Music + Science = Sexy

(Post title borrowed from the comic Questionable Content. Don’t follow the link if you are offended by naughty words or humor.)

I just finished The World in Six Songs by Daniel Levitin (warning: flash intro at that link), a book about the strong intersection between music, culture, and human cognition. As a scientist who is also a huge music geek, I couldn’t help but love the book (as well as his previous book This is Your Brain on Music). I worry at times that he gets too close to the “just-so stories” pitfall that many evolutionary psychologists wander into, but he redeems himself by recognizing that although those arguments are plausible their ultimate value lies in whether they are testable.

Levitin is both a professor of cognitive science and a musician, and is on a first-name basis with the likes of David Byrne, Paul Simon, and Sting (though I suppose that would be a single-name basis). He discusses intelligently such diverse topics as the musical structure of Pygmy songs, the songwriting style of Lennon and McCartney, and the neurological basis of lyric recall, often within the span of a few pages. He name-checks Darwin, the Animaniacs, and (my favorite songwriter) Bruce Cockburn, all in the name of understanding how the parts of our brain that make us a musical species have informed our humanity as a whole. For someone like me, that combination is irresistible.

If I may excerpt a longer passage, here’s a key quote for those of us who care deeply about the whole breadth of human knowledge and experience:

Science is not the simple reporting of facts—that’s only the preliminary step in any scientific investigation. Real science, the kind that offers a parsimonious and predictive understanding of how the world works, involves taking those facts and generalizing global principles from them; abstraction is required for this, as is creativity, rationality, intuition, and a sensitivity to form, similar to what is required in the creation of long-lasting art. It may be self-evident that music requires these things, less so perhaps that you can’t have science without the musical brain….

Knowledge is emotion. Some people say that science just is, that it is merely a collection of facts and measurements that exist outside of the realm of emotion and caring. But I disagree. Of the millions (perhaps infinity) of possible facts about the world we memorize, document, and pass on to others, we select those that we think are important, and this is an emotional judgment…. Scientists are motivated by intense curiosity and a desire to interpret and represent reality in terms of higher truths—to take collections of observations and formulate them into a coherent whole that we call theory. (pp. 185-186)


One response to “Music + Science = Sexy”

  1. […] girls, that make the rockin’ world go ’round, so artistic license must be granted.) Daniel Levitin has serious music and science […]

%d bloggers like this: