Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Love songs

I mentioned here some weeks ago a study that showed our nearest primate ancestors prefer silence to music, which seemed to suggest that music appreciation is uniquely human. But what about birds? They make music. Some birds seem to enjoy singing for the sheer fun of it.

Another study by S. Watanabe and K. Sato gave sparrows a choice of three perches producing either silence, classical music, or modern music. The birds consistently chose the classical perch, preferring Bach and Vivaldi to Schoenberg and Carter -- or to silence. What this means exactly is not clear, but when it comes to Bach or Schoenberg I'll take the same perch.

Steven Pinker thinks our taste for music is an accident, something that came along with our language ability and just happens to give pleasure; that is, music had no adaptive advantage. Daniel Levitin thinks music had something to do with demonstrating reproductive fitness, like the peacock's tail. Could it be that cooing love songs came along before humans had the words to whisper sweet nothings? Or maybe it was the lullaby that came first, the la-la-la that put the baby to sleep. La-la became ma-ma, and pretty soon we were talking. Put the la and the ma together and the next thing you know we had Bach's Saint Matthew Passion.

OK, no one knows where music came from. Right now I'm listening to Diana Krall sing If I Had You. Sounds adaptive to me.