Whistle While You Work

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Cupboard conceptualised to musicCupboard conceptualised to musicThe literature of musical aesthetics is littered with discussions about what music might actually be for (if anything). On one hand people can get quite huffy at the suggestion that something that we care about so much might have a merely utilitarian function, while on the other they can be equally affronted by the idea that it is simply ‘auditory cheescake’.*

I don’t have a clear theory about what the purpose of music might be in an originary sense – i.e. I couldn’t tell you why it came to be part of our life as a social species. But I do have an observation about the role it plays in ordinary life.

Have you ever noticed how people engaged in certain nonverbal tasks sing to themselves or hum or whistle? You might catch yourself doing it while cooking or doing DIY. Or if you’ve had people in doing building work or decorating they’ll probably have had their radio on all day as they work.

We tend to explain our propensity to make music to ourselves as a matter of mood. As a character in a Heinlein novel puts it:

‘I do hum and sing; I know that. But I don’t hear it myself. It’s like the purring of a cat; it just means that I’m functioning okay, board all green, operating at normal cruising. It means that I feel secure, relaxed and happy.’

Likewise the radio accompaniment to manual trades is sometimes interpreted as entertainment – as something to keep the mind occupied while people work as if the work itself couldn’t hold their attention.

But I think this sells our musical brains short. My hypothesis is that we use music as a means to help us access our spatial, holistic thinking functions. If you want to conceptualise the overall shape of the cupboard you are building, or the balance of flavours and textures in a meal, you need the nonverbal, synthetic bits of your brain, not just the analytical, verbal bits. And it’s just when you’re squinting your eyes and imagining how it all fits together that you’ll find yourself humming.

Here’s a nice demonstration of how this works. This article in the Daily Telegraph’s online edition has an animated illusion that can tell you whether you are using predominantly the left or right hemisphere of your brain. If you are in the right hemisphere (and the image looks like it’s going clockwise) you can make it switch directions by looking away for a few seconds and counting. And if you’re in the left hemisphere (with the image going anti-clockwise) you can make it reverse by looking away and singing to yourself for a bit.

Now I don’t know enough about neurology to begin to guess exactly how musical thought relates to spatial thought. But I’ve lived with human beings all my life and I’m pretty sure it’s a robust generalisation that people use music quite automatically and absent-mindedly as a way to help them think more effectively.

* This is the phrase coined by Steven Pinker that is so memorable that it gets used to caricature his entire views about music and thus to make a convenient straw man to beat up.

I happened to be wondering about this yesterday morning. I visited the dentist to have a filling replaced and he had Radio 2 on as he drilled. Then when I was paying and making my next appointment I noticed the receptionist also had Radio 2 on. My theory was that they just didn't like silence and Radio 2 is good if you want a fairly consistent background noise.

I couldn't get counting or singing to affect the animated dancer. However, I did discover that looking at it in my peripheral vision did cause it to switch direction.

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