It was a night of sex, heroin, and opera at Sudler Hall last night as David Huron, Ph.D. spoke to a crowd of about 50 about music, language, and sound.
Huron’s lecture, entitled “Is Music an Evolutionary Adaptation?” addressed the question of whether the human predilection to listen to and make music is more like the pleasure-motivated desire to use drugs or the satisfaction-motivated compulsion to eat or have sex. Using printed transparencies, noise-making props, and two musical performances, the musicologist said his goal in the lecture was not necessarily to come to a conclusion but merely to argue that the titular question was a worthwhile one.
Huron began the lecture by listing genetic, biochemical, neurological, ethological, and archaeological evidence as the major resources contemporary scientists have to evaluate the issue. He went on to detail the prevalence of music in cultures all over the world.
“There’s no culture that doesn’t have something recognizably musical,” Huron said.
Huron then said that the universality of music and human noise gave rise to universal descriptions of sound such as “sexy” or “cute.” He produced a small infant’s toy whose sound he described as that of “a squeaky yellow rubber ducky type thing” and began squeezing it. Huron said the similarity between the toy’s sound, which displayed what he called “auditory cuteness,” and the sound of a baby’s cooing would lead to evolutionarily protective human behaviors.
“There would be behavioral repercussions if I threw this doll down and stomped on it,” Huron said. “Cuteness is associated with protection and nurturing.”
Huron delighted the audience with his analysis of levels of “sexiness” in sound. He said the amount of sexiness in speech is directly proportional to the level of aspiration in the voice. He said this proportionality relates to the idea that the closer one is to another person, the more quietly that person’s voice will be.
“If you happen to be in bed with me, you’re going to use less force when you talk,” Huron said.
Later, Huron posited several theories for the evolutionary origin of music. He said Charles Darwin’s idea of sexual selection, promulgated in 1872, was one of the oldest, but that the parity of ability between the sexes invalidated the idea.
“Music-making does not exhibit sexual dimorphism,” Huron said. “A female could stand under a balcony and serenade her lover just as easily as a male could.”
Huron also spoke of music’s ability to coordinate group action, which he jokingly referred to as the “yo, heave, ho” theory.
Eric Huebner MED ’10 said that the talk helped him understand the nature of sound.
“I thought he presented some very interesting theories,” Huebner said. “Being a recreational musician myself, I always wondered what the original purpose of music was.”
Huebner said he was previously unfamiliar with Huron’s ideas and that he enjoyed the musical performances that accompanied the talk. Singer Jennifer Black MUS ’04 and a trio of percussionists provided a musical interlude midway through the lecture.
Samuel Smith ’05 said Huron’s lecture was both interesting and provocative.
“I never really thought about music in such a broad context,” Smith said. “It was refreshing.”
Huron is a professor in the School of Music and the Center for Cognitive Science at Ohio State University, where he is also the head of the Cognitive and Systematic Musicology Laboratory. His lecture was the eleventh in a series co-sponsored by the Yale Medical School and the Yale School of Music entitled “Music and the Brain.”
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