The best thing I've read today

I know it's early, but I expect it to be the best thing for a few days yet. David Byrne writes about his love affair with sound, and I came away from it feeling like I'd both learned something new and that it fit well with other ideas I already had — it was a revelation to see how well music and evolution fit together.

Because music evolves. Byrne's thesis is that it evolves to fit its environment (sound familiar?), and that you can see the history of a genre of a music in its sound. It's all about the spaces it was played in, which shapes the kind of sound can be used effectively…and he makes the strong point that you can't fully appreciate the music of a culture or a time when you transpose it to a different space. He goes through all kinds of music, from medieval chants (cathedrals!) to hip hop (cars!). The iPod isn't just a passive delivery system for generic music, it influences how music will sound — ear buds represent a completely different sonic environment from a cluttered dance club.

Apparently, David Byrne is an Ecological Developmental Biology kind of guy. I like him even more already.

Because that's what eco devo is all about. Development and environment are all intertwined, with one feeding back on the other — species are products of the spaces they evolved and developed in, and cannot be comprehended in isolation. It's one of the weird things about modern developmental biology, that we preferentially study model systems, organisms that have been able to thrive when ripped out of their native environments and cultured in the simplified sterility of the lab. My zebrafish live now in small uncluttered tanks with heavily filtered water; their environment is like iPods, simple, streamlined, focused with relatively little resonance. The zebrafish evolved in mountain streams feeding into the Ganges, in lands seasonally flooded by great monsoons, a vast and complicated opera hall of an environment. A wild zebrafish and a lab zebrafish are two completely different animals.

Oh, look. I have a new metaphor for issues I've been thinking about for some time. Thanks, David Byrne!

I might just make his essay part of the readings for my developmental biology course next term.

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It all sounds a bit fundamentalist to me. Is Mr Byrne saying that, simply because the likes of Liszt, Busoni or Stokowski appreciate Bach in different ways to both his own patrons and to our modern historically-informed practices, they didn't appreciate Bach? Even Gustav Leonhardt never got that stern about it (I think).

And then there's the question of putting the card before the horse. People didn't invent concert houses and then sit around waiting Beethoven to write symphonies that needed larger forces; the symphonies came first and - iif you think subscription concerts and a concert house is their proper "environment" - the environment followed.

By Ian Kemmish (not verified) on 17 Sep 2012 #permalink

@Ian Kemmish: It sounds like you're over-interpreting either Mr. Byrne's original essay, or PZ's description. Both are addressing specifically the _physical_ environment in which the music is/was intended to be performed. Not the social and cultural milieu in which the composers were supported.

Your "cart before the horse" is also not accurate. The large open venues _did_ come before the symphonies! Cathedrals and similar enclosed amphitheatre-like buildings existed long before the Baroque composers started writing their music specifically designed for those physical environments.

Once that music existed and became popular, architects in turn started to design bespoke venues to maximize the effect on that kind of music, and so on. Evo-devo is always a complex feedback system, not a linear chain of progress.

By Michael Kelsey (not verified) on 17 Sep 2012 #permalink

I recently took a lecture series on the history of jazz. The lecturer said that the most significant invention in jazz was the microphone. It changed the character com pletely, from the brass-heavy New Orleans style to strings and other instruments that could not be heard in large venues otherwise.

Yes, Olorin, and sadly the introduction of the microphone killed the banjo among most African American ensembles. The microphoned acoustic guitar and later the electric guitar displaced it. The guitar is easier to play and has much easier and more chord voicing that a tenor banjo has, but the wonderful plucky sound of the banjo was lost,

By Charles Sullivan (not verified) on 19 Sep 2012 #permalink

Similarly, although bees and flowers may have co-evolved for 150 million years, bees have been around sipping on other things, such as fungi, for 300 million. Flowers could evolve in different ways to take advantage of them.

By Markita Lynda (not verified) on 20 Sep 2012 #permalink

PZ, David makes a bunch of historical errors, but his basic thesis is sound as far as it goes. In fact, all of us are not only inspired by the spaces our music is performed in but probably more importantly by our performers. We are also inspired by other pieces of music. Yes, the environment, but the actual space is just one aspect of that environment.