Music Literacy as Evolutionary Advantage

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blindwatchmakerSometimes you read a book, and 20 years later you find there’s a single passage or argument that has stayed with you.There is a passage in Richard Dawkins’ book The Blind Watchmaker that’s like this for me. It’s where he’s taking on a critic of the theory of evolution who argues that the eye is such a complex and intricate organism that it could not possibly have evolved incrementally, because it would have had to go through so many intermediate stages in which it worked only imperfectly and would therefore confer no advantage on its owner.

Dawkins answer was (in my recollection):

The odds are that you are reading this through glass lenses.

(I looked it up on Amazon to check my memory when writing this post, and what he actually wrote was: ‘The odds cannot be far from 50/50 that you are reading these words through glass lenses’. That’s not too bad a recollection for a book I read once and gave back to its owner in 1991.)

He goes on to say:

If you have lost your glasses, it may be that you upset your friends by failing to recognise them in the street. But you yourself would be even more upset if somebody said to you: ‘Since your vision is now not absolutely perfect, you might as well go about with your eyes tight shut until you find your glasses again.’

Even a very small element of light-sensitivity can be useful when compared with none, whilst it may be tempting to think of ‘having eyes’ and ‘not having eyes’ as a binary condition – you fall in either one camp or the other – when you stop to think about the human condition, let alone the condition of other organisms, you realise that extent of vision is a continuum.

Now, the title of this post will have given you a clue as to why I mention this argument from Dawkins. Music literacy is also something that gets treated as a binary condition, particularly by people who place themselves in the ‘not’ category. And I can understand people’s reluctance to engage. It feels like you are starting from so far behind people who ‘can’ read music that it seems impossible to catch up. It feels like a lot of work – or, more precisely, it feels like it’s going to make an unreasonably large bid for your brain’s resources (which is probably true in some ways). You feel de-skilled starting something from the beginning when you are used to being adept.

These are valid emotional obstacles. But they’re also, in many ways, imaginary ones. The comparison you need to be making isn’t between yourself as a beginner and somebody who’s being doing this for 20 years, but between yourself as a beginner and your future self who is in a position to use some aspects of notation to help in making music. And, as I’ve noted before, pretty much everyone in the ‘can’ camp is aware of ways that they could be better.

And here’s a practical observation from doing notation-based workshops with a mix of experienced readers and complete novices. The people who at the start of the session claim no knowledge of music notation start off looking at it rather suspiciously, as if the paper is not to be trusted because it knows something they don’t.

But with a few guidelines at the start, and with people around them to help out when they look baffled, they start to find it useful. It helps them find their way round the form of the music, and to remember which bit goes where. By the end of the session when we move to singing from memory, it is as hard to prise the paper from their grips as it is to get the hardcore sight-readers to let go. They cling to it as a real and practical aid to learning.

For sure, in that short exposure they won’t know enough of the technical detail or have enough practice to go home and learn a different song from notation without help. They won’t have developed a complete working eye. But they have developed the musical equivalent of sufficient perception of light to stop themselves banging into the furniture so much.

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