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Human beings like music.  Macaques don’t.

This is not simply because monkeys are a bunch of uncultured louts.  Apparently, it’s a brain thing. Researchers at the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke in Maryland studied the difference between macaques’ and humans’ ability to hear things. They discovered that humans have areas in our brains that respond to music. Macaques don’t have these.

Scientists observed people brains and monkey brains as they responded to sounds. Sounds came in two groups: pitch without noise, like a sung note and noise without pitch, like a whisper. The auditory parts of human brains lit up much more when tones were played than they did when noises were played at the same frequency. The macaques showed no preference for to pitched sounds, even when they were based on their natural calls.

The ability to enjoy music seems to be structural to the human brain.

The big question for the scientists is “Why?”  Why have human beings evolved the ability to love music?  We might expect a rudimentary response to pitch in monkey brains, for what would have been an evolutionary advantage to our ancestors would also be an advantage to the macaques.  Why would we get Mozart and Kenny Chesney and monkey’s get squat?

I have an idea.

Perhaps music is not an evolutionary necessity, but a superfluous gift.

Perhaps music is not an evolutionary necessity, but a superfluous gift.Click To Tweet

The Gift of Music

Perhaps there is no evolutionary advantage to having brain structures that allow us to appreciate music.  Maybe we were given the ability to create and enjoy music as a gift of Grace.

This is problematic for some because it would imply a transcendent gift-giver.

The gift of music touches us so deeply that even if a satisfactory evolutionary explanation for the human ability to hear music is someday found it would be difficult to explain the universal power, depth, complexity, and diversity we find in humanity’s experience with music.

Our natural response would be wonder and gratitude.

Real Presences

George Steiner says that music tells us that there is “something else,” that music is “the great force, the hope of a transcendent possibility.”

In transcendent experiences, such as those encountered in good music, lies “a presumption of presence” (214)—the real presence of God.  Through them, we experience “the unassuaged, unhoused instability and estrangement of our condition.  We are, at [these] key instants, strangers to ourselves, errant at the gates of our own psyche” (139).  Steiner suggests that when we encounter the transcendent, we become aware of our alienation from ourselves.

So he laments the replacement of many forms of good music with “the deafening folly,” and “barbarism of organized noise.”   I’m not sure exactly what Steiner means by these aspersions, but I can guess.  We might say that degraded music degrades our humanity by making us deaf to the transcendent, a condition leaving us little more than macaques.