“Are We Born Musical?” David Byrne and Steven Pinker in Conversation

September 27, 2012

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The atmosphere outside Tsai Performance Center was heavy with anticipation on Monday night as people lined up for the sold-out “How Music Works: Are We Born Musical?” lecture, which featured musician and author David Byrne and renowned cognitive scientist Steven Pinker in conversation. Byrne, best known as the founder of the band Talking Heads, was in Boston as part of his tour Love This Giant with artist St. Vincent. He and Pinker, who is a professor at Harvard, were brought together to kick off the Boston University Arts Initiative, an effort by the Office of the Provost in partnership with DialogProjects to “improve visibility for the University’s broad array of existing arts-related activities” on campus.

The conversation was named after Byrne’s book How Music Works, which is set to release this month, and focused on our species’ continuing fascination with music, which is “one of the great mysteries of science,” as articulated by Pinker. The pair went on to speculate over various propagated theories as to why humans enjoy music.

From biological to sociological, they certainly covered all their bases. Admittedly, things got off to somewhat of a halting start as they visibly struggled to find a discussion thread off which to work. Darwinian theories of music being equivalent to mating calls for humans were quickly discarded.

“Jimi Hendrix slept with all these groupies and fathered children everywhere is what’s being offered up as proof,” Pinker

Steven Pinker © Rebecca Goldstein

declared incredulously. “Well, I have one daughter…” Byrne responded amidst laughter.

Music as a community-building mechanism ended up setting the tone for much of the discussion, with Pinker touching upon some interesting observations. “It’s an amalgam of many psychological experiences,” he commented. While the subject matter was fascinating in its own right, they appeared to go off on a few tangents, focusing on what it is about music that brings people together as well as the physics behind it. But just as they had started to pick up some steam, they were signaled to wrap things up for the Q&A session. Moderated by Dean Elmore, they were asked a lot of questions about music as used by society collectively. Byrne also answered a question about his songwriting in the light of his research. The audience was then let out into the chilly night.

All in all, while the subject they tackled was enlightening and one can appreciate the interesting collaboration, they seemed to take a little while to find their common ground. “You can’t expect people from two different worlds to find their stride instantly,” said one attendee. They did mention during their talk that they had previously been communicating via email.

Their differences in background should have also been anticipated and the discussion could have been more audience interactive. But while I left the theatre still questioning “Are we born musical?”, serious props still go to the Arts Initiative for bringing the evening together. It is to be hoped that they bring us more events like this one.