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How music hijacked our brains

Daniel Maurer / AP

This 35,000-year-old bird-bone flute, held by the University of Tübingen's Nicholas Conard, is considered one of the world's oldest handcrafted musical instruments. But researchers say human musicmaking has much more ancient roots.

If you think about, there's no escape, really. Music holds humanity in a vise grip. Every culture you can think of has it, hears it and taps their feet to it. So how did music first take hold? A new analysis proposes that music hijacked our ancestors' ability to hear and interpret the movements of fellow human beings.

That claim is at the heart of “Harnessed: How Language and Music Mimicked Nature and Transformed Ape to Man,” a new book by neurobiologist Mark Changizi. Changizi analyzed the rises and falls in the rhythm and intonation of more than 10,000 samples of folk music from Finland and found that they bear a stamp — an auditory fossil of sorts — that can be traced back to the rises and falls and rhythms associated with the movement of people. 

It’s the latest in a series of theories that have drawn upon evolutionary biology, developmental biology, psychology and neuroscience to explain how human beings came to cultivate music as a complex, expressive craft. Music has persisted in society, but it doesn't seem to come with any obvious survival benefit. If it wasn't essential to survival, why did it stick around? 

BenBella Books

"Harnessed," a new book by neurobiologist Mark Changizi, focuses on the origins of music - and how music helped shape humanity.

“Music really is the story about a person moving or doing something around you,” Changizi told me. “It’s just like listening to a story. We’re having an auditory story about people moving our midst.” 

The appreciation for music grew and developed from this primal urge, monopolizing a natural faculty meant for human survival. Music essentially “harnessed” this urge, Changizi says, which also explains the title of the book.

“A lot of thinking is remote from the physical act of making music,” William Benson, a jazz musician and author of the book "Beethoven’s Anvil," told me. “And [Changizi] gets right to the physical aspect of making music.”

For one thing, it explains music's emotional appeal. In his book, Changizi described a study that looked at the foot patterns of people in different emotional states. When they were happy, sad or angry, their gaits betrayed their feelings.

“Music may not be marching orders from our commander, but it can sometimes cue our emotional system so precisely that we feel almost compelled to march in lockstep with music’s fictional mover,” Changizi writes. “And this is true whether we are adults or toddlers. When music is effective at getting us to mimic the movement it mimics, we call it dance music, be it a Strauss waltz or a Grateful Dead flail.”

The relationship between movement and music may come as a surprise for some, but not so much for others. In some African cultures, the word for "music" and "dance" are one and the same. In contrast, concert pianists or cellists sit still when they perform. 

Why this difference? Blame the Gregorian chant, says Benson. Monasteries were the intellectual centers of Europe in the Middle Ages. Monks chanted tonal, arrhythmic verses daily, developed the Western musical notation, and set the pattern for the understanding and performance of Western music during the centuries that followed. “And if you think of that as the basis for music, then you’re not going to get the kind of music you get in Africa and India,” Benson told me.

Essentially, the Gregorian chant decoupled the ideas of movement and rhythm from music in the Western world. But Changizi's theory brings the ideas together once again, backed by a statistical approach that looks more deeply into the correlation between dance and movement and music. 

Take a deeper look into the brain, and you may have an even more convincing case for music being an intrinsic characteristic of the human experience, says Edward Large, who studies how the brain processes sound and rhythm. While Changizi's musical analysis sounds reasonable, there may be an even deeper universality. "The paydirt is where you find the same patters in the brain that you find in the music," he told me.

So, the human brain was harnessed. A faculty that came into being for survival — recognizing the behavioral patterns in the movements of others — was tweaked, and music hitched a ride into the lives of modern humans.

We see such behavior all the time, Changizi explains. Just look at cats: “Although tuna is not what cat ancestors ate, tuna is sufficiently meat-ish in odor and taste that it fits right into a cat’s finicky diet disposition.” And music, it seems, is tuna for our finicky brains.

More about the science of music: 

Nidhi Subbaraman writes about science and technology for everyone. Find her on Twitter and Google+ and join our conversation on Facebook