Saturday, March 31, 2007

This is Your Brain on Music, part 2, connections to biblical literature

Now this may seem like a total joke to any of you who aren't Christians or don't see how scientific research on musical perception would have anything to do with biblical literature. Since I'm a Christian and a musician with at least a passing interest in some scientific research (though I admit I don't have any scientific training) I feel that this book Levitin has written provides some interesting stuff Christians, and Christian musicians, should at least be aware of.

I skipped entirely Levitin's points about how brain development connects to musical taste because I think it basically speaks for itself and I've tended to think that people stop expanding their musical tastes around the time they think they've "grown up". Still, it's another interesting excurses Levitin touches on to explore why people seem to have expanding musical interests and tastes up to about their early 20s after which many, many people just stop listening to new music and keep playing that same album by Boston or Led Zeppelin over and over again.

But I think Levitin's explanation of sexual selection, while probably pretty accurate, seems incomplete. To assume we must explain music in terms of the earliest humans is actually a perfectly good idea, though, even if it's not clear that just one explanation of the use of music would do the job. Scientists are still not sure why any animals need to sleep so why would we necessarily have one cover-all explanation for music?

Still, Levitin's proposal that music is a form of sexual selection, that music signals a guy is a good suitor and mate, is something Christians can extrapolate from the Bible. The first song ever sung in Scripture is Adam's song to Eve. When the first song in Scripture is invented by a man for his wife when he sees her for the first time I defy any Christian to just dismiss Levitin's explanation of sexual selection as being inaccurate. It may be incomplete but the Bible pretty well backs it up as far as it goes.

For that matter, let's just look at the titles of biblical books. The Song of Songs is not actually about God except by means of theologians forcing it to be an allegorical exploration of God's love for His people or the individual believer by means of sheer historical accumulation of avoiding the more obvious content of the book. It's a series of love poems celebrating sexual love between a husband and wife. If the first song in Scripture is about sex and the Song of Songs, which advertises itself as the greatest of all songs, at least uses the sexual relationship as its central metaphor (hey, I'll throw a bone to people who assume Song of Songs MUST be allegorical) then we can't avoid the truth that sexual selection and song are linked in a way that even the most conservative Christian can't deny.

Not that this necessarily is presented as a justification for polygamy but consider the two greatest kings in Israelite history, David and Solomon. Both were legendary for their abilities as song-writers and both had quite a few wives. Even if we are not presented with prescriptive teaching from Scripture that Levitin's hypothesis is correct the descriptive evidence of the biblical account is that Levitin's still right that the song and dance man impresses the women.

But I think even a non-Christian could argue that Levitin overstates the explanation of sexual selection. We know for a fact that not all songs are about getting the attention of the hot guy or hot girl. We learn songs to learn things we really need to know. Despite dismissive statements that music is a parasitic offshoot of language centers in the brain it's hard to ignore that we all learned the alphabet through some form of song. Music and memory are intertwined. We remember things when we sing them and Scripture supports this, too. God told Moses to teach the Israelites a song so as to remember what He wanted them to remember. Many of the Psalms are devoted to summaries of Israel's history. If these psalms have ever seemed boring keep in mind that it would be easier to read one of the Psalms covering Israel's history than to read the whole Torah. In a culture where literacy was rare using songs as an aid to memory was crucial. In cultures where written languages were not invented this role of music to aid memory and shared a common history would have been even more important.

Which is to say I think Christians and Christians who are musicians, should read this book and other literature dealing with scientific research into music and musical perception. Levitin's book is pretty easy to read and in some ways is boring because he deals with music at such a basic level for Western repertoire.

And people will justifiably complain that Levitin grossly oversimplifies all musical idioms in terms of Western thought. He's not covering Eastern music and assumes the half step is really the smallest interval the human ear can perceive. This is, to put it mildly, not even close to true! I've visited the Seattle Composer's Salon enough times to tell you that there's all kinds of micro-tonal music out there. The major/minor key system we take for granted still includes tiny distinctions that are real and practical for the notes E sharp and F natural. Enharmonic spellings don't mean the notes are necessarily ever really the same in terms of actual pitch. This is a distinction that people who played fretted instruments may not always care about but string players care.

So besides having a simplistic explanation of music as a way of getting nooky, Levitin's book fails to account for the wide range of ways in which humanity organizes sound and divides tones within the octave. In fact this is where things come full circle on the issue of biblical literature because we know so little about ancient Greek and Hebrew music it would be hard to say with any authority what those musical idioms would sound like beyond a few broad guesses.

What purpose does msuic serve? Levitin's question is still one we'll answer in each generation. I'm not sure there is a clear, cut and dried answer. To tie things back to Levitin's proposal of sexual selection, a lot of people in the modern West might only agree that music is connected in some way to sex and sexual selection but may not want th ekids that would be the natural consequence of sexual selection from the time in which Levitin proposes the evolutionary adaptation developed.

In the end I'd say that Levitin's attempt to explain music in terms of ancient human history actually puts him in the same boat as the theologian who attempts to explain our musical impulses in terms of divine revelation in Scripture. Either way we're dealing with material referring to events that can't possibly be replicated in a lab and is therefore the result of some guess work. The Bible doesn't attempt to explain our musical inclination so much as presuppose it and suggest some directions for where to put our musical inclinations.

Since I've spent quite a bit of time blogging in just two posts about this book I figure I'm done for now. :)


Jesse said...

I think you were a bit hard on the allegorical description of SoS. I've always thought that the literal and allegorical senses overlapped Plus Paul said that husbands and wives are metaphors for Christ and the Church, so saying that SoS celebrates physical love between a husband and a wife is actually an argument *for* reading SoS allegorically.

As for the rest of the comment... I thought it was great. I might want to read the book myself, but sometime later when I have more time for it.

Wenatchee the Hatchet said...

Yeah, I was harder on the allegorical description that I meant to be, now that you mention it, because the allegory has to presuppose the husband and wife element to even work. The connection of song to sex would still be something that Scripture backs up but I think it's a mistake to reduce music to just the sexual selection approach. We know that infants have trouble integrating sensory perception and it seems that young children love to be sung to. I think Levitin could have done more work attempting to flesh out a possible connection between cognitive development for musical perception and, well, the usefulness of music for the cognitive development of children. Who knows? Maybe Levitin will start working on that kind of research. He's pretty straightforward about saying so much of this work in the scientific field is in-progress he's sort of reporting on the latest developments in the field rather than trying to say this is the way things work. And I don't think he should be faulted for focusing just on Western music the way some critics have felt he should. It's not that I don't know about microtonal composition but that I know most people aren't into that music so I think Levitin made a good call writing a book for lay people.