|I 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.