We’re Not Born Musical—We Make Ourselves That Way

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NYU cognitive scientist Gary Marcus takes up the fascinating question of where music comes from and what it’s for. While some have speculated about the existence of “a specific music module in the brain that was somehow targeted by evolution,” Marcus notes that “there is little evidence of a distinct music center in the brain”:

“Instead, music seems to depend on a coalition of neural tissue, none of which appears to be specialized for music, suggesting that music might be better thought of as culturally acquired technology that draws on a diverse basis of (perhaps domain-general) components, rather than a specific target of [natural] selection.

Consistent with these ideas, children’s initial sensitivity to music is relatively coarse. Even newborns can tell the difference between consonance and dissonance, but it takes years before children can sing in tune or reliably recognize the association between minor chords and sad feelings. Initially, children tend to focus on lyrics to the exclusion of melody, and in infancy, they prefer the human voice to instrumental music.

Like reading, music is best seen as a cultural invention. Musicians may be born with more predisposing talents, but nobody is born musical per se. Even the people with the most helpful predisposing genes still need to learn how to play. (This is true even for singing; young children often don’t even recognize that songs contain discrete notes.)

A final question: Is it ever too late to learn? The dominant idea has been that only young children can acquire new skills and that this occurs during a ‘critical period’ in development, but this idea, too, turns out to be far weaker than previously believed. Recent studies have shown that some adults can learn new languages like natives; and animal research suggests that they do better than generally thought if they learn new things incrementally rather than all at once.” (Read more here.)

I like the idea of music as a “cultural invention”—one that our ever-adaptable brains have re-organized themselves to create and enjoy.

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One Response to “We’re Not Born Musical—We Make Ourselves That Way”

  1. The power of music (and learning music) is a force to be reckoned with. Too bad it seems our in-school programs are dwindling and the only folks capable and/or willing to promote adult music making are music therapists. Every time I read or hear about these kinds of findings I wonder; where are all of the professional music educators in our communities? Why aren’t there private music schools sprouting up where families can study and play music? It seems there is a ‘market’ brewing that the profession of music ed. is unwilling or worse afraid to acknowledge.

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