Classical KUSC

Music Genes

Posted By: Dennis Bartel · 2/5/2014 6:31:00 PM

Are you like me when it comes to music? I think I hear music well, its intricacies and subtleties. I believe that music plays an essential role in my inner life, but anyone who has heard me try to sing, or witnessed my fumbling attempts to play an instrument of any kind no matter how elementary – from drum to tambourine, never mind piano or clarinet – would never mistake me for someone musical.

Yet music strikes an innate chord in me, and I feel musical. I also feel that I do certain things musically. Somewhere there is music in me, even if it does not come out of me in song.

If this sounds familiar, you may be interested in findings from research conducted at Ohio State University regarding a “music gene.” Scientists and musicologists have proposed that the musicality of humans has evolved right along with our ability to walk upright and talk, and has been no less important in our survival as a species.

Until now, music has been regarded as merely cultural, on the order of carvings on antlers in the Aurignacian period (30,000 B.C.) and 25,000-year-old cave paintings that have evolved into today’s abstract art. That is, music is just another means invented by early Homo sapiens to communicate or give pleasure. But the Ohio State scientists believe that music may have biological roots. They say that Neanderthals tens of thousands of years ago may have possessed a music gene, and that people with a more highly developed music gene were favored over others. As a result, those Neanderthals with the more potent music genes were more likely to reproduce. In the words of the Ohio State study, musical people held “an evolutionary advantage.”

Thanks to this process of natural selection, we as a species are today musically advanced, just as we likewise walk and talk better than Neanderthals.

How did they arrive at this conclusion? The path of discovery went through archeology. Music can be found in every culture ever known to have existed, from European Cro-Magnons of 37,000 B.C., to Mesolithic man of 10,000 years ago, from Gravettians playing carved bone flutes in glacial caves in Slovenia, to Amazon tribes beating on sandstone blocks, wherever people have gathered together there has always been music.

Could it be that the impulse to tap your foot to Katy Perry or rock back and forth to Pitbull can be traced back twelve millennium to the artful Magdalenians of the last ice age? Is musicality hereditary or only the result of lots of practice? Were music genes chiefly responsible for the precious genius of Mendelssohn, Jascha Heifetz, Art Tatum, Michael Jackson and Evelyn Glennie?

Adding to the argument for a biological basis to our feel for rhythm and tempo, researchers at the University of Montreal have used brain imaging studies to show that when most of us hear music the right temporal lobe is activated. Further, medical science has long known that people with brain damage to the right temporal lobe cannot remember tunes.

Not everyone in the scientific community is buying the music gene theory. MIT psychologist Steven Pinker, who wrote the best-selling book How the Mind Works, says, “Music is auditory cheesecake.” Pinker argues that music has not played much of a role in the evolutionary process, and when compared to social reasoning and physical know-how, “music could vanish from our species and the rest of our lifestyle would be virtually unchanged.”

Maybe Dr. Pinker’s lifestyle wouldn’t change, but mine sure would. Perhaps you are like I am, thankful for whatever musicality I possess, however limited, even Neanderthal in nature, for it lends both pleasure and definition to my day-to-day existence. Likewise, I am thankful for those Homo sapiens who have been blessed with the evolutionary advantage of a developed music gene, if there is such a thing. I am reminded of a New Yorker cartoon from many years ago. A desolate landscape is seen, lunar-like. In the foreground one sees a stick and a crudely made wheel. The caption reads: “Life Without Mozart.”

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  1. John posted on 02/15/2014 11:10 AM
    Michael Jackson referred to as a musical genius...right up there with Mendelssohn....hilarious!!

    And we wonder why standards have sunk so low...
    1. Adrienne Boswell posted on 02/25/2014 07:32 PM
      @John Michael Jackson was a showman, and he did a really good job at it before everyone started noticing how weird he was getting. I was just talking to a student at a local middle school, and they were practicing Thriller. The kids like it, and if they like that, they might stay interested in music long enough to appreciate the true geniuses like Mendelssohn, Beethoven, Mozart, and even Phil Spector's Wall of Sound.
  2. Adrienne Boswell posted on 02/25/2014 07:25 PM
    Music is very important to me. My grandfather was a violinist, my grandmother a pianist. My mother was a burlesque actress, who also sang. When I was five years old, my mother got me dressed up and I sang "Whatever Lola Wants" at an Officers' Club party. I have always loved singing, especially songs I can belt out - I might not sound that great, but so enjoy doing it. I have always had a preference for Classical music, even when I was too young to know what it was. Now, I have a 10 year old, and we listen to KUSC all the time. My son is growing to appreciate classical music, and has been singing in his schools' chorus since he was 5. He writes and sings his own songs. So, you cannot tell me that there isn't some genetic thing going on here.
  3. Jane Lynch posted on 02/27/2014 07:30 AM
    I was sorry to read the comment from Dr. Pinker re: "Music is auditory cheesecake," etc. What an impoverished spirit he must have, despite his brilliance!
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