“You know what music is? God’s little reminder that there’s something else besides us in this universe; harmonic connection between all living beings, everywhere, even the stars.” – Robin Williams in August Rush (2007)
It may be surprising for music lovers to hear modern biologists describe music as superfluous, biologically useless, or the result of random collateral events associated with Darwinian evolution. In 1859, when Charles Darwin published, On the Origin of Species,he was irritated with Alfred Wallace who suggested that his theory did not explain the origin of music. Wallace claimed that music, along with artistic and mathematical talents were “gifts” with a spiritual origin. Although Darwin did not agree, in 1871 in, “The Descent of Man,” he acquiesced by writing:
“As neither the enjoyment nor the capacity of producing musical notes are faculties of the least direct use to man in reference to his ordinary habits of life, they must be ranked among the most mysterious with which he is endowed.”
The terms “gift” and “endowed” are similar and suggest that a “giver” is involved. The subtle distancing himself from his own theory was probably prompted by Wallace who spent years working with native tribes in the Amazon Basin and Malay Archipelago. His studies showed that those people possessed musical talent, even those who Darwin described as “the most savage.”
Music is one of the truly mysterious spiritual gifts and it is impossible to imagine the Biodesign Class evolving without it. We think we understand it, but we do not. The wavelength of the sound from a drum is determined by the drum’s diameter, depth and type and quality of the tympanic membrane stretched over its head. Although those are variables, the sound is not and is mono-tonic. This raises two splendid riddles. Why does the human ear drum not send a mono-tonic signal to the middle ear? We should be only able to hear a tap-tap-tap, boom-boom-boom or tum-tum-tum. And, conversely, how can a single tympanic membrane sort out over 300,000 tones and send each to the brain? Darwin didn’t have a clue and according to Meister Eckhart (13th century mystic) the answers will not be found by science. Not surprisingly, the human ear is regarded as an organ of “extreme perfection,” however, hearing does not occur in the ear, but in the auditory lobe of the brain. Therein lies the mystery.
It is possible that the evolution of music is, in itself, a perfect audio record of the physical, mental and spiritual evolution of man. Newton said that he described the motion of the planets, but not how the planets were put into motion; perhaps the same can be said about music. Who turned on the tunes and why? It began with primal grunts, groans and screams; banging sticks together, banging on hollow logs, making primitive drums and flutes, and eventually led to mastering the mathematics of music enough to be able to create a Stradivarius violin, 6600-pipe organ or an opera diva’s voice. The evolution of music recapitulates the boggling evolution of the modern human brain. Starting from elementary rhythms and tones, according to Wikipedia, music has evolved into 1650 genres.
The Biodesign Classes used music for many reasons; instruction, inspiration and slide-shows, but the most common use was as a welcome to the students for each new day. With over 400 CDs, LPs and cassette tapes, I literally had over 5000 songs, musical solos, concertos and opera arias to choose from. With only 175 teaching days, I had to be very selective. The students entered the room hearing Clark’s “Trumpet Voluntary,” Pavarotti singing the magnificent aria from “Turandot,” or Johnny Cash croaking out, “Ring of Fire.” Or they may have heard Vivaldi’s, “Four Seasons,” Nat King Cole singing, “Nature Boy,” or Bob Dylan’s, “Blowing in the Wind.” The greater the variety the better as each selection became an elixir that helped them become more aware that they were creatures of excellence and that each day’s lessons were mystically launched by music.