsch & Siebel, 2005) which all analyse the auditory signal for signs of change or danger.

“Brain stem reflexes are “hard-wired.” Thus, for instance, the perceived pleasantness and unpleasantness of sensory consonance and dissonance reflect how the hearing system divides frequencies into critical bandwidths: If the frequency separation of two tones is either very small or larger than the critical bandwidth, the tones will be judged as consonant. If the separation is about one-fourth of a critical band, the tones will be judged as maximally dissonant.” (Lipscomb & Hodges, 1996).

Sensory dissonance is suggestive of “danger” in natural environments, because it occurs in the “threat” and “warning” calls of many species of animals (Ploog, 1992). Dissonance, therefore, has been selected by evolution, as an unlearned negative reinforcer of behaviour (Rolls, 2007).

In other words, while things like logarithmic processing and the harmonic series (as covered in the last article) can explain much about sound and hearing, they shed no light on why we react the way we do to different types of sound. Many researchers believe these reactions were formed in ancient times, arguably even pre-human times, as a means to survival.

Ok… So what?

What does this mean? It means music is awesome! It touches on primal instincts, draws on advanced cognition and invokes genuine human feelings of empathy. It means, that we as musicians, should be mindful of the importance of music. We should imagine the ancient warrior, having fought for his life, heart pounding with adrenaline, his cries of elation melding into musical celebration. Think of the ancient mother, surviving against all odds through child birth. Remember her nursing her child, making faces to that child, and fostering a depth of empathy unique to humanity. Bring this to your music: Listen With Love.

Finally, remember as you play, that you are exercising all the advanced cognitive powers that saw us rise to become the first truly dominant animal on this earth. You and I, as musicians, are carrying a flag worth hoisting high.

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  1. Pingback: Human Capacity For Music. - Acoustic Fields

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