Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Music: A Biological Imperative?

Two recent studies by Duke University suggest that music isn't just a pleasant diversion. Rather, it's something hardwired into human beings, and is an extension of the way we communicate.

I know, nothing new to anyone moved to tears or brought to the edge of their seat by a great work or exquisite performance. But the findings are interesting, nevertheless.

According to Science Daily, the first study showed that "the musical scales most commonly used over the centuries are those that come closest to mimicking the physics of the human voice." 16th Century madrigalists were intuitively familiar with this concept, as were most opera composers. The study suggests that our major/minor scale system (and the scales of other musical cultures) closely resemble the sounds human vocal cords can produce.

In other words, all of the notes in all of the scales that we regularly use can be hummed. And the microtones that haven't been used in traditional scales are missing because they can't.

The second study looked at the emotional content of music. It found (again, not surprisingly) that music mimicked speech patterns and inflections to give it emotional color. And that color was effectively communicated.

As research team leader Dale Purves said, "Our appreciation of music is a happy byproduct of the biological advantages of speech and our need to understand its emotional content."

Happy, indeed.

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