ancient harpI keep looking to nature for answers — about instinctive knowledge, communication, human behaviour, community, the learning process, and dozens of other subjects — and I nearly always find credible answers. That shouldn’t be surprising, but perhaps because I was born in a city and raised to believe human achievement was something magnificent, it still is. But occasionally a subject comes up that nature provides no plausible explanation for, not even an intriguing clue. Someone asked me, last week, if I could live the rest of my life in wilderness, in the community of people I love, but without any memory of civilized life, as a tribe of amnesiacs, what is the first ‘human’ thing I would re-invent. My answer to this hypothetical but important question, without hesitation, would be the arts, and most especially music.

I am delighted and reassured to know that anthropologists believe art and music have been part of human culture at least three times as long as language has, so I suspect others might answer this question the same way. They are, in my opinion, the only essential things that nature did not provide us with, the only essential artefacts of our species’ existence.

What got me thinking about music, or at least human music, as ‘unnatural’ is that it is the only sensory or emotional experience that our dog, Chelsea, does not appear to share. She loves to sit on the hill behind our house, gazing at the sunset, taking in the smell of rain, listening to the sounds of birds, feeling the wind on her face, enjoying a bit of cheese or peanut butter on a cracker, all evidently with the same relish that I enjoy these sensual things. But she appears unmoved by the breathtaking progression of Bach’s Little Fugue, the transporting romance of Rachmaninoff’s Second Symphony, the intricate cultural fusion of a Mark Knopfler soundtrack or Jon Elias’ astonishing Prayer Cycle. None of this music has words, so the barrier is not language. When I listen to the second movement of Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G (free download here, though it’s not a great version — if you like what you hear get the much better version by Louis Lortie with the London Symphony Orchestra) whose first six minutes is so remarkably simple and measured that even I can play it, I cannot help but be overwhelmed. This has nothing to do with any association with important events or memories from my past — although I have been a fan of Ravel’s music for 37 of my 53 years, I was unaware of the existence of the Concerto in G until just four years ago, when I heard it driving home after a very ordinary day of work, and was so moved I had to pull over to the side of the road to wipe the spontaneous tears from my face. But when I play it at home, still so overwhelmed that I cannot sit still as I listen to it, Chelsea looks at me as if I’ve taken leave of my senses. Perhaps I have. But it troubles me that these sounds, this harmonic plinking of wood on metal wires, does not touch her. It is not of her world.

So in the last week I’ve been trying to discover why. What is it about ‘man-made’ music that so fills us with emotion that its impact is comparable to the most extraordinary of nature’s sensory and sensual wonders, yet leaves our fellow creatures unmoved? I’ve read everything I can find about psychoacoustics and about the ‘aesthetics’ of music, and come up empty. I appreciate that music is simply sound waves that follow certain rules: A melodic line, a persistent rhythm with variations, a set of surprisingly mathematical harmonies, both deliberate (written into the score) and inherent in the physical instrument used to create the sounds (overtones), and dynamics (the volumes of the melodic and harmonic notes and overtones). I’m aware that all of these characteristics can be represented quite well in a 1600-year-old (or possibly much older) universal written language called musical notation, and captured quite precisely in remarkably small digital files. I’m also aware that different cultures have different musical aesthetics — they prefer different scales, different kinds of melodic lines, different harmonies, different rhythms, and different musical dynamics — and that an ‘appreciation’ for music composed according to different aesthetic rules can take time to learn. The same could be said, of course, for other cultural aesthetics such as cuisine or fashion.

My theory for how these different aesthetics evolved is different from the scholars’, some of whom believe appreciation must be learned through a complex intellectual process involving study, and some of whom believe human music itself has evolved from simple to complex over time as this human invention was ‘studied and refined’. I find such theories arrogant and needlessly convoluted. It seems probable to me that we learned melody from the masters — the birds, whose melodic lines are astoundingly sophisticated, varied and individual. And the theory that harmony was invented by ‘learned’ scholars seems to me patently absurd. It seems far more likely that we discovered by trial and error — perhaps from people who could not reach the ‘taught’ notes of unison singing, mimicking the melodies of others — that certain combinations of tones, like certain combinations of colours, were inherently pleasant to the human senses, long before the scientists discovered the mathematics of consonance and dissonance.

We learn in musical history that certain scales and harmonics were once considered ‘demonic’, and actually forbidden by some human cultures. Most likely, the elites of those times realized that some of these structures evoke anger or sadness, while other more ‘acceptable’ musical structures are uplifting, so in order to maintain order, morale and discipline, it was necessary to ban these ‘negative musics’ much the way today’s elites ban the use of ‘mind-altering’ drugs that have analogous effects on citizen and worker morale and productivity.

But why is it that certain phrases, rhythms, and harmonic sequences provoke drug-like elation in us, even without words to reinforce their ‘meaning’, while others provoke anger, sadness, and a host of subtler emotional responses? More importantly, if this is an evolutionary development, why are we often more moved by artificially-created sounds than we are by the most wonderful natural ‘musics’ — the plaintive cry of the loon or the (to a surprising number of people) unpleasant moan of the mourning dove, the tympany of water, the graceful music of windswept trees, the choral whistling of spring peeper frogs, even the howl of a wolfpack? What evolutionary purpose does our profound emotional and intellectual response to man-made music, sounds that are alien and unevocative to the rest of Earth’s species, serve? Is it simply a by-product of our love of pattern, with which nature endows all creatures to instil in them a passion to learn and study, and hence enables them to outsmart and outlive the non-learners and non-students? Is it a code that allows us to communicate with each other without the messages being intercepted by ‘unappreciative’ other creatures, and did we abandon the use of that code prematurely in favour of a simpler invented system of clicks and grunts called ‘human language’ better suited to civilization’s artificial constructs and needs? Is it really true that ‘appreciation’ of music requires a brain specialized in abstraction, and that it is for that simple reason that Chelsea has no apparent appreciation of the harmonic plinking of Ravel’s Concerto in G? Or is the weighty sadness that inspires this piece an emotion that only humans, with their recently acquired sense of tragedy and learned helplessness, can or need feel?

These are profoundly important questions, I think, and they are questions that I cannot answer, no matter how deeply I call on my instincts and my still-inadequate but growing knowledge of nature to explain them. I’m open to hypotheses.

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  1. Dermot Casey says:

    Dave I’m not sure that this explains all of your why question, or opens up even more but I’ve just blogged an entry called “Aesthetics and harmony” about 5 mins before my RSS reader popped up with your latest entry. Its at and really takes another comment on Aesthetics and add some material I believe underpins all aesthetic experience. By the way these ideas would tie in with your other thinking on man’s natural state being in harmony with the world.regards Dermot

  2. Dave Pollard says:

    Great minds think alike. This is fascinating stuff. Persig’s saying science’s job to ‘eliminate the useless [combinations]’ in search of truth is what I was getting at in my post earlier this week quoting Timothy Leary (“science is all metaphor”) that science is at best fascinating and occasionally interesting. And what Poincaré calls “subliminal sense” and Phaedrus calls “preintellectual awareness” is precisely what I have been calling “instinct”, the “forgotten knowledge” coded in our DNA. I wonder if Duemer has read Spell of the Sensuous? Thanks for the link, and your connecting of the dots.

  3. Dave Pollard says:

    Oops, when I said ‘interesting’ above I meant ‘useful’. I wish Userland would let you edit your comments.

  4. Ahmed says:

    A note on language: one phenomenon noted by linguists is that human language increases in vocabulary over time but always gets phoenetically simpler. African bushmen have a language that has a very small vocab (orders of magnitude smaller than modern english) but which includes a number of noises not used anywhere else , including the clicking consonant made by slapping your tongue to the base of your mouth. You may have heard the term “lost consonants”; there are human noises that were never recorded and have long since been lost over the last 10,000 years. I can’t help thinking (fantasising?) that very early languages were actually very complex musical affairs of hums and whistles and clicks and hisses before becoming the literally prosaic grunting it is today.

  5. Dan Howard says:

    Dave, I’ve thought a lot about this too. I have two different thoughts on the subject to share.1) The question that I had thought more about before, was “why are humans the only creatures with music?” I got thinking a lot once about what it is that makes music beautiful, and I started learning about the mathematics of it, and for instance how a perfect 5th is “perfect” because the frequencies form a simple 3/2 ratio. I started noticing the how these intervals are everywhere, how even the classic doorbell sound is a minor 3rd.Then one day soon after, I was out for a walk in the woods, and I heard the doorbell sound! It was a chickadee– one of that bird’s common songs is two notes which seem to be *exactly* a minor 3rd apart. The more I thought about it, the more I realised the complex structure in both rhythm and tone that is probably in *all* bird calls. If you start listening for common musical intervals in other birds’ songs, you will start to hear them. Birds *do* have music! How arrogant of us to think that only we do!! 2) The *new* thought I have, after reading your blog, is not only your question– why don’t other creatures enjoy our music as much as we do?– but also its compliment: Why don’t we enjoy other creatures’ music as much as they do?Think about this: Ravel’s Concerto in G may bring tears to your eyes, and not appear to move your dog. But what about the howling of a pack of dogs in your neighbourhood? Would that move you to tears? I doubt it. But I’d also be surprised if it *didn’t* provoke a strong emotional response in your dog, Chelsea. Similarly, the song of a robin will have all other robins in the area listening closely, but the bluejays may seem hardly to notice.So here’s my new theory: Music is fundamentally a way of communicating things at a very primal level. It reveals the emotions of its creator in a direct brain-to-brain way that “clicks and grunts” are useless for. Human music resonates with the human brain precisely *because* it is the product of other human brains. It is laden with subtle undertones and complexities that are the fingerprints and hallmarks of our way of being, of our humanness, and it takes a brain structured similarly to the music’s creator to hear this and to appreciate it– ie. another human. Here’s another way of thinking about it: Does it surprise you that Chelsea doesn’t listen as intently as you do to your friend when he in relating a story of something incredible that happened to him yesterday? Or, do you think it surprises Chelsea that you don’t listen as intently as she does when another dog is barking at her in the park?We are separate species with our own separate ways of communicating. We think of language as communicating, because we have to learn how to use it. Music, I suspect, is also communication, but at a much more primal level. Most of us don’t even realise it *is* communication– we think it is simply a thing of beauty. But I think the reason it is so beautiful is that it can communicate so well something about the state of the composer or of the musician, something so profound about the human condition, about life itself, about the universe itself– I’m not sure exactly what it is saying, but I am pretty sure it is a *very* rich channel of communication.Maybe Ravel can bring us to tears from the beauty of his music because in a few bars of it he tells us so much of what he feels is deeply important, than we ourselves are able to get across in an hour of conversation with the person we are closest to. He says so eloquantly in 3 minutes what we have been trying and failing to express, maybe for years. Hearing him put it so well could bring tears to one’s eyes, tears that say “Yes, yes!! That is so true! *That* is what I have been trying to say for so long! I wish I could have put it as eloquently!”

  6. Dave Pollard says:

    Ahmed: That’s an interesting idea, which also raises the question of whether we could reinvent a ‘universal’ language based simply on pitch rather than letters, where each word would be a melody.Cyndy: Thanks for the reference, and the sharp observations. Depression seems to take away all artistic appreciation, it seems. Some birdsong recorders have also remarked on the complexity and nuance of the songs of many birds, suggesting they have a lot more to say than just ‘food here’ and ‘danger there’.Dan: I think we can and do appreciate other animals’ ‘music’ (there are whole radio stations out there that play nothing but ‘nature sounds’, and I pay considerable attention to the songs of birds, wolves and coyotes in our neighbourhood). But I also appreciate music made by ‘artificial’ instruments (non-vocal), which Chelsea doesn’t seem to respond to. However, she seems to respond more to ‘live’ music than recorded music — do you suppose the reason for their disinterest in recorded music is that with their sensitive hearing they *know* it’s not ‘real’? And is it possible that the communication of music is no more precise than that of poetry — I respond strongly to Ravel, Bach, and Rachmaninoff, and I know some people that like some of their music for different reasons from mine, and hate some of the music I love by these same composers. If music is in fact an important and emotional form of communication, it seems to me it should convey its message somewhat more consistently to different listeners. So I’m still puzzled.

  7. Life Tenant says:

    Dave, fascinating post. I want to call your attention to this post which cites interesting studies on human and animal perceptions of music and possible evolutionary explanations.

  8. Don Dwiggins says:

    And now for something not completely different — rhythm-based communication:

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