- The Origins of Musicality by Henkjan Honing
The Origins of Musicality asks the sorts of questions that fascinate students and the general public, but that more traditional musicologists have, in recent years, rarely ventured answers to: what is music, where does it come from, and why do we do it? Analysts, historians, theorists, and ethnomusicologists have, understandably enough, become hesitant regarding the broad and universalizing approaches explored by the generation of John Blacking, Deryck Cooke, Leonard B. Meyer, and Alan Lomax since musicology's cultural and critical turn, with only Christopher Small's Musicking: The Meanings of Performing and Listening (Hanover and London, 1998) tackling the biggest questions head on and becoming influential for doing so. For better or worse, these questions are left to psychologists and biologists, who, when they seem to answer them, can pack out lecture theatres or even appear in the news. Traditional musicology, meanwhile, is rightly suspicious of broad conclusions drawn from small, ahistorical, and culturally specific studies, and of the sorts of essentialisms and determinisms that can haunt them.
It is against this backdrop that the aims The Origins and Musicality may seem ambitious, even hubristic. Fortunately, however, the results are largely persuasive. Much of this is down to this edited collection's disciplinary diversity, which spans psychologists, biologists, neuroscientists, computer scientists, and musicologists based in several countries, often within a single chapter. The book originates in 'a week-long workshop on the cognitive and biological basis of musicality' organized by the editor, Henkjan Honing, in 2014, which led to articles for a special issue of Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society the following year that have now been updated for this MIT Press volume. Its stated aim is 'to identify the cognitive, biological, and mechanistic underpinnings for melodic and rhythmic [End Page 586] cognition as key ingredients of musicality, assess to what extent these are unique to humans, and by doing so provide insight into their biological origins' (p. 3)
A key factor in the book's strength and usefulness, though, is more modest, lying in its extensive reviewing of what is now a prodigious and constantly updating body of literature and opinion. The book does not itself brandish (or even really contain) any pivotal new theories, but it does represent an invaluable and rich picture of the state of the art in fields where research can become outdated far more quickly than in traditional musicology. Where it does begin to build on this literature conclusively, it does so loosely and tentatively yet agreeably, assessing the breadth of the field of biomusicology and some of its key areas and guiding themes, such as 'foundational principles of biomusicology', 'core components of musicality' (ch. 2, by W. Tecumseh Fitch) and 'fundamental constraints on theories of the origins of music' (ch. 3, by Björn Merker, Iain Morley, and Willem Zuidema).
Throughout, explanations of the origins and purposes of music are routinely given as multiple and limited in scale, and this is down to a keen understanding of music's complexity and multidimensionality as a biological and cultural process and its multifarious relationships to the various dynamics of evolution. This is the antidote to oversimplistic framings of cause and effect, or what are called 'just-so stories'. The book repeatedly engages with two of the most famous potted explanations: Darwin's idea that music arose in aid of sexual selection (The Descent of Man and Sexual Selection in Relation to Sex (London, 1871)) and Steven Pinker's description of music as 'auditory cheese-cake' (How the Mind Works (New York, 1997)), that is, something that heavily rewards pleasure centres adapted for non-musical reasons in the same way that cheesecake responds to tastes developed long before that particular dessert was invented. In fact, both can be simultaneously true in certain ways, and all authors appreciate that selection pressures of many different kinds occur at different levels for many different components of musicality, whether psychoacoustic, vocalized, percussive, or involving synchronization of sound or movement.
Equally beneficial is the...