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How Old Is Music?

Rock, jazz, polka, mariachi, reggae, waltz, tribal drumming — music — it’s been with us at least since Neanderthal man carved flutes out of bone, and may even be older than the human race. There hasn’t been a human culture that has lived without it. Every generation, every country, has its own music. Even animals make musical sounds. Have you ever stopped to think about where music came from, or why we make it? Linguist Steven Pinker at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology thinks that music is merely a buy-one-get-one-free bargain that accompanies language. However, many scientists who study the biological foundations of music, or biomusicology, disagree. They have been asking some basic questions about the origins and purpose of music: What is it? Are we the only species to create it? How do our brains process music? Are we born with the ability to assimilate it? Do we have specialized neural networks in our brains just for music? Why are we musical, anyway? Sound and Time Patricia Gray, head of the Biomusic Program at the National Academy of Sciences, defines music simply as “sound and time.” Anyone who has clapped out a rhythm will know that the silences between notes are as important as the notes themselves. Her definition makes room for animals to be considered music-makers. It is easy to think of birds as musical. Mozart did. He kept a starling as a pet, and in a notebook wrote a passage from the last movement of the Piano Concerto in G Major, followed by the same passage after his starling had imitated it and changed the sharps to flats. (“That was beautiful,” Mozart comments next to it.) Beethoven enthusiasts would enjoy hearing the white-breasted Mexican wood wren sing the first four notes of the composer’s Fifth Symphony, “Bum, bum, bum, bummm.” Whales, too, elicit sounds that some call music. Male humpbacks will “sing” almost constantly for six months in their breeding grounds. Their songs are similar to human music in several ways. They are made up of phrases that vary, each lasting only a few seconds. Their rhythm and structure are similar to our music, and phrases sometimes rhyme! Whales within an ocean will all sing variations on the same theme, and change their songs over several months. If new whales join the group, their music quickly makes its way through the grapevine and soon everyone is singing versions of the latest hit. Gray appreciates the musical quality of humpback sounds — she has composed music for piano, saxophone, and whale! How far back can music be traced in human evolution? All the way to our animal ancestors? The oldest known man-made musical instruments are flutes carved from bone by our cave-dwelling Neanderthal and Cro-Magnon cousins, 53,000 years ago. Jelle Atema, a biologist and flutist at Boston University, was curious about how such an instrument might sound, so he reproduced one from old bone. When he played it, he and his colleagues were impressed by its sweet and haunting tones. In fact, it was sophisticated enough to suggest that humans had been making flutes for a very long time — perhaps hundreds of thousands of years. To trace our musical origins further, scientists turn to research on the brain, in which they try to determine whether we are “hard-wired” for music or indeed do have to learn how to process it. This article was originally printed in Odyssey magazine: http://www.teenkonec.com/portfolio-view/how-old-is-music...... To read complete article