Music of the hemispheres: Steven Mithen’s The Singing Neanderthals is an interesting but inconclusive examination of the evolution of our musical abilities, writes Peter Forbes
Saturday July 2, 2005
The Singing Neanderthal by Steven Mithen
The Singing Neanderthals
by Steven Mithen
240pp, Weidenfeld, £20
“Useless … quite different from language … a technology not an adaptation”. This is Steven Pinker’s view of the importance of music in human evolution. Needless to say, Steven Mithen takes the opposite view. For him, the proto-language, the communication system of pre-humans, was as much musical as linguistic, just as baby talk (important evidence for Mithen) is more musical than adult speech. At the moment, the evidence for a decision between these two views is inconclusive but Mithen builds his passionate case from recent work on the language of humans and apes and from the fossils of early man (Mithen is a professor of early prehistory at Reading).
The crux of the relationship between language and music is the mystery of perfect pitch. This is the ability, possessed by only one in 10,000 of the adult population, to name any note they hear being played or to sing a named note on request. Although the incidence of perfect pitch is higher among musicians than in the general population, it is still rare even among them. The odd thing is that many more babies and small children than adults seem to have perfect pitch. As Mithen says, music has been oddly neglected in psychological studies, though one theory has it that we are all born with perfect pitch but lose it unless it is reinforced by music lessons between the ages of three and six. Why would we lose something so useful?
Because for most of us who are not to going to be musicians it isn’t useful at all: it interferes with learning language. In learning language we have to recognise words from the stream of sound even though they come in different accents and pitches. Perfect pitch would be like a digital scanner that could only read letters presented in the correct typeface.
Sadly, there are cases, documented by Mithen, of severely autistic children with little or no language skills but supreme musical ability (musical savants). Perfect pitch is associated with their language difficulties. The contortions of perfect pitch show just how complex is the relationship between music and language. It has been known for a long time that many people with language difficulties can sing perfectly happily. In the mildest cases, stammerers can usually sing fluently. Some people who have lost their language through brain lesions retain their musical ability and vice versa. It was once thought crudely that language was a left-hemisphere phenomenon and music right, so that if the left hemisphere were damaged, the music function would be unimpaired. But it is more complicated than that. There is relative localisation; tunes are processed separately from language but the words of a song still have to be retrieved from the language word store. Nevertheless, the words of songs are usually easier to retrieve than those of tuneless poems.
Half of the book is concerned with the roots of music in our pre-human past and half with the evidence from neurophysiology and psychological experimentation on humans and primates. Much is still unprovable conjecture but there are some suggestive insights. One such is the connection between music and walking upright. Some seek the essence of music in pitch, melody, or harmony, but the first essential was surely a regular rhythm. Chimpanzees can’t keep a regular beat but it’s hard to imagine a human being who could stride in perfectly regular paces never discovering music that beats four to the bar.
So in love with the idea of early man’s musicality is Mithen that he ends with a strange call to arms. “So listen to JS Bach’s Prelude in C Major and think of australopithecines waking in their treetop nests … with Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue imagine them satiated with food and settling to sleep amid the security of the trees.” Bach is conventionally cited to show how far we’ve come from our animal origins and Kind of Blue is the epitome of urban cool – seduction music rather than music to help a greasy tribe sleep off a gross feast. In the end, Mithen’s quest to prove Pinker wrong has led him to an equally reductive attitude towards music.
· Peter Forbes’s The Gecko’s Foot: Bio-inspiration, Engineered from Nature is published by Fourth Estate in August.