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May 03, 2004

Music & the universal man

Over at The World on PRI there was a story (audio file!) about the fact that some of the lyrics on the Enigma song Return to Innocence were sampled from a Taiwanese aboriginal in the 1970s. Now, I'm tone deaf, and pretty unmusical (in contrast to most of my family), but I've always found that much of the music produced by "primitive" people struck me as mellifluous as that of "modern" music. The story notes that many Western artists are looking through archives of "tribal" music to find "new sounds."

Which gets me back to my post about religion where Pascal Boyer made an analogy with music-that not everyone displays the same fondness or facility for the behavior, but everyone recognizes it, and within certain parameters, we all (humans) can distinguish it from more random nosies. There is likely no "music" module, rather, it is an emergent property of the interaction between various universal congitive domains, and the parameters set by these domains result in a common channel of musicality. Also, like language, but unlike say mathematics, we probably aren't going to "improve" on what "primitive" peoples have been creating for thousands of years, rather, we will simply build more complex overlays upon the basic substrate. And so, when humans listen to bards singing songs from alien cultures, the beauty of it (if not the information content) resonates, because we share the same aesthetic bedrock, even if the details are different, just as religious devotion has similarities, invariant of the god being idolized.

Posted by razib at 04:39 PM