Why Music?

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Author Philip Ball asks why music is such a universal human trait. How do we recognise music, where does it come from, and how does it affect us so deeply? Philip Ball speaks to scientists and musicians from around the world, including Tecumseh Fitch, Joe Stilgoe, Aniruddh Patel, Robert Zatorre, Laurel Trainor, and Daniel Levitin to explore these questions and some of the insights provided by neuroscience and evolutionary theory.

Little in music is universal, and little that is universal really matters. What is universal is the ability to make music, and most of that comes from us being habitual pattern seekers.

As Tecumseh Fitch and others point out, perception of relative pitch seems basically human and effortless. Birds for example do not repond to transposed birdsong. But we can pick the same tune out from many guises.

Philip looks at the power of emotion in music, and we can understand at least some of that. This does little to reduce the power that music has, but it also does nothing to tell the whole story.

Music seems to derive its power and significance in its ability to carry meaning without words. The lack of semantic specificity is what enables it to carry several, even contradictory, meanings at once. Can we regard it as a projection of human experience?

Where did it come from? To ask if it is adaptive or parasitic might be beside the point. We have music because of the way our brains are. To get rid of it would involve changing our brains profoundly. As Ani Patel describes, it could be regarded as a transformative technology in the history of man. Any description of where it came from would bear little relation to its significance and use now.