Evolving Thoughts

Evolution, culture, philosophy and chocolate! John Wilkins' continuing struggle to come to terms with impermanence... "Humanus sum, nihil humanum a me alienum puto" - Terence

Monday, June 21, 2004

Music, evolution and language

While we are waiting for me to continue on Cooper, let's look briefly at this: Tunes create context like language: Maths shows why tonal music is easy listening.

When I had pretensions to becoming a world famous guitarist (thanks, Lee Ritenour - you basically destroyed what little hope had survived John McLaughlin), my teacher said to me that he had been told by his teacher that improvisation was 50% predictable and 50% unpredictable. Less predictable and people would get lost, more and they would get bored.

Time and again I have been reminded of this dictum (and of course the proporations are plucked from the air - each musician reaches their own equlibrium) as musical commentators talk about "phrasing" and "format" in various types of musical tradition. Every composer and performer is working within consensual standards, but the really great ones, the innovators, expand those standards, and sometimes, as with Miles Davis, it takes a long time for the rest to catch up.

A correspondent of mine, Bill Benzon, who is a jazz musician himself as well as being a neurologist, has published a book (Beethoven's Anvil) that proposes that music is a way of coordinating social practices and structures by coordinating neural behavior.

This makes a kind of sense in that one of the major selection pressures on humans is to coordinate with their band or tribe. Music may have evolved to improve social cohesion; it certainly acts to define subcultures in a cosmopolitan society.

The piece linked above from Nature goes one step further - music uses the same structures and hence, by implication, the same neural pathways and mechanisms, as language does, according to physicist Damian Zanette of the Balseiro Institute in Bariloche, Argentina. He focuses on tonal sequence, but the same things can be said of rhythm (as Benzon suggests).

How to account for atonal music, then? Frank Muir once said that atonal music is music for which somebody must atone, but it, too, has its structures and conventions. It's just that rather than being loaded onto existing neural pathways with ease, you have to be educated culturally into an appreciation of it (rather, to my ear, like Wagner's music, which Twain noted is better than it sounds). But the music of the B'Mbuti (or as they are known colloqially, pygmies) is tonal, interesting and occasionally very moving to me, although we are culturally separated by several tens of thousands of diverse cultural evolution.

Jazz itself has left the biological building, and is becoming a more directly cultural tradition that one must acquire before you can appreciate it. Experimental jazz is hard to hear unless you know what the 50% that is expected, actually is.But deep down the roots of jazz are a language we can "get" more immediately.

And there is an evolutionary aspect to the evolution of musical traditions, too. If you cannot acquire sufficient adherents to that form of social coordination, the tradition and the social group will dissipate, and that cultural "species" will become extinct. And so, as Vonnegut would say, it goes...