Are we hardwired for music?

Music has usually been studied as a cultural product – specific to a certain time and place. We associate different kinds of music, tuning systems, qualities of the sound and kinds of instruments with different ethnic groups or different cultural societies.  And we attribute different structural forms, harmonic systems and (again) instruments to various time periods.  We learn why Bach could only have written what he did during the era that came to be known as the Baroque and why the minimalism of Philip Glass or Steve Reich could only have happened in the late twentieth century (although Satie came close in the late 19th century).

But in the scientific world, music is increasingly being studied as a biological function, something we humans have been hardwired to do.  While all scientists don’t agree, there is an increasing amount of research to support the idea that music has biological roots. Researchers are not saying that all humans are capable of the performance of music in a formal sense, but that humans may be hardwired to enjoy and to engage in music as they are hardwired for language.

So let’s take a very brief look at research in archaeology, psychology and neuroscience to see why the idea that there is a biological basis for making music is gaining traction.

There are no societies known today, nor are there any from the past, that did not have some kind of cultural practices that could be categorized as music.  Steven Mithen, archaeologist at the University of Reading in the UK and author of The Singing Neanderthals, argues that, just as food and sex were necessary to the survival of our Stone Age ancestors (and are still essential to the human race), so was music, and we therefore have inherited our compulsion to be involved in music.

While the earliest known instruments made of bird bone and mammoth ivory have recently been dated at 42,000 – 43,000 years old, Mithen believes that the roots of music go back much further – to the Neanderthals, who lived 350,000 years ago.  He believes they used a proto-musical language that used variations in pitch, rhythm, and timbre to express emotion, to care for infants, and to bond as a group, and that this pre-language was essential to the survival of our pre-linguistic ancestors and eventually led to the development of language.  Music first – language second.

In psychology, researchers who study infants have discovered a wide range of musical abilities in newborns, indicating that a capacity for making music may be innate.  As has been found to be the case with language, infants have also been found to be equipped for the music of any Little boy in headphonesculture.  It isn’t until they are 5 – 7 years old that culture-specific details become encoded.

Among many fascinating studies, it has been learned that newborns can recognize if a downbeat is missing from a rhythmic pattern, that they prefer a singing voice as opposed to a speaking voice (why mothers sing to their babies), that newborns can recognize a fifth (7 semitones) as opposed to a second (2 semitones), and that infants of 8 months have the capacity to encode some melodies into long-term memory.

Two to three-day old babies have been found to detect the beat in music, and if you bounce a seven-month old, she will prefer listening to a rhythm that is in sync with the bouncing as opposed to one that isn’t.  Another study of infants between five months and two years concludes that babies may be born with a predisposition to move rhythmically in response to music.  And the better the infants were able to synchronize their movements with the music in that study, the more they smiled.   And we still smile when we’re moving to music as adults.

Psychologists conduct behavioral studies.  But what is happening in the brain that leads neuroscientists to believe that we may have a biological disposition for music?   Much of the research in this area comes from looking at individuals who are brain damaged in a way that has led to a loss of language capabilities, but with the ability to make music still intact.  The most written about case concerns a Russian composer, Vissarion Shebalin, not well-known to us, but a very close friend of Dmitri Shostakovich.  When he was in his early 50s, Shebalin suffered a series of strokes that left him without language capabilities, but yet he was able to compose.  His Fifth Symphony, which was completed about ten years after his first stroke, was described by Shostakovich as “a brilliant creative work, filled with the highest emotions, and full of life.”

There are instances of many other people who have lost language capabilities who are still able to make music.  The converse of this are people, termed amusics, who have no problem in speaking or understanding speech, but are unable to perceive or interpret music.   (Some of you may be wondering about Ravel.  Although he suffered neurological impairment later in life variously “diagnosed,” as frontotemporal dementia and Pick’s disease, the neuroscientific jury is still out on Ravel’s diagnosis.)

Music is processed in areas throughout the brain, and some of the cognitive processes involved in music, such as memory, emotion, and perception, share neural circuitry with more general brain functioning.  But research has also found that some neural networks seem to be specifically dedicated to the processing of music.  For example, there are auditory circuits used in the perception of music that are not used for speech recognition or for other kinds of sounds.  The circuitry required for processing pitch intervals or complex rhythmic structures is probably unique to music and not used for anything else.

Musical savants have been cited as evidence for brain specialization for music.  Often found in autistic individuals, savants may display an extremely high level of achievement in music while being of below- average intelligence, without linguistic skills.  The most famous musical savant in history was probably “Blind Tom,” an American slave who, although he had a vocabulary of fewer than 100 words, had a musical repertoire of over 7000 pieces, including classical music, popular songs, hymns, etc.  Exhibited as a “freak,” Blind Tom earned more than today’s equivalent of $1.5 million a year for his owner.

So what does being hardwired for music mean in practical terms?  Those of us who teach have had the experience of working with students who don’t seem to have a musical bone in their bodies.  Should everyone be able to make music if, in fact, we are hardwired for music?

To be continued next time – which will be in two weeks – around the 3rd of November.   No post next week.

In the meantime, please share any thoughts you may have about hardwiring for music.