I just finished listening to this week’s Quirks and Quarks, and the last interview was with neuroscientist Gary Marcus, who was discussing his new book Guitar Zero. You can listen to the Q&Q segment here. The book is about music and the brain, and how “nonmusical” adults can learn to become musicians, among other things.
I should start by saying that I haven’t read the book, but it sounds like an interesting read. That said, I was struck by something Marcus said during the interview. He touched on the idea of whether or not music, like language, is innate in humans. He posited that unlike language, music isn’t “built in”; that while all children learn language naturally at an early age, not all children are musical; he suggested that music is more like reading, something that just about everyone can do given enough dedication and practice, but not something that is necessarily an instinct, as it is in, say, songbirds.
Listening to Marcus talk about it, he almost had me convinced. If you put a bunch of kids in a beginner band, some will be better than others. Some have more “talent”; or as Marcus puts it, some have more of the genes that predispose people to have musical ability. And all this is true. The problem with his thesis is that he considers music and language separately.
But they’re not separate at all. Music is a language. Of course some people will have more musical talent than others; we all have various talents that are different from those of others, and this is true of spoken language too. Some people express themselves verbally very well while others have trouble putting two sentences together without stuttering or stumbling over a word. Not all of us will become great orators, no matter how hard we practice, but we can all speak, and we can all communicate with others.
The thing is, we are all exposed to spoken language constantly from the day we are born. We practice speaking almost as soon as we are born. Of course we get good at it from a very young age, especially if we’re hardwired for it. But I would suggest that Gary Marcus carry out the following thought experiment. Give a young child a flute or some other small instrument, and limit the sounds to which that child is exposed to other people playing that instrument—in other words, the child’s only method of communication is by way of the flute. How would that affect their musical skills, irrespective of their musical talent? Now, do the same thing with a baby chimpanzee. I wonder if the chimp would learn to play the flute. On the flip side, what if the child were allowed to listen to spoken language but not allowed, or not given the opportunity, to speak. How would this affect their verbal skills?
Obviously these experiments could never be carried out in the real world, and yet in one sense we carry out one of them constantly. Most children are exposed to music all the time (on the radio, at concerts, etc.) but a great many of them never get the opportunity to play an instrument. Music programs in schools are often the first things on the chopping block when budgets are cut, and unfortunately there is an increasing divide between listeners of music and performers of music. Unlike spoken language, where we encourage children to speak even though their first words are practically unintelligible (in fact, we find it adorable, right?), with music, when children try to sing or play an instrument they are often actively discouraged because, surprise surprise, they’re singing or playing out of tune or with poor rhythm—making a horrid racket.
In the interview, Marcus mentions that while a baby bird will learn to sing in pitch and rhythm in 90 days, young children aren’t usually very good at singing, and even at age two do not really understand much more than consonance and dissonance. There is truth to this, as anyone who has heard a kindergarten choir sing knows. But nor are two-year-olds particularly good speakers. They often have trouble expressing themselves, will mispronounce words or will approximate phonemes. It’s normal because they’re learning. So it seems pretty obvious that although we seem to have a hardwired instinct for language, it’s still something we have to learn—but this is true of music as well.
If we’re exposed to English as children but not French, we’ll learn only English. But as many mixed-language parents of children here in Quebec know, if a child is exposed to both French and English, they’ll pick up both very easily. Similarly, if they’re exposed to music—and they’re encouraged to play music—from a young age, they’ll learn the language of music too. But when you pick up an instrument as an adult, it’s like learning a foreign language. With practice, you can become proficient, but you’ll never speak it like a native; music will never be your mother tongue.
The concept that scientists like Marcus seem to have trouble wrapping their heads around—something that all musicians know instinctively—is that while we think of music as an art, at its very foundation, it’s really just another language. So I find it very frustrating when they say that while language is built in, music is mere something that is learned, when it’s clear that both come from the same place.