There’s a good chance that you’re listening to music while reading this, and if you happen not to be, my bet is that you listen to music in the car, or at home, or while jogging. In all likelihood, you love music – simply love it.
Why? What is it about those auditory patterns counting as “music” that makes us relish it so?
I have my own opinion about the answer, the topic of my recently finished book that will appear next year, Harnessed: How Language and Music Mimicked Nature and Transformed Ape to Man. I’ll give you a hint as to my view at the end of this piece, but what I’d like to do in this piece is to put forth four hurdles I believe any theory of music must leap over.
Brain: Why do we have a brain for music?
Emotion: Why is music emotionally evocative?
Dance: Why do we dance?
Structure: Why is music structurally organized as it is?
If a theory can answer all four questions, then I believe we should start paying attention.
To help clarify what I mean by these questions, let’s run through them in the context of a particular lay theory of music, namely the “heartbeat” theory of music. Although there is probably not just a single heartbeat theory put forth by lay people, the main motivation appears to be that a heart carries a beat, something fundamental to music. Of course, we don’t typically hear our own heartbeat, much less others, so when it is fleshed out I have heard it suggested that it comes from our in-utero days. One of the constants of the good fetus life was Momma’s heartbeat, and music takes us back to the oceanic, one-with-the-universe feelings we long ago lost. I’m not suggesting this is a good theory, by any means, but it will aid me in illustrating the four hurdles. I would be hesitant, by the way, to call this “lub-dub” theory of music crazy – our understanding of the origins of music is so woeful that any non-spooky theory is worth a look. Let’s see how lub-dubs fare with our four hurdles for a theory of music.
The first hurdle was this: “Why do we have a brain for music?” That is, why are our brains capable of processing music? For example, fax machines are designed to process the auditory modulations occurring in fax machine communication, but to our ears fax machines sound like a fairly continuous screechy-brrr – we don’t have brains capable of processing fax machine sounds. Music may well sound homogeneously screechy-brrrey to non-human ears, but it sounds richly dynamic and structured to our ears. How might the lub-dub theorist answer why we have a brain for music?
Best I can figure, the lub-dubber could say that our in-utero days of warmth and comfort get strongly associated to Momma’s heartbeat, and the musical beat taps into those associations, bringing back warm fetus feelings.
One difficulty for this hypothesis is that learned associations often don’t last forever, so why would those Momma’s-heartbeat associations be so strong among adults? There are lots of beat-like stimuli out of the womb: some are nice, some are not nice. Why wouldn’t those out-of-the-womb sounds become the dominant association, with the Momma’s heartbeat washed away? And if Momma’s lub-dubs are, for some reason, not washed away, then why aren’t there other in-utero experiences that forever stay with us? Why don’t we, say, like to wear artificial umbilical cords, thereby bringing forth recollections of the womb? “Cuddle with your umbilicus just like the old days. You’ll sleep better. Guaranteed!” And why, at any rate, do we think we were so happy in the womb? Maybe those days, supposing they leave any trace at all, are associated with nothing whatsoever. (Or perhaps with horror.) The lub-dub theory of music does not have a plausible story for why we have a brain ready and excited to soak up a beat.
The lub-dub theory of music origins also comes up short on the second major demand on a theory of music – that it explain why music is evocative, or emotional. Heartbeat sounds amount to a one-dimensional parameter – faster or slower rate – and are not sufficiently rich to capture much of the range of human emotion. Accordingly, heartbeats won’t help much in explaining the range of emotions music can elicit in listeners.
Psychophysiologists who look for physiological correlates of emotion take a variety of measurements (e.g., heart rate, blood pressure, skin conductance), not just one. Heart sounds aren’t rich enough to tug at all music’s heart strings.
Heartbeats also fail the “dance” hurdle. The “dance” requirement is that we explain why it is that music should elicit dance. This fundamental fact about music is a strange thing for sounds to do. In fact, it is a strange thing for any stimulus to do, in any modality. For lub-dubs, the difficulty for the dance hurdle is that even if lub-dubs were fondly recalled by us, and even if they managed to elicit a wide range of emotions, we would have no idea why it should provoke post-uterin people to move, given that even fetuses don’t move to Momma’s heartbeat.
The final requirement of a theory of music is that it explain the structure of music, a tall order. Lub-dubs do have a beat, of course, but heartbeats are far too simple to possibly explain the many other structural regularities found in music. For starters, where is the melody?
Sorry, Mom. Thanks for the good times in your uterus, but I’m afraid your heartbeats are not the source of my fascination with music.
To tip my hand on my upcoming book, my view is that music has been culturally selected over time to sound like human movement, something I have also hinted at in the following pieces…
We have a brain for music because auditory mechanisms for recognizing what people are doing around us are clearly advantageous, and were selected for. Music is evocative because it sounds like human behaviors, many which are expressive in their nature. Music gets us dancing because we social apes are prone to mimic the movements of others. And, finally, the movement theory is sufficiently powerful that it can explain a lot of the structure of music – that requires much of the my book to describe. I admit that my hypothesis sounds implausible, and I ask that you wait to hear the book-length argument for it.
This first appeared on April 6, 2010, as a feature at Science 2.0