by Geoff Olson
producer Mark Johnson was on his way to work one day when he heard
two monks playing music in a New York subway. One played a nylon guitar
and the other was singing in a language the producer didnt understand.
In a recent PBS interview with Bill Moyers, Johnson recalled that
a few hundred people had gathered around, spellbound by these robed
figures. He said he was struck how all of these strangers, all travelling
their separate ways, had been brought together by music.
Some time later, Johnson was walking in the streets of Santa Monica
when he heard a musician playing a song on the street. He was so
moved by his performance that he approached the singer, Roger Ridley,
and asked if he could return with some recording equipment and some
cameras. He told Roger that he would love to take this song around
the world and add other musicians to it.
Johnson says he isnt sure if he chose Ben E. Kings
classic ballad, Stand By Me, or if it chose him. Travelling
around the world with Ridleys bare-bones vocal performance
of the song, he enlisted others to contribute, from blues singers
in post-Katrina New Orleans, to a South African choir, to a Moscow
chamber group. Adding their multiple layers of instruments and vocals,
Johnson built the voice of one unknown street musician into a polyrhythmic
hymn of shared humanity. Johnsons 10-year musical adventure
is portrayed in his documentary Playing for Change: Peace Through
The universal language of Homo sapiens was, is, and forever
will be, music. As a species, we are moved both emotionally and
physically by the sounds we make. Somehow, pressure waves in the
air, no more substantial than the flutter of a hummingbirds
wings, can elicit anything from tears to tapping feet. The word
enchantment, derived from the Latin incantare, means
to chant or sing a spell. This archaic word connects beauty and
the supernatural with song the earliest and most persistent
form of magic.
In his book, This Is Your Brain on Music (2006), cognitive
psychologist and record producer Daniel J. Levitin alludes to a
kind of Sardinian a cappella music, in which if the four male voices
are perfectly balanced, a fifth female voice is conjured in the
listeners mind. The Sardinians explain this voice as the Virgin
Mary. And while there are other secular explanations available for
this phenomenon, should we be concerned that analyzing music scientifically
may detract from the aesthetic appreciation of it? The Ancient Greeks
didnt think so. Pythagoras and his followers drew no great
distinction between science and art, or between music and mathematics.
They believed the mathematical regularity of chord sequences was
a key to the structure of the universe itself: a music of
the spheres, in which harmony united everything from planetary
movements to birdsong.
Modern-day scientists, however, arent much more definitive
than the Pythagoreans when it comes to understanding music and the
mind. The thrills, chills and tears we experience from listening
to music are the result of having our expectations artfully manipulated
by a skilled composer and the musicians who interpret that music,
writes Daniel Levitin. But this is trivially true, offering no real
explanation for how emotions can be conjured by a sequence of notes.
The nineteenth century composer Mendelssohn was a bit more helpful
with his claim that music has not thoughts that are too vague
to be put into words, but too precise.
Aldous Huxley echoed the composers ideas about music. In
the early 1930s, the British writer was on holiday in the Mediterranean.
On a moonless June night alive with stars, he groped
about in his dark guesthouse for a record to play. He put on the
introduction to Beethovens Missa Solemnis, the Benedictus.
Later, in his book Music at Night, Huxley wrote the following:
The Benedictus. Blessed and blessing, his music is
in some sort the equivalent of the night, of the deep and living
darkness, into which, now in a single jet, now in a fine interweaving
of melodies, now in pulsing and almost solid clots of harmonious
sound, it pours itself
like time, like the rising and falling
trajectories of a life.
What was Beethoven trying to say in the symphonic language of
the Benedictus? Huxley felt it was the composers idea
of a certain blessedness lying at the heart of things.
This was something Beethoven could only communicate nonverbally,
Describing any kind of music is like trying to describe a watercolour
to a blind man. As the playwright Tom Stoppard once said of music
critics, Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.
Not surprisingly, with something so fugitive in meaning, but so
personally meaningful, scientists have had difficulty in explaining
the origins of music. Finding an evolutionary purpose
for musical talent remains a guessing game.
The granddaddy of evolutionary thought, Charles Darwin, thought
that music was a kind of showing off to the opposite sex, the auditory
equivalent of a peacocks tail. Echoing Darwin, Levitin argues
that music is something that male humans developed as a way to demonstrate
reproductive fitness. (Rock n roll, anyone?) To Harvard psychology
professor Steven Pinker, music is auditory cheesecake,
the by-product of our species freakishly large brains. Just
as algebra or chess were never survival skills sharpened by natural
selection, music is a complex human faculty that exercises other
more functional faculties. We do it because its fun
and its fun because it builds neural pathways that are shared
with more survival-based skills, like rhythmic movement. But its
still an accidental gift.
Ian Cross, director of the Cambridge facultys Centre for
Music and Science, rejects Pinkers explanation as reductionistic
and wrong. In an interview for The Guardians Science
Weekly podcast, Cross points out that we dont merely
engage with music solely by listening, but that its also active
and interactive, and something you do, that is embedded in complex,
Karaoke, raves and Baptist church choirs are all about music as
total involvement. In many non-western cultures, there is little
distinction between music and dance. For Cross, the evolutionary
purpose of music is communal; it fosters social cohesion as a replacement
for grooming, a social activity enjoyed by primates.
Music seems to be extremely good, extremely useful for managing
situations of social uncertainty, says Cross, and its
evolutionarily functional in promoting and sustaining a capacity
It shouldnt be surprising that we share an enjoyment of
music with other social animals. This is where Snowball the parrot
comes in. If you havent seen him in action yet, check out
this white cockatoos performances on YouTube, where he bops
along to his favourite songs, Everybody (Backstreets Back)
by Backstreet Boys and Stevie Nicks Edge of Seventeen.
On the latter song, the screeching Snowball shakes his head back
and forth, kicks his legs out, and at one point, appears to tap
one claw on the downbeat.
Aniruddh Patel, a senior fellow at the Neurosciences Institute in
California, received a link to Snowball from a friend and decided
to test if the cockatoo was really dancing. He got in touch with
Snowballs owner, Irena Shulz, asking if she would help him
study the parrot. Patel sent her CDs of the birds favourite
Backstreet Boys track at different tempos and had her videotape
his routines. He then graphed Snowballs moments against the
varying beats. Patel discovered that the frequent moments that Snowball
locked onto the beat werent by chance. They demonstrated sensitivity
to rhythm and an ability to synchronize to it.
Snowballs paradigm-busting performances appear to hinge on
those skill sets shared by parrots and human beings alike: vocal
learning and imitation. Like us, parrots are highly social animals
with brains wired to interpret sounds and coordinate the complex
movements of vocal organs to reproduce them. Perhaps we have more
in common with the avian world than we think. In Kerala, India,
the chants of Brahmin priests mystify experts. They bear no resemblance
to any known language or music, but rather to patterns found only
in bird song. Some believe these chants are part of an oral tradition
that may predate language, going back beyond the first Indo-European
Whatever our evolutionary or neurological fellowship with birdbrains,
its impossible to witness Snowballs YouTube performances
without recognizing his sheer joy. Hes obviously enchanted
with the music and his own dancing. Similarly, human performers
and their audience can fuse into one body of rhythmic celebration,
as anyone knows whos been to a particularly memorable rock
concert or rave. Music can capture the attention in an eternal
present that is comparable to sexual ecstasy or mystical states.
This timeless dimension of music was poignantly reflected in Prisoner
of Consciousness, a BBC documentary about a brain-damaged musicologist
studied by neurologist Oliver Sacks. The patient, Clive Wearing,
was stricken with a severe brain inflammation that left him with
a memory span of only a few seconds. Without a recognizable past,
and unable to imagine a future, Wearing once told his wife his purgatorial
life was like being dead. Although he can never
remember her, each time he sees her he is thrilled.
Asked to play a Bach prelude, Wearing initially says he doesnt
know any, but he still summons one up when he is at the piano. By
way of explanation, Sacks suggests that musical recall is not quite
like another kind of memory: Remembering music is not, in
the usual sense, remembering at all
Listening to it, or playing
it, is entirely in the present.
In his most recent book, Musicophilia, Sacks notes the
well-known health benefits of music, for both the healthy and the
sick. It is a remarkable thing that, even in the worst cases of
dementia, there is still a self to be called upon, even if
music, and only music, can do the calling.
Sometimes, music acts like a force or a personality, in and of itself.
In his book, Sacks profiles 42-year-old Tony Cicoria, a surgeon
who was hit by lightning. While Cicoria was resuscitated and made
a full recovery, this rock music fan was subsequently seized with
an unaccountable and newfound interest in classical piano music.
He sought out CDs and then a piano, teaching himself to play. Within
three months, his mind was overwhelmed with music that seemed to
come out of nowhere. Ten years after his electrifying encounter,
Cicoria is still as obsessed with classical music, but uninterested
in using the new brain-scanning technologies to understand his condition.
He insists it is a lucky strike and that the music in
his head is a blessing ... not to be questioned.
The link between music and emotions is difficult to quantify.
Neurologist Manfred Clynes is one of the very few scientists to
have studied the touching aspects of music. In addition
to having more than 40 patents credited to his name, the Vienna-born
neurologist is also a concert pianist who has recorded superb versions
of Bachs Goldberg Variations.
In a bizarre series of experiments, the inventive Clynes asked subjects
to apply finger pressure on a button to express emotions. The subjects
consistently displayed the same gradients of force for different
emotions. Anger, for example, is a short, sharp stab on the button.
Joy is a soft pressure with a quick release. When Clynes plotted
out these gradients and played them back electronically, the results
were astounding. The simple tones sounded joyous, angry
Clynes then tried the same experiment in reverse. Subjects were
taught the different pressure gestures corresponding to emotional
states, without being told what they meant. Most were able to correctly
match them later with their corresponding emotional states. In one
of Clynes experiments, aborigines in Central Australia were
able to correctly identify the specific emotional quality of sounds
derived from the touch of white, urban Americans. A Wikipedia article
about Clynes suggests he has hit upon musics Rosetta Stone,
discovering the biologically fixed, universal, primary dynamic
forms that determine expressions of emotion that give rise to much
of the experience within human societies.
Clynes musical research is revolutionary and Sacks medical
prose lyrical, but other scientific literature on music and the
mind seems to fall short. Im left with the impression of a
group of blind men in white coats, feeling an elephant with their
hands, each giving a tactile report on a different body part
tail, ears and legs but never getting a fix on the complete
beast. There is explaining and then there is explaining
In his study of college singers at the University of California,
psychologist Robert Beck found that singing boosts compounds that
create a sense of happiness and well being. Singing produces immunoglobulin
A, a hormone that counters the stress hormone cortisol. But since
every mood appears to have an associated neurochemical, and everyone
knows music makes us feel good, is this any more than a peer-reviewed
tautology? To give another example, do any of us seriously think
our understanding of love is fully contained by the
description of it as endogenous production of endorphins?
The problem comes down to two separate domains: language and music.
Although they are connected through song, there is still a divide,
according to Aldous Huxley. Music says things about the world,
but in specifically musical terms. Any attempt to reproduce these
musical statements in our own words is necessarily doomed to failure.
We cannot isolate the truth contained in a piece of music, for it
is a beauty-truth and inseparable from its partner. Only music,
and only Beethovens music, and only this particular music
of Beethoven, can tell us with any precision what Beethovens
conception of the blessedness at the heart of things actually was.
Philosopher Alan Watts insisted that music refers to nothing other
than itself. He believed that music is so engaging and powerful
precisely because life, and the cosmos its embedded in, is
a dynamical pattern of waveforms exactly what music is. In
The Tao of Philosophy, Watts notes that the point of a musical
composition isnt the finish, as in a footrace or the solution
to an equation. If it were, he says, People would go to the
concert just to hear one crashing chord. The same applies
to dancing. You dont aim at a particular spot in the
room where you should arrive. The whole point of dancing is the
Yet, early in life, we are tricked into the belief that life is
a race, Watts says, with a string of goodies strung along from primary
school to the world of adult employment, benchmarks for status and
success. This process can end with the struggling wage slave in
selling insurance. We may finally reach
a place of social standing and economic security, but we feel vaguely
cheated. And we were.
According to Watts, We have simply cheated ourselves the whole
way down the line. We thought of life by analogy as a journey
or pilgrimage which had a serious purpose at the end. And
the thing was, to get to that end, success, or whatever it is, or
maybe heaven after youre dead. But we missed the whole point
all the way along. It was a musical thing, and you were supposed
or to dance while the music was being played.
If he could put it into words, Snowball the parrot would surely
agree with Watts, Huxley and Mendelssohn. Music isnt so much
a problem to be solved as a mystery to be lived.