Now That’s What I Call Music!

Steven Pinker famously called it auditory cheesecake. It has been used as therapy for patients, but also as a form of torture. It can move us with its sublime beauty, but it can also whip us into a killing frenzy. The production and consumption of it is a multi-million pound industry. And writing about it is said to be like dancing about architecture. I am referring to music. Humans have been making music for more than 30,000 years. Its presence is so ubiquitous that we take it for granted.

What are the origins of music? We may well never know the answer; it is a subject full of speculation. This question came to the fore in the second half of the 19th century. Charles Darwin was one of those analysing its evolutionary significance He believed that music was important for sexual selection. Geoffrey Miller, an evolutionary psychologist. takes a similar line, arguing that it, like the plumage of a peacock, serves to demonstrate fitness to mate.  An alternative hypothesis for music’s emergence, put forward by Robin Dunbar, another evolutionary psychologist. is that in our evolutionary past it helped foment social bonding of groups. We can see this function in the national anthem or football chants. The final hypothesis that I am going to look at sees music as a biological accident.  Music did not lead to language; language led to music, in what has turned out to be a glorious accident. A brain which transforms sound into meaning goes into overdrive when it hears tone, melody and rhythm. An article in The Economist put it like this:

Singing is auditory masturbation to satisfy this craving. Playing musical instruments is auditory pornography. Both sate an appetite that is there beyond its strict biological need.

Music is not located in one part of the brain, but in many different areas. According to the famous British neurologist Oliver Sacks many of the musical parts of the brain are close to where memory and emotion are located. And so music tends to embed itself in memory and to evoke emotions with an immediacy greater than any other stimulus except perhaps smells. Moreover, playing music changes the brain. When looking at a brain scan you can tell that it is the brain of a musician because certain parts of the brain may become enlarged in response to music. This has nothing to do with the so-called Mozart Effect, which became a fad a few years ago, despite the fact that there is little evidence to justify it. It’s a seductive idea. But we should listen to Mozart’s music because of its beauty. That is surely enough.

If you are interested in the neurological aspects of music then Oliver Sacks’s Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain is the book for you. The book features a number of case studies. One of the most mysterious is that of Tony Cicoria, an orthopaedic surgeon.

Cicoria was in a phone booth during a lightning storm, and his head was struck by lightning. He had a cardiac arrest and his brain got no oxygen; he was, in effect, dead for 30 seconds. He would soon recover his memory, but he then developed a sudden insatiable passion for listening to and playing the piano. His head was flooded with music that seemed to have come from nowhere – before the incident he had had no musical inclinations. Now he wanted to play and even compose. He didn’t give up his day job, but he hired a piano teacher and learned to transcribe the music that was going through his head. He has now become an accomplished musician who has given recitals in New York. He is according to Wikipedia, currently working on a number of pieces including a symphony based on Brahms’ Variation, op. 9, and a concerto. And you can buy his Fantasia The Lightning Sonata, Op. 1: II from This is a fascinating story but I’m not sure it tells us anything about music and the brain.

Music can mean very different things in different times and places. In the West it has now become linked to expertise. Music is somebody standing up on stage performing for others. In traditional societies music pervades everything. That should remind us that music doesn’t necessarily have to be elitist. However, in recent years the amateur has made a comeback with the emergence of karaoke YouTube and talent shows. I have an ambivalent attitude towards karaoke. Whenever I think of it John Entwhistle’s comment about heavy metal comes to mind:

I’m only interested in heavy metal when it’s me playing it. I suppose it’s a bit like smelling your own farts.”

The ultimate version of Karaoke are all these talent shows that have proliferated in the last few years. Marina Hyde writes about Simon Cowell and his karaoke-industrial complex. Cowell apparently has a net worth of: £225 Million ($364m). In Ben Elton’s satire of The X-Factor/Pop Idol style reality TV shows, Chart Throb, the producers divide the successful into three categories – Clingers, Blingers and Mingers:

Clingers: these are the desperate ones. They have just enough talent to be utterly self-deluded . . . actually, sometimes they manage to be self-deluded without having any talent at all, which is really good telly. They have to cry and plead and beg. God gave them their dream, you see. It’s that important. They are normally women but they can be male. Middle-aged guys who just want to give their kids a better life than they’ve had. Club singers who’ve done their time and paid their dues and want one last shot at the dream.

Blingers: these are the extroverts, the show-offs. The type of weirdly self-confident lunatics whose unshakeable faith in their own powers to fascinate actually makes them sort of fascinating, in a kamikaze kind of a way. They say things like Hey, what’s wrong with being a little crazy? They strike poses. They flirt. They think they’re sexy. Women Blingers tend to be plumpers but they’re comfy being curvy and invariably turn up half naked.

Mingers: these are the real entertainment. They are the lifeblood of Chart Throb, the most essential element. Without the Mingers Chart Throb would be nothing. They are the true casualties, the saddos, the uglies, the comically short-sighted, the cleft-palated, the misshapen, the obese, the educationally challenged, the emotionally stunted and the spotty nerds – the most vulnerable and inadequate members of society.

I have managed to avoid watching these programmes, but Elton’s cynical take does seem to have a ring of truth to it. I also refuse to watch Eurovision. When the Americans use music in this way, human rights NGOs denounce it as torture, but millions of people voluntarily sit down to watch it every year. I just don’t get it

Technology has played and will continue to play a massive role in music. Recording technology enabled talented individuals to leverage their talent. Records, CDs, radio and television made it possible for an artist to perform for millions. This allowed the elite musicians to become fantastically rich. But then technology turned on the industry that it had made. Now it is possible to pirate copies of any artist. This has had unintended consequences. Bands have to do more live concerts because this experience is the one thing you can’t download – yet. The problem is that music is now seen as something you get for free – once people get used to not paying, it’s going to be very difficult to get them to pay even a small amount.

What is the effect of all this piracy? I simply don’t trust those lobbying for the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and Protect IP Act (PIPA) bills in Congress. They claim that online piracy costs theU.S.economy between $200 and $250 billion per year, and is responsible for the loss of 750,000 American jobs. These numbers are horrific. $250 billion per year would be almost $800 for every man, woman, and child in the USA. 750,000 jobs is twice the number of those employed in the entire motion picture industry in 2010. It is impossible to know the real number. There are certainly a lot of people who download music without paying. In some cases, piracy does take away a legitimate sale. But just because people download a song for free doesn’t mean they would be willing to pay for the same song. This is especially true if the consumer lives in a relatively poor country, like China. These cannot really be considered lost sales. And while jobs may be lost in the music industry, they will probably be created in another sector. Money that a pirate doesn’t spend on songs is likely to be spent on something else. This is a counterfactual world. We need to imagine what would happen if there were no piracy. It should come as no surprise that those most affected will tend to come up with the direst possible predictions.

So concludes my brief survey of music. I would continue but all this talk of music has put me in the mood for a bit of karaoke. I can’t decide between Sexual Healing or Fly Me to the Moon. Don’t worry I won’t be uploading anything to Facebook or YouTube. I firmly believe that my flatulence and onanism should remain behind closed doors.

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