~ • ~ • ~ • ~
Some people believe music comes wafting magically
out of thin air in the form of mysterious, disembodied “inspiration.” It then
presumably lodges in the skull of the composer or songwriter, who feverishly
jots it down or records it on a tiny digital device, and later claims, “It just
came to me in a flash. I wrote the whole song in 23 seconds.”
where music seems to come from. But the musical inspiration you enjoy actually
comes to you courtesy of the parallel processing that goes on in certain
integrated “modules” within the fascinating neuro-computational organ located
inside your head.
Your brain processes music and also creates music.
what’s a module?
a network of brain cells, a brain structure, that has evolved to carry out some
specialized function. The Canadian cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker, in How the Mind Works,
describes the mind as “what the brain does,” or, more specifically,
... not a single organ but a system of organs, which we can think of as
psychological faculties or mental modules.
Evidence from cognitive science, neuroscience, evolutionary
biology, evolutionary psychology, and other disciplines points to the
existence of numerous such brain structures. Possibly hundreds of
them. A mental toolbox that enables you to survive and replicate
your genes in your offspring.
your body’s architecture. You have many physical body parts, external and
internal—hands, feet, lungs, heart, etc. You can easily identify numerous
sub-parts as well: each of your hands has fingers, fingernails, knuckles, a
thumb, palm, muscles, ligaments. Every normal human is born with these physical
internal and external body parts.
same applies to your brain’s architecture. Even though you can’t see your
brain’s modules, they’re as real, and as different from each other, as your
hands and your liver. And, like the rest of your body parts, you have these
brain structures at birth.
other humans on the planet are born with the same brain modules as you, just as
they’re born with the same internal and external body parts that make all of us
identifiably human. And that means, as discussed later in this chapter, humans
show remarkable similarities in behaviour in every culture globally.
modules or faculties vary slightly from individual to individual, just as other
body parts do. The feet you were born with, for example, have the same basic
structure and anatomy as everybody else’s feet. While easily identifiable as
“feet,” your feet vary slightly from everyone else’s; they’re
with the mental faculties or modules you were born with. While each one performs
the same specialized function in every human brain, your modules vary slightly
from everyone else’s. But, like your feet, your mental modules still perform in
a recognizably human way. That’s why human culture shows so much similarity
everywhere in the world. And that includes musical similarity, discussed in more
detail later in this chapter.
What exactly is intelligence? Usually, it’s defined
as the ability to understand, reason, and solve problems. So IQ tests focus on
logical and verbal abilities.
However, according to the theory of multiple
intelligences (controversial, but nonetheless intriguing because it jibes with
evidence that the mind has evolved as a complex modular system), humans have
other kinds of intelligence—interpersonal intelligence, kinesthetic
intelligence, visual intelligence, and so on. One of these is musical intelligence.
Most people excel at only one or two kinds of
intelligence. For instance, if you’re gifted as a musician, and also have an
outstanding ability to empathize, then you might have exceptional potential for
writing songs—and yet score only average on a standard IQ test.
WITH A PERSONALITY
The genetic code to build a head full of specialized modules evolved
in response to selective pressure over millions of years. Being born
with music-acquisition, language-acquisition and other skills and
abilities already wired in your brain means you were born with a
basic personality. You inherited it from your parents. But the
personality you had at birth differed substantially from the
personalities of your parents.
modular brain structures are not completely developed, connected, and
constructed at birth. That’s why it takes some time before you can talk and
same applies to other aspects of your development. It takes several years before
your permanent teeth come in. If you’re female, you don’t begin to develop
breasts until puberty. If you’re male, you don’t grow facial hair until then.
Nevertheless, at birth, you have the brain wiring in place for all this to
childhood on, the surrounding culture shapes the personality you were born with,
but does not replace it. The personality you have today owes its character
partly to your genetic inheritance (perhaps half), and partly to your personal
environment (perhaps half)—especially your peer group.
(NOTE: This does not mean that your genetic inheritance causes
50% of your personality and your peer group causes the other 50%.
Instead, it refers to observed variance in measures of personality
and behaviour due to diversity among individuals in all kinds of
areas related to upbringing, such as education, religion, leisure
activities, and so on.)
inheritance influences everyone’s behaviour today, as it always has. That is, no
matter how “enculturated” we humans think we’ve become, we have not by any means
“outgrown our genes”!
At birth, your brain came equipped with numerous
pre-wired adaptations—precisely the opposite of a “blank slate” (more on this a
bit later). Your brain does not function like a “general-purpose computer” with
a single processor. As an example of the inborn modular nature of the brain,
consider the brain circuitry for modelling objects visually. It exists in the
brains of all people at birth—even
people born blind. That is, some people blind from birth can
accurately draw objects in proper 3-D visual perspective, a skill they
could not possibly learn from the surrounding culture. For example,
a Turkish artist named Esref Armagan, who has been blind since
birth, can paint realistic compositions of things he has never seen,
with accurate three-point perspective and scale size.
brain’s modular architecture does not resemble conventional computer design.
The word ‘module’
brings to mind detachable snap-in components, and that is misleading. Mental
modules are not likely to be visible to the naked eye as circumscribed
territories on the surface of the brain, like the flank steak and rump roast
on the supermarket cow display. A mental module probably looks more like
roadkill, sprawling messily over the bulges and crevasses of the brain. Or it
may be broken into regions that are interconnected by fibers that make the
regions act as a unit . . . the metaphor of the mental module is a bit clumsy;
a better one is Noam Chomsky’s ‘mental organ.’
own an ordinary desktop or notebook computer, it’s a serial computer that
mimics a parallel computer. Unlike your brain, a computer processor executes
only one instruction at a time. But it does its work so fast that it usually
fools you into thinking it’s doing several things at once.
not how your brain works. Brain structures tend to evolve as specializations for
various tasks, such as detecting danger, recognizing faces, protecting kin,
mating, predicting the behaviour of others, and playing the harmonica for your
together, your brain’s constituent modules do not function like a conventional
computer. Nor like computer software. Nor like a mechanical clock. Rather, they
connect up in vastly complex networks of neurons that communicate with each
other and vie for your attention. Your brain is a massively parallel neural organ of
computation, not a serial one. That is, unlike a small conventional
human-made computer, your small conventional human brain
processes information and interpretations using many different
modules simultaneously. That’s why you can drive your car, drink coffee,
talk on your cell phone, and run over a pedestrian, all at the
same time. Try programming a computer to do that!
Where does the evidence of brain modularity come from?
Studies of patients who have experienced brain lesions
(structural changes in the brain) due to injury or disease reveal brain
modularity. Many patients exhibit the same behavioural changes or
deficits after suffering a brain lesion that occurs in the same physical
area of the brain, often due to a stroke. Observations of the effects
of injuries and diseases occurring in different parts of the brain have
disclosed a number of modules.
source is measurement and observation of brain activity using positron emission
tomography (PET) and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). These
techniques reveal which specific parts of the brain are active during the
performance of a mental or physical task. If, in many individuals, the same
specific areas “light up” during the performance of the same task, it indicates
a module or modules at work.
other information sources that scientists in a variety of specialties use to
investigate the functioning of the brain’s mental organs are:
• Observed effects of abnormalities in specific genes that
implicate certain modules, such as the FOXP2 gene and
language (discussed a bit later in this section)
• Observed effects of taking drugs that act on specific modules
• Optical and aural illusions that trigger conflicts between
of behaviour and abilities of newborns and pre-lingual infants—particularly
useful in revealing the inborn, adaptive aspects of music
• Comparative studies of identical twins, fraternal twins,
biological siblings, and adopted siblings
• Human behaviour studies that control for cultural variables
from palaeontology—e.g., discovery of a 44,000-year-old bone flute at a
Neanderthal site, indicating they had similar mental functioning in music as
• Findings from archaeology
• Studies of behaviour and learning in animals, especially our
close primate cousins such as chimpanzees, bonobos,
data—e. g., chimpanzees, bonobos, and humans share more than 98% of the same genetic
human brain took millions of years to evolve into an incredibly complex,
powerful thing of beauty. Dissecting a cadaver’s brain provides no information
about the workings of the living, functioning brain. And neurosurgeons cannot
open up skulls of living humans simply to poke, prod, and probe through all the
billions of tangled microscopic neurons, to see how everything works. So
evolutionary psychologists and biologists can and do use data from the sources
listed above to, in effect, reverse engineer the brain as best they can.
Myth of 10% Use of the Brain
Perhaps the source of this myth is that, at any given moment, you
only use a fraction of your entire brain. But throughout the day,
you do use all of it.
If you’re sitting down, you don’t need to use the
modules required to get you walking or running. If you’re in a quiet room
reading a book, you don’t need to use your music-processing modules.
Your brain functions pretty efficiently. So you
don’t require the use of every module in your brain at every moment. Think of
driving a car. You don’t use your car’s accelerator at every moment, nor the
brakes, horn, radio, signal lights (some drivers never use them!), and so on.
You don’t use all of your brain all of the time, but
you certainly do
need all of the modules in your brain. You do use all of them.
Otherwise, they would not have evolved in the first place.
Brain modules are adaptations—necessary units
of biological function—that evolve in response to selective pressure.
WHERE IN THE
If music were not a true adaptation, it would have had to have arisen
only recently. However, the evidence indicates music probably
predates our own species, Homo sapiens. That is, other hominid
species, now extinct, had music, such as Homo neanderthalensis.
As well, neurological evidence supports the hypothesis that
modules for creating and processing music exist in the brain at birth.
aside lyrics for the moment and considering music only, most people think of the
melody—the tune—as the essence of a piece of music.
without melody or rhythm just doesn’t work.
• Rhythm without melody or harmony gets tiresome after a
while due to something called habituation (discussed in later
you can create palatable music with melody only—no harmony or regular beat (e.
g., background music in film and television).
Infants perceive melodic patterns much as adults do. They
respond to changes in melodic contour and changes in key like
adults do, indicating genetic origins. Newborns have pre-wired
neuronal circuitry to perceive:
• Melodic contour in both music and speech
• Consonant intervals (Chapter 4 goes into detail about
• Rhythmic patterns in both music and speech
Pre-linguistic infants in all cultures can:
• Recognize changes in a melody
• Resolve tiny pitch differences (and small timing differences)
• Recognize the same melody even if speeded up or slowed
• Recognize the same melody when transposed to a different
• Perceive diatonic tunes more easily than non-diatonic tunes
• Perceive consonant intervals more easily than dissonant
to their mothers’ melodious, song-like vocalizing to a much greater degree than
their mothers’ speech vocalizing
to the musical conventions of whatever society they’re born into
you’re not familiar with some of the musical terminology above, all will be
revealed in the next few chapters.)
Culture modifies the expression of these predispositions, but the
predispositions exist in the brain at birth (characteristic of
Babies worldwide spontaneously initiate musical sound-play.
Young children are forever inventing games and rhythmic play.
Adults do not teach them this stuff. In fact, children have difficulty
separating rhythmic body movements from music and singing until
age four or five. Next time you observe a preschooler having a
musical experience, notice how he or she jumps around, claps and
makes other rhythmic gestures.
WHERE IN THE
... music can best be understood as a system of relationships between
tones, just as language is a system of relationships between words.
Groups of inter-connected modules for processing music probably
developed independently over time. Separate sub-modules likely
process tone duration, pitch, loudness, and timbre. Interestingly,
lesion studies indicate that separate modules even process the
closely-related elements, metre and rhythm.
Pitch patterns that group hierarchically (discussed in Chapter 8)
appear to form the basis of musical syntax (set of musically
brains have a genetically determined ability to create, learn, and process
language, called “Universal Grammar,” one of Noam Chomsky’s seminal discoveries
in linguistics. It appears that our brains also have a genetically determined
specialization for music—a Universal Musical Grammar, according to Fred Lerdahl
and Ray Jackendoff, who co-authored a classic book on the subject, inspired to a
degree by the Polish music theorist Heinrich Schenker.
just as people learn a specific language in childhood and don’t understand other
languages without learning them, so people learn specific musical styles of
their culture and don’t understand the musical styles of other cultures without
other hand, musical universals bespeak the genetic underpinnings of all music
(musical universals are listed a bit later). If you make music that breaks the
brain’s inborn rules, regardless of culture, the music you make will likely not
appeal to more than a handful of humans.
play recordings of bird songs of different species to young songbirds raised in
captivity, they will only learn the songs of their own species, evidence of
genetic origins. Blackbirds in captivity, no matter how much loving care and
patient training they receive, stubbornly refuse to learn the Lennon-McCartney
tune “Blackbird,” because a blackbird did not write the song.
same appears to apply to human infants. Human babies recognize and learn speech
and melodies characteristic of the human species, rather than a particular
culture. If you learn two languages in childhood, you’ll learn both effortlessly
and speak both without an accent as an adult. But if you learn one language in
childhood and a second language as an adult, you will learn the first language
effortlessly and speak it without an accent, and the second only with
considerable effort, which you will speak with an accent.
all of the world’s musics share a set of universals, like languages, it’s likely
that this phenomenon applies to musical cultures. Suppose you have grown up
learning the tonal system of the West, with little exposure to the tonal system
of, say, India. And suppose, as an adult, you decide to move to India and learn
to play the sitar. You’ll probably find yourself expending considerable effort
to learn what young Indian sitar players seem to learn effortlessly. And, after
some years of training, you will likely play the instrument “with an accent,” so
to speak, compared with native-born players of your age and musical experience.
IN THE BRAIN?
Brain lateralization refers to the location of neuronal circuitry for
specific skills and behaviours in either the left or the right
hemisphere of the brain. Handedness reveals brain lateralization, or lack
of it, in a clear way. In most species, handedness—favouring the right or left
hand, hoof, wing, paw—is non-committal. You’ll find left- and right-handedness
equally distributed in chimpanzees and other apes, for example. A few animals
other than humans have pronounced handedness, such as the walrus, of all
Humans manifest extremely specialized right-handedness,
reflecting the importance of left-brain sequencing and left-brain
language adaptations (i.e., humans probably communicated
symbolically with hand gestures before, and during the process of,
converting to symbolic spoken language).
Brain lateralization in humans may have resulted from growing
numbers and complexities of modular specializations competing for
space as the brain swelled in size in response to selective pressure
to cope with larger and more complex human social organization.
Something related to the social nature of humans drove the huge
expansion of the brain. It could well have been either music or
left hemisphere tries to solve problems and processes sequential patterns,
including language. It’s also active in positive emotional processing.
Why Mom Holds Baby on the Left
Why does Mom hold baby
with baby’s head on Mom’s left side? It’s not because of a connection the baby
feels with Mom’s heartbeat. And it also has nothing to do with
right-handedness versus left-handedness. Left-handed mothers also tend to hold
their babies on the left.
It has to do with brain
specialization for emotional processing. As you know, the brain’s right
hemisphere connects to left body
functions, and vice-versa. The right hemisphere is active in
negative-emotion processing (fear, sadness). So the right hemisphere of
Mom’s brain (and Dad’s brain, too), wired to her
left field of vision and hearing, can more sensitively attune to her
infant’s negative emotional signals, enabling Mom to take action accordingly.
Baby can’t talk yet, so mother-child communication is necessarily completely
By the way, this is why, when
you’re talking to someone, you look at their right eye (your left field of
vision), not their left eye.
brain has roughly 10 billion neurons (nerve cells). Although women have smaller
brains than men, women’s brains have significantly more neurons per unit of
cortex than men’s brains (up to 12% more). And women’s brains have a somewhat
different organizational architecture than men’s brains. In any case, sheer
brain size doesn’t seem to matter much in humans. Albert Einstein’s brain
weighed less than the average adult male brain.
overall architecture of your brain mimics the architecture of the rest of your
body: a mirror-image pair of everything on each side, but only one of the things
in the middle. You have one corpus callosum, the main bundle of nerves (there
are others) that connects the left and right hemispheres. If you’re a woman,
your corpus callosum is quite a bit larger than it is in the brain of a man.
This may account for the superior ability of women to reconcile conflicting
left-right brain analyses of situations.
The female brain is significantly less lateralized than the male
brain. Functional modules are more globally distributed.
Female and male humans have different attitudes and behave
differently because of differences in evolved brain functions, wired-in
from birth (more on this later in the chapter). Apparently, this fact still
IN THE BRAIN?
The common belief that the right hemisphere processes music and
the left processes language does not hold up.
Yada-Yadams, a fully qualified neurosurgeon, were to sedate the left hemisphere
of your brain (don’t try this at home), you would likely be able to sing a song
(i.e., melody with words), but
would not be able to speak. If the Doc sedated your right
hemisphere, you would be able to speak, but not sing.
and music “time-share” many characteristics in both hemispheres. Singing tends
to be more right-hemisphere, with speech more left-hemisphere. Both the left and
right hemispheres appear to process pitch intervals.
Most people have a preferred listening ear, usually the right ear,
which is connected to the speech-processing left hemisphere. When
you answer the phone, you usually use your right ear.
In male musicians, music shows much more lateralized
processing in the brain, compared with female musicians.
modularity, whether they’re in the right, left, or both hemispheres, separate
modules apparently process the time-based elements of music (meter, rhythm),
compared with the melodic elements (pitch, intervals). No one knows exactly how
many modules do the work.
musicians show left-hemisphere dominance for music, amateurs right hemisphere,
probably because trained musicians approach music more analytically. As well,
highly skilled musicians appear to use a significantly larger proportion of the
brain in processing music than do people who listen to music but don’t play.
In broad terms, the evidence on brain lateralization in music
processing indicates the following (Table 1):
TABLE 1 Brain Lateralization In Music Processing
Left hemisphere (connected to
right ear and right side of body)
Time-based elements of music (rhythm) using
Rhythmic aspects of melody
Rapidly-changing information such as speech—sequences
Right hemisphere (connected to
left ear & left side of body)
Pitch-based elements such as the shape of a melody (melodic contour) and tonal
Harmony; the right hemisphere is better at spatial cognition; in a sense, the
right hemisphere processes pitch and harmony as “spatial” elements of sound
The emotional tone of voice (via the left ear, which is connected to the right
hemisphere) better than the left hemisphere
Brain Lateralization and Music Mixing
Record producers and recording engineers, if they know what they’re doing, take
into account brain lateralization in producing a stereo mix:
Rhythm-heavy tracks sound more natural if biassed
a little to the right speaker (right ear; left brain hemisphere).
Harmony-rich tracks sound better if biassed a
little to the left speaker (left ear; right brain hemisphere).
Tracks requiring both melodic and rhythmic
processing, such as lead vocals (including rapping, which has a lot of melodic
content), sound better in the middle.
If lyric intelligibility is a problem,
right-speaker bias may help, as the right ear is connected to the speech- and
sequence-processing left hemisphere.
WHERE IN THE
Some may say that I couldn’t sing, but no one can say that I didn’t sing.
arguably one of the
world’s worst singers
Amusia is the scientific term for what
most people call tone deafness and other “musical brain” disorders. It refers to
any of several disorders that result in loss of ability to create music, or to
perceive and understand music (or both).
brain trauma causes amusia. Sometimes disease triggers it. Sometimes it’s
congenital. If you have congenital amusia, you’re born without the normal
brain wiring to process pitch and rhythm. Consequently you can’t sing in tune or
tap in time with a steady beat (you can’t entrain). Amusia is not common,
believed to affect only about 5% of the population. Florence Foster Jenkins may
have had congenital amusia.
Stroke victims develop acquired or receptive amusia
if they suffer brain damage to modules that process music. If you develop amusia
this way, you can recognize the lyrics of a song you had known before you
acquired amusia—but only when somebody speaks the
lyrics to you. If they sing the lyrics, you can no longer recognize the
tune. You have a hard time grasping or perceiving music. You can’t follow a
melody, identify the sounds of various musical instruments, or make sense of
Expressive amusia refers to the inability to create music by
singing in tune, or entrain to an external source of music by tapping
in time. However, if you have expressive amusia, you can usually
still enjoy and understand music, and even remember tunes.
WHERE IN THE
... the ability to acquire and use language is a species-specific human
Since this book deals with lyrics (Chapter 10) as
well as music, it’s fitting right about now to have a quick look at the
whereabouts and identity of language in the brain.
In the 1950s, the American linguist Noam Chomsky proposed
that language was located as a module or system of modules in the
brain. Turns out he was right. His work was a turning point in the
cognitive revolution and the downfall of behaviourism, the doctrine
that humans have blank-slate brains at birth.
to Chomsky, a generative grammar—a set of language rules—is encoded in the
neuronal architecture of the brain, and is present at birth. Brain wiring for
generative grammar makes it possible for young children to automatically become
fluent in any language they are exposed to, effortlessly, and without the need
for adult teaching. Literacy has nothing to do with language learning.
Illiterate people worldwide have no difficulty communicating orally at the same
grammatical level as those around them.
If you were born in Dodge City but raised from infancy in the
Canadian Arctic, you would grow up speaking Inuktitut. If you were
born an Inuit in the far north but raised from infancy in Dodge, you
would speak English, grow luxuriant flowing hair, and sing Classic
Western songs about lost love and horses. With a Kansas accent.
your vocabulary, you don’t have to learn your “mental grammar,” as it’s called.
You were born with it. That’s why, long before you started school, you already
knew the difference between, “Mommy plays the piano,” and “The piano plays
Mommy,” even though both sentences use the same four words. Universal Grammar
means your brain automatically rejects patterns such as these:
Plays piano the Mommy
Piano the Mommy plays
The plays Mommy piano
Piano Mommy plays the
and so on. Your brain has evolved the miraculous
capacity to automatically distinguish a “thing” (noun) from an “action” (verb)
from a “qualifier” (adjective, adverb, determiner). So, even if you never go
to school and learn so-called “proper grammar,” you will speak in
grammatically correct sentences, indistinguishable from the sentences spoken by
others in your society who have had the benefit of a formal education. “Proper
grammar” is built into your brain.
generative grammar theory has had an enormous impact in all of the cognitive
sciences (i.e., sciences concerned with perception, intelligence, learning, and
other aspects of mental function), not just
the specialties relating to language. Scientists have since discovered many
other modular adaptations throughout the brain.
Every language in the world has the same design features. That
is, although languages seem to have completely different syntaxes
(grammatical rules), close analysis shows that all languages share
the same deep structure. For example, all languages have verbs
and nouns and either a subject-object or object-subject order.
Since people of many cultures create languages independently,
this means the capacity for acquiring and using language must have
a genetic basis. Language appears to have its own neural
architecture, or set of modules and sub-modules. These modules
operate independently of other cognitive functions such as
perception, reasoning, and knowledge-acquisition.
The brain has the innate capacity to easily store words and their
meanings, as well as the rules or patterns that recognize word types
and word orders (i. e., grammar). Our mental dictionary and our
mental grammar, while independent, work together in the parallel-processing neural organ of computation that is the human brain.
evidence supporting the theory that the ability to create languages from scratch
is pre-wired in the brain at birth comes from studies of sign languages in two
widely separated populations of deaf people, one in Israel, the other in
Nicaragua. In these two populations, people created new languages from scratch,
languages that could not possibly have been transmitted culturally. Linguists
discovered that both languages function by the same grammatical rules as
languages worldwide. The only difference is the channel of transmission of
meaning—via signing instead of speaking.
Although selective pressure drove evolution of the brain
adaptation for spoken language, which all humans use today, the
same does not, apply to written language, which only some humans have. To
acquire written language, you have to learn it, because it’s a technological
development, not an adaptation. (Written language emerged from idiographic
representations of spoken language.)
The Stroop Effect: Modules in Conflict
Your brain’s many modules are specialized to perform different tasks. The
Stroop effect demonstrates how the information arising from the processing of
different modules can cause interference.
Here are 25 words. Time yourself reading the words aloud, left to
right, line by line, without errors: “grey, black, white,” etc.
Now time yourself reading the COLOR of each of the 25 words aloud, left to
right, line by line. For example, the first three words would be “black, white,
grey.” Not so easy this time—it takes considerably longer.
The American psychologist John Ridley Stroop devised this test in
the 1930s to demonstrate the interference effect your brain
experiences when linguistic information conflicts with information
from other senses.
When you ignore color and simply read the words, you only need to use your
language processing system, so it’s easy to say each word aloud. But when you
try to say the color of each word, your brain’s executive system discerns
a conflict between what your color processing modules are telling you and what
your language processing modules are telling you about the meanings of the words
associated with the colors. Two different kinds of information are entangled.
To sort out the conflicting information, you have to first suppress
the meaning of each word normally associated with the sequence
of letters. This takes some effort. Then you have to translate the
color of each group of letters into the word with the meaning that
matches the color. Only then can you say the correct word.
such as gorillas, chimpanzees, and bonobos do not develop any kind of
language-like communication system in the wild. They lack the language brain
modules that humans are born with. However, in captivity, with much time and
effort, trainers can get them to understand, in a rudimentary way, that
arbitrary symbols represent objects. Apes can also “learn” elementary
grammar-like rules, such as linking two symbols representing something different
from either of the individual symbols. With about 30 years of patient training,
a great ape can memorize a couple of hundred word meanings, and can almost
acquire the language understanding of an 18-month-old human child. Bonobos fare
somewhat better at “language learning” than chimpanzees.
IN THE BRAIN?
In 1990, Steven Pinker hypothesized that language evolved in
humans by conventional Darwinian natural selection (section 1.5
discusses natural selection). Chomsky, who first described brain-based universal grammar, did not go that far. Twelve years later, in
2002, a team of German and British geneticists published genetic
evidence strongly supporting Pinker. They discovered that a
particular gene, FOXP2, plays a vital role in processing speech and
FOXP2 exists in other primates such as the chimpanzee, but the
human form of the gene differs. The human form may have
appeared 100,000 to 200,000 years ago. Communication by
language gradually replaced communication by gesture. Language
was the breakthrough technology that resulted in symbolic thinking
and the cultural explosion that defines what it is to be human.
If you happen to be born with abnormal human FOXP2, you will
suffer from severe language impairment. That means that the
normal human form is a naturally selected mutation, a “target of natural
selection.” (A mutation is a randomly occurring change in the gene, resulting in
a change in physiology or anatomy or even behaviour.) And that strongly
indicates that the innate human capacity for effortless language learning is an
adaptation, the product of Darwinian natural selection.
two million years ago, the hominid brain suddenly (in glacial
evolutionary terms) began to get larger and larger, a process called
encephalation. This did not occur in any of the other large primates,
such as chimpanzees and gorillas. A mutation occurred in hominids
around that time, a mutation that may have made encephalation
A gene called MYH16, active in chimpanzees, ensures huge jaw
muscle build-up, necessary for powerful chewing. These muscles
constrict the skull, something like bungee cords, preventing growth
in cranial capacity. In hominids, a mutation appeared that deactivated MYH16. This may have freed the hominid skull
to expand. And expand it did, tripling in size over the next 2 million
years. To this day, chimpanzees still have the active version of
MYH16 and comparatively small skulls. All humans have the
deactivated human mutation of MYH16 and comparatively huge
IN THE BRAIN?
Aphasia is the language equivalent of amusia, discussed a bit
earlier. Aphasia refers to any of several disorders that result in loss
of ability to communicate in speech or writing (or both). There are
two main types:
aphasia (also called expressive aphasia):
• If you have a stroke or otherwise suffer damage to a specific
area of the left hemisphere called Broca’s area, you will have difficulty
speaking. However, the content of what you’re saying, slow and disjointed as it
may come out, will make sense.
if you have Broca’s aphasia, you will have great difficulty reciting or speaking
the words of a song you had learned before developing aphasia, but will usually
be able to
sing the words fluently.
aphasia (also called fluent aphasia):
• If you have a stroke or otherwise suffer damage to an area of
the left hemisphere called Wernicke’s area, you will be able to speak
fluently, but the content of what you’re saying will not make sense.
Chomsky pointed out the following:
• Pretty much every sentence that everyone utters is a different
combination of words, never heard before.
means it’s impossible to store all sentences in the brain.
• That means the brain must have a mechanism for putting
words together in a meaningful way.
means the brain can tell the difference between a group of words that makes
sense, and a group of words that pickles without lamented occidental Custer’s
how Steven Pinker describes the combinatorial nature of the brain’s language
A finite number of discrete elements (in this case, words) are sampled,
combined, and permuted to create larger structures (in this case,
sentences) with properties that are quite distinct from those of their
elements. For example, the meaning of Man bites dog is different from the
meaning of the same words combined in reverse order.
possible, therefore, to construct a practically infinite number of sentences
with a relatively limited vocabulary.
The same applies to music:
• A scale has a finite number of different pitches.
• Each pitch can last for a finite number of different time
• Each pitch can be combined with a finite number of other
pitches to create a finite number of intervals and chords. And
though each type of musical property (melody, harmony, rhythm) has a finite
number of elements, when you multiply out all the possibilities, you get a
practically infinite number of possible tunes a songwriter could write. That’s
what combinatorial means.
universal generative linguistic grammar describes the brain’s ability to compile
an inventory of words and apply a set of combinatorial rules.
and Jackendoff’s universal generative musical grammar describes the brain’s
ability to compile an inventory of tones and apply a set of combinatorial rules.
whole human brain is a combinatorial system, a parallel-processing neural organ
of computation. Using mentalese (described below), a discrete number of mental
symbols can be combined and recombined, using as many modules and sub-modules as
necessary. In other words, humans have the ability to think up, or imagine, an
almost infinite number of possibilities, because thought is itself
combinatorial. That’s why behaviour is infinitely variable.
music and language use small numbers of elements to generate an infinite number
of combinations of word phrases and musical phrases. Therefore, it’s likely that
the brain function of combinatoriality evolved before the evolution of separate
music and language specialties.
The Genetic Code Is Like Language
The genetic code, like language, is combinatorial. That’s why every bacterium, plant and
creature is genetically different, even within the same species, and even though
each uses the same 64 three-letter DNA “words.”
Here are some analogies between language and the genetic
26 letters (symbols), A, B, C,
4 nucleotides: cytosine,
guanine, adenine, and thymine
A word consists of one or more
letters. Thousands of words are
in a dictionary. Speech and
written documents are
comprised of words from the
A codon consists of three
adjacent nucleotides. 64 codons
form the genetic dictionary. All
living things use the same 64-codon dictionary.
Sequences of words are called
sentences or lines of poetry,
etc. They code meaningful
representations of thought.
Sequences of codons—strands of DNA—are called genes.
They code chains of amino acid
molecules called proteins,
which comprise various body
Many sentences form a larger
unit called a chapter.
Many genes form a long strand
of DNA called a chromosome.
All of the chapters containing all of the
sentences form a book—perhaps 10,000 sentences.
All of the chromosomes,
containing all of the genes, form
the genome of the organism.
Humans have 23 pairs of
chromosomes, one member of
each pair from each parent. The
human genome consists of
some 20,000 to 25,000 genes.
The fact that all life on earth is based on the same 64-codon DNA dictionary
makes it a virtual certainty that all life, all microbes, plants, and animals
that have ever existed—dinosaurs, oysters, apple trees, sharks, daffodils, rats,
chimpanzees, and humans—evolved from the same single molecular strand, a monad
(first simple organism) that fused, through natural chemical mechanisms, from
non-living molecules nearly 4 billion years ago.
The human brain exhibits some degree of plasticity. For example, a
young child who trains as a pianist experiences some modification
in the cortex as a result of that musical training.
your brain is in some measure, “adapted to adapt,” plasticity does not mean your brain consists of a lot of generalized
matter that can do pretty much anything. Plasticity simply means a
module can take on some functioning for which it was not
specifically adapted, provided that functioning relates to what the
module would ordinarily do.
plasticity refers to the ability of your brain’s modules to reorganize
themselves somewhat to take advantage of cortical modules not being used due to
sensory loss. For example, loss or absence of vision can stimulate some brain
module reorganization, enhancing a blind person’s sense of pitch and direction.
Blind individuals often have extraordinary musical skills.
effect of plasticity is much more evident in childhood. In blind people, pitch
discrimination (the ability to judge the direction of extremely rapid pitch
change) is much keener than in sighted people, especially if the individual
became blind before the age of two. Its easier to learn to play a musical
instrument or to speak more than one language in childhood because the brain is
receptive to applying it’s built-in music and language processing modules to
any language and any musical culture during childhood. After a
period of time, called the critical period, plasticity diminishes sharply
as the various modules become fully functional. If you don’t learn early, your
brain is pre-wired to move on to the next stage, and you lose the window of
Contrary to popular mythology, the language you
speak does not mould or shape the way you think. An Arabic-speaking person, for
example, does not “think differently” from the way an English-speaking person
You do not even need language to think.
(and other animals) use a “brain language,” the language of thought, usually
called mentalese. If thoughts depended
on words, nobody would be able to translate anything from one
language to another. The words of the French language do not all
have exact equivalents in, say, English. The translation, then, is
thought for thought, not word for word. The translator uses
mentalese to make decisions on how to structure the thoughts
across the languages.
like everybody, sometimes have problems putting thoughts into words. That’s not
because your thoughts don’t exist; of course they do. Putting them into words
means translating mentalese into language. That can be a chore.
you finish reading this chapter of this book, you might remember only one or two
of the specific sentences. But that does not mean you will have forgotten the
content of the chapter (unless you haven’t been paying attention). What you will
remember is the
gist of this chapter. You will easily be able give your friends a fairly
detailed oral summary of the chapter (and urge them in the strongest possible
terms to buy this interesting and highly informative book), but you will not
likely use any of the exact sentences you read in this chapter, because you
won’t remember them.
will remember the gist of this chapter in mentalese, the language of thought.
The same applies to other experiences you have, such as seeing a movie or
attending a party. Not only do you absorb the gist of the story line as revealed
in the dialogue of the movie (or conversations you had at the party), but you
also remember information that other modules have captured during the
experience, such as the visual and auditory elements. Later, you can describe
not only the gist of the dialogue, but also the gist of the visual setting, the
soundscape, and how the experience made you feel emotionally. Mentalese
captures the gist of all of this. You don’t store all of it permanently, of
course; memories fade over time. Chapter 7 discusses the various types and
functions of memory.
Similarly, you can identify a familiar piece of music, even though
you hear it in a completely transformed arrangement, played with
unfamiliar instruments. You recognize the unfamiliar rendition
because you retain the gist of it. For example, you can recognize “My
Favourite Things” from The Sound of Music even if it’s played in a jazz
arrangement you’ve never heard before. By John Coltrane.
of all the animal species on this planet, have the largest brain proportion
comprised of neocortex (80% of the whole brain). However other animals also have
a neocortex brain part, which means they, too, think—even though they don’t have
language. Your dog thinks. Your horse thinks. The mountain lion that has been
tracking you and your horse thinks. She thinks (translated from mentalese),
“Easy dinner or what?”
Evolutionary conservation means that, even after a species splits
into two species (then splits again and again) due to environmental
selective pressures that differ in geographically separated
populations, many traits continue on in each species. For example,
we humans share most of our genetic material with chimpanzees and bonobos,
and we also share many chimpanzee and bonobo behavioural traits, even
though the last common ancestor of apes and humans lived some
six or seven million years ago.
species, including humans, evolved from a common ancestor. So it’s not
surprising to find examples of human-like “mindfulness” in species other
than humans. Lots of species make tools spontaneously, without any instruction
from other adults of their species (or humans). Some species can learn to make
tools, as well (cultural transmission).
don’t compose human-like music, and few appreciate Coltrane, Joni Mitchell, or
the harmonica music that comes wafting out of nowhere when Marshal McDillon,
Deputy Fester, and Ms Puma are sitting around the campfire roasting squirrels.
However, some animals have recognizable cultural traits.
A few examples:
• Monkeys and apes in captivity, including chimpanzees,
gorillas, orangutans, and capuchin monkeys, like to paint
pictures. Some can produce recognizable shapes such as
crosses, circles, and non-random patterns.
• Dogs can learn word meanings after a single exposure
(called fast mapping, which is how children pick up
vocabulary so quickly) and fetch specific objects from verbal
bonobos, and gorillas, with a lot of training, can learn to associate some words
with some objects. (However, they don’t even begin to “get” the symbolic essence
• Capuchin monkeys can learn to use money. Male capuchins
even purchase sex with money.
and apes deliberately cheat or fool each other when it’s advantageous.
• Chimpanzees use tools and teach tool-making and tool-use
to other chimpanzees.
• Crows make and use tools without being taught by other
crows or by humans.
• Male zebra finches are aware of the social relationships of
others of their species, and modify their relationships with
• Baboons can transmit local baboon cultural practices to
outsider baboons who join the troop.
you whisper the right things in your horse’s ear, you can lead him to water and make him float on his back.
IN THE BRAIN:
Give me a dozen healthy infants, well-formed, and my own specified world to
bring them up in and I’ll guarantee to take any one at random and train him to
become any type of specialist I might select—doctor, lawyer, artist,
merchant-chief, and yes, even beggar-man and thief, regardless of his talents,
penchants, tendencies, abilities, vocations, and race of his ancestors.
father of behaviourism
In the first half of the 20th Century, and well into the second half, a
school of thought called behaviourism taught, wrongly, that
are born with “blank slate” brains, and
• Everything we learn comes from the punishments and
rewards we receive from the environment.
Behaviourists conveniently forgot to explain how a blank slate
brain could actually learn anything: a truly blank slate would have no
mechanism for learning. If the brain were a blank slate at birth, you
would not be able to learn either language or music.
According to behaviorists, observing behaviour from the outside,
via stimulus and response, was the only valid way to proceed in
psychology. Behaviourists believed that biology controlled animals,
but culture controlled people. Presumably, behaviourists did not
consider people to be animals.
the Jesuits invented behaviourism, as evidenced in their oft-quoted myth: “Give me the child until the age of seven, and I will give you the man.”)
Many people still believe in behaviourism, even in the face of
mountains of evidence supporting the existence, at birth, of a wide
variety of naturally selected brain adaptations such as those for the
acquisition of language and music. Some academics even teach that
cultural evolution has superceded biological evolution.
example, even today, “social constructionists” cling to the Standard Social
Science Model, the dogma that biology doesn’t matter. In the minds of social
constructionists, a biological trait such as the state of being male or
female—your gender—arises somehow through the prevailing culture’s
“social construction.” That is, social constructionists actually believe you
are not born male or female, you “learn” your gender, and you “learn” your sexual
makes about as much sense as insisting people are born with “blank slate”
bodies. At birth, humans have a head (containing a blank slate brain, of course)
that’s attached to a formless blank slate body. A blob. When you’re born,
presumably, the attending obstetrician or midwife begins to shape you—a
blob—into a torso, then arms and legs and fingers and toes. Others in the social
environment join in, shaping other bits of you-the-blob into your heart and
lungs and, let’s not forget, your naughty bits. Over the years, society
colonizes and socially constructs your blank slate brain and teaches you what
gender you are ...
Thinking about the brain and behaviour has changed since the
days of the behaviourists, as summarized by the cognitive
neuroscientist, Michael S. Gazzaniga:
No scientist seriously questions whether we are the product of natural
selection. We are a finely honed machine that has amazing capacities for
learning and inventiveness. Yet these capacities were not picked up at a
local bookstore or developed from everyday experience. The abilities to
learn and think come with our brains. The knowledge we acquire with
these devices results from interactions with our culture. But the devices
come with the brain, just as the brakes come with the car.
Believers in the Standard Social Science Model refuse to make
value judgments about anything that goes on in a culture other than
their own. This is called cultural relativism or the relativistic fallacy.
It’s really moral relativism, although believers in cultural relativism deny
to cultural relativism, all cultures are “equal.” So you must not condemn the
practices of any culture other than your own. Practices such as barring women
from positions of social, political, or religious power. Banning music.
Arranging and forcing marriages between three-year-old children. Ostracising,
torturing, or executing homosexuals. Cultural relativists insist that, if you’re
an outsider, you have no business criticizing such cultural practices. If you
do, you’re an intolerant, ethnocentric racist bigot.
Cultural relativists assume, contrary to empirical evidence, that:
1. Culture creates the individual instead of the other way
2. People do not have shared cultural values, the same
biologically-driven wants, needs, and aspirations everywhere
in the world, regardless of culture.
relativists simply deny, in the face of all evidence, that there’s any such
thing as human nature—a large group of inborn behavioural traits that are common
to people of all cultures. According to cultural relativists, everything’s
political. Everything’s subjective. There’s no such thing as an objective fact.
The implication of cultural relativism is that universal, inborn
ethical or moral standards do not exist. Cultural relativism is based
on the mistaken notion that people learn morality and therefore you
ought to expect people in different cultures to have different senses
evidence, however, indicates every normal member of the human species is born
with an evolved moral sense. Morality is not something you acquire from your
culture. You don’t learn morality from your Mom or by attending your local
church, mosque, or synagogue. Atheists, agnostics, and orphans behave just as
morally as everybody else in society.
Consider what would happen in the following hypothetical situation,
proposed by the anthropologist, Robin Fox.
a population of children were to find itself in total social isolation, having
to raise themselves, without ever having had any contact with adults and a
pre-existing culture. No previous enculturation whatsoever. Impossible in real
life, of course, because we humans need others to feed and nurture us for a long
time until we become self-sustaining. But this is only a thought experiment—
nobody will die of starvation or exposure.
What would happen? Because humans have inborn brain
adaptations, including adaptations for language and music, the
individuals making up this hypothetical culture-free society would
create culture, just as individual humans create culture everywhere
in the world. The society would, among other things:
• Generate a language
• Have music
• Have dancing
• Create a legal system
• Create the institution of marriage
• Create systems of social status
• Proclaim and enforce taboos, such as the incest taboo
• Create some sort of religious faith, complete with ceremony
• Make and use tools and weapons
• Exclude women from various practices and institutions
• Have homosexual citizens
• Find itself inventing ways of coping with adultery, murder,
suicide, psychosis, etc.
People who don’t understand what evolutionary
biology and evolutionary psychology are about fear they might be about
biological determinism, the doctrine that your genes determine 100% of your
abilities and behaviour, summoning ugly spectres of racism, eugenics, social
Darwinism, and the like.
scientific evidence does not support biological determinism, and no sane
biologist embraces the concept. Its opposite, social determinism, the doctrine
that society alone socially constructs 100% of your abilities and behaviour,
also has no scientific support.
Evolutionary biology and psychology seek to understand what
humans have in common as a species, not how we differ as
individuals. This means taking into account the interactions between
our biological adaptations and our cultural environment. Evolution by
conventional Darwinian natural selection created humans and all
other living things on earth, past and present. Therefore, genetically
inherited predispositions influence human behaviour as much as
learning and cultural influences. Both genes and culture matter.
Moreover, you have the ability to override your genetically
programmed inclinations. You have free will. For example, you can
live and work in tall buildings with floor-to-ceiling windows, overriding
your genetically inherited fear of heights. You can ride in an elevator
despite natural claustrophobia.
The ability to override genetically inherited predispositions
invalidates excuses, such as:
smashed that other guy’s car with a tire iron in a fit of road rage because, as
a human male, I’m naturally aggressive.
can’t become a physicist because, as a human female, I’m not supposed to be good
• I keep having affairs because, as a naturally polygynous
human male, I just have to sow my wild oats.
• I eat wild oats from the nosebags of other horses because, as
a horse instead of a human, I have no evolved ethical sense,
only horse sense.
Social Darwinism: Spin-doctoring Science
Social Darwinism is the notion that the same principle of natural selection
that applies to biological evolution extends to individual and group behaviour—even
though no evidence supports any such extension.
Political and social thinkers of the late 19th Century concocted the
idea of social Darwinism: superior social and racial classes and
systems succeed and survive, while inferior social and racial
classes and systems fail and ought to die out. So, for example,
you should not help sick or disabled people because if you did,
you would interfere with the natural process of evolution. Social
Darwinism was used to justify imperialism, racism, eugenics, and
Darwin himself never made any claims that natural selection applied to
anything other than biological evolution. Nor do today’s evolutionary
Humans have so many naturally-selected behavioural characteristics
in common, regardless of culture, that the anthropologist Donald E.
Brown documented hundreds of them in a book, Human Universals.
These include musical universals, coming up in a few minutes.
describes the human species as Universal People, a nod to Chomsky’s Universal
Grammar. Here are a few from Brown’s and others’ compilations of human
universals, the things you find in all cultures worldwide
TABLE 2 A Small Sampling of Human Universals
are only a few that Brown (and others) have documented. Brown’s book lists many
more. These traits exist in every culture, however separated geographically and
historically. Obviously, such commonality of characteristics could not have
emerged independently everywhere in humanity without genetic foundations—an
evolved basic human nature.
ON A LEASH”
Does culture, including music and language, create human
behaviour, or does human behaviour create culture?
Culture is what we learn from each other. It applies to both
humans and to non-human animals that have culture (and many do).
But where does human culture come from in the first place?
According to outmoded, biologically-unsupported thinking:
• Human babies are formless blank slates at birth.
human culture comes from the “outside.”
completely creates the human individual; the individual is the “product” of his
or her culture.
• Cultural or social transformation can change the essential
nature of people (this is precisely what ideologues, such as
a political and religious extremists, aim to do).
In other words, according to this line of thinking, culture creates
and controls people.
The evidence paints a far different picture. All culture, including
music, is biological in origin because culture originates, ultimately,
in human brains, and manifests amazing similarity worldwide. What
we humans think, what we know, and how we behave comes partly
from our genetic inheritance, and partly from what we learn (using
our brains) from the people we personally associate with, and the
cultural artifacts we come in contact with, such as the television we
watch and the music we listen to.
Our genes do not control us. But the culture around us does not
control us, either. No amount of social engineering can change that.
As the American biologist E. O. Wilson aptly put it in his Pulitzer
Prize winning book, On Human Nature, “The genes hold culture on a leash.”
humans use our brains to create new, original culture all the time. But it’s
rarely so new and so original that it has nothing to do with our genetic
predispositions, notwithstanding the efforts of postmodern artists, including
OF THE BIOLOGICALLY
It’s one thing to create original art. It’s
another to create inhuman
Artistic movements such as postmodernism in music and other
arts represent brave attempts by artists to break free of our evolved
Human brains evolve with glacial slowness. Biologically, we
humans still have brains adapted to Stone Age conditions, like it or
not. Humans have been hunter-gatherers for more than 99 percent
of human history. No amount of enculturation can change that.
people don’t hang postmodern canvasses of meaningless stripes and blobs on their
walls—unless under peer pressure. Nor do they read disjointed gibberish. Nor do
they listen to atonal (“serial”) music.
relativists insist all art is equal. No such thing as “good” art or “bad” art. A
Sunday painter’s crude rendering of Elvis has just as much aesthetic value as a
these two paintings. One is Jan Vermeer’s “The Music Lesson.” The other is
Barnett Newman’s “Voice of Fire.”
Vermeer speaks for itself. As for “Voice of Fire”—it’s exactly what you see:
three vertical stripes, a work of “art” devoid of a scintilla of imagination or
skill. The National Gallery in Ottawa, Canada authorized the
payment of $1.76 million for “Voice of Fire.” Cultural relativists deemed
it a bargain.
criticize the spending of that amount of money on a panel consisting of three
stripes—the type of design you would see at a shopping mall food court—you’re
obviously some narrow-minded Philistine, judging something of which you have no
cultural knowledge, something that’s out of your cultural experience. “Voice of
Fire” is a genuine Barnett Newman, after all. A national art gallery
paid $1.76 million for it, so it must be worth the money. Hey, for that
kind of money, it has to be a masterpiece!
The emperor has no clothes. If no one knew it was a genuine
Barnett Newman, “Voice of Fire” might fetch as much as $10 at a yard
sale—the value of the canvas or plywood or whatever it’s painted on (the thing
is pretty big).
unlikely anyone in their right mind would hang a poster-size reproduction of
“Voice of Fire” on their wall. But lots of people hang reproductions of “The
commercial standpoint, the National Gallery in Ottawa has probably recouped its
financial investment in “Voice of Fire” from the admission fees of incredulous
visitors who just had to find out for themselves if the gallery actually did
purchase a panel painted with three stripes for $1.76 million, and did provide
wall space for it, instead of a work of art.
music ... a cultural relativist would insist that you have to consider a musical
piece within its cultural milieu, so all music is equally valid. There’s no such
thing as a “good” song or a “bad” song. Artistic merit is too subjective to be
judged or measured. A 12-year-old’s first attempt at songwriting has just as
much artistic merit as “Georgia On My Mind.”
This kind of thinking is utterly delusional because it ignores or
denies the reality of evolved human nature.
Postmodern Animal Art, Postmodern Child Art, Postmodern Science!
If you saw a chimpanzee-painted picture, you probably wouldn’t pay $5 for it—unless
you knew that a chimp painted the picture. In that case, you might pay lots of
money for it. The “art” of Congo the chimpanzee (1954 - 1964) has sold for tens
of thousands of dollars.
Similarly, four-year-old Marla Olmstead’s postmodern paintings (“abstract
art”), indistinguishable from postmodern paintings in New York’s finest
galleries of indistinguishable postmodern paintings, have sold for thousands of
Postmodern artists get much attention in the media ... but what about
postmodern socio-political critics and cultural analysts? Doesn’t their
gibberish deserve more attention, too?
Alan Sokal, a New York University physicist thought so.
Fed up with denials of reality and the downplaying of scientific evidence by
postmodern intellectuals insistent on promulgating claptrap about the “social
construction of reality,” Sokal decided to try a little experiment to determine
whether or not postmodern relativists had any ability to recognize pure,
unadulterated bullshit when it hit them in the face.
Sokal wrote an article titled, “Transgressing the boundaries: Towards a
transformative hermeneutics of quantum gravity.” He submitted it to the
well-known postmodern cultural studies journal,
Social Text. The 35-page article was a hoax, full of wooly
postmodern jargon and scientific-sounding absurdities about the
implications of quantum physics on social culture, and the role of
postmodern science. The bafflegab and the scientific credibility of
the author impressed the editors of Social Text. They did not bother to
have the article reviewed by scientists who would have known immediately that it
was ludicrous twaddle from beginning to end. Instead, Social Text published the
article—even though they could not possibly have had any understanding of it,
since it was meaningless.
unaware of evolutionary biology and its implications often create
incomprehensible, inhuman music in an attempt to come up with something
original—musical equivalents of “Voice of Fire” or chimpanzee art or Marla
Olmstead’s “abstract” paintings. “Surely,” the argument goes, “it’s time to move
on from tonal music. We have to progress!”—without realizing that the notion of
progress does not apply to the arts, including music (more on this in Chapter
A postmodern chef would presumably create bold new original
dishes by incorporating ingredients such as coal dust, Styrofoam,
and plutonium. Not many humans eat inhuman food. And not many
humans appreciate inhuman music and inhuman visual art. (Some
do, though ...)
write and perform “postmodern” songs, you will probably have a problem making a
living. Inhuman music means inaccessible
music. Inaccessible music does not communicate emotionally (except to
irritate the listener) because the human brain cannot find meaning in it on any
level. It’s not because listeners aren’t sophisticated enough. It’s because the
music itself amounts to pretentious, meaningless rubbish.
Similar musical elements show up to some degree in the music of
all cultures. For example, Westerners listening to Hindustani music
report feeling the same specific emotions as the emotions
Hindustani musicians report they are intending to convey. Similarly,
young children specify the same emotions elicited by a piece of
music as do adults. If you could time-travel, you would find the same
musical universals in the music of cultures that went extinct tens of
thousands of years ago.
music likely tops the list of all the artistic activities humans practise
globally. Here are some musical universals (Table 3)—musical traits found in all
musical cultures worldwide (not necessarily characteristic of every individual, but in pretty much all
TABLE 4 Some Musical Universals
You owe your ability to appreciate and create music to the genes
you inherited from your parents and their ancestors, going back
many thousands of generations. But the specifics of your musical
tastes and musical creativity come primarily from the cultural
preferences of your peer group—not from your parents. This applies to
your non-musical cultural preferences as well.
Imagine this sequence of events.
• You are born in a small village in South Korea. As a child, you
become fluent in the Korean language, absorb the Korean
folk music traditions of your parents, and observe their
Buddhist religious practices.
you are six years old, your family emigrates to America and settles in Dodge City,
Kansas. Your parents learn practically no English, retain their strong Buddhist
faith, and socialize only with other Koreans in Dodge City’s small Korean neighbourhood. At home, you and your parents converse exclusively in Korean.
Fast forward a few years.
you are 11 years old. You’ve been going to school in Dodge for five years. Your
parents can still hardly speak a word of English, still hang around with their
Korean friends, and remain firm Buddhists.
As for you ...
• You now speak fluent English with an accent
indistinguishable from the accent of your native-born
American posse in Dodge. You also dress like them, swagger
around like them, ride horses like them, and have habits and
tastes and religious interests like theirs.
walk and talk and identify with your Dodge peer group—not your parents and the
Korean cultural world they still inhabit.
• In short, you inhabit a personal environment of your own, an
environment that overlaps with the personal environments of
your peer group. It shows. You still have the genetic
inheritance of your parents, of course, but the specific cultural
information you have acquired has come mainly from your
peer group. And that includes not just your language, but also
your musical tastes.
much is music innate, and how much is culturally acquired? Probably something
like half and half. But you can’t disentangle genetically inherited influence
from culturally acquired influence because musical universals show up in varying
degrees in the music of all cultures.
WOVEN IN THE
Most people experience music every day. One study revealed a 44%
probability of experiencing music in any two-hour period.
doesn’t mean that people are actually paying attention to the music they hear.
That doesn’t happen much. Music hangs around in the social environment.
• People often focus on music as a diversion when doing
mundane work or chores.
main reason people listen to music is to regulate their own mood—to get out of a
bad mood, get into a romantic mood, get into an excited mood.
According to one study, adolescent girls tend to use music as a
mood regulator. Boys use music to make an impression on others.
Boys also like to listen to music when alone, assimilating identity-building cultural stereotypes.
Music weaves its way through the fabric of everyday life
everywhere: waking up, getting ready for work or school, eating,
working, travelling, playing, courting, meditating, praying, horse
grooming, shopping, exercising, socializing, trying to get to sleep.
Where? What about Outside the Brain?
Music originates solely in the brain.
Or does it?
Could global consciousness, or mass consciousness generally,
influence music-making? Is there such a thing as global
In 1998, researchers at Princeton University set up an international
global consciousness monitoring system. They placed dozens of electronic random
event generators (REGs) in many countries around the world. These devices
generate sequential data completely at random. The REGs are independent of one
another, so they cannot influence each other. Each REG periodically uploads its random data
to the lab at Princeton.
The purpose of the experiment was (and still is) to test the
The composite variation of the distribution means of data
sequences (segments) recorded from multiple REGs during
broadly engaging global events will deviate from expectation.
In other words, if global consciousness exists, and if it’s detectable with
existing technology, then it should affect REG-generated data during events where
large numbers of people are thinking about the same thing at the same time.
Examples of events would include:
• A major terrorist attack such as 9/11
• An election
• A natural disaster such as a major earthquake or hurricane
• A mass-media event such as an international fundraising
When comparing the data from one REG with the data from another, you would
expect to find no statistical correlations beyond what would be expected by
chance, if human thinking did not influence the electronically-generated data
from the REGs.
But the results of the Princeton experiment, which have been
reported continuously since 1998, show numerous statistically
significant REG data correlations associated with major humanly
important events. The closer the event is physically located to a
REG, the greater the effect on the REG data.
While the results neither “prove” nor “disprove” specific cause-and-effect
claims, they do provide solid evidence supporting the hypothesis of the
The scientific rigour with which the monitoring and reporting
system was established, and the results it has produced, make
the Princeton experiment one of the most fascinating ever
devised. You can find out about it and have a look at the results to
date (and even the raw data) at their website: