Web edition: September 24, 2010
Print edition: October 9, 2010; Vol.178 #8 (p. 31)
In the article “Birth of the beat” (SN: 8/14/10, p. 18), Sandra Trehub says that music’s evolutionary origins remain unknown. Evolution is the sum of many acts of natural selection, so the question is, what survival advantage did music provide? The mother teaching her infant musical skills wouldn’t be so prevalent if survival of musical genes wasn’t an advantage.
This was an excellent set of articles. Please keep up the good work, as you have over the 40 years that I’ve been reading Science News.
Bill Hawkins, Bloomington, Minn.
“Birth of the beat” is a fascinating article and supports some of my own beliefs about the importance of music to humans. However, I didn’t see the word “father” anywhere in the article! I know I had extensive musical interactions with my infant daughters, both vocally and instrumentally. Have the researchers let their innate bias lead them to ignore half the parenting population?
Rylan Luke, Cupertino, Calif.
Communicative musicality researchers assume that caretakers of either sex can interact musically with babies. Moms are studied because women provide the bulk of active infant care, even if dads get more involved these days. — Bruce Bower
I find the conclusions reached in “Birth of the beat” most unconvincing. Before one studies “music” it is essential to know precisely what music is. This is made difficult by the extremely close connection between music and ordinary speech. Pitch, pulse, rhythm, tempo, volume, dynamics and timbre do not constitute music. They are simply abstracted components of music and, more important, they are components of speech as well. Thus what Stephen Malloch, Colwyn Trevarthen and others may be studying is not so much music as precursors of speech, that is, speech without words. Indeed, one might suggest that music is wordless speech in which the designative content of words is replaced by the emotionally evocative content of organized sound, resulting in a potent form of communication unencumbered by specific meaning.
Furthermore, in the reported experiments, the musical components are served up with too many social cues. Infant responsiveness may be more to the personal interaction than to the “music” itself. In order to study music as such, one should eschew studies involving mother-child relationships and rely on music or musical fragments performed on instruments and presented through recordings.