Is Steven Pinker right about the evolutionary irrelevance of music?

Just three weeks ago, we looked at a Boston Globe article on the evolutionary significance of music. In it we also noted Steven Pinker’s description of music as having no significance at all: music, according to him, is “auditory cheesecake.”

Now, Babel’s Dawn, a new blog on the origin of speech [here’s the first post], has an interesting commentary on Daniel J. Levitin’s book, This is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession.

Levitin also appeals to common sense. A useless activity that can become a time-consuming, exhausting obsession should not become embedded in the species. […] Common sense is a dangerous line of argument because so much of science history recounts the triumph over a particular bit of common sense (the world is flat, the sun moves, time is absolute). On the other hand, we should not abandon common sense before a Magellan, Galileo, or Einstein comes along to correct us. Speculations such as Pinker’s that offer no evidence and that fly in the face of common sense can claim no special pride of place.

Levitin also argues that music also promotes a more general social bonding and cohesion, not just sexual bonding. He presents some interesting work suggesting a link between sociability and musicality (p. 253). While not conclusive, it is provocative and merits further investigation.

Most important from this blog’s perspective is the suggestion that, “Music may be the activity that prepared our pre-human ancestors for speech communication and for the very cognitive, representational flexibility necessary to become humans.”

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Here’s the Wired interview of Daniel Levitin. Link via the Sound and Mind blog, devoted to music cognition.

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