Monday, September 24, 2012

The World in Six Songs

Director of McGill University's Laboratory for Musical Perception, Cognition and Expertise and best-selling author of "This is Your Brain on Music," Daniel Levitin

Title: The World in Six Songs: How the Musical Brain Created Human Nature.


In this video segment, Daniel Levitin deals with the physical reactions that human beings experience while listening to music, and traces the development of music over time. He does this while examining the development of language, refuting the claim that language developed before music.

Levitin says that the primary means of communication among Neanderthals was most likely communication through musical gestures. He supports this claim by pointing out that music is processed in more primitive parts of the human brain (he mentions the cerebellum and brain stem), and therefore music must be philogenetically older than language.

He also mentions that music and dance go hand in hand, and that sitting motionless while listening to music is ‘evolutionarily foreign’. The motor cortex, he says, becomes very active while listening to music, even though no movement is involved.

Finally, he makes an interesting point that human beings are the only species with the ability to synchronise movement to music. He links this to ‘large scale cooperative human undertakings’ (architecture, rowing a boat) which go back a long way in history.


The most salient point that Levitin makes here is that music is stimulated in the most primitive parts of the brain. I observed, however, that language is stimulated in Broca’s area (production of spoken and written language) and Wernicke’s area (language comprehension). These areas are included in the cortex of the brain which is believed to have evolved much later on.

The Basal Ganglia (yet another primitive part of the brain) is also directly related to coordinated movement, which, according to Levitin, goes hand in hand with music. The urge to sit still while listening to music, he says, goes against everything the evolution of music has taught humans. The fact that the motor cortex lights up even when one is listening to music is also substantial evidence here. The activity in this part of the brain may also be related to his claim that humans are the only species capable of synchronised movement.

Soon after watching this video, I listened to one of my favourite pieces of music - ‘Poet and Peasant Overture’ by Franz Von Suppe. I was unable to control my desire to bob along with the rhythm of the piece and at the end of the performance my eyes were filled with tears. How interesting that many of these reactions are connected to the most primitive parts of the brain!

1 comment:

Elizabeth Roach said...

After having just written a blog entry that deals with the connections between music and dance I am happy to hear that Levitin is addressing this association as an important concept. However it shouldn’t be viewed as purely a product of evolution, for it is also a common cultural and social phenomenon throughout history. Indeed, it is wonderful to have the brain imaging of an active motor cortex to back this up through science! This ties into the ideas of Forkel - in his 18th century work titled “The History of Music” he discusses the rhythm of drums and “shrieks” of primitives as being the origins of communication.