Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Is music mere play?

Early this morning I was called by the Dutch radio for a daily question on science, and was confronted with the question: Why do we like music? (fragment). Since why-questions are generally almost impossible to answer, I was happy —just in time— to think of the idea of ‘music as play’. But because all of this went almost too quickly, I thought I would slightly eloborate on it in this blog...

The idea is that music, as a human phenomenon, can be seen as something that plays with our senses, our memory, our attention and our emotions, in the way young lions play, without any real threat. Music, generally, does not harm us, it also doesn’t make us less hungry, but it directly addresses our physiological and cognitive functions. For many music listeners this is a pleasant, rewarding, purposeful and sometimes even a consoling play.*

I like this idea of ‘music as play’ far better than the discussion of whether music is an adaptation or a mere evolutionary by-product of more important functions, such as those involved in language (Pinker, 1997). Also Geoffrey Miller’s alternative suggesting sexual selection to be the primary mechanism in the evolution of music is still lacking the proper arguments and evidence. ‘Music as play’ is far more attractive, because it might explain several of our strange behaviors, such as listening to ‘sad’ music when we are sad, to make us even more sad — we apparently know it will not really harm us!

The idea of ‘man as a player’ was brought forward by several authors, including Johan Huizinga who wrote Homo Ludens (‘Man the Player’) in the 1930s. It is the topic of the 2007 Huizinga lectureby Tijs Goldschmidt (a biologist and writer known from, e.g., Darwin's Dreampond). His lecture will be called Doen alsof je doet alsof (‘Pretend to pretend’). I'm sure he will say something about music too. [cf. pp. 20-21]

* See Dutch article on the idea of 'music as play'.

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