The science of music. 1/4.

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About this work


Radio documentary presented by Professor Robert Winston looking at the evolutionary and developmental roots of music. Archaeologist, Professor Steven Mithen, University of Reading, sees the human body as an instrument, and theorises that music making began with Neanderthals who spoke no language but communicated with vocalised, musical noises. Professor Ian Cross, from the Centre for Music and Science at Cambridge University, agrees that something like music may have had a role in Neanderthal communication and is possibly evolutionary in the human genome. Steven Mithen speaks talks about his theory of a Neanderthal proto language called 'Hmmmm', and looks at musicality in modern apes, particularly gibbons. Developmentally, Professor Daniel Levitin, neuroscientist at McGill University, is interested in the sound of infant-directed speech (or 'motherese') and the way babies respond to the sounds in their mother's voice. Steven Mithen suggests motherese may be an evolutionary hangover as we also use it talking to animals. Daniel Levitin suggests that musical neuro-circuits in the brain are older than those involved in speech. Professor Adam Ockelford, Roehampton University, works with autistic children. One particular gifted child, Romy Smith, plays the piano, communicating musically as she doesn't speak. He suggests that early developmental musicality splits into language and music, but that for some children on the autism spectrum, music is a slightly easier path than language. Amanda Villepastour, of the British Forum for Ethnomusicology, talks of avoiding the presumption that primitive music emerges from primitive societies as all cultures have their own levels of complexity. Ian Cross suggests that a scientific approach to music needs to be done on global terms, removing Western bias, as most of the world's music is participatory, rather than presentational. Steven Mithen, looks at the way the musical sound of emotion within our voices can contradict the words we say. Steven Johnson, broadcaster and musicologist, points out that the emotional feeling in musical pieces is not always universal. Philip Ball, science writer and author, considers music that contradicts the idea of a sad minor and joyful major key and the responses of different cultures to it. Amanda Villepastour has studied the drum language of the Yoruba in West Africa, which uses a surrogate speech system with unspoken text based on indigenous praise poetry. Finally Robert Winston suggests music may be so powerful that we do not hear the same thing either in our brains or within our culture, and that this might make it to wide a subject for science to accommodate.


UK : BBC Radio 4, 2013.

Physical description

1 CD (30 min.)

Copyright note

BBC Radio 4.


Broadcast on 14th May, 2013.

Creator/production credits

Produced Martin Williams for BBC Radio 4 ; presented by Robert Winston.



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