Friday, January 27, 2012

Sharing music: a powerful way that humans bond

This weekend, I started listening to the audiobook of Oliver Sacks' Musicophilia

The Columbia University professor is probably the country’s best known neurologist. He has the ability to make the complexities of neurological disorders understandable to laymen while portraying the afflictions of his patients in a compelling and compassionate way. 

When the book was first published, writer Scott Horton of HARPER'S Magazine put 6 questions to Dr. Sacks about his remarkable study of music and the human brain.  

Here's one of the exchanges:

4. You suggest that we favor language as our primary medium for the communication of ideas, but your book develops the case for music as another important vehicle. Doesn’t this suggest that music and language have the potential to reinforce and support one another as media of communication?

There is a great deal of debate about the relationship between music and language, and speculation about which capacity evolved first. It has often been suggested that music emerged as a by-product of linguistic capacities. But musical rhythm, with its regular pulse, is very unlike the irregular stressed syllables of speech. We will probably never know the answer here, but whether parts of the brain evolved specifically to process music, or music happened to make use of neural pathways that arose for other reasons, it is clear that music has been central to the human enterprise for 40,000 years or more. Bone flutes, some of which date back even further than this, have been found at Neanderthal campsites. Sharing music is one of the most powerful ways humans bond together, and this has obvious survival value. We still use music in this way, to come together in singing religious songs, holiday music, national anthems, protest songs, even “Happy Birthday.” If we had a time machine, it would be fascinating to learn how early music and speech came together in the form of song. Steven Mithen, in The Singing Neanderthals, proposes that speech and music developed simultaneously, as a sort of song-speech, which later separated into spoken language and music.

Read the full interview at


Jenny said...

Did you know that the songs that you listened to when you were 14 years old have the most profound influence on you? Found that out a couple of days ago. What were you listening to at age 14?

Mark Stinson said...

You will love this list of Top 100 songs of 1973. (Tony Orlando rocks!)