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Eighty-eight Birds with Pine, Bamboo, and Plum (1906), a hanging scroll painted by Nakazumi Doun

© Etsuko and Joe Price Collection

Contact: Mary Ann Meyers, Ph.D., Senior Fellow


Music, the making and hearing of it, is found in all the world’s cultures and is seemingly ubiquitous in our own. From archaeology, anthropology, biology, neuroscience, psychology, and theology, a growing literature is taking account of its centrality to our quest to understand human nature. Breakthroughs in technology across disciplines (e.g., neuroscience and bioacoustics, to name just two) have increased the pace of research, so it would appear to be an auspicious time for the fifteen scholars gathered at Wolfson College, Cambridge, to share new findings about what the French poet Lamartine called “the literature of the heart.”

But there will always be new questions. The metaphysician George Steiner wrote that “in the face of music, the wonders of language are also its frustrations.” What is the relationship between music and language? Music is clearly an immensely powerful way of communicating, but how and what does it communicate? How do humans make sense of complex and multi-dimensional sequences of patterned sound upon a first encounter? How are human musical preferences shaped? Steven Pinker famously described music as “auditory cheesecake.” What do studies of child development have to say about the necessity of music? How does music facilitate and coordinate social interaction?

Only birds and whales among other species appear to learn to make sounds. What have proximate questions about mechanisms of song in birds, for example, taught us about the more fundamental issues of function and the evolution of vocal complexity? What do we know about the rhythmic capacities of other non-human species? Do accepted paradigms about human distinctiveness limit our understanding of music?

The archaeological record presents music as one of the earliest symbolic behaviors for which we have any material evidence. How much can we say about the role of music among early hominoids? What was its role in sustaining their communities and promoting their survival?

The range and complexity of modern human rhythmic abilities certainly seem to be unique. What are we learning about the neuronal basis of musicality, particularly our capacity to react co-ordinatively in time with others? About how music impacts basic neuronal processes? Will mapping areas of the brain that process and track music tell us anything useful about the link between music and emotion—or the meaning of music in our lives?

Music has been persistent in worship for millennia. The psalmist entreats us to praise God with “the sound of the trumpet. Praise him with harp and lyre.” In his classic discussion of mysticism, William James wrote that “not conceptual speech, but music rather, is the element through which we are best spoken to by mystical truth.” Music has an essential role in ritual, and, like ritual, discards our ordinary experience of time even, on occasion, as the cultural critic Edward Rothstein has written, “suspending it altogether.” What are the qualities of music that invoke transcendence? In what ways, moreover, is music spiritually substantive? How does music enrich theological understanding? The conversation at the first Cambridge college to be established for both men and women, and one primarily for graduate students, takes place under the aegis of the John Templeton Foundation’s Humble Approach Initiative.

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