During my years in England, I had the privilege of rubbing shoulders with Professor Lord Baron Robert Winston, obstetrician and gynaecologist, pioneer scientist in the field of fertility research, and celebrity television presenter, author and politician, when I worked for a year at the tertiary referral unit for high-risk pregnancy and neonatal care at Imperial College London’s Hammersmith Hospital. It is perhaps not surprising that this polymath is a great lover and patron of music as well.

So I was particularly excited to stumble upon his radio-documentary series ‘The Science of Music’ on BBC Radio 4. It made fascinating listening, drawing upon the expertise of several other personalities including Ian Cross, Professor of Music and Science and Fellow at Wolfson College Cambridge and Stephen Johnson, classical music writer, broadcaster and musicologist.

It raises some fundamental questions. For instance, we’ve all heard the sound of a baby babbling. We have been those babies ourselves. But what exactly is the infant really trying to do? Is s/he attempting to communicate through ‘baby-steps’ at speech? Or could it be a preliminary effort at song, and music?

Music is universal. There are no known societies anywhere in the world without music. But what is it for? What purpose does it serve?

It is difficult to research the role of music in prehistoric times. The earliest recognisable instruments that we know of are flutes fashioned from bird-bones and mammoth tusks, dating to around 40,000 years ago. But the history of mankind goes back much further, to around 2 million years. And music most likely was known to these ancestors too. They had access to their own bodies; the human body is arguably the most complex ‘musical instrument’ we have even today, as Professor Santiago Lusardi Girelli mentioned in the course of his five-part lecture series on Music at the Goa University recently.

Professor Winston speculates that Neanderthal man probably created a musical ’proto-language’. They seem to have had no spoken language in the sense that we know it today, no visual art in the form of cave paintings. But they seem to have used tones, rhythms, and timbres as sophisticated means of communication. Cross argues that we still have the evolutionary ‘hang-over’ from this in the form of infant-directed speech or ‘Motherese’. When we speak to an infant or toddler or even to our pets, we tend to ‘sing’ what we say, with huge variations in pitch.

Studies on autistic children seem to indicate that music comes before speech in our development. The brain if struggling with language, will more readily appreciate the music of the culture a child is born into. A lot of these children do not distinguish between language, and environmental sounds; it all is ‘music’ to them. This is reminiscent of contemporary composer John Cage’s approach to music, noise and sound as well.

Musicality diverges into two paths in our collective history: Language and Music. The concept that a sound can stand for something (in speech and language) is much more complex to grasp than music. Music at its simplest is just pattern in sound.

The neural circuitry responsible for music is significantly more ancient than those needed for language and speech, and logic. In human evolution, newer areas get built on top of older areas in the brain. Music centres are embedded deep within the brain, deeper than those for language and logic. From an evolutionary angle, music is not optional, but hardwired into the human condition.

In a sense, we are all ‘musical’. Music appears to have been a fundamental step in human evolution. But do we still need it, and if so, why? Can we trace a continuum from baby babble to Johann Sebastian Bach and beyond?

A string quartet is exactly like a conversation. But who is copying what? Is it music copying language, or does language copy music? Professor Winston observes that the facial expressions of musicians as they play resemble those we would make as we converse. He cites the example of Jacqueline du Pre, Daniel Barenboim and Pinchas Zukermann as they played a Beethoven piano trio.

Another interesting point raised in the documentary is the inherent bias in so much of the world’s ‘respected’ research output, be it in music or otherwise. All too often, the study group is the educated, urban industrialised, western individual, but in global terms this individual is actually the ‘outlier’.

But it creates the trap of dividing music into ‘high’ and ‘low’ cultures, with presumptions about the origins of ‘simple’ music being ‘primitive’, and music with a literary tradition and notation system being more high-brow. There is the erroneous notion that music of the Euro-American world is of the ‘mind’, and that of ‘indigenous people is of the ‘body’. But all music has complexity. Bach’s music may be complex in its polyphony, but the music of Southern Africa has acoustic complexity .

A lot of world music may be ‘simple, casual, not for display, involves action, and meant for occasion or dance. It is difficult for the western mind to get a handle on, and so it is often not scientifically studied. This is a challenge for ethnomusicologists.

The documentary also looks at egalitarianism in music. A symphony orchestra has a hierarchy, in terms of payscale, for instance, but in indigenous societies it is far more democratic.

There are, broadly speaking, two kinds of music: The first is participatory music, where every member is expected to join in, as in a conversation. This is true of tribal music and dance, but also of community choirs and garage bands. And then there is presentation music, meant for display whether in a ritual, liturgical or concert hall setting; this was true of the complex polyphony of Renaissance music.

And how does music make us feel? Stephen Johnson recounted an experiment involving 200 people, which had 90% convergence. Nobody felt that the opening movement of Shostakovich’s last string quartet was ‘happy’, for example.

But the western stereotype of music in a minor key being ‘sad’, and in a major key ‘happy’ is far from the norm. Jim Morrison’s Moondance is in a minor key but uplifting. We know of several Bollywood songs in a minor key, but the hero is literally on top of the world singing it, on a Gulmarg mountainslope. The West has misread some Balinese music as being ‘sad’ for this reason, but it is not sad to the Balinese.

So music is music, right? Not quite. It depends on what it is doing with us. It takes a while to get into the world of music of another culture. Mention is made of the drum language of the Yoruba tribe in Nigeria. It is surrogate speech, with no text but drawing on indigenous poetry. So if a village elder walks in on the music, the drummer plays his personal ‘text.’ To the ears of someone outside this culture who has no access to this text and no personal connection to the music, it will obviously elicit quite a different response.

There is no ‘Rosetta stone’ in music. Music is so powerful, but are we ever hearing the same thing? Your experience will not be the same as that of someone sitting next to you. This is one of the many wonders of music.

(An edited version of this article was published on 16 February 2014 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)

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