Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Oh My God, Charlie Darwin

"Without music, life would be a mistake”: Nietzsche’s particular formula for a generally accepted truth—music occupies an important place in our lives. We are constantly exposed to it, whether the melodies are of our own choosing, or selected by others. We listen to it while shopping, riding elevators, driving our cars. We hum it to ourselves, we tap our feet to its beat. So the importance of music is plainly observable; the nature of that importance, however, remains a mystery. Why is it that we are so keen to fill our lives with melodies and rhythms? What part of us responds to music in such a way as to create some sort of dependence on it? These kinds of questions can seem a little daunting, as they beg for a whole host of different approaches, from the biological to the philosophical. There are a few evolutionary theories that form a good place to begin such a discussion. So I have a few hypotheses as to the emergence of music to offer you, gleaned from various readings over the years.

Many such hypotheses involve the idea that music evolved for a functional reason, that is, to suit a specific need within human evolution. What that need might be is of course the object of much debate. But one fairly widely accepted theory is the Darwin’s idea that musical ability is like a peacock’s tail, a distinctive feature of a good mate. This idea does offer an explanation for the groupie mentality, and the ruthlessness of fans clawing at each other for a guitar pick tossed into a crowd. Advocates of the Darwinian theory support their claim by pointing to the close ties between music and romantic interest; after all, most lyrics circle around love, lost or found, requited, unrequited, and any other qualifiers you can come up with. But if love is a recurring theme in lyrics across all genres, isn’t it simply because it’s a recurring theme in our lives? Just because music turns to love for inspiration, does not necessarily mean it evolved to enable it. So this first theory can seem a little shaky.

A second hypothesis is that music evolved as a means to bind groups of early humans together, to give them an advantage over those less musical, and therefore less cohesive. This theory offers a strong explanation for our attachment to national anthems, as well as for bonds existing between people with similar musical interests. The counterculture movement of the 1960’s, for example, was largely unified by folk music; so much so, that Bob Dylan’s movement from traditional acoustics to decidedly non-folksy electrics was perceived by some as a complete betrayal of their cause. So there’s definitely something to be said for this theory, which emphasizes the relational, social aspect of music; and can serve to remind us that music is more thoroughly enjoyed when shared.

While both these hypotheses can be compelling, there is something unsatisfactory about the idea that music surfaced simply to as a functional response to an evolutionary need, like a knee-jerk reflex. So this brings me to one last, nonfunctional theory: that music emerged as an accident, and was then taken up and transformed by our creative abilities. According to this theory, as I understand it, music came about as a consequence of auditory capabilities developed for language and communication, the spoken word leading to the song. Metaphorically speaking, if all these things were a house, then language proper would be the roof over your head, the walls put up to provide shelter from the elements—the functional reason for the house’s existence. But music and literature, the means of expression rather than strict communication, are what we fill the walls with; the accidental consequence of blank space created just to keep out wind and rain.

I like this last idea because it emphasizes the close ties between music and literature, as well as the role of human creativity in the emergence of both forms. It stipulates that we used what we accidentally inherited to invent something wonderful and elevating. But that’s all that can be said for any of these theories, really—that one is more liked than the others. What we are left with is what we can gather from the common ground between the conjectures: the simple (and satisfactory) truth that music is buried deeply within us and those who came before us, and that it is something that enriches and enlivens, soothes and inspires. So though the cause may remain a mystery, the effects are coming in loud and clear.

(And for those wondering about the post title—a great album by the Low Anthem. Give it a listen)


1 comment:

  1. Interesting post. I think that music often developed from the need to establish a collective identity, often united against hardship as in the case of Negro spirituals, but also for pride, like with national anthems.

    The question of why we sing, rather than recite our national anthem is a good one, though it might have something to do with what you mentioned about the spiritual elevation that occurs when words become music.

    I don't think that music emerged more accidentally than any other creative form, like painting or photography or film or anything else. They're all things that we don't need, but that enhance our lives all the same. On the other hand, art equals spirituality for many. So, if you can call religion an evolutionary need for transcendence, then the same goes for music.