Rambling 10 – Origins of what?

Thought of missing a week, because of wars and stuff, but trying to keep this regular for now. Consequently, what’s below is (even) more in the nature of “notes to self” than usual. Anyway…

When I began this episodic excursion I said I wasn’t sure where it was going to go. Meaning, really, what ideas to explore, and also in what order.

That’s definitely the case now, as I’m weighing several directions to look in next. But I also have a residual niggle or two about the book I mentioned last week (Sweet Anticipation), so I’m going to note those first. 

Any inquiry into music is an inquiry into the human condition. That is part of the interest. It also entails a few risks. Foremost is that, just as the main conclusion contemplating the human condition (certainly mine) may be perplexity, an inquiry into music comes up with the same thing on a slightly smaller scale.

You can try and avoid this by narrowing the focus to some simpler element of the whole thing, like pleasure – David Huron’s tactic. But looking back at this book it is a mix of things laid out with real care and stuff that seems less clear.

The latter leads to some over-generalising – by making his ideas, ostensibly about one of a number of possible sources of pleasure in music, into a completely general theory of the psychology of prediction/expectation (he seems to use them interchangeably). That in turn leads him to commit one of the errors that bedevils evolutionary psychology, a worthwhile pursuit (yes, minds did evolve and were shaped by that) but also a fount of just so stories.

They often arise using a plausible notion that is pressed too far because centred on a fuzzy concept. That happens here with prediction. Underlying Huron’s account is a premise that successful prediction has survival value, and thus – through natural selection – comes to feel good, as a reward that encourages us to do more of it (survival itself apparently being insufficient reward).

Now it seems fair to say that predictions of some sort happen when we listen to music – and the neuroscience of hearing supports that. But Huron oversimplifies drastically by assuming that all predictions are essentially of the same kind. 

So while he looks at plenty of subtle aspects of music and sound, and dissects the development of and response to predictions into multiple components, which he even locates in different (unspecified) bits of the neurophysiological systems, he is working from this rather simple notion all the while. 

The constant moves back and forth between very different timescales in his book are symptomatic of that. And is one clue that the kinds of predictions being made when hearing sound, or listening to music, may have little to do with the ones that predominated in some imagined environment of evolutionary adaptation. 

Still, music does give pleasure, and there ought to be an evolutionary explanation for that. This has been muddy turf for a while. It is pretty much a requirement at this point to mention Steven Pinker’s suggestion in 1977 that “as far as biological cause and effect is concerned, music is useless”. Famously, he likened it to auditory cheesecake, a hyperstimulus geared to tickling brain circuits that were originally there for other reasons – language, by his argument. Now – putting aside the amusing notion that maybe Dexter Gordon knew a thing or two when he recorded his tune Cheese Cake in the early ‘60s, with our man Billy Higgins on drums, even – there have been entire books written now to argue against Pinker (a clever guy but one usually worth arguing with). Those arguments usually need some idea of the benefits music might bring. If they are of the sort that might affect reproductive success they can be part of an evolutionary explanation.

Candidates? There’s a bit of a list. Mate selection. (You play good: I sleep with you). Sounds crude because it is. Darwin originally suggested music, like the peacock’s tale, was the result of sexual selection – characteristics that arise in males due to female choice. The notion was revived by later evolutionary psychologists over-impressed by the sexual prowess of certain rock musicians. Musical ability appears evenly distributed between the sexes, however.

More serious contenders, with their identifiable surviving manifestations: 

Mother-child communication – lullabies and the musical qualities of “motherese”, the vocal nonsense we happily babble to the tiniest humans

Imitating animal cries, to attract them or frighten them off?

Group effort – dig that ditch, reap that corn, fell that tree (hunt that meaty quadruped?), workin’on a chain gang… Worksongs and chants, sea shanties.

Passing it on – singing the old songs, in pre-literate cultures, which distil previous generations’ knowledge. Nursery rhymes.

Cool it, everybody. Sit round the campfire, and sing songs rather than talk about stuff that only makes arguments flare up.

Safe amusement. Music occupies the mind, and is harmless when other ways of seeking stimulation might be more dangerous. Practice your tunes instead of climbing those rocks outside the cave

Social bonding. This label covers a bunch of ideas. One is music as grooming. Primates do a lot of physical grooming, especially the ones who live in larger groups. People, whose groups are larger still, need some other way to “groom” one another. Language could do it, or music. Or whatever preceded both (another knot to untangle there). Then there are larger influences on social groups – marching songs, tribal chants, patriotic anthems, maybe just being at a performance where music is shared and feeling good together about feelng good. So this also needs more unpacking!

There’s a lot to try and relate to contemporary (or in my case 20th century) music here. But another complication arises. Music in general has a set of diverse components, as indeed does Ramblin’. Before going into these various explanatory possibilities it would be helpful to try and think more about these, and consider when each arose. 

Some are things other creatures can do. Others, crucial ones, seem unique to us. Either way, it’s supremely unlikely they arose all at once. Possibly they were brought together to constitute Homo sapiens’ fundamental musicality – as opposed to music-making – in a much shorter time. But in considering evolutionary advantages of music as reasons why it might give pleasure, it seems you need to go back a step and break it down into possible constituents of musicality, which appeared over a long span of time and must each have had their own advantages.

One way to do that is to look at the things that look musical, in some sense, that other creatures can do, and the ones that they can’t. And that, a turn away from evolution to things we can get acquainted with directly now, is a little task to get under way next time. 

This is No 10 in a series of posts that all centre on a single piece of music – it starts here, and may go on for some time.


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