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Walking on the Wild Side

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When you write about music a lot, as I do, you find yourself wondering about the nature of the stuff. Why do so many people make music? Why does almost everybody love to listen to it? Where in our bodies and minds does it come from?

Because I write songs, I have a partial answer to that last question. One source of music is the natural rhythms of the body. I know that because I often get musical ideas while I'm hiking.

The steady rhythm of hiking – walking, walking, walking, all day long – will induce a familiar song to pop into my head. Pretty quickly I'll get sick of that song running through my mind, and the best way I know to get rid of it is to force it to change. So I make a couple of modifications to the beat or the melody. At the same time I think of some nonsense words to go with the new music that's forming in my brain. Voilà – an idea for a potential new song.

It occurred to me that maybe, at least in humans, music actually springs from the rhythms of walking. If we didn't walk, maybe we wouldn't have music at all (or maybe we'd have just the non-rhythmic kinds – Arvo Pärt, Ornette Coleman, ambient music). There'd be no baroque dances, classical music, gypsy music, bebop, rock and roll, or techno. (One theory of the origin of the term "rock and roll" suggests that it came from the hammer songs of track workers, who had to rock and roll their railroad spikes to set them for the hammer.)

Rhythmic bodily functions like breathing and heartbeat might have contributed to inspiring the invention of music too. My point is that that all animals move – that's pretty much the definition of animal, in fact. We walk on the ground, or climb through trees, or propel our bodies through the medium of air or water. Pretty much every animal makes motile progress by means of some repetitive rhythmic action (walk, swim, fly, slither). And if we humans were inspired by our own motion to develop music – if music has its genesis in such a basic function, one that we share with even the simplest, one-celled animals – it shouldn't be much of a stretch to interpret the songs of birds or whales as having the same origin, and being the same thing, as human music.

Many animals, of course, use "tone language" to communicate. Temple Grandin, in her extraordinary book Animals in Translation, argues that these musical sounds are music, just like human music, and suggests that music is, or can be, a language.

Dr. Grandin is known for her innovations in the field of animal welfare. She uses her perspective as an autistic person to "see in pictures," as she believes animals do, which makes her able to see things from the animals' point of view in a way that a person with a normal, verbal-centric brain can't. In the book, she draws on her experience with animals and her knowledge of scientific research in the field to make many intriguing points about how animals (and humans) think. With respect to music, she writes:

"Researchers also agree that animal song is highly complex, which makes it a good candidate for being a true animal language… To give just one example, it's likely that birds invented the sonata. A sonata begins with an opening theme, then changes that theme over the body of the piece, and finally ends with a repetition of the opening theme. Ordinary song sparrows compose and sing sonatas."

Grandin even suggests that humans "probably learned music from animals, most likely from birds." To support this idea she notes that most primates don't sing songs. As noted above, I believe it's at least as likely that we came up with music – or at least its rhythmic elements – on our own, inspired by the rhythms we make with our bodies in the physical world (walking, walking, walking). But Grandin's important point here is the suggestion that some animals use music as a true language, and hence our music too has at least the potential to be one as well. "It's possible that music, or something like it, once was the human language, and maybe it still is the language of birds and animals." She cites a recent study showing that Broca's area of the brain, which is the part that understands spoken language, also understands music.

It's no accident that we use the two terms to describe each other, in phrases like "music is the universal language." I wonder what Grandin would say to the philosopher and musicologist T. W. Adorno, who admitted many similarities between language and music but pointed out that unlike in language, a message conveyed by music "cannot be detached from the music. Music creates no semiotic system." I wonder if Adorno was right, or if, not being an autistic animal welfare scientist, he wore some of the same mental blinkers as the rest of us normals.

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About Jon Sobel

Jon Sobel is an Executive Editor of Blogcritics as well as lead editor of the Culture & Society section. As a writer he contributes most often to Culture, where he reviews NYC theater; he also covers interesting music releases. He writes the blog Park Odyssey, for which he is visiting and blogging every park in New York City—over a thousand of them. Through Oren Hope Marketing and Copywriting you can hire him to write or edit whatever marketing or journalistic materials your heart desires. By night he's a working musician: lead singer, songwriter, and bass player for Whisperado, a member of other bands as well, and a sideman.
  • duane

    Fascinating stuff, Jon. It makes sense to regard the development of rhythmic elements of music as being an extension of natural rhythms (heartbeat, breathing, walking, etc). The development of harmony and melody seems much more complex.

    So, OK, let’s suppose humans mimicked bird song 30,000 years ago, and that evolved into chamber music and jazz fusion. The thing about harmony and melody is, at least in the Western world, that it relies predominantly on seven distinct pitches within each octave, jazz notwithstanding.

    Do you know whether or not bird song is “pitch-corrected” in such a way that pitch intervals lie on a relative chromatic scale, let alone one of the church modes? Just wondering. If not, do you have any idea how or when humans discovered the major scale?

  • http://jonsobel.com/ Jon Sobel

    I don’t know the answer to your question, although I’d be very interested in finding out. But some songbirds definitely sing, at least roughly, in scales that humans also use (12-tone, pentatonic, etc.). I don’t know if anyone’s studied this really scientifically.

    Just from listening to songbirds, it’s clear that the scales they use are recognizable kinds of scales to humans. We can often reproduce with our voice, or a musical instrument, a melody we’ve hear a bird sing. I think that says a lot, regardless of whether the birds’ songs are “pitch corrected” in our sense.

  • http://www.marksaleski.com Mark Saleski

    does this mean that Philip Glass walks in circles? or maybe in a straight line, interrupted by an occasional skip? ;-)

    seriously, really great stuff here jon.