Radio review: The Science of Music - The strange case of the singing Neanderthals


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The Independent Culture

Music is more than mere entertainment, that much is clear. And I don't just mean that for every bit of fluff by Jedward or Psy there's a masterpiece by Janacek or Sibelius. It's more that music goes deep inside us, literally.

In the first of four episodes of The Science of Music, Robert Winston set out to pin down what science can tell us about music that our ears and hearts can't.

He spoke to the neuroscientist Daniel Levitin, who told him how neural roots concerned with music have been around longer than those concerned with language; we know that because, like trees, new growth is on the outside, and the music bits are buried deep in the brain. Music was part of what it is to be human from very early on.

There was a lot of theorising. An archaeologist from Reading University speculated that we owe our apparently innate musicality to the Neanderthals and their musical proto-language – they couldn't talk, he said, but they could communicate by singing. ("They would have sounded very nasal.") That might seem inferior to using words but, as Winston says, the "music" of our language can mean more than the words (and not just in Chinese, where pitch changes meaning): try saying "I'm really happy" in a really sad voice.

The Essay (Radio 3, Monday-Friday ****) is always good value, and last week Frederic Raphael was gracing the slot with a series on living abroad. I feared a right-wing rant about quitting Europe, then realised I was thinking of Frederick Forsyth. Raphael is much more congenial with his tales of stints on the Continent.

Friday's was a delight, the tale of buying a place on the Greek island of Ios, a cottage for the equivalent of £150, its roof the skeleton of a eucalyptus tree with bamboo slats across the branches, "not unlike Odysseus's bedroom on Ithaca". Thursday was Rome; he told the story of trying to secure a parking permit from a police officer who was extremely reluctant until he noticed Raphael had recently been made a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. "He jumped to his feet, and the carabinieri on the door sprang to attention and raised their swords to their lips in salute." The power of books ....