How old is musicality?

Hello Dear Reader,

Finally, we meet again. I hope you have been enjoying life in my absence and that the world is treating you well.

My maternity leave is nearly finished and I will soon be returning to my day job. My little girl, Penelope, just enjoyed her first birthday with a lovely family party where she was thoroughly spoiled – lucky little angel !

With the yummy birthday cake (photo above) all consumed and the cards put away in a precious memory box, I now begin the task of shifting my life role again. Just over a year ago my world was turned upside down when this beautiful baby landed in our lives. I am a different person now. I need to get back into my academic role and work out how it all fits with the new me. This blog will be an important part of my process so thank you for joining me!

As always, this blog will inspire me to read so I can communicate to you the latest findings and ideas in music psychology.

Have I kept up to date over the last year? Hardly! There is no time with a new baby and there shouldn’t be in an ideal world. What little time I’ve had, I have devoted to my ongoing students/ colleagues and their projects.

I’m very fortunate that it was possible for me to spend a whole year to be with my baby. I made the most of it and spent lots of valuable time with her at a critical point in her life. Now she needs to develop a social world that extends beyond her loving family…and I need to get my brain back into the fascinating world of music psychology !

To this end, fate intervened. Months ago I pre-ordered a new book due for release this Spring. I then promptly forgot about it, until it popped through my letterbox this week. “Right” I thought “The universe wants me to start here!” So here we go.

The Origins of Musicality is an edited book by Professor Henkjan Honing. The book provides interdisciplinary perspectives on the capacity to perceive, appreciate, and make music. The chapters consider what music is for and why every human culture has it; whether musicality is a uniquely human capacity; and what biological and cognitive mechanisms underlie it.

When reading over the contents I was excited to see new contributions from many of the leading authors in the field of music psychology and cognition. These include but are not limited to Ani Patel, Isabelle Peretz, Tecumseh Fitch, Martin Rohrmeier, Bruno Gingras and Jessica Grahn. It will take me a while to read over the chapters; I will give summaries here when I can.

The arrival of this book put me in mind of an article I had been sent on Twitter. Scientists based at the the Faculty of Psychology, Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience in Germany teamed up with experts in South Africa to study what happens inside a crocodile’s brain when it is listening to J.S Bach.

I love that the researchers write about how rare it is to find an fMRI study on a Nile crocodile. I believe them. To go to all the trouble to safely and ethically conduct such research in relation to music might seem frivolous at first glance.

However, there is a point. Crocodiles are an ancient species that has changed little physically over millions of years. They diverged from birds 240 million years ago. Hence they provide a unique ancestral test into the age of music sensory neural circuitry. In the case of this study, the existence of levels of processing in the auditory cortex, which we know is present in modern birds.

The Nile crocodile was played random chords centred around 1000 or 3000 Hz and music by J.S. Bach (first 12 s of Brandenburg Concerto No. 4).

According to the authors ‘…we collect[ed] evidence for a possible [auditory] hierarchical organization, which would be in line with organizational principles described for the sensory systems of mammals and birds, and thus may represent a conserved feature of the amniote brain’.

‘…despite approximately 300 million years of independent evolutionary trajectories, notwithstanding major changes in the structure of the brains of these three major classes, hierarchical processing networks would be a primitive and conserved principle of sensory processing’

This biological foundation of music processing is therefore very ancient. This is only one element of musical perception and the finding does not imply that crocodiles hear Bach the way we do. But it is another piece to the puzzle of how we became musical. Whenever music arose in our ancient past, at least part of our brains had been ready for it for a very long time.