5 December 02005

Why birds, and neanderthals, sing

The 'music instinct' is far more ancient than previously suspected, and neanderthals and birds may have been jamming before they were talking. But why do humans and birds converge on the same acoustic and aesthetic choices and why do babies respond to musical sound?

… quoted from the blurb for the Play on: a journey into the mystery of song event at the Royal Institution last week. Here are my touched-up notes from it.

David Toop, chairing the event, introduced it by referring to this Guardian article about mice singing, which, he argued, shows that music is an instinct, rather than a construct. If even mice do it, then it's not something that was just invented in conservatories and folk clubs.

Cover of The Singing Neanderthals by Steven MithenProfessor Steven Mithen, archaeologist and author of The Singing Neanderthals, revisited what he said was a difficult evolutionary question: why do we like music? To answer this he went back to evidence from palaeoanthropology, as well as ethnomusicology, neuroscience, and linguistics, to establish how our ancestors used to live and communicate.

Having reviewed the similarities and differences between music and language (two differences being that music doesn't have grammar, and is 'manipulative' rather than referential), Mithen argued that the two were effectively the same thing in the early evolution of our species. He suggested that there may have been a pre-linguistic 'musical' mode of thought and action, before a point where music and language separated and developed along different paths.

It's an intuitively persuasive story, which draws on and reinforces a view of a primal state where music, dance, gesture, along with grunts and hums, were joined together in a kind of whole-body communication. Mithen also has evidence from multiple sources to back this up. My notes of his overview won't do justice to this evidence and risk passing on misunderstandings, but it includes

  • the neuroscience work of Isabelle Peretz,
  • the enhanced vocal tract of our australopithecine ancestors and later of Homo ergaster, plus
  • studies of the co-evolution in infants and mothers of rhythmically patterned, jointly maintained communications, since human mothers have to put their infants down more than other species.

Before the split in the development of music and language — which Mithen estimates occurred about 200,000 years ago — communication consisted of what he calls 'Hmmmming', holistic utterances which used variations of pitch and rhythm. I may have got the number of 'm's wrong there, since, as well as its onomatopaeic quality, this term is (too cleverly?) an acronym for holistic multi-modal manipulative musical mimetic communication. This form of communication developed partly because there were selective pressures to enhance communication about the natural world, but also provided a social bonding function, related to sexual attraction and possibly the mourning of young deaths.

Cover of Why Birds Sing by David RothenbergProfessor David Rothenberg is a philosopher, musician and author of Why Birds Sing (see also the official web site). This seems to be a slightly more playful book (the subtitle in the UK has an element of humility: "One Man's Quest to Solve an Everyday Mystery"; and Rothenberg appeared on programmes like Midweek to promote it). Rothenberg asks, "can birds jam with humans?" and he plays his clarinet with them as a way of testing this out — a CD is also available as companion to the book.

Rothenberg reminded us that the conventional-wisdom answer to "Why do birds sing?" is that male birds sing to attract a mate, or to protect territory. But the evidence shows that singing is an ineffective strategy for either purpose. And why are some of the songs so long? Charles Darwin's Descent of Man has two full chapters on birds, in which he says that birds have an aesthetic sense, but attributing aesthetics to other species has fallen from intellectual fashion in the century and a half since then.

Rothenberg said he doesn't like to work analytically by notating and transcribing the birdsong. He feels that music is not a universal language, but it is something you can 'enter into', by playing, even if you don't fully understand it. So playing is his preferred method of enquiry; effectively learning by jamming with the birds.

Apparently birds may be able to hear rhythms twice as fast as us, though the frequency range of their hearing is narrower than humans'. Rothenberg demonstrated the complexity of some birdsong by playing recordings slowed down to half speed. His favourite 'turn' is a story about how he went to the wilds of Queensland to find, and jam with, a rare Albert's lyrebird, which takes six years to learn its song — a remarkably long, complex song, composed of mimicry and 'samples' of sounds from its environment. Once a lyrebird starts singing this song, which takes about six minutes, he cannot stop. (Olivier Messiaen made the same trip to hear lyrebirds in the last century.)

Rothenberg concluded by playing his clarinet to accompany a recording of a lyrebird, and then was joined by Evan Parker and Spring Heel Jack for another musical improvisation — the latter two having also played a short piece between the two speakers.

David Toop opened the question and answer session by commenting that, while he thought it was fine to talk of birds singing, the term 'birdsong' is a misnomer, since the sounds birds make actually reflect Twentieth Century compositional developments — such as the inclusion of elements of noise and sampling — that go beyond conventional song form.

I didn't take any proper notes of the questions and answers apart from:

  • Evan Parker arguing, in the context of a discussion about the relative complexity of birdsong, that the primitive and the complex are not always as primitive or complex as they seem; and
  • someone — I think it may have been Steven Mithen — noting that no-one knows the answer to the question, "Why are some sequences of pitches pleasing and others not?"
Posted by David Jennings in section(s) Cultural Calendar, Long Now on 5 December 02005 | TrackBack
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