Author Q&A:
Michael Spitzer

The Musical Human: A History of Life on Earth

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A professor of music at the University of Liverpool, Michael Spitzer draws together archaeology, anthropology, psychology, philosophy and evolution to argue for the intrinsic nature of music in our lives. In a highly readable study, the author demonstrates how humans are born musical. He says we in the western world have lost that musicality but should learn from other cultures to restore our relationship with music.   

What can we learn from our past about our relationship with music?
Unless you were an aristocrat, you mostly heard – and indeed made – music while you worked. Think of sea shanties, cotton hollers, chain gangs. Spare time to listen to a concert is a modern invention. Yet we know music was highly valued. Julius Caesar paid his army trumpeters 120 dinarii, the same wage as his soldiers. But what blows the mind is that whales were singing songs as complex and beautiful as our own millions of years ago. We really are a footnote.

How does the way we in the West participate in music differ from the rest of the world and how did it happen? 
We are mostly a culture of listeners, not doers. Yet for a people such as the Venda of Limpopo, South Africa, where every child is assumed to be musical, everyone is expected to participate in songs and dances, such as the famous Tshigombela, performed by teenage girls in the late autumn. In the West, despite the ubiquity and accessibility of recorded music, it is far less embedded in everyday life than elsewhere in the world.

Does music have the capacity to help us solve some of the challenges of our time?
Music makes you happy because it makes you healthy. And it promotes good mental health because it connects you to other people. One of the biggest challenges we face is loneliness, due largely to social isolation. This problem was there long before the pandemic. But as people shared music online in all sorts of ways during lockdown, the crisis reminded us that music is a necessity, not a luxury.

How do those people with musical anhedonia – they don’t take pleasure from music – fit into the idea that an appreciation of music is innate?
Music is innate for people with a fully functioning brain. Anhedonia is a brain deficit, due to impaired connectivity between sound and the brain’s reward system. Normally, hearing music floods the brain with neurotransmitters such as dopamine. Anhedonic people don’t experience that.

Is there something fundamentally different in music made by technology and sample culture compared to traditionally made music, in that it’s endlessly replicable, or is it just another form of music?
Actually, all music originally had a sample culture – that is, a remix or riff mentality. In folk music, including the musics of hunter-gatherer societies, the norm is to assemble bits of pre-existing music, not to create anything new. On the other hand, when Beyoncé’s Crazy in Love samples the Chi-Lites’ 1970 song Are You My Woman for its opening hook, we hear the quote differently because it’s in a new context. You never hear repetition – or replication – in the same way. You can’t step into the river of music twice in the same place.

Do you have any simple tips for individuals to become more musical humans in their daily lives?
Learn an instrument. Join a choir. Make time to listen outside the car or kitchen or gym. Explore new genres outside your comfort zone. Try opera, jazz, folk, metal, grime. Don’t be put off by experts. I’m a lousy singer, but I love to sing when I’m allowed to.

Did you listen to music while writing this book?
No, I need silence when I write, because if there’s music, I just listen to it and do nothing else.

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