‘Listen to this,” Daniel Levitin said. “What is it?” He hit a button on his computer keyboard and out came a half-second clip of music. It was just two notes blasted on a raspy electric guitar, but I could immediately identify it: the opening lick to the Rolling Stones’ “Brown Sugar.”

Then he played another, even shorter snippet: a single chord struck once on piano. Again I could instantly figure out what it was: the first note in Elton John’s “Benny and the Jets.”

Levitin beamed. “You hear only one note, and you already know who it is,” he said. “So what I want to know is: how we do this? Why are we so good at recognizing music?

Ultimately, scientists say, his work offers a new way to unlock the mysteries of the brain: how memory works, how people with autism think, why our ancestors first picked up instruments and began to play.

Not all of Levitin’s idea have been easily accepted. He argues, for example, that music is an evolutionary adaptation: something that men developed as a way to demonstrate reproductive fitness. Music also helped social groups cohere. “Music has got to be useful for survival, or we would have gotten rid of it years ago,” he said.

If Levitin is correct and appreciating and recognizing music is a leftover Stone Age genetic capability —  hopefully, it’s one we end up keeping.



  1. Mr.Magoo says:

    “… music is an evolutionary adaptation: something that men developed as a way to demonstrate reproductive fitness….”

    Then why are so many good musicians gay?

    (Not trolling; it’s a legitimate question.)

  2. RTaylor says:

    Might have helped in an evolutionary sense to distinguish a saber tooth tiger utterance from a wart hog.

  3. Air Phloo says:

    Are so many good musicians gay?

  4. Improbus says:

    It could be a language adaptation.

  5. Tom 2 says:

    Its obviously one we have gotten used to and keep using, so i dont think we will lose unless we dont use it at all, then i think it would filter out of our genes.

  6. Jägermeister says:

    #3

    There are quite a few actually. Some are gay and some are bisexual. Even my Mormon gay hating coworker loves listening to Freddie Mercury and Elton John. George Michael might be a little bit fucked up on the personal level, but I still think he has a great voice.

  7. jbellies says:

    It makes sense that recognizing voices (friend or foe?) would have survival value, and in fact sometimes we can recognize the phone voice of somebody we haven’t spoken to in a decade or longer. The music recognition might just be a side effect.

  8. James says:

    Mr. Magoo,
    I have a few thoughts to your question. As music may have originated as a means of showing one’s reproductive fitness, once it was cemented into the human brain, it didn’t necessarily remain as only that point. It came to serve many other purposes. In other words, people may have begun creating music for other reasons.
    Also music may have become associated with certain other cultures, ones which either encourage homosexuality or attract homosexual individuals. Thus, you may see certain social groups associated with music that are coincidentally associated with homosexuality as well. Correlation perhaps, but not necessarily causation.
    I don’t necessarily believe all of the statements I’ve just made, but they are my initial thoughts to your question. The most poignant thought I had though is that one cannot predict an individual outcome from a statistical average, nor vice versa. That a handful of prominent musicians are gay says nothing about the millions of heterosexual amature musicians whose existence supports the hypothesis, and even if the hypothesis is 100% true, one cannot use its conclusions based on averages to assume that an individual person is gay or straight.

  9. dairy says:

    Universal communication.

    Remember Close Encounters of the 3rd Kind?

    Using Arp Synths to communicate with ETs is way cool.

  10. lou says:

    #1 – Then why are so many good musicians gay?

    Evolutionary adaptations (ie: breathing, sense of smell) are not dependent upon an individual organisms chance of procreation. People of die of childhood genetic diseases, but are still born with sex organs.

    Besides, the funny thing about the argument, is that having a preference for the same gender, does not have to have any correlation with offspring. Every gay man I know has had sex with at least one woman, and in some cases, many woman. Before the option of coming out was available, most gay men got married, had kids, and lived life the same as everyone else. They may not have been happy with the situation, but countless evolutionary biologist have shown that happiness has little to do with human existence and evolution.

  11. venom monger says:

    Communication channels with high latency benefit from high bandwidth. Adding timbre (which, incidentally, is pronounced “tam-ber”) to pitch and amplitude modulation increases the bandwidth available to the otherwise fairly limited audio hardware (wetware?) available to humans. (i.e. ears and vocal chords.)

    I’m thinking that there’s a lot more questions left to ask. Like why some shitty singers sound pleasing (dylan) and some technically proficient singers sound nauseating (clay aiken.) Something else is encoded in there that we can’t yet measure.

    Like the bene geserit “voice” in dune.

  12. giap says:

    I shouldn’t be surprised at the bent of discussion right from the front of this ofay middle-class crowd. Coming from the streets that I do — my first question would have been — why are so many great musicians junkies?

    Times and places, folks. Times and places. 🙂

  13. lou says:

    Regarding Eideard’s comment about future evolution retaining our appreciation of music….

    this just in: human evolution as we know it in the Darwinian sense is over. I would predict that within 100 years (if not much sooner):

    – the human genome will be fully controllable, and thus mutations will be minimal, or controlled as to the effects.
    – human population will be controlled by the government or equivalent thus controlling specific genotypes as to their % of the population.

    If Levitin is correct and appreciating and recognizing music is a leftover Stone Age genetic capability – hopefully, it’s one we end up keeping.

  14. Mr. Fusion says:

    #10, Ok lou, I’m with you on this one. I would also add –

    Why are so many good lawyers Gay?
    Why are so many good teachers Gay?
    Why are so many good nearly blind people Gay?
    Why are so many televangelists Gay?
    Why are so many Republicans Gay?
    Why are so many prisoners Gay?
    Why are so many good truck drivers Gay?
    Why are so many good homosexuals Gay?

    Ok, I’m joking on the last one, but hopefully you get our message Mr. Magoo.

  15. miamiguy says:

    hmmm…interesting…

    I am a long time touring/studio musician and music school grad have played with MANY well known artists- In my humble opinion, there are no more gay musicians/artists than any other profession. I think that the OPENNESS of most artists ie. lack of inhibition etc. which is almost a prerequisite to being a great composer/performer/artist, is a reason more musicians perhaps come out, and, that workplace environment is again, IMHO, more open to varied sexual preferences. I don’t believe that statement for a second-in fact, from what I’ve seen, if anything, they can be the biggest pu$$y-chasers on the planet.

    Are you SURE you weren’t trolling? 🙂

    I don’t think the tonal/harmonic recognition thing is too complicated-One chord (or any small snippet) of music is comprised of tens of thousands of samples, harmonics which color it and create a highly defined and easily recognizable “signature” so to speak. I don’t think this is so unusual (although it may just be from years of training…)

    Are you SURE you weren’t trolling? 🙂

    Peace

  16. Mr.Magoo says:

    @#15: No, I really wasn’t trolling. It just seems to me that a higher than average amount of male musicians are known to be gay. My mom played in a philharmonic in the 70’s, and back then she said 1/3 of the males were openly gay. There are a lot of high-profile singers who are open about it, and maybe that leads to my perception. But it seems to be higher than the often quoted 10% of the population.

    All together now: “Not that there’s anything wrong with that!”

    @Mr. Fusion: “Why are so many good lawyers Gay?” Because lawyers suck!

  17. angle says:

    As fascinating as this gay discussion is….

    I agree with #15.
    This is not that remarkable. The recognition of a ‘Stones riff has less to do with recognizing a note or pitch, but the entire signature of the sound. Its the pitch, plus the tone of the guitar, the microphone used, the studio, the particular level of degradation the original analog tape was in when it was encoded to the CD that was likely used in this experiment. If the subject was presented with say, a piano recording of the same riff, it would not likely have be recognized.

  18. tallwookie says:

    #16 – why are most politicians homophobic?

  19. Elwood Pleebus says:

    It probably helps that friggin radio stations play the same songs over and over. (coming soon Classic Hits of the 00’s) Of course that only applies to a specific time range, but the songs mentioned fall in that range.

  20. Booya says:

    How do you post a picture on this biznitch blog?

  21. Thomas Johnson says:

    Anyone living in this country for the last 20 or more years will recognize any piece of classic rock, jazz, blues, or hip hop. We recognize it because we are bombarded with it. Every station plays the same stuff over and over. Who wouldn’t recognize brown sugar, or anything by elton john?

  22. Ascii King says:

    Music is integral to our species and factors significantly in the lives of many other species on this planet. The only other thing in life that affects us as universally as music is sex.

    If we ever came across an alien race that could not understand music at all, we would never be able to communicate with them. We would have to go to war with them.

  23. OhForTheLoveOf says:

    #10 but countless evolutionary biologist have shown that happiness has little to do with human existence and evolution.

    Ain’t that the truth…. 😉

    #11 I’m thinking that there’s a lot more questions left to ask. Like why some shitty singers sound pleasing (dylan) and some technically proficient singers sound nauseating (clay aiken.) Something else is encoded in there that we can’t yet measure.

    Great question… When I think of all the horrible music I’ve heard, naturally I am also think of some of the most popular music. I cannot explain why, but there are some people who actually like the sort of generic sing by numbers sound from cookie cutter American Idol contestants. Whitney Houston and Celine Dion actually sold records. Go figure. It’s crappy music, but there it is.

    I love Bob Dylan. I also love David Bowie, The Ramones, and Elvis Costello (who lost a Best New Artist Grammy to the Starland Vocal Band)… I muse that I’m a snob about music because snobbery sets the standard for excellence… (maybe that is true)

    No answer, just questions… But I am interested in why certain music attracts certain listeners. I hope science solves this problem so we can fix the broken majority that listens to crap and then shopping at the mall will be a slightly less horrifying experience because the music at the mall won’t suck.

  24. mcewen says:

    This [in part] is why when you sing to an autistic child they find it more difficult to ‘tune you out’ so you message goes in loud and clear!
    Best wishes

  25. buffettfan says:

    Corollary: does the “good musician=gay” explain why most country music sucks so bad? 🙂


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