Thursday, January 21, 2010

Music as Inheritance

As I cleaned off my desk this morning (a much-dreaded but overdue task), I rediscovered an article from that I read and printed a few months ago, Is There a Music Gene?  I had been pondering that very question when I originally found the article, thinking about how being musical goes back on the Riggs side of my family for multiple generations.

 Pictured above is the Crookston (MN) High School Orchestra, in about 1917.  My great-grandfather, Director G. Oliver Riggs, is seated in the center of the photo.  My grandfather Ronald holds a clarinet and is in the second row, third from the right.  My great-uncle Percy is in the front row, to the right of the drum.

According to the article, some scientists now believe that music may have been an evolutionary adaptation, and not a cultural invention.  This genetic predisposition to music may have arisen as mothers used singing to more successfully calm their babies (and avoid attracting predators), or as being musical made people more attractive to the opposite sex (were there stone age band groupies, I wonder?).

The article cited three interesting facts in support of the idea of music as an evolutionary adaptation:

• The oldest known musical instrument, a carved bone flute found in a cave in Slovenia, dates back 40,000 years, when humans coexisted with Neanderthals
• Every culture incorporates music as an essential part of its rituals
• The brain's right temporal lobe is activated when people hear music

Other experts aren't buying it.  The article quotes Steven Pinker, psychology professor at Harvard and author of How the Mind Works, as saying that "music is auditory cheesecake."  He believes that humans invented it because it makes them feel good, not because it helps with survival or procreation of the species.

Maybe someday scientists will identify a music gene, and we'll know conclusively.  In the meantime, I'm putting my money on the biology.

And now, it's back to the desk.  If there is a gene for organization, I clearly didn't inherit that one.


  1. Very interesting. I don't think of my family of origin as a musical family and yet I am working to create a musical family with my kids now. Is it all about choice? Or do I have musical roots and that's why I've felt driven to have music be a part of my life. Probably a bit of both.

    What would it mean if they did discover a music gene? Would it discourage non-music gene people from trying to learn an instrument, say, because they don't feel they have the right genetic make-up to learn? Thought provoking stuff.

    As for the organization gene, if there is one, I'm pretty sure I didn't get it, either.

  2. Thanks for your comments, Myrna! I'm sure it is a bit of both, like most things.

    It is interesting to think about the implications. It makes me think of questions like: How can parents best support and encourage a kid who's naturally talented in music, but not particularly motivated? Should a parent take a different approach for a child who doesn't have as much talent but really loves to play or sing? How much influence can or should parents have, and how much needs to come from within the child?

    You are way more organized than I, by the way. I'm hoping some of your energy will rub off on me.