In which a group of graying eternal amateurs discuss their passions, interests and obsessions, among them: movies, art, politics, evolutionary biology, taxes, writing, computers, these kids these days, and lousy educations.

E-Mail Donald
Demographer, recovering sociologist, and arts buff

E-Mail Fenster
College administrator and arts buff

E-Mail Francis
Architectural historian and arts buff

E-Mail Friedrich
Entrepreneur and arts buff
E-Mail Michael
Media flunky and arts buff

We assume it's OK to quote emailers by name.

Try Advanced Search

  1. Seattle Squeeze: New Urban Living
  2. Checking In
  3. Ben Aronson's Representational Abstractions
  4. Rock is ... Forever?
  5. We Need the Arts: A Sob Story
  6. Form Following (Commercial) Function
  7. Two Humorous Items from the Financial Crisis
  8. Ken Auster of the Kute Kaptions
  9. What Might Representational Painters Paint?
  10. In The Times ...

Sasha Castel
AC Douglas
Out of Lascaux
The Ambler
Modern Art Notes
Cranky Professor
Mike Snider on Poetry
Silliman on Poetry
Felix Salmon
Polly Frost
Polly and Ray's Forum
Stumbling Tongue
Brian's Culture Blog
Banana Oil
Scourge of Modernism
Visible Darkness
Thomas Hobbs
Blog Lodge
Leibman Theory
Goliard Dream
Third Level Digression
Here Inside
My Stupid Dog
W.J. Duquette

Politics, Education, and Economics Blogs
Andrew Sullivan
The Corner at National Review
Steve Sailer
Joanne Jacobs
Natalie Solent
A Libertarian Parent in the Countryside
Rational Parenting
Colby Cosh
View from the Right
Pejman Pundit
God of the Machine
One Good Turn
Liberty Log
Daily Pundit
Catallaxy Files
Greatest Jeneration
Glenn Frazier
Jane Galt
Jim Miller
Limbic Nutrition
Innocents Abroad
Chicago Boyz
James Lileks
Cybrarian at Large
Hello Bloggy!
Setting the World to Rights
Travelling Shoes

Redwood Dragon
The Invisible Hand
Daze Reader
Lynn Sislo
The Fat Guy
Jon Walz


Our Last 50 Referrers

« Sculpture and the Inner Child | Main | Digital Crack »

September 18, 2003

Evo-Bio of Music


You’re a lot more musical than I, so maybe you remember this differently, but when I was first introduced to atonal music I was lectured on how it sounded bad only because people were so accustomed to the tonal competition. In other words, like everything else about human beings (at least in the 1970s), musical preferences for tonality were entirely socially constructed.

Well, a story in the NY Times, “We Got Rythmn: The Mystery of Music and Evolution” suggests that this notion—like most strict social construction theories—appears to be wrong. Apparently there is a fair amount of evidence that the human preference for tonal music is innate—i.e., present at birth—and that it reflects the tuning of the human auditory system to the frequencies and harmonies of the human voice.

As the article by Nicholas Wade (which you can read here) points out:

All societies have music, all sing lullaby-like songs to their infants, and most produce tonal music, or music composed in subsets of the 12-tone chromatic scale, such as the diatonic or pentatonic scales. Some of the earliest known musical instruments, crane bone flutes from the Jiahu site in China, occupied from 7000 to 5700 B.C., produce a tonal scale.

A Dr. Sandra Trehub at the University of Toronto has tested the musical preferences of infants as young as 2 months; they like consonance over dissonance and really like perfect fifths and fourths.

Three Duke University neuroscientists (Dr. David A. Schwartz, Dr. Catherine Q. Howe and Dr. Dale Purves) think that the preference for tonality reflects the basic mechanics of human vocalization:

Though every human voice, and maybe each utterance, is different, a certain commonality emerges when many different voices are analyzed. The human vocal tract shapes the vibrations of the vocal cords into a set of harmonics that are more intense at some frequencies than others relative to the fundamental note. The principal peaks of intensity occur at the fifth and the octave, with lesser peaks at other intervals that correspond to most of the 12 tones of the chromatic scale, the Duke researchers say in an article published last month in the Journal of Neuroscience. Almost identical spectra were produced by speakers of English, Mandarin, Persian and Tamil.

A related article, apparently not available online, “Perfect Pitch: A Gift of Note for Just a Few,” seems to suggest that the ability to distinguish sounds based on absolute pitch is a “savant” skill like those discussed in another posting here. In my previous posting the theory was advanced that savants are able to tap “lower-level” processing skills directly that in most people are suppressed by other brain functions.

This notion seems supported by the fact that the human brain’s auditory cortex is set up with sets of neurons that respond to particular frequencies. As Josh McDermott of M.I.T. points out, everyone is hard wired to have perfect pitch:

It should be relatively trivial [for the brain] to read out the absolute pitch of a stimulus. So it’s a mystery why absolute pitch is such a rare phenomenon.

Dr. Robert J. Zatorre of the Montreal Neurological Institute believes that (like other savant skills) absolute pitch may actually be the result of a mental abnormality. In short, absolute pitch may be

…a…slight derangement of normal brain processes, rather than an enhanced natural ability. In some forms of autism, he said, people see trees and not the forest. Possibly, absolute pitch is a mild form of the same disorder in the auditory domain.

So if I’m reading this right, people like me, who couldn’t write down the score to a piece of music after hearing it to save my life, shouldn’t feel bad about being a musical klutz. No, we should realize that our utter lack of musical skill is just another attribute of our superior “normalcy.” Bummer.

On a somewhat more optimistic note, it suggests that transcranial magnetic stimulation (to suppress the so-called higher brain functions impeding access to our lower-level auditory processing centers) might be useful in training the musically challenged. Oh, there's hope for me yet! I'm buying a ticket for Vegas! Have you heard my Elvis impression?

Now and then
There's a fool
Such as I



posted by Friedrich at September 18, 2003


I was recently reading in a popular neuroscience book/article that perfect pitch is far more common in cultures with pitch sensitive languages, such as Japanese. I don't recall the reference right now, though if may have been a NY Times article -- it didn't pop up immediately in Google.

However, these two references did:

The first is a links list on perfect pitch; the second is a computer program to train for perfect pitch. It would be interesting to see some documentation on its effectiveness and with age groups. My youngest daughter, who grew up with some hearing problems, used a similar program last year to train her to hear/distinguish percussive phonemes. At one time it was assumed that this was impossible if you hadn't learned to do this during normal development as an infant; now, that opinion has been reconsidered and a consensus is emerging that the brain is more plastic than previously thought.

Posted by: rashomon on September 18, 2003 12:12 PM

One of the fascinating things about perfect pitch (do we call it absolute pitch these days?) is that it correlates only slightly with musical talent. In the sense that (I'm told by musician friends, anyway) a higher percentage of serious musicians have it than is average for the general population, but that many people nonetheless have perfect pitch without being superendowed with musical talent otherwise. My sister's an example -- she could always, even as a young girl (at least once she learned the basics of the keyboard) tell you what note was being played, yet so far as musical talent and drive goes (and even interest) she's about high-school-band, playing-a-little-piano, listening-to-CDs-as-she-drives-to-work average. Interesting to hear her talk about having perfect pitch. She tells me that she could never (especially as a young girl) understand why other people couldn't instantly identify a note's identity. It just seemed so obvious and apparent to her...

I love the bit in Wade's piece about how certain notes and intervals just seem to have intrinsic meaning. There's a long tradition in thinking about music of speculating on why certain vibrations and intervals affect us the way they do. I remember reading a book on the theme, "Nada Brahma," I think it was called -- very mystical (almost Vedanta-ish) about the topic, though written by some '60s-ish French or German guy (Berendt? was that his name?). Kind of interesting.

Just went through a lecture series about quantum mechanics. Interesting to learn about how various little beasties leap from one level of energy to another, how they swarm and create clouds and this and that. Very much like music -- there's some intrinsic maybe not structure but characteristics that will by god find expression. Very Alexander/Salingaros, come to think of it. And very much like that Lake essay I pointed to a few postings ago ...

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on September 18, 2003 12:45 PM


According to the NY Times article, perfect pitch (which I take to be the same thing as absolute pitch) is more common among Asians, although this may be more of a genetic than a cultural issue:

...Asians have a much greater incidence of absolute pitch than other ethnic groups. That includes Asians who are culturally distinct and who speak tonal languages like Chinese and nontonal languages like Korean and Japanese. Absolute pitch is also more common among Asian-Americans, who often speak only English.


Hey, make me feel better. Not only does your sister have powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men (well, me, anyway) she doesn't even feel it necessary to exercise them. Boy, does that make me feel like a loser.

But I take your point about all this seeming to offer yet another example of art growing from natural roots.

You know what's odd? That there are people who seem to feel smug or gratified at the notion of being subject to total social control, and who find the notion of genetic influences to be hideous and
oppressive. If I wanted to be flip, I'd wonder if they have a problem with self-hate. Oh, what the heck: they have a problem with self-hate. Given the fairly persuasive theories that a lot of Marxism and Freudianism can be traced to Marx's and Freud's conflicted or negative feelings about their Jewish identity, I wonder if all social constructivism doesn't arise from some Michael-Jackson-esque urge to be someone else.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on September 18, 2003 1:41 PM

I never understood social constructivism. Possibly all my years of socially constructing behavior for our furry friends made it very obvious that you can only work with what's innate.

Some discussion of social contraction is useful for reexamining the set of "we've always done it this way" traditions and assumptions but that doesn't mean you couldn't have that inquiry without social construction.

I hate myself for being glib. No I don't. I hate myself for being glib. I hate myself for not hating myself for being glib.

Posted by: j.c. on September 18, 2003 4:06 PM

A girl I knew in high school not only had perfect pitch, but when she could sing notes that were perfect sine waves (no harmonics, just the base frequency). Absolutely beautiful voice.

And of course she had no musical ambition, and joined the Army.

Posted by: David Mercer on September 20, 2003 2:33 PM

Post a comment

Email Address:



Remember your info?