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The Importance of Music

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Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Reading (Reuters): It was a dark and stormy night, and in a cave in what is now southern France, Neanderthals were singing, dancing and tapping on stalagmites with their fingernails to pass the time. Did this Ice-Age rave-up happen, perhaps 50,000 to 100,000 years ago, on a cold night in the Pleistocene Epoch? Or is it purely a figment of the imagination of Steven Mithen, professor of early prehistory at the University of Reading in England? Impossible to know, Mithen, 45, readily admits, but in his book, ''The Singing Neanderthals'', he has built a strong case that our hominid ancestors had a musical culture, and a rudimentary form of communication that went with it, that has left traces deeply embedded in modern mankind. Why else, for example, would music have universal appeal and such a strong pull on the human psyche? Why, when we hear music, do we feel the need to tap our feet, or dance? Why do we think some passages of music paint pictures, or instruments have ''conversations'' with each other? Why indeed.

In the book, published last year in Britain and this year in the United States, Mithen attempts to re-create-against all odds-a ''soundscape'' of pre-history and plug what he thinks is a huge gap in human knowledge-the link between language and music. ''Obviously, I'm trying to address a sort of impossible topic. I mean, how stupid for an archaeologist to write about music because you can't hear anything in the past,'' Mithen, who is also involved in more conventional projects like digs in Scotland, said in an interview at his university office. ''So I'm trying to draw on as many sources of evidence as possible and some are more tenuous and more controversial than others, but you put them together and you make an argument about how music and language evolved.'' He rose to the challenge, he writes in his preface, because ''the propensity to make music is the most mysterious, wonderful and neglected feature of mankind''.

Mithen is not the first to tackle the musical nature of prehistoric man, and music's links to language, but he's one of the most industrious. He spent two years thinking about the book, nine months writing it and his end notes run to 80-plus pages. To make his case, he draws on everything from scans of the human brain, studies of music and language ability in people who have suffered brain damage, skeletal remains of prehistoric hominids-and his own imagination. He argues that Neanderthals, as well as some other, early hominids, developed a form of communication he refers to by the acronym ''HMMMMM''-standing for ''holistic, manipulative, multi-modal, musical and mimetic''. In brief, it means prehistoric man or woman used phrases, a modern example of which is the almost universal expression of distaste ''yuck'', to communicate simple suggestions or commands, such as ''let's go hunt'' or ''food to share''. The ''multi-modal'' part refers to the use of body language, which Mithen says hominids were much more attuned to than we are today. This wasn't language as we know it, in which words are assembled to convey meaning, but was more like a phrase of music. The individual notes mean nothing, but the sound as a whole can touch us to the quick. Or, in the case of Neanderthals, sing everyone to come to supper.

It's a bit of a leap to ask modern readers to accept that our ancestors uttered ''holistic'' phrases, all traces of which have long since vanished into the ether. However, Mithen says we still resort to something like this, most notably when mothers talk to babies. It is the cooing and reassuring sounds she makes that count, not the language, since infants at first don't know Chinese from Hungarian from English. He also remarks on the prosody, rhythm and pitch of modern language, and points out that hominids have shared ancestors millions of years ago, with each other and with apes and other primates, whose grunts and pants also have musical qualities.

A little wistfully, he notes that Neanderthals, despite having a brain even larger than homo sapiens -- the rumbler from the jungles of Africa who would eventually supplant them -- and vocal tracts and larynxes suited to singing or talking, did not make the leap to modern language and became extinct. Perhaps Neanderthals were content to sing and dance in their caves, ignoring innovation and turning out the same hand axe for 200,000 years. They may never have known what hit them.

Mithen believes it is important that we, modern-day homo sapiens who have perfected the use of word-based language to communicate, do not ignore our music-loving ''inner Neanderthal''. ''In the vast majority of cultures, kids are growing up just doing music as a musical thing, yet in our culture we're excluding the majority of children from participating because music's become an elitist activity,'' said the author, who was assigned to woodworking after he auditioned for the choir. ''I don't think we're enabling kids to fulfil their potential...because they've evolved, and we were born, to be musical."

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