September 8, 2013 | David F. Coppedge

Bach to the Feature: Music More Cognitive Than Language

The ability for the human mind to gauge hierarchical structures in music over the span of lengthy works suggests that we exercise greater cognition in that skill than in language.

Music is an evolutionary enigma (1/05/01, 12/13/045/19/08, 5/28/09 #10, 1/15/10 #2, 7/06/12) that defies explanation by natural selection, despite years of attempts to explain it since Darwin attempted a story 154 years ago.  Now, we find that the human capacity to analyze and enjoy music is even more complex than realized.

Higher arky:  Scientists from Germany, America and Brazil analyzed the mind’s ability to gauge hierarchical structures in music.  Publishing in PNAS, they describe how they did brain scans while giving subjects straight and modified versions of a Bach chorale.  Keeping distant parts of a work in order utilizes multiple parts of the brain:

Our results reveal that a brain mechanism fundamental for syntactic processing is engaged during the perception of music, indicating that processing of hierarchical structure with nested nonlocal dependencies is not just a key component of human language, but a multidomain capacity of human cognition.

The end of the paper included this suggestion:

Because hierarchical structures of many musical pieces (up to entire movements of a symphony) exceed by far the structural complexity even of the most elaborate sentences, it is tempting to speculate that the human ability to process hierarchical structure in music might be more powerful than linguistic syntax, often considered to be the paragon of human cognitive complexity.

Octavian:  Another PNAS paper examined the human tendency to associate notes with their octaves.  These authors also speculated, but in the evolutionary chance direction:

We speculate that this connectivity scheme evolved from exposure to natural vibrations containing octave-related spectral peaks, e.g., as produced by vocal cords….

It is plausible that the octave effect reflects neural connectivity at octave-related frequencies. From an ecological perspective, such connectivity might have evolved from exposure to environmental sounds (e.g., speech, animal vocalizations, and vibrations such as in strings), which contain multiple harmonics such as octaves, which correspond to the second, fourth, eighth, etc. harmonic.

All they could point to, though, was that the “octave effect” is heard in both Asian and Western musical traditions.  It’s not clear why evolution should have anything to do with it.  The Pythagoreans, for instance, viewed geometry, music and harmony as fundamental aspects of the universe.  The Judeo-Christian tradition views music as a reflection of creativity in the image of God.  Why should mutation and selection be given pride of place?

Mosh pit:  Evolutionists keep asking the question but never answering it with a definitive, non-question-begging solution.  National Geographic, for instance, put forward the old Darwinian answers and some other speculations.  “Darwin and others have said it was a way to woo. Others believe music is social glue—a theory bolstered by a new study,” Marc Silver wrote.

Why did humans invent music?

Until the hot tub time machine becomes a reality, the answer to that question will remain as mysterious as the true identity of the ’60s garage band ? and the Mysterians.

Nonetheless, academic minds are always trying to come up with a theory. Charles Darwin believed music was created as a sexual come-on.

So was music “created” by intelligent design?  Did humans “invent music” by intelligent design?  What mutation in the brain made someone toot out the front end instead of the back end, such that the opposite sex found it appealing?  How did that mutation get passed on?  Were additional mutations required to produce Berlioz’ Requiem?

Silver is half trying to entertain by letting a study by Chris Loersch (U of Colorado) take the stage.  Loersch tries to support the notion that music evolved as a social glue: “music evolved in service of group living.”  But he appeals to rock concerts for support, as the lead photo illustrates, where groupthink is of the essence of the experience.  Loersch also focuses on the emotion of music, and not the complex analytical structure of classical works.  Most egregiously, he cites no mutation or genetic mechanism that would make music a heritable trait in humans.  Nor does he explain why other animals, though emitting sounds, never “evolved” anything close to the structural complexity of human music.  Wouldn’t other animals profit from having their group living served?  Birds may sing, and wolves may howl, but only humans create musical forms with hierarchical structure and symmetry, put words to music, create musical instruments, write it down in notational form, and perform it both alone and in groups.  In the Biblical narrative, Adam’s offspring were already making musical instruments while he was still living.

Since this is all more of the same Darwinian la-de-da and fol-de-rol that never gets a credible answer in 154 years, let’s just have a little jam session with our Evolution Songs and laugh it off.  Go to the Darwin Hymnbook and have at it with your garage band.  Then, to get back to sanity, analyze the use of octaves and hierarchical structures in some Mozart or Handel. Evolve that, Charlie.


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  • Robert Byers says:

    there is great error by the evolutionists here and a wee bit by the creationist author.
    Music is not mysterious.
    The Greek said the gods gave man music,
    In Psalms the bible mentions music is JUST sounds of thoughts.

    Music is nothing more then part of the spectrum of sounds used by man to express thoughts.
    Its that simple and dumb.
    Herbert Spencer , a famous pro evolution person, did come closest from what “i’ve read but still everyone misses the simple truth.
    There is only human thoughts. Music is simply a expression of thoughts by stretching the words, singing, or streching the tomes of voice, instruments.
    Creationists should not be agreeing music is a special creation within man but simply is a reflection of mans thoughtfulness and expressing it using sounds.
    Remember language is JUST combinations of segregated sounds also.
    Music/singing is just in a spectrum and nothing more special then that.

    • Editor says:

      Robert, I think you are oversimplifying music. What about abstract instrumental music, like Bach chorales or fugues, that have no words? We’re not saying music is mysterious; we’re saying it uses more cognitive functions in the brain than language. All cognitive functions are a gift of God, but humans possess the creativity (as part of God’s image) to put together intelligent designs in art, architecture, and music. Music entails much more than thought. It can also be a highly emotional, abstract, and intellectual experience beyond words. Beware when you say something is “just” something else, or “nothing more” than it. I think you need to go listen to Beethoven’s Fifth and reconsider your dismissive remarks.

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