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Musicophilia - with Professor David Bilkey

Wednesday 4 April 2018 1:56pm

Humans are obsessed with music. It exists on every continent, in every society, with roots reaching back at least forty thousand years to the earliest discovered instruments. But what is it about sound and music that we are so drawn to? In his Brain Week talk Musciophilia, based loosely around the book by Oliver Sacks, Professor David Bilkey outlined three main theories science has to explain our obsession with music.

The first theory is that music is auditory candyfloss, “Substanceless fluff that piggybacks off of existing systems.” While it feels almost insulting, it’s not an impossible idea. Our brains devote a huge amount of processing space and energy into understanding sound. In the same way that our eyes track images and lay out a visual landscape, our ears are constantly laying out an auditory landscape. We track sounds, determining what is happening, where it is happening, and where it is going at any given time. The idea that music is designed to tickle this system, providing no information about the environment but exciting these circuits, isn’t impossible but given the intensity of our relationships with sound it is maybe too simplistic.

The second theory is an extension of the first; music is the sound equivalent of a peacocks tail, used for sexual selection. This ties in to the idea of music being ‘substanceless fluff’, but instead of being created to tickle our own brains this theory suggests that music was developed to tickle the brains of prospective partners. By creating pleasing rhythms and harmonics we could also demonstrate to a potential mate that our ears, and our sound processing brain areas were fully functional as evidence of a healthy nervous system. This isn’t too different from the songs performed by birds and whales during mating season. Recent research, however, pushes us toward a third possibility.

David believes that music may have begun as a communication system before language, and that taking part in even the most basic musical activities helps us to feel more connected to a group. To demonstrate this he asked everyone at his talk to clap in a constant rhythm, “Whatever speed you want to clap at, just do what feels right to you.” The first thing that struck me was how similar everyone’s rhythms were, hitting about two beats per second without fail. The second, and strangest, phenomenon happened a few moments later: everyone started to sync their clapping until this group of 40 strangers were clapping in unison, two beats per second, without being guided or told to do so. “What you’ve just managed to achieve feels simple, maybe even inevitable,” David said, “but it’s actually incredibly difficult to do.” Every one of us had to be listening to the dissonant clapping around us, keeping our own beat, anticipating the gaps between other peoples’ claps, and then making tiny changes to each clap in order to bring us all closer together. The mental processing is huge, but the act feels instinctual. “The research shows that when people perform these very basic musical actions in a group there are real benefits,” these include greater ease and comfort with forming groups, and better performance of those groups in tasks. Before language, rhythm and sound may have been an important way of showing one another that we could commit to a group and act in unity.

“We can’t go back in time and see exactly what was happening when music emerged,” David says, “but we can see how it affects us now.” That effect is huge, constant, and global. We can’t escape music, and even if it might just be candyfloss for our ears, it is a sweetness we will never stop craving.