The Tone-Deaf Scientist Sings of Love

Jonathan Bellman

I recently finished Steven Mithen’s provocative book, The Singing Neanderthals. Mithen speaks from the outset of his own musical incompetence: “I can neither sing in tune nor clap in rhythm. I am unable to play any musical instrument.” He goes on to praise his wife and children for their musical accomplishments, and to formulate a wide-ranging theory, in large part (and unavoidably) speculative, about why music evolved and why it is so important to our species. He ends with an impassioned call for us to listen, and then to play and sing. My suspicion is that such envoys are atypical in scientific works, even those intended for the lay reader, rare.

It would be false for me to pretend to have retained a full comprehension everything from my first reading of this wide-ranging, interdisciplinary book, nor that I did not sometimes find it to be heavy going. Few things are as humbling, for me, as reading books about math or science that are intended for the general reader—the experience often reminds me what a dimwit I can be, in certain areas, how far below the “general educated lay reader” I can fall. Mithen’s hypothesis is that essential primate communication was originally musical, not verbal, and that communication via a variety of pitched vocalizations—laden with emotional content but not the potentially abstract combinatorics of words—is completely consistent with both the long-term survival and cultural stability (hundreds of thousands of years) of the cultures of pre-homo sapiens such at the Neanderthals, a stability and survival that is demonstrated in the fossil record. What is striking about the book, amidst all the summaries of studies in other disciplines, adducing of other scholars’ findings, and piecing together of a broad and complex picture, is the extent to which it seems to be a work of passion, a—well—slapdown of linguist Steven Pinker’s assessment of music as “auditory cheesecake,” something really outside the imperatives of human development. It seems to me that Pinker’s linguacentrism unleashed Mithen’s Poet Within. (I have no informed opinion one way or the other, beyond finding Mithen persuasive.)

How does a scholar compose an ode? With explications and marginalia and footnotes.

Before you laugh too hard, though, reflect that the eloquence of any utterance depends on sympathy for the idiom. Hiphop or rap will not communicate to people ill-disposed to those characteristic uses of language. Ditto for the Rock song, and even poetry that doesn’t rhyme, to people who insist that it should.

I admit that there were points when I wanted to interrupt, though to chime in rather than dispute. In his concluding chapter, for instance, Mithen observes:

“It is now apparent, for instance, why even when listening to music made by instruments rather than the human voice, we treat music as a virtual person and attribute to it an emotional state and sometimes a personality and intention. It is also now clear why so much of music is structured as if a conversation is taking place within the music itself, and why we often intuitively feel that a piece of music should have a meaning attached to it even though we cannot grasp what that might be.”

The entire world of musical rhetoric, topics, formal conventions and generic contracts and so on leapt to mind, as it would to style mavens, film music people, and many others of us. Mithen may not have heard of such explanations for what to him seems to be a deeply alluring mystery, but the reader feels an urge to share, explain, contribute.

It’s not our story, though, it’s his. Mithen’s fugue of paleontology, anthropology, neuroscience, child psychology, and so much else amounts to a love song, to music itself—which he loves desperately, but seemingly through a glass, darkly—and to his family. One wonders if they understand that. Scholarly writing with this kind of¬—well, unbridled passion is all too rare, but such a pleasure when discovered.

About jonathanbellman

Professor of Music History and Literature and Head of Academic Studies in Music at the University of Northern Colorado. Author, *The _Style Hongrois_ in the Music of Western Europe* (Northeastern University Press, 1993), *A Short Guide to Writing About Music* (2e, Longman, 2008), *Chopin's Polish Ballade: Op. 38 as Narrative of National Martyrdom* (Oxford University Press, 2010), Editor, *The Exotic in Western Music* (Northeastern University Press, 1998), author of bunches of articles and reviews and so on. Likes to play the piano, the mandolin, and even guitar sometimes. A. M. and Jo Winchester Distinguished Scholar at UNC, 2011.
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8 Responses to The Tone-Deaf Scientist Sings of Love

  1. Chris says:

    This definitely sounds like a worthy read. Are you familiar with (or does this book reference) the work of Ian Cross? He’s a musicologist (more a music/science guy) at Cambridge. The arguments he puts forth for the concept of “proto-musical behavior” are pretty compelling.

  2. ECG says:

    JB: oh, snore. Dispense with the self-effacing academic routine — you and Phil ought to should go back to ripping on each other! That was more entertaining by far.

  3. Jonathan says:

    I formally apologize for toggling back to my essential professional nature. Besides–a spirited disagreement is not the same thing as “ripping on.”
    You might try to find some old DVDs of Michael Vick events…

  4. Phil Ford says:

    Now *that’s* “ripping on” . . .

  5. Mithen’s book, by bringing an outsider’s viewpoint to wrap up the work from so many disciplines and sub-disciplines, does a great service. In a similar way, William Benzon’s Beethoven’s Anvil (2001) created such a buzz regarding music and evolutionary theory. There is a palpable drive for some kind of music unified theory, which is still only teasing through many veils. Steven Pinker stirred up a right hornet’s nest and it is a rare music cognition & perception conference where you don’t hear “auditory cheesecake” sneered at. I am not so sure that it might not be the case, yet, but I’m also not sure why it matters. Music is, and is amazingly important, period. This is proved to me in a most crass way. Here in Hollywood, media is a business, it is all about making money. If producers could forego music in their productions, and save money, they would. They can’t, instead they use more and more music. Meanwhile, the average Yank consumes somewhere between 3.5-4.5 hours of television a day (depending on the sources). From this one can infer musics importance (good or bad).
    One of my favorite music and language guys, is Ani Patel at NSI. A paper of his maybe you would enjoy, about how French composers melodies resemble the French language, and the same for English. trés amusant!
    Patel, A.D., J.R. Iversen, and J.C. Rosenberg (2004) Comparing rhythm and melody in speech and music: The case of English and French. J. Acoust. Soc. Am. 116:2645.

  6. Jonathan says:

    I can imagine that “auditory cheesecake” might come to be treated the same way the phrases “the music itself” or “the autonomous artwork” came to be at musicology conferences. A cleverly turned phrase can be a paradigm-changer, but it can also become a millstone around one’s neck if fashion turns against you.
    Though I have no real science to throw at the issue, my suspicion is that music *is* more than auditory cheesecake because it emerges, ultimately, from the body, from natural and seemingly instinctive processes. In this it differs from arts like drama or painting (both of which show up in Mithen’s book, BTW) and which might perhaps more appropriately be called–I don’t know–“cultural cheesecake,” though I intend disrespect to neither. It does seem that all or almost all faith systems have depended on music to mediate between the worlds, to bear prayers (verbal or non-verbal) to the Deity or deities, and this to me suggests a different status and origin for music, as if it lies so much deeper than memory that a religious connection was somehow unavoidable. As I say, though, this is entirely speculative on my part.
    Thanks for the Patel ref.; I’ll try to hunt that up. I’ve heard lots of speculation of this kind regarding other languages (Hungarian, Czech); it would be nice to read something on the subject I have a chance of understanding.

  7. Music Access says:

    Great review. His descriptions of human response to instruments is powerfully stated. I really want to read that book now.

  8. Pingback: Romantic Power of Music, The | Dial M for Musicology

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