He Who Has Ears: Music, Neuroscience, and Evolution, Part 1

Here’s a link to something I wrote for biologos.org, the site started by Francis Collins (who directed the human genome project) to discuss science and faith. The fist couple paragraphs are below, and you can click the link above for the full piece. Part 2 comes out next week.

A few months ago a couple of Jehovah’s witnesses came to my door. Upon learning of my profession, they pulled out one of their recent magazines with the cover article “Music: How does it affect you?” This is a question that has been asked for a long time, going back at least to the disagreements between Plato and Aristotle about how different musical scales affect moral development, and forward to the current lineup of ‘Baby Mozart’ edu-toys and the ongoing “worship wars” over what kind of music is best suited to be played in our churches. As with arguments in the past, our contemporary discussions about how music affects people reveal underlying assumptions about the function and meaning of music that are ultimately tied to ideas about artistic creation; and varying perspectives on the source of artistic creation eventually take us back to a discussion of our ideas about God’s creation—the natural world and its inbuilt systems, including evolution—and God’s creativity, something we reflect in community as part of the imago dei, not least through music.

Humanity is marked by the biological capacity for musicality. Every known culture has something like music. Understanding how we experience and create music in the present gives us clues to why and how music emerged as one of the defining features of human culture (and, therefore, of humanness itself) in the past. But thinking carefully about music and evolution can also help us reassess how we use music now: in the wider culture, collectively as the church, and even within our own homes. In a nutshell, then, this essay will examine how views on evolution impact how one assesses music’s effects and meaning. In many cases, problematic views about evolution and artistic creativity result in problematic views about music, but my argument is that an appropriate evolutionary view of music—one that looks at how music becomes meaningful within social relationships—is a view that actually enriches our appreciation of this most human endeavor, rather than trivializing it. In this first part I explore common discourses about the meaning of music and their relationship to ideas of creation. In part two next week, I suggest that understanding the role that music played in our biocultural evolution helps correct some of the myths that have made their way into popular discourse, especially with the growing popularity of trying to understand music via neuroscience.

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