Overweening Generalist

Friday, April 27, 2012

Origin of Music: A Kluge? A Spandrel? An Exaptation?

How and when did music begin? I'm not sure we'll ever "really" come to a conclusion that will satisfy most people, but that's not the point; if we're at all interested in The Question, then the intellectual-aesthetic joys seem to reside in the debates and the different frameworks of talk and explanatory schemes that attend the query. It's easy to get mired in one scheme. Try JOOTSing ("Jumping outside of the system," a term from Douglas Hofstadter) and looking at another system of explanation. My favorite models have switched four or five times in the past few years.

                                   Charles "I Don't Want to Make Anyone Upset" Darwin

I used to be in the Darwin camp, and it's still a robust, vital model. (Of course!) Basically, the Darwin model sees not much of a practical "use" for a reason we evolved to be musical beings: the hot stuff is in sex selection. One of the reasons I've always found the "music is not practical for anything except pleasure and advertising as a viable sex mate" a persuasive bit is because of my own wallflower background as a kid. I was too too shy and didn't know the first thing about getting girls. It was agonizing. If I did have women my age in my life, I'd fallen into "let's just be friends" territory. But when I started playing guitar - I'm some sort of extremist because I took to it so strongly that I made myself practice four hours a day, almost right from the start - that when I got into my first bands, the girls "all the sudden" came at me like iron filings and I was some tall, gaunt, poorly-complected goofball girl-magnet. Yes they did come. It worked!...far better than I ever thought it would! Soon, I realized I wanted to actually be good and try to impress myself with my axe, but that's another story.

Recently - the last few years - I've been following the genes stuff that say music rides on language genes. This is where the science gets hairy, because I'm no expert and read debates between evolutionary psychologists, geneticists, and psycholinguists who have far better knowledge of the particulars. I find I look for elegance of rhetorical style in a psychologist's or sociobiologist's or semiotician's or linguist's or cognitive scientist's or ethnomusicologist's or zoomusicologist's arguments, which is no way to evaluate, but let's face it: most of us generalists just don't know...and if very many Experts disagree, I don't feel so bad. I'm not convinced anyone knows. Hence this blog...

Just in the past few years, we've found prehistoric flute-like instruments (a mammoth's bone-flute from c.35,000 years old that gave - approximately - the first four notes of the major scale [No 5th? O! As Maxwell Smart might've said, "Missed it by that much."]). Some have found some genes that seem to help in learning music. Neuroscientists have found localized areas of the brain that seem to function for improvisation. It's all very bewildering to me, I must confess.

But intriguing...

I scanned my copy of Edward O. Wilson's magisterial 1975 bombshell of an intellectual book, Sociobiology: The New Synthesis for observations on music and there's one short paragraph on it (p.564 in the first ed.), in the final chapter "Man: From Sociobiology to Sociology," and EOW hits on quasi-religious "uniting" people, identification like birds, apes drumming like carnival displays, animals just like us in some way, on a grand continuum. Comparing animals' uses of music to ours, "Richness of information and precise transmission of mood are no less the standard of excellence in human music." Later: "Human music has been liberated from iconic representation in the same way that true language has departed from the elementary ritualization characterizing the communication of animals. Music has the capacity for unlimited and arbitrary symbolization, and it employs rules of phrasing and order that serve the same function as syntax." And who can quibble with that? EOW seems influenced by Chomsky in that last bit, but EOW's also talking about where music ended up, by 1975 at least, before Auto-Tune.

HERE's a pretty good example of two psychologists who disagree about the "innateness" of music. I consider this polite debate between Geoffrey Miller and Gary Marcus to be a "push." I have no dog in this fight. Gary Marcus is also interviewed HERE for his latest book, Guitar Zero: The New Music and the Science of Learning, by the beautiful Cara Santa Maria. It's a good debate - the one between Miller and Marcus - if you haven't been keeping up on the origin of music debates lately, I think it's a very readable entry place. There's a book called Origins of Music by Wallin, Merker and Brown that came out in 2000 if you want to get quickly immersed in the intricacies of this stuff.

[A brief aside: the Marcus book shatters some assumptions about learning an instrument like guitar at a late age, say over 30. If you "always wanted to" but felt like you "waited too long," you still can! And Marcus provides some enticing neurobiological reasons why you still can.]

Lately I've favored the data about shamans, who imitate the sounds of animals and other sounds in nature, or the trough of onomatopoeiac explanations. The birds sing: are they communicating with each other, trying to wow a potential mate, or doing it for some bird-intrinsic rewarding "reason"? I don't know, but lately my main guys on this subject are two poetic philosophers: Lucretius (c.98-55 BCE), and Gimabattista Vico (1668-1744), who was influenced by Lucretius.

In his baroque exposition of his "New Science," Vico is fascinated by ideas about the origins of speech, writing, poetry, singing, gods, social order, and metaphors. In this he prefigures modern cognitive science, and many current Anthropologists and Sociologists think Vico originated cultural anthropology. Some of his passages on how metaphors work in the mind seem uncannily like George Lakoff's ideas, and indeed, in Lakoff's book The Political Mind he acknowledges Vico as a pre-empirical forerunner of thinkers who saw metaphor not as a figure of speech but as basic to thought.

"The authors of the first pagan nations must have formed their first languages by singing. For they had fallen into the brutish state of mute beasts, and in such dull-witted creatures only the stimulus of violent passions could have awakened consciousness."

"Mute people can utter crude vowels by singing, just as by singing stammerers can overcome their impediment and articulate consonants."

Orpheus would be a metaphorical god for those who were particularly adept at singing and perhaps playing a primitive instrument, like a lyre. An Orphic used music as strong rhetoric. I'd say He still does! But perhaps I'll go into that some other day.

                                         Supposedly this was what Lucretius looked like

Now my favorite passage from any book on this subject. From Lucretius's On The Nature Of Things, Book V:

By imitating with the mouth the clear notes of birds was in long use before men were able to sing in tune smooth-running verses and give pleasure to the ear. And the whistlings of the zephyr through the hollows of reeds first taught peasants to blow into hollow stalks. Then step by step they learned sweet plaintive ditties, which the pipe pours forth pressed by the fingers of the players, heard through pathless woods and forests and lawns, through the unfrequented haunts of shepherds and abodes of unearthly calm. These things would soothe and gratify their minds when sated with food; for then all things of this kind were welcome. Often therefore stretched in groups on the soft grass beside a stream of water under the boughs of a high tree at no great cost they would pleasantly refresh their bodies, above all when the weather smiled and the seasons of the year painted the green grass with flowers. Then went round the jest, the tale, the peals of merry laughter; for the peasant muse was then in its glory; then frolick mirth would prompt to entwine head and shoulders with garlands plaited with flowers and leaves, and to advance in the dance out of step and move the limbs clumsily and with clumsy foot beat mother earth; which would occasion smiles and peals of merry laughter, because all these things then from their greater novelty and strangeness were in high repute. And the wakeful found a solace for want of sleep in this, in drawing out a variety of notes and going through tunes and running over the reeds with curling lip; whence even at the present day watchmen observe these traditions and have lately learned to keep a proper tune; and yet for all this receive not a jot more of enjoyment, than erst the rugged race of sons of earth received. - translated by H.A.J. Munro

                               In case you haven't seen this, Slovakian violist is able to roll with
                               the modern punches (one minute or so):

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