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Accounting For Taste, Part II-A

  • By BC Gibson Author Avatar
  • 8 November 2013

Ben Gibson is SupaJam's resident Blogger in Los Angeles. Ben gives a unique underground insight into the "west coast" music scene plus the state of the music industry in the US of A as a whole. Enjoy!

Accounting for Taste, Part II: BRAINS

     In Part I, I considered some of the possible ways the Internet influences musical taste. Now in Part II, we’ll get into the brass tacks of exactly what it is being influenced, namely the mechanisms of your brain.  In this neurology of music, we’ll first explore why anyone likes music to begins with, why particular noise patterns are appealing to our species.  Then we’ll discuss the mental means that might account for individual musical taste.

     As to the general question, why music, as you might guess there is a good deal of intellectual debate.  A viable case can be made for a number of arguments, making it appear as if a definitive answer is unlikely to be found, given that the answers exist in our distant evolutionary past, where, since it’s a time we cannot directly study, they are likely to remain.

Babel, Then Beats

     The first theory sees humanity’s musical taste as a side effect of our language capacity. This idea is referred to as the cheesecake theory; as in, people did not evolve to eat cheesecake specifically, but rather we evolved in a world where the ingredients of a cheesecake were high calorie rarities.  In that setting, if we came across any of those ingredients, sugars and fats, it behooved us to shove them in our face as quickly as possible.  Like cheesecake, it’s not the sound of music that we evolved to specifically enjoy, it’s the sounds--the phonemes--of language. 

     It’s language we’re geared to process, and music appreciation is the happy byproduct.  Perhaps music is to our brain just an exaggerated version of verbal sounds, and it appeals to us in the same way our ancestors were drawn to primitive fertility goddesses, composed with overstated features.  Maybe music is reminiscent of language in the same way a fertility goddess is reminiscent of a woman.  

On The Origin of Cheesecake

     The cheesecake model seems a plausible explanation for why humans began to like music, but it’s less convincing in saying how our species continues to like music. If music by itself did not serve a biological purpose, its appeal would have been tempered over time by natural selection.  It could be the case that, once it had a foot in the door--the door to our brain--music evolved as a pleasure in itself, because it satisfies inklings similar to those of our most basic and fundamental drives. I’m not talking about the drives that manifest themselves in a discoverable way, like the sex drive or the urge to eat, not Freud’s drives, but rather the drive to see patterns in the world around us, more akin to Schopenhauer’s Will than to the hydraulic-model maneuvers of the id and the ego.  

     All living things have this attribute, the ability to see patterns and adapt to be successful given those patterns.  We human beings have come to dominate the planet because of our ability to see patterns and frame our behavior to fit them; that ability is on a totally different par in comparison to all other living things. What music is then, is porn for our pattern seeking drive, our pattern seeking Will.  Music manifests patterns which, given the general rules for music and our previous experiences with it, our brains can anticipate.  Through this anticipation and fulfillment, we thereby derive pleasure.

If I Had a Chance, I’d Ask the World to Dance

     It’s a fact that every culture that’s ever been discovered has had both language and music, but that could just be correlation, not causation. Sadly, even a modified cheesecake theory seems to fall short, because it doesn’t really account for why music affects us in the most primitive parts of our brain, the parts that existed before language.  These are the parts which set you tapping to beat, that make you want to dance. The urge to dance is certainly a feeling that can be associated with music, but it wouldn’t really make sense to associate language with dance in the same way, so there the idea of music being the byproduct of language breaks down.

Forget the World, I’ll Take the Bird

     Personally however, I’m not entirely ready to give up the cheesecake.  There is one connection which seems too unlikely a coincidence, and which might signal a connection between language and dance. It turns out that the only animal that dances to music, is also the only animal that can effectively repeat human words.  I give you, cockatoo. 

To be continued…