Thursday, November 22, 2007

The Music Instinct

Oliver Sachs
Book: Musicophilia (2007)

Orthopedic surgeon Tony Cicoria was struck by lightning 13 years ago. Following his accident, an amazing transformation took place. Where previously he had displayed precious little interest in music, Cicoria became obsessed with at first hearing, playing then composing an "absolute torrent" of Chopinesque piano etudes.

Do we all, like Cicoria, have a hidden musical talent? In his new book,
Musicophilia, neurologist Oliver Sachs explores the range of human responses to music and suggests we might possess a music instinct.

Existing as a central force in all cultures,
it’s undeniable that music has incredible power. Like language it expresses abstract concepts and evokes powerful emotions, lying so deep in human nature that it must surely be considered innate. Clearly there is an intimate relationship between cognitive systems, the auditory and the emotional. All humans respond to musical patterns, and Functional Brain Imagery shows 20 or 30 cognitive networks respond to pitch, rhythm, timbre and so on.

Our musical systems are so robust that even after brain damage causes us to lose language, we continue to recognize and reproduce familiar music. The music instinct continues to live on among patients with advanced dementia, amnesia, Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s. C
hildren with Williams Syndrome often possess prodigious musical ability and have an overdeveloped frontal cortex, as do people with perfect pitch.

As to whether everyone can develop the music instinct, the absolute lack of musical ability - amusia - is rare, and we all seemingly have a certain musical potential. More than seventy members of the Bach family composed music, and many of us can remember a time when everyone learned a musical instrument.

So which came first, music or language? Hard to say, but it could be that hearing the sounds of nature – wind, animals, birds – encouraged communal musical instincts among humans. And there could conceivably be an evolutionary purpose for music, such as communal bonding during rituals and attracting a mate, as any self-respecting music fan or rock god can testify.

1 comment:

Telma said...

You write very well.