Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Music, Cognition, Culture, and Evolution

Cross, Ian. "Music, Cognition, Culture, and Evolution." In Isabelle Peretz and Robert J. Zatorre, eds. The Cognitive Neuroscience of Music. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.

This chapter, in the book The Cognitivie Neuroscience of Music, attempts to negotiate the illusive tie between cultural and biological conceptions of music. Cross acknowledges that musical meanings, uses, and definitions vary drastically between cultures, to the extent that a universal, overarching cultural definition of music is unachievable. Furthermore, he admits the complication in attemps to reduce or even relate culture to biology. He does suggest that ties are there, however, when viewed through the lens of evolutionary theory. This theory provides a common framework from which to examine both cultural and biological musical worlds. The human capacity for musicality becomes the focus, and this competence is where Cross is more willing to make claims of universal human uniqueness. He allows space for multiple definitions of music while examining the evolutionary origins of musical capacity. Cross's three major points are:
1) music is a product of both biology and social interaction
2) music is necessary and integral to human development
3) music may have been highly influential in the evolution of the human mind

Cross includes a lengthy footnote early on that summarizes critical thought on the term 'nature' and the notion of 'natural kinds' as outlined by science. He shows that what seems naturally biological in fact varies in definition as much as music does culturally. Definitions have various levels and depend on the purposes for which those definitions are purported. Cross rightly insists that there is a societal dimension to what constitutes science, but at the same time that scientific procedures are able to offer valuable knowledge.

As an ethnomusicology student, any claim that music is a universal language sends chills up my spine. This may be mainly a matter of definition, but it is nonetheless an oversimplified and idealistic notion. The definition of music varies drastically from one culture to the next, and some cultures don't even have equivalent vocabulary for music as we see it. Music certainly doesn't communicate the same things to members of different cultures, and is used to serve very different functions within different societies. Thus, biological universals in relation to music raise a certain skepticism in my mind. Fortunately, Cross is sensitive to these problematics and makes many of the above points clear before investigating the links between culture and biology. It is a skillful and remedial distinction to focus on the human capacity for music, rather than on music itself. (Also from the point of view as a student in music research, I was happy to see many relevant and substantial names in the bibliography: Geertz, Tomlinson, Abbate, Slobin, Blacking, Merriam...)

The basic premise of this article makes me think of the grand nature-nurture, or more appropriately nature-culture, debate so frequently discussed in psychology. Historically, waves of thought swept academia that leaned to one or the other extreme. Recently, though, it has become more accepted that neither biology (nature) nor culture (nurture) are wholly responsible for psychological brain functioning. I am pleased to see this balance maintained in Cross's paper.

Point number three above is closely related to claims made by Daniel Levitin concerning the evolutionary shaping of the human mind through music. I find Cross's argument much more compelling, however, perhaps due to its more scholarly, rather than popular, setting. This is not 'evolutionary theory for dummies'. I can (and we all must) acknowledge the body behind music and recognize that in doing music, we are biological beings performing very physical acts. Linking culture to biology is very tricky business, however, and naturalizing culture has some potentially dangerous political implications. Nevertheless, almost every member of the community at large will insist that there is something universal about music. Cross tries to balance this sentiment with music's cultural particularity by linking culture and biology through the mind, which does not seem inappropriate. His focus on musical capacity including both production and understanding may be the loophole in the cultural specificity argument against biological universality.

Cross says on 46 that one of the main elements of music's universality is that music is inefficacious. It doesn't appear to have any immediate and evident efficacy. It can't be the material cause of anything. I feel like this can be soundly argued. Do comment on this.


Lee Bartel said...

The connections between culture and cognition and music are tough enough without bring evolution into the mix.I agree with you on the nature-nurture issue - usually now considered 50-50. But the evolution issue is a general problem - partly because the study of "primitive" peoples cannot be ascribed to "earlier" in cultural evolution in a certain enough way in my opinion.


Gloria said...

I agree. Thinking of cultural evolution is also a problem because the type of progression that we come up with has too often just placed the white, western world on top.

Sharon Dutton said...

Hi Gloria - I quoted you in my post, "when the brain plays music" - not sure that I quoted you correctly - with regards to form, that is. I liked your reflection very much.