Sunday, July 03, 2005


Alley Oop-Bop-A-Lu-Bop

A mixed but interesting review today in the Guardian for Steven Mithen's The Singing Neanderthals.

Earlier this year the Times reported of Mithen:

Neanderthal voices were loud, womanly and probably highly melodic — not the roars and grunts previously assumed by most researchers. Stephen Mithen, professor of archeology at Reading University and author of one of the studies, said.... He studied the Neanderthal voice box and compared it with those of modern humans, monkeys and apes to work out what noises they might have made. “They must have been able to communicate complex ideas and even spirituality. Their anatomy suggests that pitch and melody would have played a key role,” he said.

Spirituality? From the structure of a voice box? Hmm. This sounds like credulous journalism at its finest. Nonetheless, the Guardian review suggests some paths for research into music, including this:

Much is still unprovable conjecture but there are some suggestive insights. One such is the connection between music and walking upright. Some seek the essence of music in pitch, melody, or harmony, but the first essential was surely a regular rhythm. Chimpanzees can't keep a regular beat but it's hard to imagine a human being who could stride in perfectly regular paces never discovering music that beats four to the bar.

So other animals move arhythmically, or in odd time signatures? Because pretty soon you'd have a veritable Animal Ministry of Funny Walks going.

Still, the confluence of neurology and singing is a fascinating area. One of the most mysterious intersections of the two is in the rare genetic disorder Williams Syndrome, which -- as this old Globe and Mail article notes -- is typified by a low IQ, a pixie-like face, "unique star patterns in their irises," and... an extraordinary ability at singing.

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