Posts Tagged ‘Origins of music’

It is my pleasure to announce that my upcoming book, HARNESSED (Benbella, 2011) can now be pre-ordered at Amazon!

It is about how we came to have language and music. …about how we became modern humans. See https://changizi.wordpress.com/book-harnessed/ for more about the book.


Mark Changizi is Professor of Human Cognition at 2AI, and the author of The Vision Revolution (Benbella Books) and the upcoming book Harnessed: How Language and Music Mimicked Nature and Transformed Ape to Man (Benbella Books).


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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


Mark Changizi is a professor of cognitive science at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and the author of The Vision Revolution (Benbella Books).

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This first appeared on January 10, 2010, as a feature at ScientificBlogging.com.

Joggers love their head phones. If you ask them why, they’ll tell you it keeps them motivated. The right song can transform what is by all rights an arduous half hour of ascetic masochism into an exhilarating whirlwind (or, in my case, into what feels like only 25 minutes of ascetic masochism).

Music-driven joggers may be experiencing a pleasurable diversion, but to the joggers and bikers in their vicinity, they’re Tasmanian Devils.

In choosing to jog to the beat of someone else’s drum rather than their own, headphoned joggers have blinded themselves to the sounds of the other movers around them. Headphones don’t prevent joggers from deftly navigating the trees, stumps, curbs, and parked cars of the world because these things can be seen as one approaches. But when one moves in a world with other movers, things not currently in front of you can quickly come to be in front of you. This is where the headphoned jogger stumbles … and crashes into the crossing jogger, passing biker, or first-time tricycler.

These music-filled movers may be a menace to our streets, but they can serve to educate us all about one of our underappreciated powers: using sound alone, we know where people are around us, and the nature of their movement. I’m sitting in a coffee shop as I write this, and when I close my eyes I sense the movement all around me: a clop of boots just passed to my right; a jingling-key person just walked in front of me from my right to my left, and back; and a pitter patter of a child just meandered way out in front of me. I sense where they are, their direction of motion, and their speed. I also sense their gait, such as whether they are walking or running. And I can often tell more than this, such as a brisk versus shuffling walk, an angry stomp versus a happy prance, or even a complex behavior, like turning and stopping to drop a dirty tray in a bin, slowing to open a door, or reversing direction to get a forgotten coffee. My auditory system carries out these mover-detection computations even when I’m not consciously attending to them. That’s why I’m difficult to sneak up on (although they keep trying!), and that’s why I only rarely find myself saying, “How long has that cheerleading squad been doing jumping jacks behind me?!” That almost never happens to me because my auditory system is keeping track of where people are and roughly what they’re doing, even when I’m otherwise occupied.

We can now see why joggers with their ears unencumbered by headphones almost never crash into feral dogs or runaway wheelchaired grandpas: they may not see the dog or grandpa, but they hear their movement through space, and can dynamically modulate their running to avoid both, and be merrily on their way. Without headphones, joggers are highly sensitive to the sounds of cars, and can track their movement: that car is coming around the bend; the one over there is reversing directly toward me; the one above me is falling; and so on. Headphoned joggers, on the other hand, have turned off their movement-detection system, and should be passed with caution! And although they are a hazard to pedestrians and cyclists, the people they put at greatest risk are themselves. This is because where there are joggers there are often cars nearby, and in collisions between a jogger and an automobile, automobiles typically only need a power-wash to the grill.

How does your auditory system serve as a movement tracking system? In addition to sensing whether a mover is to your left or right, in front or behind, and above or below – something that depends on the shape, position and number of ears you have – you possess specialized auditory software that interprets the sounds of movers and generates a good guess as to the mover’s movement through space. Your software has evolved to give you four kinds of information about a mover: (i) his distance from you, (ii) his directedness toward you, (iii) his speed, and (iv) his behavior or gait. How, then, does your auditory system infer these four kinds of information?

Evidence suggests that (i) distance is gleaned from loudness, (ii) directedness toward you can be cued by pitch (due to subtle but detectable Doppler shifts), (iii) speed is inferred by the number of footsteps per second, and (iv) behavior and gait are read from the pattern of footsteps. Four fundamental parameters of human movement, and four kinds of auditory cue: (i) loudness, (ii) sound frequency, (iii) step rate, and (iv) gait pattern.

Your auditory system has evolved to track these cues because of the supreme value in knowing where and what everyone is doing nearby.

This is where things get interesting… Even though joggers without headphones are not listening to music, their auditory systems are listening to fundamentally music-like constituents. Consider the four auditory movement cues mentioned just above (and shown on the right of Figure 2). Loudness? That’s just pianissimo versus piano versus forte and so on. Sound frequency? That’s roughly pitch. Step rate? That’s tempo. And the gait pattern? That’s akin to rhythm and beat. The four fundamental auditory cues for movement are, then, awefully similar to (i) loudness, (ii) pitch, (iii) tempo, and (iv) rhythm.

These are the most fundamental ingredients of music, and yet, there they are in the sounds of human movers. The most informative sounds of human movers are the fundamental building blocks of music!

The importance of loudness, pitch, tempo and rhythm to both music and movement is, I believe, more than a coincidence. The similarity runs deep – something speculated on ever since the Greeks. Research in my lab has been providing evidence that music is built not just with the building blocks of movement, but is actually organized like movement, thereby harnessing our movement-recognition auditory mechanisms. The story this leads to for music is this: Music has been culturally selected to sound like people moving, just the kinds of sounds your auditory system evolved to be great at processing. …and just the kinds of sounds that can possess emotional content that makes music evocative and worth listening to.

Music is evocative because it is made with people, something I also wrote about here [ http://bit.ly/rcKVh ], and something I will discuss further in the future.

Headphoned joggers, then, aren’t merely missing out on the real movement around them – they pipe into their ears a fictional movement, making them even more hazardous than a jogger wearing earplugs.

Mark Changizi is a professor of cognitive science at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and the author of The Vision Revolution (Benbella Books).

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By Mark Changizi   

As a young man I enjoyed listening to a particular series of French instructional programs. I didn’t understand a word, but was nevertheless enthralled. Was it because the sounds of human speech are thrilling? Not really. Speech sounds alone, stripped of their meaning, don’t inspire. We don’t wake up to alarm clocks blaring German speech. We don’t drive to work listening to native spoken Eskimo, and then switch it to the Bushmen Click station during the commercials. Speech sounds don’t give us the chills, and they don’t make us cry – not even French.


But music does emanate from our alarm clocks in the morning, and fill our cars, and give us chills, and make us cry. According to a recent paper by Nidhya Logeswaran and Joydeep Bhattacharya from the University of London, music even affects how we see visual images. In the experiment, 30 subjects were presented with a series of happy or sad musical excerpts. After listening to the snippets, the subjects were shown a photograph of a face. Some people were shown a happy face – the person was smiling – while others were exposed to a sad or neutral facial expression. The participants were then asked to rate the emotional content of the face on a 7-point scale, where 1 mean extremely sad and 7 extremely happy. 

The researchers found that music powerfully influenced the emotional ratings of the faces. Happy music made happy faces seem even happier while sad music exaggerated the melancholy of a frown.  A similar effect was also observed with neutral faces. The simple moral is that the emotions of music are “cross-modal,” and can easily spread from sensory system to another. Now I never sit down to my wife’s meals without first putting on a jolly Sousa march.

Although it probably seems obvious that music can evoke emotions, it is to this day not clear why. Why doesn’t music feel like listening to speech sounds, or animal calls, or garbage disposals? Why is music nice to listen to? Why does music get blessed with a multi-billion dollar industry, whereas there is no market for “easy listening” speech sounds?

In an effort to answer, let’s first ask why I was listening to French instructional programs in the first place. The truth is, I wasn’t just listening. I was watching them on public television. What kept my attention was not the meaningless-to-me speech sounds (I was a slow learner), but the young French actress. Her hair, her smile, her mannerisms, her pout… I digress. The show was a pleasure to watch because of the humans it showed, especially the exhibited expressions and behaviors.

The lion share of emotionally evocative stimuli in the lives of our ancestors would have been from the faces and bodies of other people, and if one finds human artifacts that are highly evocative, it is a good hunch that it looks or sounds human in some way.

…continue reading at Scientific American

Mark Changizi is Professor of Cognitive Science at RPI, the author of The Vision Revolution (Benbella, 2009) and The Brain from 25,000 Feet (Kluwer, 2003).

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Working now on my third book, called HARNESSED: How Language and Music Mimicked Nature and Transformed Ape to Man. Here is the short overview…

If one of our non-speaking ancestors were found frozen in a glacier and revived, we imagine that he would find our world jarringly alien. The concrete, the cars, the clothes, the constant jabbering – it’s enough to make a hominid jump into the nearest freezer and hope to be reawoken after the apocalypse. But would modernity really seem so frightening to our guest? Although cities and savannas would appear to have little in common, might there be deep similarities? Could civilization have retained vestiges of nature, easing our ancestor’s transition?

Although we were born into civilization rather than thawed into it, from an evolutionary point of view we’re an uncivilized beast dropped into cultured society. We prefer nature as much as the next hominid, in the sense that our brains work best when their computationally sophisticated mechanisms can be applied as evolutionarily intended. One might, then, expect that civilization will have been shaped over time to possess signature features of nature, thereby squeezing every drop of evolution’s genius for use in the modern world.

Does civilization mimic nature? In his new book, HARNESSED, Mark Changizi argues that the most fundamental pillars of humankind are thoroughly infused with signs of the ancestral world. Those pillars are language and music. Cultural evolution over time has led to language and music designed as a simulacra of nature, so that they can be nearly effortlessly utilized by our ancient brains. Languages have evolved so that words look like natural objects when written and sound like natural events when spoken. And music has come to have the signature auditory patterns of people moving in one’s midst.

But if the key to our human specialness rests upon powers likely found in our non-linguistic hominid ancestors, then it suggests we are our non-linguistic hominid ancestors. Our thawed ancestors may do just fine here because our language would harness their brain as well. Rather than jumping into a freezer, our long-lost relative may choose instead to enter engineering school and invent the next generation of refrigerator. The origins of language and music may be attributable not to brains having evolved language or music instincts, but, rather, to language and music having culturally evolved brain instincts. Language and music shaped themselves over many thousands of years to be tailored for our brains, and because our brains were cut for nature, language and music mimicked nature. …transforming ape to man.

Mark Changizi is Professor of Cognitive Science at RPI, and the author of The Vision Revolution (Benbella, 2009) and The Brain from 25000 Feet (Kluwer, 2003).

[See related pieces on music in ScienceDaily and Scientific American.]

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