Sunday, June 28, 2009

Sex, Drugs and Rock and Roll

I suppose that I should be thinking about some of the many serious topics that are fermenting today (climate legislation, health care, or Iran) or maybe even about some of the current gossip (Farrah, Michael, or the sex lives of Carolina politicians), but I caught and got caught up in most of a NOVA program on The Music Gene last night. A lot of ground was covered, but one I noted was that music stimulated the reward center of the brain, the same center stimulated by sex and certain drugs. So, as one investigator noted, sex, drugs, and rock and roll go together neurologically as well as in popular culture.

Speaking of culture, it is obvious that different cultures have different musical styles and produce different kinds of music. How much of our appreciation of music is conditioned and guided by these cultural norms? Maybe not as much as we would suspect. One of the more interesting experiments took modern western music to some primitive peoples with a very different type of music, who had never heard western instruments or music. They were asked to listen to very short selections (a few seconds) and then describe whether the music was "happy," "scary" or "sad."

They made just the same characterizations as a westerner exposed to a long life of movie and cartoon music - plus an occasional opera. Whatever it is that makes a certain passage happy or sad or scary seems to be a universal built into our brains.

So if we devote some of our 20,000 or so genes to music, why? How fundamental is that? How does it put food on our tables or keep us off the tables of other predators?