June 2009

The Music Instinct


What is it about music that connects so deeply with our human emotions? It can make us cry, gives us goosebumps, and transports us immediately to other places and times in our lives.
Mammoth bone flutes.
Photo: © H. Jensen, University of Tübingen

Renowned performer Bobby McFerrin performs an improvisation from Heartbeat to demonstrate that basic elements of music — pitch, tempo, rhythm and melody — create specific reactions in our brains.
Photo: Trix Rosen Photography

The Music Instinct: Science and Song is a television documentary special exploring startling connections between music and the human mind and body, the natural world and the cosmos.

Imagine jumping into a time machine and going back 50,000 years or so to spend the afternoon with a Neanderthal cousin. You’d be hard-pressed to find a common experience to talk about, that is if the Neanderthal could speak at all. But new evidence suggests that even if language had yet to develop, music may already have been in place.

“In a cave site in Israel initially, they found something called a hyoid bone … almost like a little bit of cartilage that sits within our vocal tract,” explains Steven Mithen, an archaeologist at England’s University of Reading. “And for the first time, we saw what one of these looked like in a Neanderthal and it was almost identical to that of a modern human. But you know, when you look at how they're behaving and the artifacts they're making, I don't think there's any signs of language there at all. It's just not a language-like behavior. So I think their vocal tract was used for singing, mainly, for making music.”

And if cave men were crooning while cooking chunks of mammoth meat, then musical instruments would have been a natural progression. Indeed, mammoth bone flutes were discovered in a German cave in the 1990s.
Archaeologist Nicholas Conard, at the University of Tubingen, explains. “It really was remarkable when a colleague of mine, Maria Malina, discovered it. She came to me one day and said, ‘Oh, Nick, I think I discovered an ivory flute.’ I said, ‘Maria, you know, that’s crazy. Who would make an ivory flute?’” During the year that followed Malina reconstructed the flute from 31 pieces she’d found.

“From my point of view music was part of daily life,” says Conard. “I think the fact that we have [found] a total of four flutes suggests that there were other forms of music as well: dance and song and clapping and perhaps rhythmic instruments.”

Researchers have discovered that we’re exposed to music even before the moment of our birth. “Womb microphones” reveal that distinct melodies can be heard in utero. Does music and rhythm help to cultivate who we are? And what happens when we become debilitated by something like a stroke? One promising therapy, it seems, is music.

Researchers and scientists from a variety of fields are using groundbreaking techniques that reveal startling new connections between music and the human mind, the body and the universe. Together with an array of musicians from rock and rap to jazz and classical, they are putting music under the microscope. Be sure to tune in to your local PBS station on June 24 at 9 p.m. eastern time for the premiere of The Music Instinct: Science and Song, a fascinating two-hour documentary on the science of music.

Links to related stories:
The Music Instinct – Music Therapy
The Music Instinct – Music Origins
The Music Instinct – Early Man
The Music Instinct – Womb Sounds
The Music Instinct – Oldest Instrument