[Paleopsych] Guardian: Music of the hemispheres

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Wed Jul 20 20:29:28 UTC 2005

Music of the hemispheres

    Steven Mithen's The Singing Neanderthals is an interesting but
    inconclusive examination of the evolution of our musical abilities,
    writes Peter Forbes
    Saturday July 2, 2005

    The Singing Neanderthals
    by Steven Mithen
    240pp, Weidenfeld, £20

    "Useless ... quite different from language ... a technology not an
    adaptation". This is Steven Pinker's view of the importance of music
    in human evolution. Needless to say, Steven Mithen takes the opposite
    view. For him, the proto-language, the communication system of
    pre-humans, was as much musical as linguistic, just as baby talk
    (important evidence for Mithen) is more musical than adult speech. At
    the moment, the evidence for a decision between these two views is
    inconclusive but Mithen builds his passionate case from recent work on
    the language of humans and apes and from the fossils of early man
    (Mithen is a professor of early prehistory at Reading).

    The crux of the relationship between language and music is the mystery
    of perfect pitch. This is the ability, possessed by only one in 10,000
    of the adult population, to name any note they hear being played or to
    sing a named note on request. Although the incidence of perfect pitch
    is higher among musicians than in the general population, it is still
    rare even among them. The odd thing is that many more babies and small
    children than adults seem to have perfect pitch. As Mithen says, music
    has been oddly neglected in psychological studies, though one theory
    has it that we are all born with perfect pitch but lose it unless it
    is reinforced by music lessons between the ages of three and six. Why
    would we lose something so useful?

    Because for most of us who are not to going to be musicians it isn't
    useful at all: it interferes with learning language. In learning
    language we have to recognise words from the stream of sound even
    though they come in different accents and pitches. Perfect pitch would
    be like a digital scanner that could only read letters presented in
    the correct typeface.

    Sadly, there are cases, documented by Mithen, of severely autistic
    children with little or no language skills but supreme musical ability
    (musical savants). Perfect pitch is associated with their language
    difficulties. The contortions of perfect pitch show just how complex
    is the relationship between music and language. It has been known for
    a long time that many people with language difficulties can sing
    perfectly happily. In the mildest cases, stammerers can usually sing
    fluently. Some people who have lost their language through brain
    lesions retain their musical ability and vice versa. It was once
    thought crudely that language was a left-hemisphere phenomenon and
    music right, so that if the left hemisphere were damaged, the music
    function would be unimpaired. But it is more complicated than that.
    There is relative localisation; tunes are processed separately from
    language but the words of a song still have to be retrieved from the
    language word store. Nevertheless, the words of songs are usually
    easier to retrieve than those of tuneless poems.

    Half of the book is concerned with the roots of music in our pre-human
    past and half with the evidence from neurophysiology and psychological
    experimentation on humans and primates. Much is still unprovable
    conjecture but there are some suggestive insights. One such is the
    connection between music and walking upright. Some seek the essence of
    music in pitch, melody, or harmony, but the first essential was surely
    a regular rhythm. Chimpanzees can't keep a regular beat but it's hard
    to imagine a human being who could stride in perfectly regular paces
    never discovering music that beats four to the bar.

    So in love with the idea of early man's musicality is Mithen that he
    ends with a strange call to arms. "So listen to JS Bach's Prelude in C
    Major and think of australopithecines waking in their treetop nests
    ... with Miles Davis's Kind of Blue imagine them satiated with food
    and settling to sleep amid the security of the trees." Bach is
    conventionally cited to show how far we've come from our animal
    origins and Kind of Blue is the epitome of urban cool - seduction
    music rather than music to help a greasy tribe sleep off a gross
    feast. In the end, Mithen's quest to prove Pinker wrong has led him to
    an equally reductive attitude towards music.

    · Peter Forbes's The Gecko's Foot: Bio-inspiration, Engineered from
    Nature is published by Fourth Estate in August.

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