I’ve mentioned one of my favourite music books here before: This Is Your Brain on Music, by Daniel J. Levitin. It’s a good read for anyone with an armchair interest in neurology – or music, for that matter. The brain is a funny place to live, I’ve always felt, and this book helps delineate what’s going on in there (and how it’s even stranger than you might think).
(This gets kind of long. Here’s a good bail-out point. No one will know!)
There are scholars (e.g. Stephen Pinker) who believe music is a species of auditory “cheesecake”. The idea is that parts of our brain that evolved for some other purpose are also tickled by music, just as cheesecake appeals to our preference for fat and sugar. We didn’t evolve specifically to eat cheesecake, but we are, nonetheless, the perfect cheesecake-eating machines. Music, according to this view, is similarly delicious and similarly useless.
Levitin disagrees, listing several ways music is adaptively useful not just pleasurable – it facilitates social bonding, promotes cognitive development, signals genetic fitness, and triggers mirror neurons (which help us learn new skills). The book ends on a slightly poetic note as Levitin sums up what he sees as the connection between music, evolution, and courtship:
Why would music be needed to show fitness? Primates are highly social, living in groups, forming complex long-term relationships that involve social strategies. Hominid courtship was probably a long-term affair. Music, particularly memorable music, would insinuate itself into the mind of a potential mate, leading her to think about her suitor even when he was out on a long hunt, and predisposing her toward him when he returned. The multiple reinforcing cues of a good song – rhythm, melody, contour – cause music to stick in our heads. That is the reason that many ancient myths, epics, and even the Old Testament were set to music in preparation for being passed down by oral tradition across the generations. As a tool for activation of specific thoughts, music is not as good as language. As a tool for arousing feelings and emotions, music is better than language. The combination of the two – as best exemplified in a love song – is the best courtship display of all (p. 261).
(What? I found it poetic. Maybe it helps to have read the rest of the book first.)
I remembered this passage just the other day (not verbatim; my photographic memory is so old I can’t get film for it any more). I was out walking the dog, listening to one of my favourite songs on endless repeat. The song was one of the ones I often listen to if I have a romantic scene to write, and it got me wondering: what is it about this song, specifically, that makes it sound romantic to me? I’m not sure it would sound that way to everyone. Love songs – not unlike cheesecake – come in a lot of different flavours. Why this song and not others? What does this song have in common with other songs I’d identify as my favourite love songs?
So here’s what I want to do. I want to analyse my four favourite love songs and see what they’ve got in common. We don’t have Pandora in Canada, but I understand Pandora does something similar. I’m going to be my own Pandora. Let’s pretend I’m doing this because Valentine’s day is coming up; that makes it feel less random. I realise FOUR also seems kind of random – all the important things come in fives or tens, ha ha – but four is all I’ve got once I pare out 1) classical/early music (maybe those will get their own analysis sometime), and 2) “A Nest of Stars” by Iarla O Lionaird, which isn’t really a love song.
(“A Nest of Stars” is my go-to song for anything, see. Feeling sad? Feeling merry? Feeling HUNGRY?? Pull out the Iarla.)
Four is plenty! Four is maybe more than we can handle, and more than anyone will have patience for. If I end up dragging this out over the course of the next five years, you’ll know I bit off more than I could chew.
I just want to end with a story that still makes me laugh. I explaining to my friend Liz how I used to hate Rush, how I thought Geddy Lee’s voice sounded like someone scratching a rusty nail down a piece of corrugated tin, how the music sounded like noise to me. Then one day, I saw them playing a live concert on tv, and it suddenly hit me: I knew these nerds. These were my people. And as a result I had to totally re-evaluate all their music.
Liz blinked at me and said, “You have to think about whether you like music?” Before I could even answer, she said, “No, never mind. Of course you do. That’s you, all over.”
I took that as a compliment. May as well.
So! Get ready for some good old-fashioned over-thinking, from the woman who just can’t stop doing that! It’ll be a hoot.