Whatever music is, it’s a basic part of being human

Music perception researcher Ian Cross ponders music's nature and significance

Scientists are increasingly interested in the nature and origins of music, as this special edition on music illustrates (see Page 17). As director of the Centre for Music and Science at the University of Cambridge in England, Ian Cross studies music perception and culture’s role in musical experience. A former professional classical guitarist who still performs occasionally, Cross is the only Cambridge music faculty member to have declined a chance to join iconic ’70s pop band the Bay City Rollers. He recently discussed music’s scientific standing with Science News writer Bruce Bower.

“Although there have been some fabulous experimental studies of music perception, music is a bit too wild to be trapped in the lab.” Jane Woods

What is music?

I can’t give a good definition for music. The contemporary Western view of music is that it consists of complex, patterned sounds with a structure that we find pleasurable to listen to. But music is much more than that. All cultures have music, but many cultures don’t have a word for music. In traditional societies, there are musical performers, but music is primarily interactive, so everybody participates and it’s embedded in daily experience.

Music brings people together by having flexible meanings. Two people are unlikely to agree on precisely what a piece of music means because it triggers different sets of associations for each person. That makes music well-suited to uncertain social situations, such as funerary rites, circumcision rites and ceremonies for greetings and departures of visitors and group members.

How did music evolve?

People made sophisticated kinds of music long ago, as shown by 40,000-year-old flutes recently found in Germany (SN: 7/18/09, p. 13). Musical practices must have come out of Africa and predated humanity’s emergence around 200,000 years ago. I suspect music evolved along with speech, probably by the time of Homo heidelbergensis [around 600,000 years ago]. So Neandertals and the first humans would have had music.

Modern cultures separate music from language, but music and speech are probably the same thing. Speech can be very music-like. Think of a Southern Baptist preacher acting out his message in a musical way. And musical interactions typically involve vocal sounds, words and gestures. There is a rhythmic and emotional complexity to both music and speech. But language by itself is not as flexible in its meanings to different people as music is.

Musical behaviors of nonhuman animals may have contributed to musical evolution. Primates and other animals use musical sounds to communicate about whether to approach or avoid certain areas. They use tempos and pitch ranges for danger and safety that are associated with people’s emotional responses to music. In the famous shower scene from the movie Psycho, the soundtrack uses carefully fashioned violin phrases that viewers experience as screams, a clear danger sign for many animals.

What are the biggest public and scientific misconceptions about music?

People think that there are musicians and nonmusicians. Yet nearly everyone can finely distinguish between various musical genres and styles. Musical performers just engage with music in a more direct way.

No, wait. An even bigger misunderstanding is the assumption that music doesn’t matter. Music programs in schools are often the first casualties of economic recessions. Without these programs, we’re not enabling the expression of a deep, biologically grounded communication system.

I started playing the piano at age 6 and decided I didn’t like it. Then I tried the violin and didn’t like it. Then I took up the clarinet and hated it. I started with the guitar at age 9 and still play today. Kids need to be given the chance to try different instruments and find one that feels right.

Too many scientists think that Mozart is music but two kids singing a street chant is not music. In our culture, music has become a commodity that’s divorced from action. It’s thought of as entertainment, not as a fundamental communication system.

What are the prospects for a better scientific understanding of music?

Although there have been some fabulous experimental studies of music perception, music is a bit too wild to be trapped in the lab. I’ve worked with ethnomusicologists who play recorded music to members of non-Western groups and try to measure how they perceive and react to it. But these people don’t think of a recording as music. They’re bored by it. It makes no sense to them because it’s not interactive. Researchers need to devise better ways to study music across cultures and in real-life situations.