Friday, September 07, 2007

The music of what is

Before I left Ireland, I cleared the desk in my studio. Rachel Holstead, a young Irish composer and dear friend, has settled herself there for the winter, with her keyboard and computer, working on a commissioned piece of music to be performed next spring by the RTE (national radio/television) Orchestra. The piece will celebrate the life of the Antarctic explorer Tom Crean, who came from the village of Annascaul not far from our Irish home. Rachel has been to Antarctica with her recording equipment, and has an archive of sounds from that faraway place to be translated into instumental music. The window of the studio looks south, into the Atlantic. The jagged Skellig Rocks are on the horizon. Next comes the jut of West Africa, then the icy continent. What a mystery music is! What strange power it has to move our spirits. How pleased we are to give Rachel a beautiful place to ply her art.

A recent study, reported in Science (August 3), found that monkeys prefer silence to music -- to any kind of music, including lullabies. A previous study found that monkeys have no preference between harmonious and dissonant music. A similar study of humans showed a distinct preference for music over silence, and for harmony over dissonance. An innate inclination to engage with music seems to be a distinctly human trait. Our brains are apparently hardwired for music appreciation.

Now -- which came first? Music or language?