Sunday, September 25, 2011

The Role Of Music In Human Evolution


Podcast of an interview with Daniel Levitin:

Dr. Daniel Levitin is a scientist, musician, author, producer, sound designer, and recording engineer. He holds a PhD in Psychology from the University of Oregon, and he completed post-doctoral studies at Stanford University Medical School in Neuroimaging, and at UC Berkeley in Cognitive Psychology. He is currently an Associate Professor of Psychology, Behavioural Neuroscience, and Music at McGill University. He is also the author of the best seller This Is Your Brain On Music (2006), and The World In Six Songs: How the Musical Brain Created Human Nature (2008).

Summary: Daniel Levitin on his book The World in Six Songs: How the Musical Brain Created Human Nature

Levitin’s book The World in six Songs explores how music has helped to define who we are as humans and how it can be classified within six categories: friendship, joy, comfort, knowledge, religion/ritual, and love. After an analysis of thousands of recordings and texts of music going back as far as six thousand years, what emerged were these six categories of music. It is not a book about the six most important songs of all time, but six kinds of music that our ancestors used to form social bounds, to comfort one another, to encapsulate knowledge, and to eventually create societies.

In this book, Levitin wanted to incorporate more science than in his previous one This Is Your Brain On Music. He believes that you cannot research an interesting issue from one academic perspective. This is the reason why he chose a multidisciplinary approach that encompasses neurochemistry, anthropology, musicology, and evolutionary biology. He is not promoting any new ideas, but he wants to synthesize hundreds of articles related to his subject in a framework that is easy to understand. The choice of six songs is basically a device to connect the different fields of study and lay out the information.

The core of Levitin’s research is directed towards the role of music in human evolution, from creating civilizations to particular changes in the brain of Homo sapiens, the lather giving rise to the desire to communicate, to represent things artistically, and to convey them emotionally rather than factually. In his opinion the role of music has been under appreciated when it comes to evolutionary biology.

One example of this comes from Darwin, where music served a kind of sexual signalling function, indicating the mental, emotional, and sexual fitness of a singer. For more than 10,000 years, music was almost always accompanied by dance. If you could sing and dance for hours, you were not neurologically impaired, therefore indicating a degree of physical and sexual fitness. Those of our ancestors that could convey this would be the best at attracting mates and reproducing themselves.

The other example that he cites talks about the oxytocin hormone. This hormone has been known to cause a feeling of trust among people and it is usually released when having an orgasm. From a natural selection point of view, it is ideal to release it during copulation because the male feels bounded to the woman, therefore he does not flee and he stays to help raise the child. The only other time that the oxytocin hormone is released is when people sing together. Levitin suggests that singing must have been important in the evolutionary process to form social bounds and creating societies. When you look at other primate living groups, they seldom have more than eighteen or twenty male members, because rivalry and competition is too fierce. Yet humans have had living groups in the ten thousands for the longest time. He agrees with Robin Dunbar, a British anthropologist and evolutionary psychologist, that vocal grooming or singing together, has helped humans to ease these kinds of social tensions.

In the end, he talks openly about certain flaws of his book. When reading the book, one can feel overwhelmed by the amount of scientific data from all the different fields of study. A couple of reviewers that were musicians did not understand the evolutionary arguments, and found these arguments to be incomprehensive or dissatisfying. By contrast, the scientists who read the book liked the evolutionary explanations, but disliked the musical part. In the end, Levitin says that what really matters is the feeling that you learned something after reading it.

Reflections on the interview:

The choice of subject for Levitin’s book, The World In Six Songs, is quite interesting since there has not been that many research done on the role of music in evolution. In my opinion, it is explained by the act of music making, which relies on precise brain activity. The brain is a ‘newer’ and a more complex area of study, which is why it is harder to link music to the evolution process.

In the interview, he does not really explain how the six categories of music are useful or complementary to his research on the role of music in human evolution. The connection between the two seems unclear. On one hand, we understand how the multidisciplinary approach helps us view the ideas through different perspectives. On the other hand, because the book encompasses so many fields of study, the ideas and the author’s intentions can sometimes be hard to understand in this flux of diverse information.

Levitin comes across as a credible and well-spoken scientist and musician. He obviously possesses an extensive knowledge of his field and his ideas are rational and well researched. It certainly gives the listener the impulse of reading the book.

Reflections on the subject: the role of music in human evolution

Reference: The Musical Mind (2000) by Daniel J. Levitin

In his article The Musical Mind (2000), Levitin also talks about the purpose of music in evolution. He raises the questions: Is it an evolutionary accident ‘piggy-backing’ on language, as stated by Steven Pinker from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology? Or does it promote social bonding among members of a culture, as stated by himself in his book? In my opinion, I cannot see how music would be an accident of evolution. If so, why would it not have disappeared through thousands of years? Why would it be so present in human societies at all periods?

In one of his collaborations with Ursula Bellugi, Professor at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies and Director of the Laboratory for Cognitive Neuroscience, Levitin has found that people with Williams syndrome are unusually social, and in spite of many cognitive deficiencies, they have relatively normal musical skills. By contrast, people with Asperger autism are generally unsocial and unmusical. David Huron, the Head of the Cognitive and Systematic Musicology Laboratory in the School of Music at Ohio State University, argues that this proves to be evidence for a genetic component that influences both musicality and sociability.

Even if the evidence is not yet strong enough to support music as an evolutionary adaptation, Huron believes that the idea is plausible. He enumerates three specific aspects of music. First, complex evolutionary adaptations occur over many millennia, and music making is one of the oldest human activity. Second, evolution expresses itself through genes, and musical experience influences and is modified by natural biochemical substances in the body. Third, specialized behaviors that evolved are typically associated with neuroanatomical sites, which music is, as seen in Bellugi and Levitin’s study.

I believe that with the fast development of neurological science and the mapping of the human genome, it will become much easier to pin point the precise genes involved in music making. I think that the solution to the role of music in human evolution lies in science. Once we unlock the mysteries of the brain by identifying all the genes and proteins involved in musical experience, we will find strong evidence of the essential role of music within human evolution. However, it is easier said than done!

1 comment:

Sarah N said...

Reading this summary makes me want to go and read Levitin’s book. One thing I would like to know more about is how and why music became separated from dance. Levitin noted that for almost 10 000 years music was almost always accompanied by dance. But it seems to me in our day and age that a lot of ‘art’ or ‘classical’ music may contain references to dance but is not danced to. Haydn Quartets always have a so-called ‘dance’ movement (most often minuet and trio). Wieniawski wrote a fabulous Scherzo-Tarantella for solo violin (both Scherzo and Tarantella have their roots in dance). Bach Sonatas and Partitas often contain multiple dance movements (Gigue, Sarabande, Courante, etc.). Yet today we ask people to sit in their seats quietly and listen. In classical music concert culture it is often frowned upon if one makes any motion during or between movements of a Bach Sonata. When did music isolate itself from dance, and what does this say about the role of hearing in evolution?