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No. 1841:
Music, Music, Music!

Today, music, music, music! The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

I was in college when Teresa Brewer came out with the hit that first made her famous. Maybe you remember:

Put another nickel in,
In the nickelodeon.
All I want is loving you
And music, music, music!

That song has stuck to me like glue. I never could shake it. Now a New York Times article offers a clue to its staying power. Researchers have been asking why the craving for music is universal. No human society has ever been without it. And, as far back as we trace human activity, we find evidence of music making.

Parents in every culture rock their babies and sing to them. The babies love it. Now biologists and psychologists ask if this craving, this need, is learned or hard-wired into our system.

They've found that rhythm and melody trigger pleasure centers in the brain, that the octave is a universal reference in relating tones to one another, and that the appeal of consonant intervals, like fourths and fifths, is also universal.

Another wrinkle here: Perfect pitch, that rare ability to replicate a musical pitch long after it's been heard, cannot be learned after the age of around ten, if at all. Perhaps it should be no surprise that Chinese, with their tone-inflected language, are far more likely to have that ability. But then, we're surprised to find that Chinese Americans, who've never spoken Chinese, are also more likely than other Americans to have perfect pitch.

It all suggests that the need for music really is wired into our brains. So biologists look for mechanisms that give music its hold over us. PET scans show people reacting to their favorite pieces of music, much as they react to food or sex.

All this triggers a deeper question: What purpose has been served by the evolution, not just of musical ability, but of such a craving for music? Darwin raised that question a century and a half ago when he remarked that music "must be ranked among the most mysterious" of our capacities.


He also suggested that we developed these capacities, even before speech, to, and I quote, "charm each other with musical notes and rhythm." He suspected music to be a courtship tool, and it well may be. Many biologists believe the ability to make music functions rather like the peacock's tail. As Teresa Brewer puts it, "All I want is loving you and music, music, music."

Yet there's more to it. Music is constantly used to express community within human and other animal societies -- choral music and orchestra playing -- whale singing and chimpanzee hooting. They all release endorphins, accelerate our brains, and make us feel good. They join us, one with another. It takes more than just mating to hold a society (or a species) together. And that's why I shall -- Put another nickel in, In the nickelodeon.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Outro music: Teresa Brewer singing, Put Another Nickle in ...)

This is derived from two adjacent pieces in the Times: N. Wade, We Got Rhythm; the Mystery Is How and Why. And Perfect Pitch: A Gift of Note For Just a Few. New York Times, Science Times, Tuesday, Sept. 16, 2003, pp. D1 and D4

For more on Theresa Brewer and the song, click here.