Music and Nature

By Farrell, Brian | ReVista (Cambridge), Winter 2016 | Go to article overview

Music and Nature


Farrell, Brian, ReVista (Cambridge)


NATURE AND MUSIC ARE INTIMATELY CONnected. Almost as long as I have been a naturalist, these connections have been woven through my life. I have been playing drums since I was a boy. Though I played in a rock band in high school, I was trained in jazz and Latin music, genres I play to this day. As a teenager I wrestled with the decision to follow music or something else (not yet fully aware how biology could be a profession), and am happy that one can pursue these two interests at the same time and discover eventually how closely they are tied together.

As a scientist, I am now more fully aware of the links. I notice the similarities between jazz-a famously improvisational form featuring trades of motifs between players, as if in conversation- and that of birds and other species that trade vocalizations to convey their motivations to each other. Music permeates nature, and nature permeates music.

I believe it is fair to say that for most people on earth, including myself, music is an integral part of everyday life. Our memories are often tied to certain songs or genres associated with the paths of our emotional lives, particularly in the teenage years. A song can carry us back in time and draw forgotten emotions from deep inside ourselves. Why does music have such a hold on us, able to change our mood and bring us together? What is music's evolutionary origin, and can we learn about music by considering other species that use sounds in similar ways? These are old questions, but they have received new insights from fields as different as paleontology, neurobiology and evolutionary theory.

Music appeared early in human history, documented by the discovery of 40,000-year-old flutes made of bird bone or mammoth ivory, as well as remnants of ancient drums. Some scientists believe that the large nasal passages of the Neanderthals, who existed in Eurasia from nearly 500,000 to 35,000 years ago, indicate an ability to produce resonant chant. Experts in fields as different as neurobiology, archeology and evolutionary biology believe that music may have preceded language, and it is not hard to imagine that chanting and rhythmic thumping were instrumental in holding small tribal groups together. In fact, social cohesion most likely was a force for the adaptive basis of music in early humans.

The other force thought important for the development of music is sexual selection, meaning that music may have fostered the greater reproductive success of those who played and responded, just as the bright colors of a male bird's plumage attract females who select their mating partner(s) based on their attractiveness. Certainly, the field of neurobiology has greatly increased our understanding of the depth and breadth of the "wiring" of our brains for music response and music production. While language abilities may be lost through a blow to the side of the head or a small lesion on the brain itself, musical production and responses are almost impossible to knock out. In fact, individuals who have lost their language abilities sometimes can learn to sing their thoughts.

Music reception and production both employ neurotransmitters that are key in brain function, as well as release hormones, such as serotonin and oxytocin, that are associated with the pleasure centers of the brain. These "feel good" hormones seem to reinforce the feelings of happiness and belonging that music often produces. Music shares features with humor and experiences of nature both by fulfilling expectations and by creating lively elements of surprise. Music, meditation, nature, artistic and religious experiences have similar effects on the brain, engendering the kinds of contemplative changes in brain waves that have concomitant positive effects on stress levels, and perhaps overall health. This is an area of active research.

Humans are remarkably adept at music. We can (famously) recognize a song from hearing very few notes, often two or three, and can pick out a song over the cacophony of a crowd. …

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