The Biology of Music
Luis Benítez-Bribiesca, Patricia M. Gray, Roger Payne, Bernie Krause and Mark J. Tramo , Science, New Series, Vol. 292, No. 5526 (Jun. 29, 2001), pp. 2432-2433
By: Michelle Minke
Two scientists, P. M Gray and M.J Tramo, discuss the biological and evolutionary origin of musical creativity.
The diatonic scale that arrived more than three centuries ago, consists mostly of an imperfect sequence of notes that are an old, natural division of the octave. The diatonic scale has been compared to the music of whales, birds and the physiology of the human cochlea by analyzing and researching the series of musical notes. Whales might have chosen the same music intervals to communicate, and are known to compose compositions as long as symphonies. Gray believes that the roots of music lie closer to our ancient brain than our neo cortex, as opposed to Tramo who believes that music involves great cortical activity.
For many cultures still living close to a natural environment there is no separation between music and nature. In places such as Bayaka or Jivaro,there is no need to analyze equal tempered or well tempered scales. Perfection of sound is not the goal. There is no limitation of musical influences, as they use inspiration from mammals, birds, insects, fish and amphibians. In the west there is limited “acoustic expression” due to lack of unique animals in our environment. Our ears are limited by always wanting a perfect sound. The sounds that are acceptable and natural in other countries may then come across as imperfect to our western ears.
Music perception in the brain, according to Tramo, is an emotional response occurring because of phylogenetic ancient structures.
I acknowledge the musical intervals of birds and whales but never considered it to be a primal reasoning of how we began to organize music. Music of course began as sound before it was every notated, but how can music be analyzed as beautiful or not? Are western ears less likely to appreciate Indian or African music simply because of the surrounding we were brought up in?
When I analyze music purely from the natural environment it is derived from, I can hear why there is different rhythm in African music than Canadian, or Brazilian music compared to European music. The animals, trees and waters of these countries have shaped the internal ear of the people. Perhaps if I researched animals, and the natural surrounding of every piece of music that I studied or performed, It would broaden my horizon of appreciation. I find it amazing that our brain recognizes beauty and familiarity based on our personal origin of nature, and that our idea of a perfect sound is established by the environment we are a product of.
I can relate to this when I visited Ireland for the first time. My Grandfather was born and raised in Ireland, and I am Irish, third generation. When my family and I were sitting in a pub in Dublin listening to an Irish band play traditional music, I looked across the room and saw a woman who had exact physical features as mine.I remember thinking to myself, this is where I have come from. The music also had the same affect on me. Each beat of the drum resonated in my body, each harmony echoed in my ear and I emotionally responded with feelings of belonging to this culture. Although I don’t live there and have only visited on few occasions, the sound of an Irish band, flute or harp, inspires my ear to recognize it as “perfection” to me. I can hear the Irish sea, and the wind of Irish Gales. My grandfather played music for me when I was young, and my mother always has Irish music in the house, and I am a product of my environment. Phlyogentically,through musical structures, I feel a great connection to my cultural heritage.